Dengue Fever is a mosquito-borne tropical disease. It’s also the name of a Los Angeles-based band that plays Cambodian-psychedelic rock and will be spending its Valentine’s Day at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.
Before the Khmer Rouge devastated the country in the late 1970s, Cambodia had a thriving psychedelic-rock scene, influenced by what was playing on U.S. Armed Forces Radio during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, many of Cambodia’s psychedelic-music pioneers were victims of the Killing Fields. However, in recent years, the genre has enjoyed a comeback, of sorts; a recording from the pre-Khmer Rouge era by Ros Sereysothea, “Jam 10 Kai Theit,” resurfaced in recent years. (She died in 1977, at the age of 29.) Sinn Sisamouth, a psychedelic-rock figure from the pre-Khmer Rouge days, died in 1976, yet his music remains popular there today.
Dengue Fever was started in 2001 by organist Ethan Holtzman and his brother Zac after Ethan visited Cambodia. They began to recruit members and came across Chhom Nimol, a Cambodian vocalist who was singing karaoke at a nightclub in Long Beach; she became the band’s lead singer. Dengue Fever crafted a psychedelic-rock-meets-Cambodian-pop sound with song lyrics that are both in Khmer and English. The band’s songs have been featured on various TV shows, most notably HBO’s True Blood.
During a recent phone interview, Dengue Fever drummer Paul Smith talked about the band’s beginnings.
“Basically, we had all played music together, and we had the idea of trying to find a Cambodian singer,” Smith said. “We started learning some Cambodian rock … and it seemed like a crazy idea to pull it off. It was a seed of an idea that we had that came to fruition.”
The band’s name is a play on a popular reference from the ’70s, he said.
“I think some of it had to do with a little bit of naivety on our part,” Smith said. “At the time, none of us were that familiar with the disease. … We felt it sort of tied in with the ‘dance fever’ in the ’70s. I don’t know; with all of the names we were kicking around, it was the one that had sort of a feeling when you said it, and it grasped your ear. It was the one we all kind of liked.”
The Cambodian angle is most certainly not a gimmick.
“For us, it’s something that feels different and somewhat out of this world to us, but it has an underlying element of familiarity, because (the Cambodians) were using British rock, American rock and psychedelic rock, and tying it in with their traditional Cambodian instruments, it created this stew of different cultures,” Smith said. “There was this fascinating element in it for us, and I think a lot of those early (Cambodian psychedelic-rock) recordings give you a sense on the time in the ’60s where the potential for a lot of things to happen was there. Phnom Penh was an upcoming metropolis. … There was an excitement in that time period, and I think it got captured on those records.”
Peter Gabriel took notice of Dengue Fever and released the band’s 2008 album, Venus on Earth, on his Real World Records label.
“He liked one of our records, and we ended up releasing one of our records on Real World Records,” Smith said. “We recorded at his studio in Bath, Somerset, England, and we played a show with him that he introduced us for and gave a little speech. The guy is a visionary, and he’s an interesting character. He started W.O.M.A.D., which is the World of Music, Arts and Dance (festival) … and brought world music to the masses. For a guy like that to endorse you, we were really appreciative.”
The language barrier has never been an issue for Dengue Fever.
“I think it’s what makes us unique,” Smith said. “The Khmer language is sort of an instrument in our situation. I think people who are into us or come to our shows do so because they know it’s different. It’s not something you can get everywhere; it’s a more unique experience. To me, it defines us and makes us what we are. I’ve never really looked at it as a hindrance.”
Dengue Fever has played Pappy and Harriet’s before and always enjoys playing there, Smith said.
“It’s just a great spot. Not only do we love the desert, but it’s a cool venue, and there’s something very informal about it in a good way,” he said. “The people are always receptive; the food is good; and you get to spend a night in the desert. What’s not to like about it?”
The band is celebrating the recent U.S. citizenship of Chhom Nimol.
“It’s been about two or three months,” he said. “It’s great after all that time, and after she was in jail for 22 days way back when we started the band (due to a visa violation). She finally made it on the path of citizenship, and we’re very proud of her.”
Dengue Fever will perform with Jesika Von Rabbit at 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 14, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $10. For tickets or more information, call 760-365 5956, or visit pappyandharriets.com.