With all this talk about Ebola hemorrhagic fever, perhaps we should think about something to take our minds off it, something like Dengue Fever. No, not the tropical mosquito-borne virus (that'd probably only increase hypochondriacal feelings), let's talk about the six-piece Los Angeles psychedelic rock band who skillfully combine Cambodian pop songs with the chromatic stoner sounds of the '60s.
After organist Ethan Holtzman spent more than six months backpacking through Southeast Asia, he got a kind of fever of his own -- he'd fallen in love with the region's eclectic vintage style. Returning to L.A., he and his brother Zac found Chhom Nimol at a karaoke bar, her knack for Khmer-based melodies making her the perfect fit for the band. Five albums later, plus the founding of Tuk Tuk Records, there is perhaps no better living band for taking a holiday in Cambodia.
Maybe because Fever's frenzy sounds so exotic, yet familiar, quite a few directors have taken note. In 2002, Dengue did a Khmer cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" for Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts about a scam artist in Cambodia. Following that, legendary Coffee and Cigarettes director Jim Jarmusch tapped the band for Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray.
"We were all just completely honored that he [Jarmusch] even knew who we were," Ethan Holtzman tells us over the phone. "That was just like... well, we never won a Grammy, but something like that was like an award for us."
Also topping the band's list of cool experiences was last year's In The Ley Lines, a half-live, half-studio album recorded at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England, a place where Kanye West and Muse have also cut recordings.
"It's one of the best recording studios in the world," Holtzman gushes. "There's a room that has all stone, if you want a certain sound, you put your amp in there and it's all like rock. There's an all wood, just for acoustics. Peter Gabriel has his own private recording studio where he works. He gave the green light, he said you can use any of these keyboards that I wanted for recording."
The album's title is a reference to ley lines, a mystical theory that all major monuments and megaliths are somehow connected via invisible spiritual conduits. So yeah, you can trace a line through the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge and Easter Island, which some people blame on ancient aliens or feng shui or something.
"It was strange, when we were over there it was over summer and the crop circles were everywhere, in the fields," Holtzman recalls. "So we were exploring them and Stonehenge was nearby, so I guess we just figured out we'd heard about these ley lines, so that's how it all went down."
Dengue Fever is mainly influenced by Cambodian pop artists, such as Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron. Most Western audiences have no clue who these people are (including myself, before writing this article), so that's why Holtzman and Co. released Electric Cambodia, a release of some of their favorite Khmer songs.
"Sinn Sisamouth was like the Bob Dylan or like Elvis Presley of Cambodia ... And he wrote over a thousand songs," Holtzman says. "I was attracted to the ones that he was doing in the late '60s, early '70s, right before the Khmer Rouge did the horrible genocide."
In fact, due to his high status and connections with the old government - societal trappings that Pol Pot sought to stamp out - Sisamouth was dragged to the Killing Fields. The exact details of his death are unknown, but according to legend the "King of Khmer" music begged to sing one last song. He was given permission, but were unmoved by his singing and executed him regardless.
This fascinating history continues to be preserved and tastefully represented by Dengue Fever. As Holtzman hints that the band are working on a new record, hopefully the beauty of Khmer music and its culture will continue to take shape in the public's mind.
Dengue Fever plays Crescent Ballroom on Thursday, September 11. Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra and Goonam also play.
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