The expanding range of Dengue Fever

Dengue Fever/Courtesy

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It's easy to say something invokes nostalgia when talking about music, but few bands do it more flawlessly and genuinely than the Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever. Playing an amalgamation of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock, the band performs in a uniquely desaturated style that is suited for songs ranging from upbeat kitsch to thoughtful and expressive storytelling. In an interview, the band's keyboardist Ethan Holtzman shared his thoughts on the band and their music as they prepared for the release of their latest album, Cannibal Courtship. It was released Tuesday and continues that tradition of combining a wide range of styles into something delightfully listenable.

After returning from a voyage through Cambodia in the late '90s, Holtzman founded the band with his brother Zac in 2001. By then, both were familiar with some Cambodian songs. Holtzman said he first encountered the ghostly, radical rock that characterized the country's pop of 1960s while packed in the back of a truck with about 30 villagers. The cramped trip from Siem Reap to the capitol in Phnom Penh became the spark that created his closeness with the people of Cambodia and their music.

"The truck was driven fast and the tires were bald," he recalled. "My life was being risked for that entire ride and my friend was sick with dengue fever up front. The road was dirt back then - all the bridges were blown up from previous wars ... it was a bonding experience with the Cambodians and their music."

Dengue Fever's beginnings were rooted in performing covers of songs in Khmer - the language of Cambodia - that Holtzman brought back on cassettes from his trip and that Zac had heard at Aquarius Records in San Francisco. The band's sound today has evolved to include more musical styles and techniques while maintaining the same upbeat, adventurous tone. Previous albums were heavily inspired by those old Cambodian songs from the '60s, as well as the band's 2005 tour through Cambodia, where their shows drew audiences upwards of 10,000 people. Cannibal Courtship, however, draws from a wider array of experiences and musical styles, Holtzman explained.

"We've become more comfortable creating space for each other," he said, adding that touring all over the world had a significant influence on the new album. In particular, he cited playing alongside the Nigerian group Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 while in New Zealand and Australia as a direct contribution to the strong afrobeat sound on several of Cannibal Courtship's tracks. "We're just doing whatever music we like and whatever grooves we feel and come up with in the studio," he said.

On the new album, the band's Cambodian-born vocalist Chhom Nimol sings more lyrics in English than she has on their previous albums, boosting mainstream appeal without compromising their established sound. According to Holtzman, non-Cambodian fans like to sing along, and English helps facilitate that, but the Cambodian language will always be part of the band: It's just like another instrument for them.

"There's certain songs that just feel more Cambodian," he said, explaining how the band determined what songs should be sung in English and which in Khmer. "And those songs will naturally sound better with Nimol singing in her native tongue. And then there's other songs where its like 'Oh, this is kind of a cool relationship story,' which the English would be great for."

Ultimately, it's all about how the song is expressed in the end. As an example, Holtzman said the latest album's Khmer track "Sister in the Radio" is a very emotional song for Chhom to sing. The slow, slithering tune has a magnificently haunting aura, and although most Western listeners won't understand what the words mean, the feeling put into it leaves a distinctive mark. As Holtzman explained, the song has a greater impact once you realize that it tells a story about how a young Nimol and her family discovered that her sister - then a famous singer like Nimol is today - was alive in Cambodia while the rest of the family had fled to a refugee camp in Thailand.

With the addition of afrobeat influences, as well as the distinct funk and jazz sounds heard on Cannibal Courtship, Dengue Fever's trademark throwback pop has been modified to expand its international sound, creating a feel that is all their own. Holtzman said the band's main goal is to continue touring and reaching new audiences by making great music. And although the band's shows today are dominated by their new work, they always toss in five or six of the '60s covers they started with. As part of the Cannibal Courtship release tour the band will be playing three Bay Area shows, the first at the Fillmore tonight, then at Ameoba in San Francisco on April 26th and another on April 27th at Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz.

"It's been very slow and steady progress," Holtzman said. "Ultimately we just want to play music and be able to travel, and that's good enough for me."


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