Dengue Fever, America’s Best Cambodian Rock Band

You are at Spaceland, a nightclub in Los Angeles. You don’t know who is headlining tonight, but you never got a callback about that Burger King commercial, so you felt like having a drink and hearing some loud tunes. Everything is going well as you pay eleven dollars for a small pint of PBR. The crowd seems chill. Is that Juliette Lewis? Oh, looks like the show is about to begin.

The background music fades out, and the band starts this slow groove, like something out of a spy movie starring the Monkees. There’s a farfisa, and a saxophone with a lot of reverb, and a really tall bass player. A tiny southeast Asian girl makes her way to the microphone in the center of the stage. The music speeds up. The volume increases. The air feels like it’s getting heavier. The people around you start dancing, faster and faster. Then the girl starts singing – in Cambodian.

What? And yet, it works. This is incredible. It’s surf rock, it’s psychedelic ’60s pop, it’s a little bit of funk, and you have no idea what this chick is saying. (The language is Khmer, technically speaking.) She’s got pipes, though: you can feel her voice resonating in your chest, the vibrato thumping like your own heartbeat. Everyone is dancing now. Your hips and shoulders move back and forth, and you think to yourself, What the hell is going on? Congratulations, you are at a Dengue Fever show.

Dengue Fever is a band founded by five L.A. dudes and a Cambodian girl they found in Little Phnom Penh, a neighborhood in Long Beach. Her name is Chhom Nimol, and she was a mini-celebrity in her home country for winning singing competitions on television before moving to the United States. When the dudes approached her about forming a band, their idea was to play covers of 1960s Cambodian pop songs – you know, all those records that were destroyed and their creators killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, because their western influences didn’t align with the regime’s revolutionary dogma.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this band, this idea of a band, was not going to work.

But you’d be wrong, for several reasons. There’s long been a small but thriving international and multilingual music scene among more cosmopolitan listeners in this country. You’ve heard of Gogol Bordello, Sigur Rós, Shonen Knife, Manu Chao? Plus, L.A. is where bands like Los Lobos and Ozomatli showed that you don’t have to sing in English to be popular; where an electric sitar player graced the stage in front of City Hall on Independence Day , and where System of a Down seeded their nu-metal chartbusters with liberal doses of traditional Armenian musical influence.

Second, there’s proof of concept. A 1994 bootleg record called Cambodian Rock sold out its vinyl pressing, and subsequent one-offs like “Jaan Pehechan Ho” (via the 2001 Ghost World soundtrack) and Dan the Automator’s 1998 project Bombay the Hard Way showed that Eastern-inflected rock and remixes can work. That’s where Dengue Fever fits in: playing music that sounds like something you’d hear while buzzing through Siem Reap on the back of a motorbike, dog-eared Lonely Planet guide poking out of your knapsack.

The band has experienced just about all the success you can as an indie rock band without ever moving up to the next level. CDs released by a succession of small record labels? Check. Live appearances on a variety of NPR affiliates? Check. Performance at South by Southwest? Songs on movie and cable series soundtracks? Ten of their shows attended by noted AVCAD user Troubled By Nouns? Check, check, check.

Their first two records, 2003’s Dengue Fever and 2005’s Escape from Dragon House, focused mostly on covers from pre-Pol Pot Cambodian stars: Pen Ran, Ros Sereysothea, and Sinn Sisamouth, among others. If those names mean nothing to you, no big deal; the point is they had back catalogs for Dengue Fever to mine. Standouts from the first release include “New Year’s Eve,” “Lost in Laos,” “Hold my Hips,” and “Pow Pow”; the second record’s best tracks for me are “We Were Gonna,” “Sni Bong,” and “One Thousand Tears of the Tarantula.”

Some of Dengue Fever’s best tracks are the ones where their sound envelops you, with Nimol’s voice flying over and weaving among minor-chord guitar, pulsing bass, throbbing horns, furtive organ, and competent drumming. As the band matured, they began to focus more on writing their own songs, sometimes in English, thanks to Nimol’s improved facility with the language and guitarist Zac Holtzman’s frequent drift to the microphone. While this shift added to the comprehensibility of their lyrics for Western audiences, it took away from the sense of hypnagogic mystery that so entranced myself and others when we first encountered the band’s music. So while some tracks on 2008’s Venus on Earth can still evoke a late-night opium den atmosphere (“Seeing Hands”), others are more like Cambodian-influenced pop songs (the cute but trivial “Tiger Phone Card,” apparently their biggest hit).

Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records released Venus on Earth, and a year after that, he flew the band to England to record a session for his hi-fidelity streaming service, Society of Sound. While the resulting compilation album mostly featured new versions of the band’s original hits, the process opened the band’s eyes to how good they really could sound, given proper care and attention in the studio. As a result, their most recent albums, 2011’s Cannibal Courtship and 2015’s The Deepest Lake, represent major steps forward in production values and musicality.

In the past, the band and their producers were content to surround Nimol with somewhat muddled, Wall of Sound-like arrangements, regardless of the tempo or urgency of the song at hand. When they stripped down for other tracks, it often felt like something was missing. But new cuts like “Deepest Lake on the Planet” and “Vacant Lot” show the band has learned how and when to slice their big sound into smaller pieces that they can judiciously recombine into something more than just another wailer. They’ve branched out musically, incorporating influences like Afrobeat, and their lyrics reflect the border-straddling that both Dengue Fever and the people of Thomas Friedman’s flat world have come to see as perfectly normal. “Kiss me goodbye/You’re just another stamp in my passport,” Nimol croons on “Thank You Goodbye.”

While musically, Dengue Fever continues to grow, I wonder if their popularity may hit a ceiling. They typically play smaller festivals and clubs, and haven’t yet found the kind of unexpected break that can bring more attention to an otherwise obscure artist, like the time Fred Armisen (I assume) picked Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around” as Portlandia’s theme song, or when Quentin Tarantino put [artist] on the soundtrack to [Tarantino film].

That’s all too bad, because they’re a great band that long ago transcended their novelty-act beginnings. Ironically, the real challenge facing Dengue Fever may be that we’ve moved on from the world where that novelty was a draw.

Remember that night you saw them at the club, when you were drinking overpriced Pabst? That was 2003—well before YouTube made it easier for international acts to get mindshare in the United States. When Dengue Fever played their first show, the last foreign-language song to chart here was the Macarena. But in our post-“Gangnam Style” era, you can listen to any international band or artist, any time you want, without having to publicly degrade yourself by digging through the World Music section at a record store.

The number of people in Dengue Fever’s potential fanbase is limited, because a lot of folks just have no interest in music from other languages or other cultures. And now the people who are open to that kind of experience have, like all of us, a virtually limitless catalog to choose from. Dengue Fever is pretty good, but so are these K-pop supergroups, and this Russian punk outfit, and this Danish singer-songwriter. The gimmick is no longer unique, which means the demands on their musical chops only increase. Fortunately, I think they’re up to the task.