Southland Band Blends Cambodian and Psychedelic Sounds

Los Angeles is known for its ethnic diversity, but very few bands climb into the rhythmic and aural spaces where cultures overlap. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says that one Southland band loves hanging out in that space.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Here's the formula for the indie band Dengue Fever. Start with brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman, raised, Zac says, around a lot of music in Topanga Canyon.

Zac Holtzman: When I was a kid, my dad used to have a summer camp, and he played guitar for all the kids in the camp.

Guzman-Lopez: Bring in Senon Williams, an African-American bass player who began to love music after he sneaked into underground shows in L.A. a quarter century ago.

Senon Williams: My sister was a pretty hardcore punk rocker, like the bands, Untouchables, Haircuts That Kill, 45 Grave. I think I started going to punk rock shows when I was like 11 and 12 years old, 'cause of my older sister.

Guzman-Lopez: Add a vocalist the Holtzman brothers found performing at a Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach.

Chhom Nimol: My name is Chhom Nimol, I'm the singer from Dengue Fever, the band called rock and roll. I'm born in Batangban City and Cambodian.

Guzman-Lopez: Lots of indie bands follow a formula. This one doesn't. On its third album, Dengue Fever blends Cambodian melodies with ethereal guitars and keyboards.

[Dengue Fever song "Clipped Wings" plays]

Some years back, the Holtzman brothers traveled to Cambodia and fell in love with its pop music from the 1960s. Its inspiration came from the American surf rock GIs played in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Senon Williams said yes seven years ago when Zac Holtzman asked him to play bass for this new band. Williams says he was reading the autobiography of jazzman Charles Mingus at the time.

Williams: And Mingus was talking about how it's music, it's not jazz, it's not rock, it's not whatever, it's just music. So, this wasn't that strange, you know, just another fun thing to do, another cool way to express myself musically.

[Dengue Fever song "Seeing Hands" plays]

Guzman-Lopez: William's favorite song is "Seeing Hands." He says he likes the laid back grooves and the choruses.

Williams: The lyrics are pretty cool because it's, in a sense, a love story between mother earth and man, and mother earth saying, "You know, if you're good to me, I might let you stay on this planet."

Guzman-Lopez: At rehearsal, Chhom Nimol sings a bit from her favorite, the song "Tooth and Nail."

Nimol (singing in English): Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

Guzman-Lopez: She likes it because it's in English and Kmai, the language she grew up speaking in Cambodia.

[Dengue Fever song in Kmai plays]

If Dengue Fever's music were a dog, says guitarist Zac Holtzman, it would be...

Zac Holtzman: A mutt, you know, or just like [laughs] all different sorts of things mixed together.

Guzman-Lopez: The band toured Cambodia a few years ago. Chhom Nimol says people there congratulated her for Cambodian-izing her American bandmates. They also sing in Kmai. A documentary of the tour is making the rounds of film festivals.

[Dengue Fever song "Mr. Orange" plays]

These days, Nimol says, most audiences are non-Cambodians at indie rock venues.

Nimol: Dancing and laughing and smiling, enjoy with us, I feel like, wow, that's, I'm singing in kmai, that's my language they don't understand, but they so enjoy it.

Guzman-Lopez: That's just part of what makes Dengue Fever's music so contagious.