At a time when young Americans were tripping out over the Vietnam War and bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Doors were rearranging radio with epic, acid-laced tunes, another '60s musical movement was happening amidst the chaos in Southeast Asia. Inspired by the psilocybin sounds that were wafting into Phnom Penh courtesy of the American Forces Vietnam Network, a handful of local musicians, including Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, adapted the troops' music and fused it with high-pitched Cambodian vocals and traditional Khmer elements. This burgeoning psychedelic-rock scene, however, didn't last long. Sisamouth, Sereysothea, and many other musicians were soon exterminated by the Khmer Rouge simply for being inspired by Western art.
Fast forward 25 years and Ethan Holtzman, a shaggy backpacker from California, is exploring the nooks and crannies of Phnom Penh and finds some old cassettes-and a wacky idea for a band. Once back in Los Angeles, Ethan and his brother Zac begin trolling the Little Phnom Penh district of Long Beach for a singer to front their quirky Cambodian rock band: Dengue Fever.
"When we walked into Dragon House, which was the club where we discovered Nimol, she was singing and there were about five girls on-stage, but as soon as she started singing, she just cut through the crowd and it was just like the clouds parted," says Zac on the phone from Los Angeles recalling the moment they found Dengue Fever's resident Cambodian songstress, Chhom Nimol. "I was elbowing my brother and saying ”˜Whoa, she's the one. We've got to ask her,' and, you know, three albums later and we're still chugging along, so I guess she was the right one."
After a bit of convincing, Chhom-already a famous singer back in her native Cambodia-agreed to join singer-guitarist Zac, organist Ethan, bassist Senon Williams, drummer David Ralicke, and brass multitasker Paul Smith to create some of the best flashback rock this side of Dead Meadow. Dengue Fever heads down a rabbit hole where everything is fuzz-tone guitars and manic surf riffs, with an ever-present Farfisa backing Chhom's piercing-yet-seductive vocals.
Dengue Fever's self-titled 2003 debut featured covers of Cambodian hits, but the band came up with a handful of originals for its 2005 follow-up, Escape from Dragon House. On its recently released third album, Venus on Earth, Zac Holtzman has confidently left the covers behind in favour of his own material which is either sung in English or painstakingly translated into Khmer. Whether doing covers or originals, the band hopes its unconventional sound is, in some way, keeping the legacy of a fleeting, far-away rock movement alive.
"Sometimes people listen to the original tunes and then end up finding out about us, and sometimes it works the other way around, you know, people will hear about us and they will want to hear the music that we were inspired by, and then they start listening to the music of the artists that were all killed during the Khmer Rouge," Zac explains. "Being a musician, that's pretty much what you hope to do-you make music during your lifetime, and when people keep on listening to your music and are inspired by it, that's kind of your way of living on."
Dengue Fever plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Wednesday (October 22).