"Dex Romweber was and is a huge influence on my music. His songwriting, along with his love of classic American music from the south, be it rockabilly, country or R&B, is one of the best kept secrets of the rock 'n' roll underground." — Jack White .
ou’re not going to find anyone nearly as fascinating as Dexter Romweber in music today — if ever. After all, he’s the only rock ‘n’ roller to freely drop Baudelaire and Bo Diddley’s names in the same conversation and have it make sense. The former Flat Duo Jets front-man and punk-abilly journeyman has again joined forces with sister, Sara Romweber (Mitch Easter, Lets Active, Snatches of Pink) on drums and delivered the stunning Images 13 (Bloodshot)
We were fortunate to catch up with Dex and discuss everything from ‘60s garage rock to his favorite brand of cigarettes and what it’s like to tour and share the bandstand with family.
At what point did you and your sister look at each other and say, “Why don't we just start, you know, playing out together?”
Well, after the Duo Jets, I was playing with my friend [Sam “Crash” LaResh], who lives in Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Virginia. We had our band, our duo, and we did quite a bit of work. For a time, we didn't do any but we toured with Neko Case and made a couple of records, Chased by Martians, Blues that Defy My Soul. Then he kind of ran into some trouble and needed to get home to his family. So that's kind of all that happened. I had some dates out on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, meaning Kill Devil Hills and Sara was free. So I said, ”Listen, I've got to do these dates, let's go do this.” That's how all that kind of came together.
As an older sister, was Sara an early influence on you when you were a kid?
Not really, because we got into music at the same time. I was investigating and studying different music than her, and when the Duo Jets started, man, it was all about The Coasters, the Sun Records stuff, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, and Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly. Buddy Holly was a big influence at that age as well. The Duo Jets went more into a '50s realm but Sara never got me any records from that era though. That's something I stumbled upon, on my own.
When Mitch Easter of Let's Active and another Chapel Hill band, Mondo Combo heard Sara play drums, they said, 'we're getting that chick in our band.' And then I had a band with five of us, five of my teenage buddies called Crash Landon and The Kamikazes. Sara was in that band for a while and we were a really great outfit. We started off playing '60s music: Monkees songs, and Yardbirds, The Stones, the Syndicate of Sound, and Ventures, and just a lot of shit like that. When I began to study '50s rock 'n' roll, and then our sets for the Kamikazes kind of changed into that while Sara was in Let's Active. We were really playing different kinds of music.
Were you finding a lot of like-minded musical allies and other people, or was the early '80s a lonely time for you?
I had a group of friends, man, and we found an old house out in the woods with tons of Gothic shit. I had this teenage mausoleum — like a horror house, based on The Munsters and The Addams Family. It was an incredibly intense, one-room we're we'd just party, drink beer, smoke reefer, and listen to Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran all the time.
So that wasn't really a particularly lonely time (laughs).
There was an I.R.S. Cutting Edge interview with you and … you guys scared me. As a teenager, I was frightened (laughs)
Yes, we were pretty wild. But see, Steve, what happened is that house burned down on an LSD trip and my best friend almost died. It was a real, real close call and he barely got out with his life. That was a big end of our teenage era — an innocent era.
It took years to get that first LP out and by then we were kind of getting into very young adulthood. We all moved into different houses. I left my mom's house, we were getting into adulthood, and all that wild teenage years stuff really came to a close. But the Duo Jets were still together. I think "In Stereo" was recorded in '84 or '85 but we didn't cut our first full-length LP until 1988. A lot of time had gone by and then that thing wasn't even released until like the late '80s, early '90s. Getting those LPs out was a lonely time.
Was it hard to maintain that rollicking enthusiasm?
Well, you know, what really lessened, man, was camaraderie. The early days were filled with camaraderie but when we got older we were more split off. It wasn't like a gang anymore. It was more like work, and we toured all over the freaking place with bands like The Cramps. Although I knew all these crazy little cities and little nooks and crannies of America that I never would have normally seen those teenage years at the mausoleum were behind us.
Do you ever marvel and say, ”Man, where did the time go?”
A little bit. I was driving back from a friend's house last night at 2 a.m and I had the sensation of getting older. I run into friends, and all their hair is gray now so I'm watching the phenomena of aging all around me. I can't help but see it in myself but there's this grear record, man.
And it doesn't seem like age has diminished you.
Oh, well, you know the weird thing is I don't really feel older. I still feel like a kid. Rock 'n' roll can do that to you, you know? In a weird way, you kind of live like a kid all the time. Now I still have to pay bills, go to the bank, drive my car, but it's very bizarre, because I'm 47 in rock 'n' roll time. You're kind of younger and older at the same time.
Are you consciously trying to be part of a musical tradition of guys like Eddie Cochran and purposely channel Raymond Chandler?
