Perfect Sound Forever

Dexter Romweber Duo

It's a family affair
by Gretchen Wood
(June 2009)

On a rainy Friday the 13th, a voice rose above the din in the Star Bar. "We love you, Dex!" The Atlanta rock club has been hosting Dex Romweber's shows since he was half of North Carolina's iconic Flat Duo Jets. He's one of the same wild asses who smoked everyone else on the 1987 film Athens, GA: Inside/Out and is regularly cited as a principle influence for the White Stripes, Black Keys, and many others. According to his sister Sara, Dex is a musician's musician. But any old soul can hear how he channels spirits through his guitar. For every performance, his face twists into a demon grimace, a gnarled sneer. His eyes glaze over. He rocks on his heels, stamps his feet in a ragged dance. He doesn't know any other way.

The bad luck date's perfect for the rocker known for a taste for campy '60's horror and some very real battles with internal demons. Dex's eccentric reputation has generated as much attention as his raw frenzied take on those 12 bar rockers. The packed house at the Star Bar hung on every lick he pulled outta that signature Silvertone guitar. Aptly, this one is the 13th of a long and vaunted line. And that drunken shout bubbled up between songs again: "We love you, Dex!"

"But I can't take you home with me," he purred from the stage, eyeing the mesmerized faces. "But ya know, lotsa women wanna marry me, but I'm only married to one thing." His purr turned to a snarl. "I'm married to Death!" He kicked into "Cigarette Party," a sinister surfy instro from the new album.

The mood on stage darkened. Notta lotta back and forth between Dex and his most recent drummer, sister Sara Romweber. She just hunkered down over her drums and hammered away. An accomplished percussionist, she made her mark in Let's Active (with Mitch Easter) and Snatches of Pink before turning to serious study of traditional frame drums with Grammy winner Glen Velez of the Paul Winter Consort. Decidedly, she's the best doggone drummer he's ever played with. Dex knows it, too.

Only thing is, out on the road he can't quite reckon with all the attention she's getting. He may say fame's a curse, that sometimes he'd like to "ditch it all, and just be an ordinary person, to not be larger than life," but then again, he doesn't know any other way. By the age of 22, he'd already hit college rock fame, opened for the Cramps, and played on Letterman. For his entire adult life, he's enjoyed a core of dedicated fans, been heralded as a legend in his own time. Understandable that for a man now in his 40's, the back seat might not feel so comfortable.

Dex will never admit it, but after the Duo Jets split, he struggled to retain that old niche. No one was denying he still had the chops -- or the urge -- but the members of the music biz were reluctant to embrace someone they considered erratic. When professionals wouldn't take him on, friends stepped in to help, but nothing gelled until Sara accepted Dex's invite.

Frankly, family drama is mostly boring tedious stuff, unless it's something titillating a la Jerry Lee and Myra Lewis's underage union. But with the Romwebers, fam drama is a necessary evil. It churns the yin yang blessing and curse of this sibling duo. One is calm, the other excitable. One studious in how she approaches music. The other is wholly instinctual. And that's what's sparking this Friday the 13th drama -- one chooses to be private about family matters while the other is almost embarrassingly confessional and hyperbolic. Of course, add a dollop of that sister-brother vortex, and you have a recipe for conflict, though it's not that conflict defines the relationship. Throughout it all, Sara remains Dex's most stalwart fan, calling her little brother "one of the great rock 'n' roll artists of our time."

Despite her high regard, things weren't exactly copasetic at the Star Bar. That was troubling considering that the sibs were staring seven weeks on the road then going home long enough to shit, shower, and launder before another six weeks with label mates the Detroit Cobras. That's an awful lot of together time. Yet Sara was assured "when there's a clash, it burns hot, then burns quickly." And although he's the confessional one, Dex added, "It's about the enjoyment of the music, not these personal trials."

Right he is, because there's an album to flog, Ruins of Berlin on Bloodshot. This first recording with Sara breaks away from the 12-bar rockers that have defined Dex's career. "It's not that I don't like rockabilly 12-bars because it's actually some of my favorite music, but it gets really redundant," said Dex. "That's (what's) funny about this record, it's a lot of different kinds of music."

"With Dexter, there's so much he's good at. I hear a continuity," Sara added. "but it's different from anything he's done before."

Half originals, half covers, Ruins draws from a wide musical spectrum that includes tunes ranging from '60's Brit popper Joe Brown's "Pictures Of You" to "Is It Too Late" by Durham, NC blues picker Roy House, as well as taking in Ella Fitzgerald's "Lover's Gold" and the title track itself, which was originally sung by Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder's 1948 flick A Foreign Affair. Not only is this a sophisticated record that displays the Romwebers' broad tastes from Chet Baker to King Uszniewicz, but it resonates with the kind of introspection one only earns by working through the despair that follows lost love and the consequential reckoning with heartache. "Camillia's Gone" typifies those heartbreakers. One of Dex's more confessional songs, it's about a real girl named Camillia, and his baritone voice is particularly well suited to this mournful lament.

The album also flows very well, with easy-to-differentiate songs.

"We tried to make sure there weren't too many of the same rhythms," Sara explained. "This is very important. A number of these songs I could've easily played in that 12/8 blues ballad rhythm and were traditionally played that way, but I'd intentionally not do it."

Also, Dex experimented with duets. Longtime pals Exene Cervenka, Neko Case, Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Kelly Hogan all appear with varying effectiveness. The structure in the duets is a bit unorthodox.

"I'd never done any before," Dex said. "I prefer to give them their space, let them have their cameo."

