Dengue Fever’s infectious sound

Dengue fever typically lasts six to seven days, but the Los Angeles sextet has gestated for more than a decade, ever since keyboardist Ethan Holtzman returned from a six-month tramp around Southeast Asia. Burned out from several years as a mental health caseworker, he bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok and, during the course of his travels, discovered Cambodian rock.

Influenced by ’60s garage-psych brought by soldiers on leave from Vietnam, Cambodian musicians gave the style their own twist. Distinguished by snaky vocals known as ghost singing, the style features female vocalists reaching registers so high their voices crack and then quickly drop to a lower pitch. When Holtzman brought back a stack of indigenous tapes upon returning in 1998, he soon discovered his guitarist brother Zac had been listening to similar music. “It was really bizarre,” Holtzman recalls.

In search of a lead, they stumbled upon Chhom Nimol, who’d sung for royalty before leaving Cambodia for Los Angeles. Last year, they released Venus on Earth, their third and best-selling disc, which featured a barely fluent Nimol singing in English for the first time. While most of the album continues to mine a slithery, Cambodian strut equally muscular and graceful, the addition of English made quite a difference on last year’s European tour.  

“There were tons of screaming fans and they were all singing along,” says Holtzman. “That was a big realization; to have a couple songs in English helps a lot.”

On April 14, Dengue Fever celebrates the release of Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, a DVD rockumentary tracing the band’s 2007 trip to Cambodia. In between touring, the members are recording a fourth LP expected to explore new territory, including their first songs in a major key.  

“There’s still plenty of darkness to cancel that out,” Holtzman says. “We’re trying to do both.”