There is a real film noir quality to what we do. Really man, you see the darkest alleys. You see the most haunted streets. You see the wildest prostitutes. You come across drugs. You come across incredibly long drives. You come across band arguments. You come across mysterious people. You come across great people. You come across tremendous assholes, you see this real weird part of America that most people don't really see on that level. When each record comes, I'm trying to figure out what's going to fit at this time and what's a picture of the last two years I've lived. The songs that come to me are very much a mirror of what my life has been like since the last record.
Can you get lost in the creative part of making music where you're not dollar-driven or thinking about career?
Well, I'll tell you, if I wanted to make money, I wouldn't have gotten into this. (LAUGHTER) And that's just the way it goes, man. We've had tremendously hard times financially but somehow we managed to squeak by and get the work on the van done. People loan us money. We pay it back. We go into debt. I've had to count change to buy a pack of cigarettes countless times throughout this thing. I worry about how I'm going to pay the electric bill, and the money I do get goes all out. So, that is a very big struggle. It's great when we have huge shows, like recently, at The Cradle (the biggest nightclub in Raleigh with hundreds of people) with Southern Culture on the Skids and The Woolly Bushmen. They’re very cool.
I was happy to hear Jack White single you out in It Might Get Loud and cite Flat Duo Jets as an influence on White Stripes. He didn't have to, but it must have gotten you a lot of fans.
I think it has. But I really — I think Jack has his own sound, like any musician, he has a lot of influences. I mean, it's not — by no means have I ever felt he is copying me directly. Maybe the concept of a duo, but I hear more Robert Plant than Dex Romweber in it.
And I'm not even putting him down. I've met Jack many times. The first time I'd met Jack was when me and Sam "Crash" LaResh warmed up for The White Stripes and bombed in front of 3,000 people.
Tell me about some of the producers that you worked with.
Jim Dickinson, a very interesting cat. grew up in Memphis and was the truest rockabilly I ever met. He was the real deal. He really understood it all but he's very different from Mark Bingham, Billy Miller, and Rick Miller. They're all very diversified. The reason that we record with Rick is because the studio is very close to our home. Rick isn't that much older than us. He understands the sounds we want to get, and we like the sound of the studio. He's open for experimentation. He's relaxed. We don't argue. It's pretty cool. So we just hang with Rick for now.
Well, did Dickinson get you guys?
He absolutely did. But the problem was, and this is really the problem, is that, at the time, I was very self-destructive. We literally showed up in Memphis completely unprepared, unpracticed, and it took a good day or two to finally nail some material down. But I knew Jim understood me and he understood that music, and once the sessions got going, they weren't too hard. I still got people telling me that it was their favorite record.
Are there any particular cuts on this record that you just love and you love playing?
I really like all of them.. I'm really digging "Blackout!" I really dig "Beyond the Moonlight," and "Weird (Aurora Borealis)." I love the second side.
… And then there's one called "We'll be Together Again." Yes. “I Don't Want to Listen” was primarily written for an Edith Piaf type of person.
What I wanted to get was a combination of a fellow named Benny Joy and Edith Piaf. That was what I was hoping to get but we wanted to add strings and really make a big go of it. "I Don't Want to Listen" was something that I would've wanted her to sing.
And listening to, like, "So Sad About Us," Sara has got that kind of “Moonie” kind of spirit on the drum parts. Were you always a Who fan?
Well, that's a song I liked when I was very young. At 14 it was one of my favorite Who songs. I sort of knew the intro a little bit, but I never really knew the tune until I got older.
Are you favoring the same kind of gear as always?
I've actually moved on a little bit. I'm playing a reissue of a Danelectro, but I still have my old Silvertones around. I think the old guitars are better. So, you now, it's a little — something just told me to go back to the old ones, but I'm actually playing a Danelectro reissue.
What kind of amp?
It's a 1982 Randall. It's a very primitive amp but it's really a mighty thing. It has a lot of volume and good reverb, and it's durable. So I really dig it.
Are you pretty minimalist with pedals? I mean, a heard a lot of tremolo on the record.
Not when we play live. Rick would add it in the studio or we would try a fuzz box or some of that stuff. But live, it's none of that.
Is there a nice homespun dynamic playing and touring with a family member?
It is now. We've had our problems. I mean, they're not major. And we still work together. And we really work together pretty well. But I think when we first were starting to play, I was a little ragged out from the business itself. I had been through a lot with it. So I was kind of a little trepidatious about everything that we were going to go do. A lot of my fears turned out to be true but it didn't stop us from playing. Me and Sara, our arguments are few and far between. When they do happen, they're a drag. But it's not to the point where one walks out and never returns.
So, if you want someone to buy you a pack of cigarettes, what are you smoking these days?
American Spirits, turquoise blue.