Dengue Fever returns to SOhO with a new album, their first since 2011, in tow

Dengue Fever has always made Santa Barbara part of their touring itinerary and this time is no different. The band includes, from left, Zac Holtzman (guitar and vocals), Paul Smith (drums), Ethan Holtzman (keys), Chhom Nimol (vocals, front), Senon Williams (bass) and David Ralicke (horns).
Dengue Fever has always made Santa Barbara part of their touring itinerary and this time is no different. The band includes, from left, Zac Holtzman (guitar and vocals), Paul Smith (drums), Ethan Holtzman (keys), Chhom Nimol (vocals, front), Senon Williams (bass) and David Ralicke (horns).

During the course of their long career — 15 years, almost — Dengue Fever has always included Santa Barbara in its touring itinerary. Not all bands deign to stop by on their way up to San Francisco from LA, but as bassist Senon Williams says, “I feel honored that we can . . . It’s nice that we get embraced by the town.”

They come to town — tonight, at SOhO — soon after dropping their seventh album, their first since 2011’s “Cannibal Courtship” — a 10-song, 47-minute journey back down the Mekong, with the exotic vocals of Chhom Nimol leading the way. There are elements of lounge, exotica, jazz, surf guitar and funk. And there’s no attempt to make a more alt-rock sound, a diversion that marred “Cannibal Courtship.” Dengue Fever has gone back to what made “Venus on Earth” (2008) such a breakthrough record, but added plenty new influences on top.

FROM TOP Chhom Nimol, lead singer for Dengue Fever, was born in Cambodia. She was discovered in 2001 by her future band members in an area of Long Beach called "Little Phnom Penh," where she was singing in Cambodian dinner clubs. Chean Long photos Zac Holtzman,and his brother Ethan were inspired to form the band after a visit to Cambodia. They now record on their own label, Tuk Tuk Records. Senon Williams David Ralicke Paul Smith
FROM TOP
Chhom Nimol, lead singer for Dengue Fever, was born in Cambodia. She was discovered in 2001 by her future band members in an area of Long Beach called “Little Phnom Penh,” where she was singing in Cambodian dinner clubs. Chean Long photos
Zac Holtzman,and his brother Ethan were inspired to form the band after a visit to Cambodia. They now record on their own label, Tuk Tuk Records.
Senon Williams
David Ralicke
Paul Smith
The album came out of a series of jam sessions at The Shoebox, which is what Mr. Williams calls his Los Feliz home studio, a tiny guest house on his property.

“We toured for a whole year on ‘Cannibal Courtship,’ ” he says. “We didn’t really write. We were burnt. We had to take time off and just do other stuff.”

Mr. Williams scored an indie film (“Einstein’s God Model,” not yet released); David Ralicke , their brass player, took session work. Ms. Nimol went on the Cambodian event circuit around the States and Canada (Montreal, especially, has a high Cambodian population).

Mr. Williams and Zac and Ethan Holtzman asked to be let go from their label Fantasy, and after getting the OK, “Our minds started thinking about how to do this ourselves,” Mr. Williams says. “Screw looking for a new label; let’s set up our own label.”

So the band created Tuk Tuk Records, named after the motorbike taxis of Cambodia, and released the “Girl from the North” EP in 2013, which contained “Taxi Dancer” and “Deepest Lake on the Planet,” two tasters for the upcoming album.

Instead of composing songs and then bringing them to the band to shape into tracks, the band had been meeting at Mr. Williams’ studio and jamming for fun.

“We set up mikes and just started recording. It was very relaxed, this album . . . We just turned the reverb up and let the vibe go.”

Describing the band’s genre as Cambodian rock is not exactly right anymore, not like it used to be at the beginning, when they were recreating the hits of Cambodian ’60s rock.

Yes, Ms. Nimol sings in Khmer, “but if you just listen to the music, we’re not drawing influences exclusively from Cambodia,” Mr. Williams says. “We’re drawing them from Thailand, Turkey, Africa, American garage and psych rock. There’s not a lot of (1960s) Cambodian music to listen to — after the first 20 tracks that are mind-blowing there’s not a deep well there. It’s a rich well, but it’s not that deep.”

The album branches out into something like a rap on “No Sudden Moves,” although that’s a descriptor that doesn’t sit right with Mr. Williams.

“I always considered it a chant in my mind,” he says. “I told Chhom to be really repetitive, no melody.”

The song’s a “dog attack” at a meth house across the street from the house he bought in ’97. “It was a den of crime, a flop house. The owner had gone to prison and they were looking after the dog. It ended up biting everybody in the house and I had to call 9-1-1 on it.” The lyrics, he says, are from the point of the view of the prisoner. The house eventually got cleared when the renter went to prison because he was behind in the bank payments. “Not because of the drugs! Not because of the crime! But because he owed the bank!”

Their break has revitalized the band, and “The Deepest Lake” is a huge step forward for their sound.

“We all love traveling and touring,” he says. “But there was this realization that we were meant to have fun. It was about priorities. If you’re out there just trying to make a buck it’s not a healthy way to be as a musician.”

And now they’re about to go for another round of tours. Mr. Williams is ready.

“We joke that if we were in this for the money we would have quit a long time ago. Music isn’t a choice for us, it’s something we have to do.”

Dengue Fever
When: 8 p.m. tonight
Where: SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, 1221 State St.
Cost: $15
Information: (805) 962-7776, www.sohosb.com

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