Dengue Fever is the sort of band that could only happen in Southern California. Formed by brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman after the former traveled through Cambodia, the band works to preserve the pop sounds that thrived in the Southeast Asian country prior to the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Comprised of five veteran indie rock musicians and singer Chhom Nimol, a former pop star in Cambodia who relocated to the United States, Dengue Fever has been charming audiences in the U.S. and abroad with its cross-cultural sound.
“All we knew was that it was completely different from anything else that was going on,” says guitarist/vocalist Zac of the band’s beginnings. “We were just going to take it show by show.”
From the beginning, the crowd responses were better than anything the band could have imagined, and, over the past six years, Dengue Fever has played everywhere from dive-y indie rock clubs to art museums to Nimol’s homeland, an adventure that was chronicled in the recent documentary, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong.
The documentary project came about during a power outage that halted a session the band was recording for an online music channel. The members passed the time by going through their gig itinerary when Nimol informed them that she was traveling to Cambodia to attend Bon Om Thook, the annual water festival. Her bandmates decided to join her and called director John Pirozzi, who happened to also be heading to Cambodia for other reasons, to film them. The documentary, which has been making rounds around the film festival circuit, follows not only Nimol’s triumphant return home, but also the band members’ exploration of the country.
The trip to Cambodia, which occurred in 2005, helped formulate the band’s latest album, Venus on Earth. Zac notes that several of the pieces on the album were written during the course of Dengue Fever’s travels, although the jam sessions between the band and several Cambodian music masters will appear on the soundtrack of Sleepwalking Through the Mekong instead of Venus on Earth. Additionally, the country’s sights and sounds inspired much of the material, even though the album features more English language songs than past efforts.
Zac describes Venus on Earth as “more sensitive” than the band’s prior two albums.
“Some of the songs have more depth and dynamics,” he says.
Zac adds that Dengue Fever’s third album, which was recorded at bassist Senon Williams’ home studio, also took longer to create.
“We’ve taken our time with every album we put out so far, but with this one, we spent the extra time to make it how we wanted it,” he explains. In the end, the band pulled together 11 songs that pay homage to the sometimes surf-y, sometimes psychedelic sound of Cambodian pop.
Venus on Earth will not be released until January, but Dengue Fever will be playing live at the Getty on December 7.