- Marc Walker
- Burning sensations: 'We just give every song whatever it's asking for.'
When brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman formed Dengue Fever, it might have struck some as a high-concept band. Two Americans who had developed an affinity for an endangered style of music — Cambodian pop and rock music — enlisted the talents of Chhom Nimol, a Cambodian singer living in Los Angeles. The band crafted an original style that drew from Southeast Asian music, which in turn had been influenced by Western music, most notably garage-rock and psychedelia of the late 1960s.
And it works. Though a written description might suggest otherwise, the music of Dengue Fever is not at all gimmicky. It's heartfelt and genuine, and — save for Nimol's vocals, which are mostly in the Khmer language — won't sound foreign to Western ears. Dengue Fever has endeavored to make certain their music — as found on seven albums and three EPs — can't easily be pigeonholed into an easily defined style.
Cambodian pop musicians and other artists had been purged and largely silenced during the reign of the Khmer Rouge throughout the 1970s. "After the Khmer Rouge, everybody totally forgot that music," explains Nimol. "They weren't listening anymore." After a 1995 visit to Cambodia, Ethan Holtzman returned home with cassettes of the music.
In the early days, and on the group's self-titled 2003 debut, Dengue Fever played covers of those nearly forgotten Cambodian songs. But the band soon charted its own musical path. "Now we do something different," Nimol says. "Something in our own style." The band's most recent release, 2015's The Deepest Lake is Dengue Fever's best and most fully realized record yet.
The songs on The Deepest Lake build on elements of world music — not just from Southeast Asia — and apply them seamlessly into arrangements more reminiscent of groups like Question Mark & The Mysterians. Zac Holtzman explains the group's guiding songwriting principle: "We just give every single song whatever it's asking for," he says. "We don't necessarily try to sound Cambodian; it sounds Cambodian enough when Nimol is singing!"
So what is Nimol singing about? "We go through this weird lyric-writing process," Holtzman explains. "Nimol might talk about some crazy thing that happened when she was a child in a Thai refugee camp. Then we'll turn it into a story."
But that's just the beginning. "She'll start singing it," Holtzman says, "and then we'll realize that some of the words don't sound good. We have this old Khmer/English dictionary that we break out, trying to pick words that sound better." He explains that, as in English, certain sounds don't work when they're held out over a few beats. "Certain ones sound stupid," he laughs, "like if you tried to hold the letter 'L.'" He demonstrates: "Lllllllll ... see? Stupid."
In the end, the Dengue Fever songwriting process is what Holtzman describes as "build it up and break it down." But he says that the end product is "a diamond-like 'Cambodian haiku' of a song. It's very dense, and every word ends up being precious."
With lyrics being put through those kinds of changes, it's fair to wonder if they end up making sense in Nimol's native Khmer. "Not as much," Holtzman admits. But he quickly backpedals. "I mean, they do, but more poetically. Sometimes we have to convince Nimol that as artists we have the right to do whatever we want."
That mindset carries over to Dengue Fever's live shows, too. "Some people trip out about, 'Ah, but it doesn't sound exactly like it did on the record!'" Holtzman says. "Well, yeah. But we're here dancing around and sweating ... so just relax."
Even if the lyrics end up making sense to Dengue Fever's singer, most American listeners have no clue. But Nimol effectively conveys each song's emotion, and the band's arrangements get the ideas across in a way that resonates with listeners. "That's the cool thing about music," says Holtzman.
"It's one of the more primitive universal languages; you can appreciate it on all different levels. It's not like you need to go to school and study in order to like it."