If you can imagine a band where a Cambodian beauty queen shares the stage with Rasputin, Barry White, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Hutchence and Brian Wilson, you'd have a pretty good idea of the group Dengue Fever. That is to say you'd have absolutely no idea what the band is about unless you heard it.
A well-executed experiment in eccentricity, the Silver Lake six-piece is the sound of two cultures -- and eras -- colliding. Sixties surf and pop songs may be the group's source material, but add the stunningly acrobatic vocals of a modern-day Phnom Penh pop star singing in her native tongue and the result is oddly striking.
During a show at Santa Monica's Temple Bar last week, Dengue Fever surprised more than a few listeners with its East-meets-West retro pop. Leftover audience members from the Chilean singer-songwriter who'd warmed up for the band couldn't wipe the smiles off their faces as singer Ch'hom Nimol danced around the stage in what appeared to be a too-tight bridal gown, belting out lines in Khmer and talking to the crowd in broken English.
The band was not surprised. Crowds always "go nuts" at their shows, band members say. In 2002, when the group made its live debut at hipster hangout Spaceland in Silver Lake, even "guys with tight pants and baseball hats were dancing," said Senon Williams, who plays bass for the band.
Indie rock fans are not known as dancers, but there's something in the combination of Dengue Fever's driving rhythm section and Nimol's innocent effervescence that inspires. To look at the audience during a performance is to see dozens of faces admiring Nimol as if she were some sort of exotic-animal import.
The 23-year-old singer is Cambodian, not Cambodian American. She came to the country a couple years ago with her brother to perform for a New Year's celebration -- and never left.
She'd probably still be performing at Long Beach nightclubs in Little Phnom Penh if she hadn't been recruited into the band by Ethan and Zac Holtzman, who were trawling the area for a singer -- the missing piece in their Cambodian psychedelic rock band.
Ethan, who plays farfisa for the group, had wanted to start such a band since 1997, when he visited Southeast Asia and got hooked on the local music. Zac, who plays guitar, had been listening to some older Cambodian psychedelia on his own.
Teaming up, the two brothers went on a dozen fruitless outings, eventually finding Nimol at a restaurant/bar called the Dragon House. According to Zac, "As soon as we saw Nimol singing, we said, 'That's the one!' "
There was just one problem: Nimol did not speak English. After two years in the band, she still doesn't speak very good English, but she's taking classes and is improving.
"It slows things down, but at the same time it forces us to come up with solutions. Sometimes when you have to change something, it ends up better," Zac said.
On the band's self-titled debut record, there are only two original songs. The rest are covers from the '60s. Written in English, all of them are translated into Khmer with the help of a translator in Washington state.
The band had been using translators in L.A., but they "were taking forever and they didn't have a good musical sense of syllables." Five syllable lines would be returned as 20, making them unplayable. And some songs weren't even translated; they were entirely rewritten.
Having a non-native lead singer has been problematic in other ways. Last summer, Nimol and Ethan were driving in San Diego when the police pulled them over on a random check during a terrorism-induced Orange Alert. Nimol, who had overstayed a two-week visitor's visa by two years, was thrown in jail and threatened with deportation.
Only recently was the situation resolved. She now has a two-year visa, thanks to the work of a lawyer who was hired by the band and paid through various benefit concerts.
With Nimol's legal status now in the clear, the band is hoping to travel. In the past, it had to turn down invitations to tour Europe, Russia and Cambodia. This spring, upon the release of its first record on Slash, the group plans to play Europe. This Fall, the band hopes to return to Nimol's home turf, playing the Cambodian Water Festival in November.
In the meantime, the band will continue to delight and surprise audiences around L.A. In March, Dengue Fever plays Spaceland's Monday residency.