This Thursday, acclaimed Cambodian psych rockers Dengue Fever make their highly anticipated return to SOhO. To sing the praises of Dengue’s talent is easy. The six-piece masterfully blend worldly influences with the classic rock sounds of the ’60s and ’70s, creating songs that are as multitiered as they are groovable. But to truly grasp the band’s genius, one must engage in a bit of a history lesson. In 2001, brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman formed Dengue Fever after taking an interest in the pre-Pol Pot Cambodian pop music scene. The tunes-discovered by Zac in San Francisco and Ethan during a trip to the country-drew directly from the 1960s American rock scene, with chord progressions and riffs that were remarkably similar to the music of Jimi Hendrix, or Pink Floyd, or The Ventures, sung completely in Khmer.
Once they formed Dengue Fever, the brothers quickly decided to seek out a Cambodian lead, and eventually discovered Chhom Nimol, then a young nightclub singer in the Little Phnom Penh area of Long Beach. “We just thought it was a shame that there were so many musicians who were chopped down [by Pol Pot] when they were doing this really great stuff,” explained Zac Holtzman recently over the phone. “So we went on the hunt for a singer, and that’s pretty much how it all started.” With Nimol, the brothers began covering vintage Cambodian songs and then moved to writing and recording originals. In 2008, the band (now a six-piece) released their most well-received album to date, the part-English, part-Khmer Venus on Earth.
In addition, the band ventured to Nimol’s homeland to make a documentary about bringing Cambodian music back to its source. The result, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, is not only a visually dazzling film, but a profoundly poignant look at a country’s war-torn past and bright future. Today, Dengue Fever have fans that span the world, and slowly seem to be breaking free of the “world music” label that so often gets thrown at bands that don’t write in English.
“People don’t really know where we fit in,” said Holtzman. “We constantly get asked, ‘What do you consider yourself?’ The truth is, we have a Cambodian singer. Yes, we love all this stuff from that period, but we also love German krautrock from the ’70s, and Ethiopian jazz, and Pink Floyd and Hendrix and all the stuff that originally influenced the Cambodian stuff.”
During Dengue’s relatively short history, one can argue that the world music scene has blown up in more ways than one. Now more than ever, contemporary indie artists are looking to non-Western sounds for influence and inspiration, and finding young, rapt audiences in the process. (Names like Ozomatli, M.I.A., DeVotchKa, and Gogol Bordello come to mind.)
“In the past, there was Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon and David Byrne, but it was pretty different,” explained Holtzman. “For the most part, those guys were just borrowing a groove and borrowing some backup singers. Since then, there’s been this band that we tour with called Chicha Libre, and they do a take on Peruvian psychedelic music. And there’s Mellow Gold, and they do this kind of Kenyan sub-pop indie rock. Then there’s M.I.A. It’s just become a lot cooler. [World music] doesn’t get the Guatemalan pants and steel drum treatment anymore. People have realized.”
For Holtzman and his bandmates, this newfound acceptance means a lot of things, including an upcoming whirlwind tour and, come 2010, a new record. “We’re going back [to Cambodia] in May,” said Holtzman. “We’ve got this crazy tour where we’re going to Norway, Germany, four days in Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and we got invited to do a show in mainland China and a couple in Tokyo, but I’m not sure if those are going to come through. We’ve been to Istanbul before, and we were talking to some people there about going back and playing a show.”
As for the new Dengue material, some of which will be premiered this week at SOhO, Holtzman enthused that the next album will definitely be a step in a new direction for the band.
“Nimol’s English has gotten so much better,” he said. “In Norway, during our two songs in English, the crowd was singing all the lyrics. Nimol decided she wanted to do more in English-because there’s no way they’re singing [along with] the Khmer-so half the [new] songs are in English, about half are in Khmer, and there’s another good chunk that’s just half and half. Musically, there’s a lot more. We’ve had the most time to work [on this album]. We had the luxury to record all the songs, then take a step back and look at ’em all and re-record them at different tempos and rearrange them a little bit more and do overdubs and work on the vocals. We’ve really gotten the chance to put the most effort into this one, and I think it shows.”
Dengue Fever play SOhO (1221 State St.) this Thursday, January 7, at 9 p.m. with openers oso. For tickets and show info, call 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com.