Known for wild performances in earlier days, Romweber is performing mostly solo these days, with just his Silvertone 1448. On a few select dates on his Carrboro tour, he’s backed by rock group New Romans.
Some performers assume a persona or sing a certain song from a character’s point of view, but it seems like you relate and feel every song personally on this album, and in general. Is what people see on the stage the real you?
I think so. I did songs that meant something to me. I did an interview right before you called, and he was asking about “Smile,” and I was telling him I had this big breakup the last couple of years, and I would play that song because it would make me feel better after having lost her, that no matter what happens you should smile.
Your piano accompaniment on that is really beautiful.
I don’t want to get too, well, narcissistic—that word is thrown around so much today—but there were many years where I wanted to be a classical pianist. I consider myself a failed classical pianist. I never took it as far as I really wanted to. And now I’m done with that whole sort of dream. But I still learned enough that I can do some things.
Growing old has its ups and downs, but one thing that happens for some people, and it’s definitely true with you, is that a voice can get richer and more expressive. I think your singing on this album is just phenomenal. How do you feel about your voice?
It’s a million cigarettes later, but yeah, I think with all the touring, and all the ups and downs of the business, you gain a lot of experience. A couple months ago, a friend played me some really early recordings, and I turned to him and said, “It sounds too white [laughs].” And I really meant that! It sounded so naive, and so white. I hadn’t been through enough. I can agree with you, that the harder knocks you take, and the longer you survive, you have more to convey.
Your vocal performance on the opening track, “I Had a Dream,” is stunning. I’d never heard of the songwriter, Findlay Brown. How did you come across that song and what made you want to lead the album with it?
My old roommate came home and said, “I heard this really trippy song.” And I think he bought the CD. I really, really liked the song. It wasn’t a massive hit for Findlay. But the song touched me, and that’s the reason I recorded it. I hope Findlay doesn’t mind.
I tried my best to find out what I could about Cecelia Batten, who wrote “Lonesome Train,” and there’s very little information online.
There is no information.
So how did you come across the song?
I found “Lonesome Train” in a second-hand store in Carrboro in the ’80s. And I learned the tune and always played it, but never recorded it. So it was my chance to cut “Lonesome Train,” and I’m glad I did.
I love the reverb-drenched electric guitar in the background of “Lonesome Train,” which makes it sound a little demented in a really cool way.
It’s a 1448 Silvertone, but I knew what tone to put on it for that one. I turned down all the treble. I think it was plugged into a Fender amp.
Are you still playing the same Silvertone you played in the early years?
No, it’s probably my 13th one or something [laughs].
The instrumental “Nightide,” which you wrote, sounds like it should be the soundtrack for True Detective or a David Lynch movie.
Yeah, I think of David Lynch a lot when I hear it. I hope it makes it to any of those things.
Have you had any luck with placement in film or TV?
Not much. A few things have come in, but not in 15 years. No one’s really called about anything.
What inspired you to do “Trouble of the World?”
I heard that on a commercial on TV for a Mahalia Jackson record. And I thought, “Wow, what a trippy song, man.” I was blown away by it. And then I found the original and took it from there. I know some other gospel artists cut it. The thing about that song is, it’s primarily a song about the black experience in America. But I’d had enough hard luck to identify with it.
Tell me about “Knock Knock (Who’s That Knockin’ on My Coffin Lid Door?),” which you recorded with Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids. It feels like a throwback to the Flat Duo Jets days.
Someone asked me yesterday how I write songs. And it’s almost a psychic, meditative process. And that’s another song I heard completely in my mind, including the electric guitar line. It’s really simple. But I already heard it.
I mean, I’m not comparing myself to Nikola Tesla, but I know that when he invented something, he would see it in his mind before he did it. And that’s a lot of my process. It’s the same with “Where Do You Roam?,” “Midnight at Vic’s,” and even “Out of the Way.”
“Out of the Way” has a really dreamy, haunting quality.
This is something you can’t really escape when you’re making a record. And this is why a lot of my records sound really different. The vibe of your life is what’s going to be on tape. So when I cut “Out of the Way,” I was in a very strange mental place and there’s a lot of struggle, and there’s all these weird things going on that I have to deal with outside of music. And when I cut it, of course, all that vibe, where you’ve been, is right there on tape. You can’t escape where you’ve been and how you feel.
Do you ever listen to a song like that and think, “Well, that week may have sucked, but at least it inspired that song?”
Yeah. And also, you move on from that period, and you’re like, “Wow, I’m not even there anymore, and I only cut this song a year ago.” There are some of my records it took me 13 years to even like, because the times when they were recorded were so fucked up. But over time for me, I’m less judgmental and harsh on the stuff I’ve cut.
“Tell Me Why I Do,” which you wrote, reminds me of some of Jerry Lee Lewis’ country stuff.
It does, but it was really Ray Charles. I grew up on Ray, too. I’ve always loved Ray Charles. Each song has a little flavor of an artist I really admire. “Midnight at Vic’s” is supposed to be kind of an Eddie Cochran thing, which is kind of weird. You can’t be in this business without being influenced by all these artists. “Knock Knock” is almost a George Jones rockabilly thing, when he cut rockabilly.
The film Two Headed Cow is 10 years old already. After people like Jack White or Cat Power or Exene Cervenka were talking you up, did you notice any increase in your fan base?
I never really have. Very little. A month or so ago, I needed cash, so I called Jack’s record company. And I said, “Listen guys, can you send me some money?” And they did. That’s a real plus. Me and Sara cut a record with Jack, and they re-released some Duo Jets stuff. He put me and Sara in New York City in front of Wanda Jackson, at a really big concert. And he put us on the road with Wanda. But it’s rare that I meet people that come out because of him. I imagine they’re out there.
Do you find touring has gotten easier or harder with age?
It’s never gotten any easier [laughs].
The Dex Romweber Duo—Dex on guitar and his sister, Sara, on drums—powers through the classic “Brazil,” written by composer Ary Barroso. Dex steps up for a solo on his Silvertone 1448 at 1:15, kicking in with ringing single notes and culminating with chugging choked-and-released seventh chords before riffing to the finale.