By Jena Ardell
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It's symptomatic of our postmodern world that 1960s Cambodian acid-rock could produce feelings of nostalgia in twentysomething Americans. But Dengue Fever has spent the last seven years banking on just those kinds of collapsing boundaries: between nations, between eras, between ideas. The L.A. band has garnered considerable acclaim for making music awash in the sounds of Long Ago and Far Away—a Farfisa organ swells beneath piercing Khmer vocals, garage guitars sidle up to a slinky sax that might've escaped from an Ethiopiques album, and the whole concoction verily sweats with reverb and the heat of an evening in Phnom Penh.
"It's just instantly familiar, and it'll create nostalgia, but at the same time, it's completely new and fresh," says Dengue Fever's bassist, Senon Williams, of the Cambodian pop that originally inspired their sound. Brothers Ethan (keyboards) and Zac (guitar and vocals) Holtzman founded the band in 2001, after Ethan backpacked through the country and returned with a hefty collection of vintage Khmer pop. After Williams, saxophonist David Ralicke, and drummer Paul Smith joined, the band decided they needed a Cambodian singer, and they didn't have to go far to find one: Nearby Long Beach, where they held their auditions, is home to the world's second-largest Khmer-speaking community, and soon Chhom Nimol walked in. At the time, she was a recent immigrant working the Cambodian wedding circuit in the U.S. But back home, Nimol was a bona fide pop star.
The band's self-titled 2003 debut consisted primarily of covers of classic indigenous pop and rock tunes by artists like Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea, and Sinn Sisamouth, who together comprise a crate-digger's pantheon—icons of a golden era when rock 'n' roll flowed freely from American military radio stations around the globe, inspiring local musicians to merge the surf and garage they heard with regional aesthetics. Like so many Cambodian musicians from that era, however, Sinn and Ros have also become pop martyrs: They disappeared during the rule of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, which banned all music that didn't glorify the regime.
For Nimol, then, the music she makes with Dengue Fever is truly nostalgic, a treasured artifact from a more peaceful era. The music she performed back home, however, was far removed from the band's Scooby-Doo guitars and psychedelic grooves. Today's Cambodian pop tends more toward heavily synthesized, hyper-sentimental soft rock—not the kind of stuff that typically gets music geeks trolling for MP3s. While the more vintage material has been coated with a dusty gloss of authenticity by natives and tourists alike, nowadays the preferred style is almost obstinately artificial. For example, a recent video by rising star Chhom Chorpom (no relation) features her lip-synching in front of a full band pretending to play the synth-sax melody and drum-machine beats of the recording.
Dengue Fever aren't huge fans of the stuff. "They only cover from other songs, like a Chinese melody, or Thai or Vietnam or Indian style," Nimol says of contemporary artists. "They only copy them." Of course, the same criticism could be leveled (and was, in fact, by preservationists at the time) against '60s Cambodian pop, which supplanted the country's traditional music with the four-piece ensemble and heavy backbeat of Western rock. But just as time and distance have allowed fans around the world to develop a new appreciation for that material, so, too, might today's Khmer pop eventually sound more palatable from a more nostalgic perspective. Cambodian record distributors seem to imply as much: Williams says new music often comes packaged with vintage-looking, psychedelic-era cover artwork.
Dengue Fever isn't completely throwing out the contemporary pop with the heavily perfumed bathwater, however. Venus on Earth, their third album, contains more English lyrics than their previous two efforts, but it also represents some of the band's most sentimental work. "Tiger Phone Card," for instance, spins a romantic duet between a Phnom Penh girl and a New York boy that, if it were in Khmer, could comfortably coexist with Chhom's pop repertoire. In fact, the entire band has toned down the time-machine vibe a little this time out, weaving bits of folk rock, Afrobeat, and even country into their trippy tapestry, even as they craft a cleaner, more focused sound.
"I just see us as a rock band," says Williams. "And having Nimol singing in Khmer is just part of the band. We just brought in these influences from everything, not just Cambodian music." In the years since Ethan took that backpacking trip, Dengue Fever has become a band of travelers rather than mere crate-diggers or cover artists, their music a translation of Cambodian pop rather than nostalgic shtick, and mindful of the ways that one might influence the other.