Dengue fever is a lethal tropical virus, also known as breakbone fever, transmitted by mosquitoes. And, in the hallowed tradition of naming bands after deadly diseases, it’s also the moniker for a California sextet that blends Cambodian pop with American psychedelic garage bands. Duh.
“We don’t want anyone to die,” says Paul Smith, drummer and unassuming spokesman for the band. As Smith explains, the reason behind the band’s adoption of the name was fairly prosaic: Founder and Farfisa organist Ethan Holtzman’s traveling mate was exposed to the virus during a late-’90s trip to Cambodia.
This same trip exposed Holtzman to the country’s vintage Western-influenced surf and psychedelic rock sounds, leading to the formation of Dengue Fever: a Cambodian psychedelic rock band Smith qualifies as, “not Cambodian all the time, not rock all the time and not psychedelic all the time.”
The music is an unexpected revelation, more fervent than feverish and never bone-breakingly hackish. Smith likens their sound to “musical chairs over decades,” but also gushes about, “the universal appeal of Ch’hom Nimol’s voice.”
The young singer, something of a pop star in her native Cambodia, was the last to join the band after Holtzman and his guitarist/brother Zac found Nimol singing at the Dragon House restaurant, a Cambodian haunt in Long Beach. The Holtzman brothers—along with Smith, saxophonist David Ralicke, bassist Senon Williams and Nimol—overcame communication hurdles (at the time Nimol spoke very little English) to eventually release their self-titled debut, a collection of Cambodian covers with a few original compositions.
The initial release galvanized a devoted left-coast hipster fan base owing primarily to Nimol’s piercing vocals. Even when the sound is rollicking, she evinces a streak of melancholy, which manages to draw in listeners whether singing in Khmer or English, as she does on their latest Escape from Dragon House. For their New York debut, Dengue Fever promises to enact itsexpansive global vision, newfound Ethiopian influences and relentlessly funky orientation.
Sept. 22. Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (betw. Astor Pl. & E. 4th St.), 212-254-1263; 11:30, $12/$15.