The infectious rhythms of Dengue Fever

An inspired marriage of Sixties Cambodian pop and West Coast psychedelia, Dengue Fever are set to rock the festivals this summer, says Tim Cumming

The day after a sweaty debut appearance at the Borderline in London, assorted members of Dengue Fever are grouped around a table in the bar of the Columbia Hotel in Lancaster Gate. Plans are afoot: food for some, for others, music. Senon Williams, the bassist whose home studio is where much of their new album, Venus on Earth, was recorded, is still in the twilit world of jet lag, grazing on Kronenbourg in the shabbily grand confines of London's premier rock'n'roll hotel.

For many US bands, the Columbia is akin to Rick's Café in Casablanca. Since the Seventies, virtually everyone in rock'n'roll has passed through. "It's kind of stinky and damp, and the lights flicker, and there must be ghosts in the rooms because they keep creaking," says Williams, "but we love it here. I could stay here every time I come to London."

The uninitiated might be forgiven for thinking that Dengue Fever is the result of some feverish hallucination in a tropical emergency. But they're the real thing, an inspired combination of soaring Cambodian vocals from lead singer Chhom Nimol, and West Coast psychedelia as seen through the colour-drenched lens of Cambodia in the swinging Sixties.

Picked up here by Peter Gabriel's Real World label, Dengue Fever's latest album, Venus on Earth, is their first UK release, much of it recorded on analogue tape using the same generation of decks that The Beach Boys used in the Sixties at Oceanways Studios. These are songs that cross multiple time zones, with sonic textures ranging freely from psychedelia to surf, mariachi to garage rock, and even Berber rhythms and Ethiopique sax. And as well as the record deal with Real World, they'll be performing at this year's Womad, whose organisers describe them as nothing less than "the grooviest band you don't yet know".

"We're really delighted to have them perform at Womad this year," says festival programmer Nicola Henderson. "They are going to be the must-see band for this summer."

The Dengue Fever story begins with Ethan Holtzman, the man behind the humid, floating sound of the Farfisa organ. After visiting Cambodia in 1997, he returned to LA loaded with vintage Sixties Cambodian pop, a hitherto unknown genre of world music, steeped in the sounds pumped out by the American Forces that were then in Vietnam. A classic case of musical blowback.

Holtzman's brother Zac had become similarly enamoured of Cambodian pop, stockpiling tapes in the Echo Park apartment they shared. It helped that they had Cambodia Town on their doorstep in Long Beach, the West's largest concentration of Khmer-speaking folk. It was there that they tracked down Nimol, one of Cambodia's biggest singing stars, and persuaded her to join forces with this curious band of indie musicians.

Joining them for the ride was David Ralicke, whose damp, rusty sax lines fill out the songs with strong riffs and humid tones; and drummer Paul Smith, who doubles up as sound engineer and producer. Bassist Williams provided the studio, and having visited Cambodia himself in 1995, he had his own stack of tapes with garish covers of singers in Beatles-esque suits and Austin Powers hair, and women in psychedelic dresses and towering beehives.

The few clips of film that survived the murderous ascendance of the Khmer Rouge are poignant, a haunted party music from a time and place that no longer exists. So much was destroyed, of course, and millions killed. Nimol's family escaped to Thailand. Others fled to Paris and the US, and brought the music with them. Decades later, the diaspora had coalesced into the Cambodia Town of Long Beach, where the band went in search of a singer.

"We went to this club where they'd have bands with six or seven rotating singers, and there'd be an artists' table full of food and drinks – Nimol still plays those clubs. Weddings, birthdays, New Years," says Williams. They tried out others before chancing on Nimol: "We had no idea she was from this famous, Michael Jackson-type musical family. The other singers thought we were nuts, saying, 'No way is she gonna come'. I think she was just intrigued by what we were doing."

Their first show was at a tiny indie club in LA, and the response was immediate. "The crowd went nuts. LA isn't a dancing town, especially in the indie scene, but these hipsters were rolling around on stage. It was like a crazy dance party. It got everybody jazzed."

Their album debut in 2003 consisted entirely of Cambodian pop songs from the Sixties. Nimol's vocal ornamentations and improvisations – one of her specialities is the "ghost note", jumping from one scale to another – are embedded like a sixth sense in the band's trippy mix of American psychedelia and surf rock, spinning the music up into the stratosphere.

"Our concept was not to be a Sixties cover band, but to be influenced by the music and to create a band out of it," says Williams. But at the beginning, with Nimol barely able to speak English, and the Americans no better with Khmer, the attempts to record original material ground to a halt.

"We couldn't get enough even to do a set, so we decided to be a covers band on that first album. Nimol brought in songs, and we'd scour the stalls on Long Beach for tunes we liked."

For their second album, 2005's Escape from Dragon House (the name of a Long Beach nightclub where Nimol still performs), Zac Holtzman started bringing in the vocal melodies for the band to work on, while Nimol was often holed up at their Echo Park apartment, turning English lyrics into Cambodian songs. She now she mixes the two languages with ease. Check out the wonderful "Tiger Phone Card" from the new album, a duet of Zac's frail American vocal and Nimol's impassioned and beautiful phrasing, it tells the story of a transcontinental, cross-cultural love affair.

Escape from Dragon House was recorded after a month-long tour of Cambodia – Dengue Fever are the first American band ever to perform in the country. The impact on everyone involved was powerful – even overwhelming – and was captured on film by the cinematographer-turned-director John Pirozzi with a local crew. Due for DVD release in the autumn, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong tells the story of Nimol and the band, and more important, opens the doors on the music and stars of a lost generation of Cambodian music that found its feet – and its soul – in American pop to produce a truly unique, long-lost hybrid.

The day after their arrival, they were filmed for Cambodia's national TV station CTN, a two-hour special mixing interviews with songs. It ended up being broadcast three times every day for the whole month they were there. "I'd never experienced recognition or fame," says Williams, laughing, "until I got to Cambodia."

Nimol's mother and relatives were at the recording session. "They knew she was coming back but she didn't tell them we were playing Cambodian music. They were expecting her to sing Madonna, not pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian psychedelia. They were blown away with our performance."

They played free gigs across the country, from mountaintop temples using battery-powered amps, to the riverside slums of the Ton La Basae district in Phnom Phen, the improvised stage lighting made up of the tail lights of cars powered on a noisy, churning generator and a higgledy-piggledy tower of randomly assembled speakers on one side of the stage.

"It was one of the most epic shows I've ever played," says Williams. "I had culture shock at first. It was totally wild, the poorest place I'd ever seen. Heaps of trash, people with bandages, very sick-looking, just hanging out. The crowd was completely still, completely silent, didn't even clap between songs. Crazy faces with crazy expressions."

Given that Dengue Fever are embarking on their first tour of UK open-air festivals – the likes of Glastonbury, Womad, Lovebox and Larmer Tree – a sea of crazy faces with crazy expressions could be the order of the day if the summer conspires to be another washout. For festivalgoers, meanwhile, prolonged exposure to Dengue Fever is likely to bring on delirium and involuntary movements of the legs and arms. You have been warned.

'Venus on Earth' is out now on Real World; Dengue Fever play Womad (http://womad.org), 25-27 July

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine