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L.A.'s Dengue Fever Unites Cambodian Pop and American Rock

Both Sides Now

On the surface, L.A.'s Dengue Fever, the brainchild of rocking brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman, seems like a recipe for disaster, a fast track to the cutout bin. According to drummer/producer Paul Smith, serendipity was much more important than thoughtful planning and calculated scheming in the band becoming a surprise international hit.

"Booking agents were scared to death of us," Smith laughs. "An American rock band based on psychedelic Cambodian garage rock? No booking agent would touch that. So up until this past year, we had to book ourselves."

Chhom Nimol and friends: world music for the cool kids
Chhom Nimol and friends: world music for the cool kids

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Dengue Fever performs 7 p.m. Saturday, March 29, at the Orange Show Center for Visual Arts, 2402 Munger, 713-926-6368.

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So how did such an unlikely project succeed to the point of being Amazon.com's No. 1 international release of 2005 and one of Mojo magazine's Top 10 world music releases of 2006?

"Several serendipitous happenings," notes Smith, who has engineered for an eclectic range of artists, from Snoop Dogg to Julio Iglesias. "We've worked hard and become known for strong live shows, but a lot of luck came our way."

The first bit of luck was discovering singer Chhom Nimol at the Dragon House, a karaoke club in Long Beach's Little Phnom Penh area.

"Ethan, Zac Senon Williams and I had rehearsed some songs, mostly covers of classic Cambodian rock from the '60s and '70s, but we desperately needed a singer," Smith recounts. "Ethan and Zac were hitting all these places on what people refer to as Cambodia Street in Long Beach. They happened to see Chhom sing one night and asked her to audition. She was pretty skeptical at first, but the rest is history."

And Nimol indeed has some history. Speaking virtually no English, she emigrated to Long Beach in 1999. Part of a famous Cambodian musical family, Nimol was a star in Cambodia and had even serenaded that nation's king and queen early in her career. She also won the Cambodian equivalent of American Idol.

"She'd mostly been singing traditional Khmer ballads, doing weddings and parties, stuff like that," says Smith. "After the rehearsal, we weren't entirely sure she was going to join us since what we were doing wasn't really her thing."

The project almost came to a crashing halt when Nimol was arrested on the way home from a gig in 2003 during an Orange-level terrorist alert. Her visa had expired, and she spent three weeks in jail. That experience formed the basis of "22 Nights," from the band's second album, 2005's Escape from Dragon House. It was two more years before Nimol received her green card.

So how does a Cambodian pop band break into the mainstream? One step at a time, according to Smith.

"We'd all been in various bands, so we had some connections," he explains. "One of our friends got us booked into Spaceland, and the crowd dug us. Word just seemed to spread after that. We kinda became a Tuesday thing at Spaceland, which is a great venue for a band like ours."

And then another serendipitous moment occurred.

"Matt Dillon was filming City of Ghosts, and David Ralicke (Beck), who was about to become our regular horn player, was hanging out with Dondi Bastone, the music supervisor for the film," Smith says. "Dondi was going on and on about how they'd looked all over Cambodia for a band with that '60s Cambodian pop sound, but all they had come across were these sort of mimicking karaoke-type bands.

"Ralicke looks at him and says, 'This is crazy, but I just jammed with a band like you're looking for last night.' So Dondi came to one of our shows, and suddenly we're in the studio cutting a Cambodian version of Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' for the film. That was a huge break."

Dengue has since placed songs in the Showtime series Weeds and the movies Must Love Dogs and Broken Flowers. They've also been featured on Fuel TV's show The Daily Habit. In January, third album Venus on Earth quickly climbed to the top of the college-radio charts and was praised to the heavens in The New York Times, the Times of London and virtually every music magazine on earth. The Los Angeles Times described the album as "world music for the cool kids."

Smith says the band made a conscious decision to simplify the sound and that has brought even wider acceptance of the album.

"Ethan and Zac are great rock writers," he crows. "They bring in the songs, and then as a band we begin to develop them, to sound them out. The sound is a bit more straight-ahead this time."

For English-only speakers, the highlights are two tongue-in-cheek love songs that riff on the Cambodian tradition of he-says she-says duet structure. "Tiger Phone Card" is a hilarious long-distance duet between a man in New York and a woman in Phnom Penh trying to make their dubious relationship work. But "Sober Driver" captures the essence of the Dengue Fever concept even better. It involves a woman calling a man from a party because she needs someone sober to drive her home, and it sounds perfect for a scene in Kill Bill or any Bruce Lee movie.

In 2005, Dengue Fever became the first American rock band to play in Cambodia since the rise of the Pol Pot regime. The tour resulted in an emotional documentary called Sleepwalking through the Mekong.

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