Dex Romweber performs a classic from the gospel songbook, “Trouble of the World” (which was definitively recorded by Mahalia Jackson), with added flourishes of rock ’n’ roll mystery thanks to his brooding chord choices and a vibey tenor sax solo.
Dex Romweber grinds out the rhythm on one in a long line of Silvertone 1448 guitars he’s played since the 1980s at Charlotte, North Carolina’s famed Double Door Inn. Photo by Anthony Nguyen
The guitar-and-drums power duo is so common today that it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking it seemed when the White Stripes steamrolled their way into the public consciousness in the late 1990s. Though not as widely known, Local H had been working as a two-piece since 1993, and, with the new millennium, the Black Keys emerged on the scene. Soon bands like Two Gallants, Japandroids, Wye Oak, No Age, Giant Drag, and many more were offering diverse manifestations of the duo format.
But in 1983, more than a decade-and-a-half before the Stripes released their eponymous 1999 debut, a young guitarist named Dexter Romweber and his childhood pal, drummer Chris “Crow” Smith, started bashing out a punky, adrenaline-fueled take on old-school rockabilly and blues in a North Carolina garage. Thus, the Flat Duo Jets were born. Though they had a bass player for a couple of years, for the great majority of their 16-year existence, the Flat Duo Jets were, as the name implied, a duo.
The Jets received quite a bit of critical acclaim and developed a fairly rabid cult following, and their incendiary live performances became the stuff of legend. But they never enjoyed widespread recognition or great record sales, and the toll of life on the road and inner-band turmoil led to the band’s demise in 1999.
Tony Gayton’s gripping 2006 documentary Two Headed Cow features quite a bit of footage from the band’s early years and heyday, not to mention some exceptionally moving scenes of post-Jets Romweber candidly discussing his struggles with alcohol, drugs, and mental health issues. The film also features heartfelt testimonials from artists who were influenced by Romweber—among them Neko Case, Exene Cervenka, Cat Power, Mojo Nixon, and Jack White, who selected Romweber (and his sister Sara on drums, performing together as the Dex Romweber Duo) to play the very first show at Third Man Records’ Blue Room in Nashville in 2010. Third Man has also released a couple of Romweber recordings.
Despite his lack of mainstream success, Romweber soldiered on, working the rock-club circuit and making great recordings along the way. And if you watch Two Headed Cow, it will be clear why he hasn’t given up. Music was never a career choice for Romweber. It is, very simply, a calling, the essence of his being.
Although he may not have the megawatt energy and barely contained fury he did when fronting Flat Duo Jets, he is still making great music. Case in point: His latest album, Carrboro (Bloodshot Records), named for Romweber’s North Carolina hometown, next to Chapel Hill. It’s one of his strongest efforts—a terrific collection of original songs and covers that seems like a snapshot of his entire career, from primitive rockabilly to haunting instrumentals to vintage-sounding surf to gorgeous ballads.
The haunting and ethereal “I Had a Dream,” written by Findlay Brown, a British-born singer-songwriter now living in Brooklyn, opens Carrboro. Like much of the album, the track demonstrates just how much richer and more expressive Romweber’s voice has become over the years.
In fact, it’s Romweber's singing that may be the album’s greatest revelation. Longtime fans know he’s a great and unique guitarist, and he can belt out punkabilly with a taunting, sneering growl as well as anyone. But it’s the more restrained and sensitive performances that show just how far he’s come as a vocalist, perhaps none more than his riff on the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile,” complete with a wonderfully eerie rubato piano accompaniment. (Although he’s known primarily as a guitarist, Romweber is a hell of a pianist, too.) And speaking of eerie, the excellent “Where Do You Roam?” has a dark, trippy secret-agent vibe, and shares some of the same menacing quality that Nick Cave has used to great effect.
Fans of instrumental music will find plenty to love. One of the album’s highlights is “Nightide,” a sinister romp through foreboding minor-chord changes that would be perfect over the opening credits for some film noir or grindhouse feature. Romweber turns the jazz standard “My Funny Valentine” into a twisted Tarantino-esque surf number by playing the melody on organ with no accompanying chords (and just a few guitar flourishes), stripping the song of its familiar context. “Out of the Way” is a particularly haunting reverb-and-tremolo-drenched piece that also begs for soundtrack placement.
Premier Guitar spoke with Romweber recently about the new album, life on the road, and his rich musical influences and compositions. Warning: If you’re a guitarist hoping to find tips on the latest boutique guitar or amp to help you achieve sonic bliss, look elsewhere. Onstage, Romweber has been playing pretty much nothing but Silvertone 1448 guitars through a 1982 Randall RG-80 solid-state amp since his last years with Flat Duo Jets—although he did play a Stratocaster and Jazzmaster through a couple of Fender amps on the new album. It’s further evidence that sound is more in the fingers and heart than in your equipment.
And if you’re hoping to find encouragement to start your new power duo, Romweber’s thoughts on the two-piece format just may surprise you.
Who were some of your early guitar influences?
“Big” John Taylor, definitely. He was the guitarist for [rockabilly artist] Benny Joy. And Hank Garland.
Flat Duo Jets were an aggressive, in-your-face band. There’s some of that on Carrboro, but it seems there’s more reflection and maturity. How have your approach and attitude toward music changed as you’ve gotten older?
The Duo Jets were primarily a rock ’n’ roll band. It was the strangest thing. Over time, we rarely practiced. With my sister, Sara, I practiced a lot more than the Duo Jets did. But often there were songs I wanted to do that Crow, the old drummer of the Duo Jets, wasn’t really into. And I kind of feel like now that I’m on my own, I can do everything I want to do—that I always wanted to do. It’s more freedom.
The Jets more or less started the duo craze, well before the White Stripes or the Black Keys. Were there other duos that you knew of or emulated?
I’ve got to be honest with you, man. I don’t even like duos. I don’t like the format. We started completely by accident as a duo. We just went in my mom’s garage and started playing, and that’s how it started.
But there are many things wrong with that format, I find, whenever I’m in them. And also, I’m a great fan of bass and I’m a great fan of sax and I’m a great fan of keyboards. I’m not completely putting down the duo format, but with two people, sometimes one was more dominant than the other, and then the other one was more dominant. There always seemed to be an imbalance. And then there was a magic night when both fell together. With the Rolling Stones, with five people, it would level out the sound more. And with duos, I always found there was some complexity about maintaining a good balance, and it was always frustrating.
And there are nights where one member might not be feeling it, and it’s more noticeable than it might be in a large band?
It’s a lot more noticeable, and the other person may be totally feeling it. So I don’t stand behind duos or even recommend it. And even with my sister, Sara, it was because we weren’t making enough money to add anyone else. With the Duo Jets it was a bit similar. You don’t make a killing doing this.
So you have some dates coming up. What is your touring band?
Well, I’m actually touring in a duo [laughs]! But it’s only a week, like four dates. But after that, it’s totally a solo tour for three weeks. Just me and my guitar. I like playing that way.
Do you play electric solo?
It is electric. But it’s not real loud. It’s not a blaring rock ’n’ roll show. That’s another thing I like, is not having to play so loud. My brain can’t handle the onslaught of really loud music anymore. I used to, but at this age—I turned 50 in June—I’m sort of in my Jackie Gleason years here a little bit. And also, I like soft music, too. I’m not putting down bands that blare away, but I’m not into it right now.