Ghost World: Dengue Fever Brings Music From Beyond With ‘The Deepest Lake’

Apr 7, 2015

Credit Lauren Dukoff

The Deepest Lake is the first full-length album in four years from the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever. The group’s brand of music blends elements of Cambodian pop music—as influenced by American psychedelic music. This new album finds the group diversifying its sound—that’s in part because the group felt more open to diverse influences.

“We gave each other more space on this album,” says group co-founder Zac Holtzman. “In the past we’d work on a song and it would start telling us where it wanted to go, and we’d kind of push and shove it into making it fit with the direction we wanted it to go. This time it was more, ‘Whatever you’re feeling, go for it. Add your thing.’ It was more relaxed in the writing and recording process this time.”

Holtzman and his bandmates have delivered an impressive batch of songs on this new album, including “Deepest Lake on the Planet,” from which the album draws its name. That tune has its origins in both disappointment and humor.

The group was invited to play a festival in Siberia on the shores of the deepest lake in the world. Unfortunately, the gig fell through.

“We got cut off the bill," Holtzman says. "At the last minute they said, ‘We’ll fly you to the festival, but you need to be at least in Europe. They added that at the end. We said, ‘Well, we’re not. We’re based in L.A. We didn’t get to play it so we were kind of joking around about the deepest lake that we never got to swim in. It kind of grew out of a joke. The finished song, however, has more serious overtones. “It’s more about the souls of two people and how deep, bottomless, they can be.”

The new sonic attitude of the band is evident on the track “Tokay,” which opens the record. Holtzman points out that it wasn’t always an obvious forerunner, but it serves its purpose very well.

“That seemed like a good one to point to a clean slate/new sound feel,” he recalls. “Then it takes on this Asian-inspired-by-Latin kind of groove. It seemed appropriate to the Asian element because there was a lot of cha-cha-cha in that music.”

Perhaps the most atmospheric tune is “Ghost Voice,” inspired by bizarre incidents that took place at Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley’s home after his 2012 suicide. Some of it actually began when a Pasadena newspaper accidentally printed Kelley’s address in his obituary. Fearing that there would be problems from gapers, a security company was hired to guard the property. One female guard found herself gaining serious attention from Kelley’s spirit.

“The first thing that he told her was, ‘Please don’t park your car in my driveway because it’s leaking oil, and it’s leaving an oil spot in my driveway.’ And that’s totally something that he would have said,” Holtzman recalls. “The next thing that he told her was, ‘There’s a very important piece that I made. I’m going to describe it to you.’ So she drew a picture of this octopus winking next to a sewing machine.”

The drawing was intended as a map to the piece that Kelley had created, and once the security guard had finished drawing it, she turned it over to one of Kelley’s former assistants.

“She wrote all of this stuff down and passed it on to the head assistant of Mike Kelley’s, who is a friend of ours. He was just handed it and was, like, ‘Oh, OK. Thanks, crazy person.’ But, then, he started talking to one of the other assistants, and they said, ‘Oh! I totally know where that octopus piece is, it’s in another storage facility,’ miles away from where the lady was watching the house,” Holtzman says. “It was right next to a sewing machine. It wasn’t winking, though, it was like one of the eyes had fallen off the stuffed octopus. So that’s why she drew a picture of it winking.”

The ghost also related an incident that took place inside a New York City cab that was later verified by the other parties who were present. Holtzman says the story seems credible to him because he was visited by a ghost once—also the spirit of someone who committed suicide.

“Maybe it’s like suicides leave a little bit of energy around in our environment or something like that," he says. "It’s like a recording that gets played whenever the time is right or something like that or you’re sensitive enough to hear it.”

In the 14 years since Dengue Fever formed it’s often been labeled a World Music act, despite an audience that represents a broad range of listeners. Holtzman seems to have mixed feelings about his band being saddled with that tag—and for a variety of reasons.

“World music used to be this kind of taboo word that was kind of cheesy. It meant Guatemalan pants: ‘Everybody happy!’ and steel drums and just, like, not the most cool type of music. We were, like, ‘Well, that’s not world music. Hey! Here’s our take on world music!’ It’s more like rock ‘n’ roll but, yeah, we have a Cambodian singer,” he says. “A better type of world music is stuff that’s really going on—which is just street musicians and people rocking out on the Casio out on the street or just playing some makeshift drum set. It doesn’t have to be these hallmark interpretations of countries which is what it seems that it used to be.”

Dengue Fever plays one of the final dates of its current tour at Lucky’s Everyday Wednesday evening with Wichita bands Domestic Drone and Bellafonte opening.

Selected Discography:

Dengue Fever (2003)

The one that started it all. Like the British duo Cornershop, Dengue Fever’s blend of Asian and European/American music is done with refreshing ease and unexpected humor. Key tracks: “Lost In Laos,” “Shave Your Beard,” and “22 Nights.”

Escape From Dragon House (2005)

The cover might lead you to think that this is some long-lost gem that just washed ashore in your local import shop. That’s not too far off the mark. Arguably the record that fully solidified the group’s intentions via “Sui Bong,” “Sleepwalking Through The Mekong” (which would become the title of a documentary about the group’s 2005 trip to Cambodia) and “Tap Water.

Venus on Earth (2008)

The easiest of the band’s earliest albums to love thanks to tracks such as “Seeing Hands,” “Tiger Phone Card” and “Woman in the Shoes.”

  

Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll

See also: Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, a new documentary about Cambodian rock music in the 1960s, directed by John Pirozzi, who also helmed Sleepwalking Through The Mekong.