"Their styles are so distinct, and if they are singing with Dexter, they have to bow to his way of singing, so he let them have their own spotlight." said Sara. "I thought it was a generous way of dividing the songs."

Dex's choice to record with so many women could very well have stemmed from his desire for more of a feminine influence. He was never close to his dad. However, his mother is a strong matriarchal figure who single handedly raised seven kids. Sara is kid number five while Dex is the youngest. Baffled by the fairer sex, he's drawn to their nurturing capabilities, even if he isn't so sure if women are as strong as men, he's fascinated by what he calls "the way women are with their laughter, a childlike wonder." He has no girlfriend. Ran her off because he believed his "private life is too disruptive," and yet he's drawn to these strong women.

Of two he's toured with, "Neko [Case] is great! I love her music! I was really blown away. She gets surreal which I really like atonal half chords, weird noises." Also, he says: "I like that Chan [Marshall] can sing softly. That's something I'm trying to do more. She's good at being sublime."

Three weeks before the release date, Sara said, "regardless of whether it sinks or swims, I feel really good about this record."

And she should. In that first month of release Ruins out sold the last album Blues That Defy My Soul. It's receiving positive reviews while their grueling tour sling shots back around the country until late June.

But the Romweber recording doesn't stop with Ruins. During a brief stop in early May they cut a 45 with Jack White at his Nashville home studio. Although the White Stripes have cited him as an influence in the past, this is the first time White and Romweber have recorded together. Up until then, their contact only consisted of a handful of phone conversations, some emails, and Dex opening for the Stripes for a crowd of 3000 in Boston. While White's always generously acknowledged how much the Flat Duo Jets inspired the White Stripes and his admiration for someone he calls "one of the best kept secrets in the rock 'n' roll underground", Dex confessed that he couldn't name even one White Stripes song. Regardless, the pair hit it off, getting takes of "Last Kind Word Blues" and Romweber's own "The Wind Did Move" with Sara on drums. White's putting it out on his new label Third Man.

When asked if the sibling collaboration is fruitful, Dex says that he "couldn't agree more," and cites that "family sound" similar to that of the Carter Family and Everly Brothers that only blood can produce. But back to that family friction... Dex has been known to sniff, "but she drives me crazy..."

"Being on the road is never easy," said Dex. "It's actually a pretty fucked up existence."

Despite that, Sara says,"there's a few things that me and Dexter absolutely agree on 100% -- like Chopin, reincarnation, UFO's, ghosts..."

Dex -- "and psychology."
Sara -- "Absolutely!"

"He and I are well versed in alternative belief but not new age beliefs. So he and I are not really into new age thinking. It's more like what did they think in the earliest days of the Sufi.

"They're usually gnostic teachings we're into, the secret teachings of various religions. Every religion has their secret teachings, and they're usually the mystical teachings. When the Dali Lama explains how some of his monks literally fly in the air and here's a man who to the best of our knowledge has never told a lie before, and you wonder how one can do such things... Well, me and Dexter can talk at length about how one does such things! ...And our driver's like, 'What the fuck did she just say?' and Dexter's like, 'Well, what she's saying is this...' Our driver Randy's like, 'These people are nuts!'"

As with anyone most comfy with extremes, everything can turn on a dime. As messed up as things were in Atlanta, a week later at SXSW they had morphed into a much more harmonious unit. Dex was even introducing Sara without a trace of sarcasm, and she was grateful. Like she said, "There's no hiding when you're in a duo." Randy their roadie said, "Hell, I got fired this week, too! but I'm still here. I told him that I could go work for other bands, but I like this band. This is where I want to be."

But after a week of strife, this is how Austin came down with Sara. She wound up the heroine of the Bloodshot Records showcase, politely "hijacked" (read: bribed/hustled/shanghaied) to fill in for the Waco Brothers' missing drummer. By her own account, she was drunk and sloppy, would not have done it had they not been label mates, but she shot herself out of the cannon, flew blind with no rehearsal and minimal coaching, like a lark of a challenge to see how well she could keep up. By all other accounts, she kicked ass, saved the day, stole the show, huzzah. She was the toast of the Red Eyed Fly that night. In return all she asked for was a CD of the songs that she was supposed to be playing. Ooo, but what'd Dex say to her when she was done? "I could tell you didn't know the songs." Ahem.

Regardless, she came out a winner that night. She's a natural talent with a huge spirit who needs to know that she's loved in this business of rock 'n' roll. Hate to say so, but as exciting as Dex sounds these days, it's Sara who gilds the lily in this pair. She has the strength, the savvy, the grace to balance out his extremes. Didn't we all miss hearing that darling pixie pounding the skins after she split Let's Active and Snatches of Pink? Yes, we sure did, and when news got out that she was going to be drumming with Dex, we all privately muttered 'hallelujah.' She just might be his salvation from oblivion, and for that alone, boy, are we all glad she's back!

Mostly it's kept under a cordial veil of detente. Sara is doggedly loyal to her brother, but her brother is a mite uncomfortable with Sara's new wave of attention. On rare occasions the relationship resembles a conflagration, but every once in while, jokes Sara, the Romwebers need to rid themselves of demons, and "there's nothing like a Romweber exorcism!" She laughs, but she's coming off an incredibly painful week.

"Dex is the first guitarist I ever played with," said Sara, "and I always thought that if I played my cards right, he'll be my last, because I'll call him to my deathbed saying, 'This is it!'"

Also see our interview with Romweber from 2001

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