A pair of sibling rock musicians with a passion for psychedelic, pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian pop, a like-minded bass player, a drummer into Ethiopian jazz, a sax player and a Cambodian pop star from one of the country’s musical dynasties (think Jacksons): this is how you get Dengue Fever.
The band has melded disparate elements to come up with a sound as close to a true synthesis of Eastern and Western music as you’re likely to hear. And it’s as comfortable at a World Music festival as it is in a smoky club.
"I think they can make anything work," The Agency Group’s Ryan Craven told Pollstar. "When they played the Pool Party in Brooklyn last summer, it was great. But I’ve seen them in some really tiny rooms with small stages where it’s been packed and everyone’s covered in sweat and everyone’s going nuts."
The journey hasn’t been easy. When Ethan and Zac Holtzman came up with the idea for the group in 2001, they encountered numerous obstacles, including finding a singer up to the task.
The brothers made a frantic phone call to friend Senon Williams, who’d been to Cambodia in 1995 and was familiar with the music.
"They said, ‘Senon we have a bunch of Cambodian singers lined up. Can you figure out these songs and play bass?,’" Williams told Pollstar. "They had Paul [Smith] on drums, so they had guitar, keyboards and drums, but no bass player."
Williams stayed up all night learning songs from the CDs the siblings dropped off.
"The next day we go down to Long Beach and about six or seven singers are there," Williams said. "And it was a nightmare. None of the singers could sing. After that rehearsal, I was like ‘I don’t know guys. This is going to be pretty tough.’"
The Holtzmans had one more singer on their list, Chhom Nimol. Several of the other singers auditioning told them it was unlikely she’d show, since she was a star in her own right already, a fact unknown to the brothers.
"But when she showed up and started singing, we’d found our singer," Williams said. "All we had to do was convince her that we were a worthwhile bunch of scruffy American guys to hang out with."
Nimol wasn’t the only one who needed convincing; the industry didn’t exactly beat a path to Dengue Fever’s door. That didn’t deter Williams or the rest of the band, now complete with sax player David Ralicke.
Without an agent, manager or record, the group quickly gained a following on the strength of its live shows, which at first consisted mainly of Khmer covers sung in Cambodian.
"It’s like with politics, or many other things, the people always get it first. People that write about it or are involved with it always kind of catch on later. It took us forever to find a record company and a booking agent. We had to get a fan-base before we had our first album.
"It seems like the industry is discovering us late, or at least having faith in us late. They may have known about us or even liked us, but if there’s no label to file us under, people get scared – especially when there are a few dollars involved."
Choosing a booking agent presented its own unique challenge: go with a World Music or a rock booker? The band initially picked the former, but eventually decided to go the other route and contacted Craven, who didn’t need much convincing.
"They take what they’re doing seriously," Craven said. "The CDs and live show are tons of fun, but they’re actual working musicians. It’s really easy to book them places."
Another person who had no trouble believing in Dengue Fever is its manager, It’s Alive’s Media & Management’s Josh Mills, who started out as publicist for the band but was promoted because of his willingness to go the extra mile.
"They called me up and said, ‘We want to talk to you,’" Mills told Pollstar. "We started talking and it was like, ‘We need someone to manage us’ and ‘We need someone to do this and that, kind of like Josh’ and then someone said ‘What about Josh?’ and I thought it was a great idea.
"I wanted to work with them because I thought that they were different than every other band and could bring something to the table no one else could bring. They weren’t the same old indie band going for the brass ring."
With all the pieces in place, things really took off for the band, which has become a fixture not only on the festival scene and in indie rock clubs, but at more unusual venues like museums and cultural centers.
"Once press started happening for this last record, Venus On Earth, everyone seemed to drop all of their ideas and just get on board." Craven said.
Dengue Fever has been on the road in the U.S. and abroad for most of the year, and isn’t slowing down. Plans for the fall include the release of a documentary, "Sleepwalking Through The Mekong," which chronicles the band’s well-received visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a tour in support of the soundtrack.