Eight years ago, keyboardist Ethan Holtzman and his guitarist brother Zac had become so obsessed with Cambodian pop music from the 1960s, they wanted to revolve their band Dengue Fever around the style. Then they stumbled upon a real treasure: Chhom Nimol, a classy Khmer-language siren who’d left Cambodian stardom for Los Angeles. The lineup clicked. The band even visited Cambodia for its latest CD/DVD release, “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,” a documentary of the trip. “Dengue Fever Presents: Electric Cambodia,” an anthology of their favorite ’60s curiosities, is being released soon. The band plays San Francisco next week.
How did you first get into ’60s Cambodian pop? I was working as a social worker, and I got burned out absorbing other people’s mental illness 50 hours a week. So I got a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia, starting in Bangkok and traveling through Cambodia. And the music that I heard there really struck a chord, so I bought a few cassette tapes.
What was so appealing about it? The sounds that they used were semi-familiar, because they were inspired by psychedelic, surf and garage rock. But the Cambodian musicians combined their own musical elements, and traditional instruments, as well. And the vocals were very snaky and totally different from anything I’ve ever heard.
Are you happy to finally share those songs with the world? Yes. It’s a bunch of old tracks that we’ve collected over the years, songs that we wanted people to hear. And they’re pretty obscure. We haven’t found them anywhere else.
Isn’t it sad that most of those artists are probably dead now? Yeah. They perished under Pol Pot’s regime. It was a horrible thing that happened, and we want to make sure it never happens again. So we’re donating some of the proceeds from this compilation to Cambodia Living Arts, which helps kids continue traditional music in
Cambodia. We wanted to give back to the country.
Was Nimol greeted like a superstar on your film trip? Yeah. She’s really famous in Cambodia. And the fame happened to the whole band while we were there. We taped a two-hour Cambodian TV show, which they aired over and over again. So by the first week, we’d be in the middle of nowhere and people were shouting “Dengue Fever! Dengue Fever!” They all knew us already.
What did you learn from the experience? Not to order crab-fried rice when you’re two hours from the ocean! I got really sick from that.
IF YOU GO
Where: The Independent, 628 Divisadero St., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. Jan. 8