If there's something everyone could use, it's a talisman against life's darker elements. When the band Dengue Fever met up at a small house in the desert near Joshua Tree in 2019 to record their first new album in eight years, they would end up creating a musical homage to such an amulet. But they couldn't have known just how well the dreamy, laidback quality of their new songs would offer a counterbalance to what has proven to be a pretty high-strung handful of years for humanity.
The band plays The Guild Theatre in Menlo Park on Sept. 14, with their new album, "Ting Mong," released the following day. The show kicks off a West Coast tour for the Los Angeles-based band in support of the record.
The album's title comes from a Cambodian "effigy of protection," as the band's website describes it.
"We named the record 'Ting Mong' because it went with the COVID pandemic. In Cambodia, they make these scarecrow-type things — art pieces — that they put in front of their houses to ward off plague and evil spirits," said keyboardist Ethan Holtzman, who with his brother, guitarist and vocalist Zac Holtzman, co-founded the band.
Japanese artist Imiri Sakabashira created the image for the album's cover art, which depicts a half-fish, half-person creature that also takes inspiration from the Ting Mong. A costume based on the cover art appears in the video for "Silverfish," the second single off the album, and Holtzman promises that the "Fishman will make another cameo" in a forthcoming video.
In addition to releasing "Ting Mong" this year, Dengue Fever is marking the 20th anniversary of their self-titled debut album, which grabbed attention for its unique blend of Western psychedelic and vintage Cambodian rock, with many songs sung in the Khmer language. The band is fronted by vocalist Chhmon Nimol, who grew up in Cambodia and hails from a family of singers.
The band's sophomore album, "Escape from Dragon House," released in 2005, featured what has become one the group's best known songs, the thoroughly trippy "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula." The 2007 documentary "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong" by director John Pirozzi chronicled Dengue Fever's tour of Cambodia and the band recorded the soundtrack for the film. "Ting Mong" is their sixth studio album.
Dengue Fever's sound first took inspiration from 1960s and '70s Cambodian rock, drawing on the psychedelic influences of the era in a mix of vintage covers and originals, with Nimol’s soaring vocals leading the way.
"I went to Cambodia in the late '90s and I really fell in love with this music recorded in the late '60s and early '70s prior to the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge before that. So I came back and I was listening to that music and my brother moved down from San Francisco and he was listening to that same music. So that's how we decided to form the band," Holtzman said.
Seeking a vocalist who could sing these old-school songs with lyrics in Khmer, the band connected with Nimol, who had emigrated to the United States in 2001.
"She was really, really good at singing those old songs and still is, but then (we decided) we don't really want to be a cover band," Holtzman recalled.
And so early on, Dengue Fever branched out to writing its own songs, though the retro sound that inspired the band still makes its presence known in their music.
A unique element to the group's songwriting process is that their songs are performed primarily in Khmer, a language that not all band members speak.
"There are definitely challenges, like sometimes the syllable count is off. If we're translating from English to Khmer, it can be like a puzzle. … And if it's too many syllables in Khmer, we will shave it off (so) poetically it works. It's a subtle change, but with the same meaning, just not exactly word for word," Holtzman said.
A '60s and '70s groove still underscores the band's latest work, with kicky percussion and touches of surf guitar echoing with plenty of reverb — and a playful, psychedelic aesthetic still informs their videos — but the songs off of "Ting Mong" have a warm, grounded quality. The tracks are slower and less driving than the band's earlier songs, but they still vibrate with soulful energy. The group branched out to more electronic instruments for this outing, but Nimol's heartfelt vocals take center stage.
"I think we tried to do something more natural for our singer (Nimol). So that's why it's definitely mellower, but her vocals are probably some of the strongest songs she sang," Holtzman said of the album's dreamy, reflective sound.
For their show at The Guild, Holtzman said that it will highlight some songs from "Ting Mong," as well as fan favorites such as "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula" and the set will likely include some of the vintage Khmer songs that gave Dengue Fever its start.
Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. at The Guild Theatre, 949 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Tickets are $31-$59. theguildtheatre.com.