Dengue Fever: Retro Pop, Cambodian Style Brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman formed Dengue Fever in the late '90s, inspired by 1960s Cambodian psych-rock. Rachel Martin speaks with them and singer Chhom Nimol about their album, The Deepest Lake.

Dengue Fever: Retro Pop, Cambodian Style

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The late 1960s and early '70s defined a vibrant, electrifying and psychedelic era for rock music everywhere. That includes Cambodia.


DENGUE FEVER: (Singing in Khmer).

MARTIN: The Khmer Rouge communist movement put an end to that when they took power in 1975. But the music from that era has been discovered and rediscovered over the years. Ethan Holtzman was bitten by the bug. He came back to LA from a trip to Southeast Asia in the late 1990s with a suitcase full of cassette tapes. And his passion for the music soon lead him to form the band Dengue Fever.


DENGUE FEVER: (Singing in Khmer).

MARTIN: The group's fifth album, "The Deepest Lake," will be out on Tuesday. Ethan Holtzman joins us from NPR West. Welcome to the program, Ethan.

ETHAN HOLTZMAN: Hi, thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And you're not alone. Your brother and band cofounder Zac is also there. Hey, Zac.

ZAC HOLTZMAN: Hey. How's it going?

MARTIN: Goes well thanks. And Chhom Nimol is the band's lead singer. She's also there in the studios with you.

CHHOM NIMOL: Hello, hello.

MARTIN: Hey. Thanks for being with us. Let's start kind of at the beginning. Zac, when Ethan came back with those tapes, you had also discovered Cambodian music yourself, right? How did you find this genre?

Z. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. My friend Byron was working at a record store in San Francisco called Aquarius. He's like, Zac, you've got to hear this music. And so he laid it on me, and then moved back down to Los Angeles. And I was just playing it, and my brother Ethan was like, whoa. How did you get some of this music? And so we started talking about it. We thought it would be really neat to sort of start a band based on that old music.

MARTIN: What was it in that music that struck you?

Z. HOLTZMAN: I mean, it's got so many great elements. The Cambodians, they didn't just mimic the things that were going on, they really just added their cool styles of singing. Like, they do this falsetto sort of thing that's called a ghost voice where they crack into higher registers. It's kind of like a Cambodian yodel.

MARTIN: Can you guys do that?

NIMOL: Yeah. I can do that.

MARTIN: I'm putting you on the spot.


NIMOL: (Singing in ghost voice). Something like that, you know.

MARTIN: Wow. That's pretty good. It's haunting, that sound.

Z. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, but then at the same time, it had all these other elements like surf guitar and just kind of garage and psychedelic sort of things. And somehow, they got like a Farfisa organ to Cambodia. And they were playing one of those. So it was, you know, familiar and yet exotic.


DENGUE FEVER: (Singing in Khmer).

MARTIN: So it's one thing to just be a fan and collect this kind of music and really get into it, but, Ethan, how did this becomes something that you guys thought you could actually do yourself?

E. HOLTZMAN: Well, Zac and I, we started figuring out some of the old songs, you know, from the '60s, songs that were written by Sin Sisamuth. He was probably the most prolific song writer in Cambodia, sort of like Bob Dylan over there or Elvis. And the vocalists he worked with were amazing. Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron were our favorites. So we just figured out - we just - I just kept listening to these songs like, you know, they were on cassette. And I just became, like - that was, like, what I listened to everywhere. And we were just like, why don't we figure out some of these?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The next song, "Thanks A Lot."


MARTIN: Nimol, how did you come onto the scene? How did you join the group?

NIMOL: Zac and Ethan, they went down to Long Beach at the club called Dragon House. That's when I used to work there every weekend. And they asking me to join the band.

MARTIN: Ethan and Zac, can you describe the first time you heard Nimol sing?

Z. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, we - this is Zac speaking. We went into Dragon House, and it's a big club in Long Beach. And there was, like, all these Cambodians circle dancing. And up on stage was a Cambodian band and about five or six female vocalists. And they were all kind of trading off going up to the mic. And then the Nimol went up there and started singing. And I just instantly knew, we got to ask her. It turns out her family is kind of like the Jacksons of Cambodia. You know, like, she, like, comes from this whole musical family.


DENGUE FEVER: (Singing in Khmer).

MARTIN: I wonder, Ethan and Zac, what the reaction - and Nimol - what the reaction has been to your music in the Cambodian community in LA.

NIMOL: Right now, a lot of Cambodian people, they come to our show. I can say, like, 50 percent west and 50 percent Cambodian right now.

MARTIN: Split down the middle. Is that right, Ethan and Zac? You're getting...

E. HOLTZMAN: Well, it depends where we play. Like, we were playing a couple shows in Long Beach, and there's a lot of Cambodians that live there. It's Little Phnom Penh. Outside of Cambodia, I think that's the highest population of Cambodians. So when we play there, they - I'd say they're the majority. And they're a lot of fun. The love to hear some of the old songs. And like - they've grabbed onto a lot of our original songs, too. So they're very energetic, and they, you know, they'll jump on stage with us and sing along, grab a microphone. But it's not just Long Beach. It's also, like, there's...

NIMOL: Seattle.

E. HOLTZMAN: Seattle, yeah.

NIMOL: San Francisco.

E. HOLTZMAN: Modesto. So they'll be like...


E. HOLTZMAN: ...Pockets. Yeah.

NIMOL: Yeah. Oh, yeah, Paris, too.

E. HOLTZMAN: Wherever the Cambodians live, they all find - they'll find our show and come out. And they'll always make it a little more fun for us.


DENGUE FEVER: (Singing in Khmer).

MARTIN: Chhom Nimol, Zac and Ethan Holtzman make up Dengue Fever. They talked to us from our studios at NPR West. Their new album is called "The Deepest Lake." Thanks you three. Thanks so much for talking with us.

E. HOLTZMAN: Thank you.

NIMOL: Thank you for having us.

Z. HOLTZMAN: Thanks, Rachel.

E. HOLTZMAN: Thanks, Rachel. Bye.


DENGUE FEVER: (Singing in Khmer).

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