Dengue Fever has such a great origin story that folks forget that they’re still one of the hardest working bands in Southern California. Formed after keyboardist Ethan Holtzman discovered Cambodian psych pop while traveling in Southeast Asia, the band really gelled together after they scoured Long Beach — home of the biggest Cambodian enclave in the United States — for a singer, and discovered Chhom Nimol, who was already famous in her native Cambodia.
Two decades later, Holtzman, his brother Zac, Senon Williams on bass, David Ralicke on sax and Paul Smith on drums, alongside Nimol, have produced four EPs and seven full-length albums, with another about to be released. Five years ago, Dengue Fever formed their own label, Tuk Tuk Records. It gave them the freedom to make their own decisions about their careers as musicians.
What began as a blend of ‘60s Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock, has turned into a musical genre that’s totally owned by Dengue Fever — and totally contemporary. Khmer rap, Latin grooves, Afro percussion, layered horns and a distinct Los Angeles indie-rock flair infuse Dengue Fever’s songs, and live shows. “Now everything is written collaboratively,” Williams says. “We’ll work on lyrics and Zac will sing almost all the songs. Then we’ll give them to Nimol, who will translate them into (the Cambodian language) Khmer. She speaks English now, so it’s a lot easier for her to translate our stories and put them to the melodies. And everything is a story.” The songwriting process, he says, “Is really like being thrown into a washing machine.”
The band is about to come off a two-week, West-coast tour on Burger A Go Go, with Winter, Summer Twins, Patsy’s Rats, The Coathangers, Death Valley Girls, The Flytraps, and Feels — all female-fronted bands. But Dengue Fever band is headed back to home over the weekend to play gigs in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Coincidentally, it’s also as they’re celebrating the opening of “Cambodian Rock Band,” a play written by playwright-to-watch Lauren Yee that was inspired by their music.
Williams was psyched about inspiring other artists with their music. Right now, Dengue Fever is working on a soundtrack to a 1925 silent film, “The Lost World.” The live soundtrack was commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Fest and it was performed around the United States. “But it was never recorded til now,” Williams says. And there might be more to come. “I really love performing with other musicians, too. So there might be more collaboration in the works.”
Dengue Fever perform Sunday March 4 at Alex’s Bar (Burger A Go Go). For tickets and full info, click here.