For Dengue Fever, Inspiration Comes from a Terrible Time in Cambodian History

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Dengue Fever.
Dengue Fever. Marc Walker

Dengue Fever

8 p.m. Sunday, September 6. The Firebird, 2706 Olive Street. $15. 314-535-0353.

Dengue Fever is a testament to music's sheer resilience. The Southern California band's roots are in the Cambodian psychedelic-pop scene of the 1960s and '70s. That community's biggest stars — luminaries including Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Yol Aularong — are long dead, victims of the Khmer Rouge's murderous 1970s regime. Yet the music would not die. It survives in Phnom Penh market stalls; at Long Beach, California, supper clubs; and on cheap, hissy cassettes and semi-legitimate compilations.

A recent documentary film, April's Don't Think I've Forgotten, traces the story of this lost music scene in haunting, vivid detail.

"The music is considered a national treasure," Dengue Fever bassist Senon Williams tells RFT Music. "If you go to a Cambodian-style supper club, you'll see bands incorporating group dances like the hustle and the electric slide into different styles of music. But all of them, to this day, play Sinn Sisamouth songs. The music never went away."

Williams first encountered those sounds during a mid-1990s trip to Cambodia.

"I was in the back of a taxicab. The taxi driver was playing this medley of music from the 1960s all the way to the 1980s, all with the same drum machine," Williams recalls. "It would start with 'Jumping Jack Flash' and then go straight into 'Black Magic Woman.' I asked him, 'Where can I find other music like this?'"

The taxi driver took him to an open-air market. There Williams encountered a makeshift tape-dubbing operation.

"The stand had a giant boombox with 50 cables coming out of it, all feeding into smaller boomboxes," he says. "It was literally dubbing 50 copies at a time. It looked like a tape-eating monster. I bought probably twenty cassettes from this guy. I realized that a lot of what I liked was actually the same song sung by different people. It seemed like all the songs we really liked were written by Sinn Sisamouth. It all went back to him."

Upon returning home to Los Angeles, Williams met up with Zac and Ethan Holtzman, two brothers similarly intrigued by these enigmatic recordings.

"We were mostly turned on by the stuff with female singers, especially where the voice cracks at a high pitch," Williams says. "That's what inspired us to seek out a female singer."

After setting up a rehearsal space in Long Beach, the Holtzman brothers began scouting for a lead singer, hitting every Cambodian supper club they could find. It did not go well at first.

"They invited some not-so-great singers," Williams says. "We quickly learned four or five of these Cambodian songs, and they were out of key. The whole vibe was just bad. We were thinking, 'This could be the worst idea anyone's ever had.'"

Enter Chhom Nimol. A native Cambodian with family in Southern California, she initially came to America on a six-month visa sponsored by a local club. She ended up staying in Long Beach, and made quite a big name for herself on the local scene. After failing to show up for four or five prior auditions, Nimol finally came to a Dengue Fever rehearsal and instantly clicked — not that it was easy to communicate at first, either musically or linguistically. "Nimol's like a little mall girl [turned] into Celine Dion and Mariah Carey," Williams explains. "She didn't speak any English, and we were these dudes from LA. We were about ten years older than she was. Her sister kept saying, 'I don't trust these guys.'"

Williams credits actor/director Matt Dillon, in a roundabout way, for making the partnership work.

"About a month after we started, Dillon was making City of Ghosts. He needed some Cambodian music for the soundtrack," he explains. "Very early on, he came to one of our rehearsals. All of a sudden, Nimol's older sister, who came to these daily rehearsals, was like, 'Ooh! Maybe this is something.' In a weird way, Matt Dillon really helped get Nimol to believe in it enough to keep coming back."

Once it clicked, the chemistry was apparent.

"We got a lot of respect when we went to Cambodia in 2005 from Nimol's family and friends," Williams recalls. "They were expecting us to play Mariah Carey-style pop. They didn't expect this raw rock band following Nimol's tradition rather than our own.

"She's not necessarily a lyricist, and her songs tend to be mostly light love songs. We always try to steer them to more poignant or darker topics," he continues. "We like allegories more than she does. But she does have input in the way she sings. Zac writes most of the vocal melodies, but she has a way of bending them into her own style. The way she interprets them is pretty incredible."

It should be stressed that Dengue Fever does not merely replicate its favorite recordings. Listen to The Deepest Lake, the band's sixth and latest studio album, and you'll hear an unusually wide array of influences: surf music, African chants, garage rock and a faint hint of Masque-era punk, all anchored by Nimol's lilting vocals.

This mixing and matching is actually in keeping with the source material. Don't Think I've Forgotten recounts the various influences Cambodian musicians absorbed — from Cliff Richard in the 1950s, to French and Afro-Cuban music in the early 1960s, to Santana and Otis Redding in the 1970s as the Khmer Rouge intensified its power grab. A typical track from the time — for instance, Aularong's "Cyclo" — might feature Beatles harmonies and mutant Santana/Hendrix guitar leads, while maintaining a certain melancholy, minor-chord wistfulness even in the most upbeat songs. Ultimately, Dengue Fever's merging of native and immigrant cultures could not be more timely.

"Not all of us in the band are obsessed with Cambodia. Some people assume that," Williams says. "We didn't want to start another indie-rock band, but something outside of ourselves that could be really fun and different. Our intention was just to find a singer and use that music as an influence.

"The idea was always to write music with Nimol as the singer, and have her be the Cambodia in our music," he adds. "And the rest of it could be garage rock, surf music, African music — not just copying what happened in the 1960s."

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