Music | Cambodia calling


Revelling in the newfound success garnered by their unique sound, Ethan Holtzman of Dengue Fever speaks to Dermot Murphy.

With such a definitive hybrid of sounds, Dengue Fever couldn’t be further away from the ‘mainstream’.
Over the years, the band has somehow found a way of merging Sixties surf music with traditional Cambodian melodies, and still come away with something that is user-friendly. According to their MySpace page, they are “a Cambodian pop rock psychedelic dance party!”

Interesting self-portrayals aside, Dengue Fever are a six-piece band from LA and sound like the type of thing you might hear during a fight sequence in Kill Bill 2.

The band’s new album Venus on Earth was released earlier this year. It’s the first of their three records to have any tracks performed in English (lead singer Chhom Nimol is Cambodian) and the reaction so far has been predominately positive. “We’ve sold more albums than we’ve ever sold so that’s a good start,” laughs Ethan Holtzman, the band’s organ player.

“It’s been a lot of fun. We got to tour throughout Europe and do a lot of really nice festivals. I never thought we’d have music fans in Norway and Sweden. We hit Norway twice. The first show was packed, but the second show was insanely sold out. It was just nuts!”

With their Scandinavian fan base multiplying like gremlins, it’s fair to say that Dengue Fever are going places. One place that they’ve already been on numerous occasions is (you guessed it) Cambodia.

“I think we’ll always be down to earth people, and we’ll always treat people nicely”

In 2005, the band travelled to Phnom Penh during the Bon Om Thook Water Festival and filmed a documentary along the way called Sleepwalking through the Mekong, which will be released in March 2009.
Considering the unmistakable dominance of a Cambodian pop flavour within their music, this was a monumental journey for Dengue Fever. During this time, the band had the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of their greatest inspirations, including master musician Sinn Sisamouth (who Ethan refers to as “the Bob Dylan of Cambodia”).

“Going back to Cambodia was a really good experience for us,” recalls Ethan, who admits that initially, the band were not without their fears. “It was a little scary at the beginning – like how are these people going to react? Are they going to embrace us or are they going to be like: ‘what are you guys doing? You’re not from here!’”

Evidently from the DVD trailer, (which resembles a National Geographic special) the native reaction to Dengue Fever was overwhelming to say the least. “It was pretty much a very positive response,” explains Ethan.

“People were very excited by it. We played a bunch of shows for free. Some of them were in shanty towns from like 800 to 1000 villagers – shows that we’ll remember forever.”

Dengue Fever can certainly be categorised in the list of up-and-coming acts, however Ethan is adamant that success will never go to their heads. “We’re not egotistical. I think we’ll always be down to earth people, and we’ll always treat people nicely.” Looks like nice guys don’t always finish last.

Dengue Fever played the Sugar Club on 15th November