Music News & Reviews

Psychedelic sounds from Los Angeles-based band Dengue Fever

Dengue Fever wanted a Cambodian singer for its lineup, and found Chhom Nimol, left, in a Long Beach club.
Dengue Fever wanted a Cambodian singer for its lineup, and found Chhom Nimol, left, in a Long Beach club. PHOTO BY LAUREN DUKOFF

In Cambodia, a wave of musical history was wiped out during a period of political turmoil. But an American band with a Cambodian singer has helped bring attention back to that forgotten era — a time when Cambodians played psychedelic surf rock.

“During the Vietnam War, they were broadcasting music to the American troops, and Cambodia was picking up on those airwaves,” said Zac Holtzman, a guitarist with the hip L.A. band Dengue Fever. “And that’s how they started hearing Hendrix and all these other acts.”

Influenced by what they’d heard on the Armed Forces Network, Cambodians began to emulate American and British rock stars— but with their own twist. Around 2000, Holtzman was first introduced to that Cambodian rock through a friend who worked at a San Francisco record store.

“I loved it from the start,” said Holtzman, whose band will perform at SLO Brew on Tuesday. “It was a great combination of garage, surf and psychedelic and traditional Cambodian styles of singing with a few of their instruments mixed in.”

While Holtzman discovered Cambodian rock in San Francisco, his brother found it in Cambodia while backpacking through Southeast Asia. When Ethan Holtzman returned, he brought back cassettes of Cambodian rock and played them for Zac.

“We started wondering about the musicians,” Holtzman said. “They were probably killed by the Khmer Rouge for having Western influences.”

Just as Cambodian rock began to flourish — and stars like Sinn Sisamouth emerged — the Communist party Khmer Rouge took over, and its leader, Pol Pot, began cracking down on anyone with Western influences. Artists like Sisamouth were killed or simply disappeared. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge forbade anyone from singing the songs.

“Barely any of the music survived,” Holtzman said. “Most of the vinyl ended up in Long Beach or Paris.”

Just as the Cambodians were inspired by the Americans, the Holtzmans became inspired by the Cambodians. And while Zac was a member of a signed band named Dieselhead, he decided to form a new band with his brother and other friends that would play Cambodian-style rock.

To be more authentic, they wanted a Cambodian singer. So they trolled a Cambodian neighborhood in Long Beach, visiting clubs with live music. In one, they found a Cambodian singer named Chhom Nimol.

They didn’t know at the time, but Nimol’s family had been musical celebrities in Cambodia — had even performed for Cambodian royalty. Even though Nimol didn’t speak English, they invited her to rehearse with them.

“She initially would show up with a whole bunch of other Cambodians, and a few of them would speak English,” Holtzman said.

The band’s self-titled debut album in 2003 covered several of the songs recorded by Cambodians in the 1960s and ’70s, sung by Nimol in the Cambodian language Khmer. Then the band began to write its own songs, but they still wanted Nimol to sing them in Khmer.

Initially, they had one of Nimol’s friends translate. But she was a very spiritual person and tried to change some of the lyrics she objected to. So the band then found a man in Washington, D.C., who could translate. But even that proved difficult.

“A lot of times, you write something in English with eight to 12 syllables, and when you translate it to Khmer, you’ve got like 25 syllables,” Holtzman said. “So that doesn’t work with the flow of the song.”

Now Nimol’s English has come along, and much of the songs on the band’s latest album, “Cannibal Courtship,” are in English.

But the groovy Cambodian rock influence is still there—made evident by the album cover photo of Nimol and a “mastadong.” The instrument, which Holtzman plays on much of the album, is part Fender Jazzmaster guitar and part chapei dong veng, a traditional Cambodian instrument. While the guitar portion of the double-necked instrument uses regular strings, Holtzman had to improvise on the chapei dong veng.

“I’ve experimented all around with different types of strings,” he said. “And the ones I ended up using are weed-whacker strings you can get at Home Depot.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.