Beyond the Flat Duo Jets
By Jeff ArndtMuch has been said about rockabilly roots-rocker Dexter Romweber over the years, both positive and negative, and sorting fact from fiction is no easy undertaking. Words like "crazy," "possessed," "frenzied," and "demented" get thrown around quite a bit. But so do words like "authentic," "visionary," "genuine," and "genius." Which of these terms most accurately describes the man is up for debate. While that last g-word is thrown around way too often these days, don't be too quick to dismiss this description of Dexter. As for the man himself, Romweber seems to shrug off the attention responding simply by saying, "You tend to get a reputation traveling around, playing rock-n-roll." Indeed. And Dexter's credentials precede him in this department.
Romweber has been "travelling around, playing rock-n-roll" since the mid-1980's. He and drummer Crow made up the seminal roots outfit Flat Duo Jets that hailed from Chapel Hill, NC and, for a short time, Athens, GA. Often pegged by critics and casual fans as simply rockabilly, the Duo Jets were adept at playing in a multitude of styles. Their music stemmed from a love of 50's rock-n-roll artists like Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis, et al, and they played it with passion and abandon-exactly what rock-n-roll is all about.
From the start, Flat Duo Jets shows became legendary for the fierce drumming of Crow and the blazing guitar work of Romweber. The image of Crow lanky and hovering over his tiny kit, staring through his stringy black mane of hair toward Dex as he looks to the ceiling, briefly, before ripping into the opening riffs of a tune etched into the setlist inside his head is indelible. This WAS the Flat Duo Jets.
What distinguished this band from other retro outfits is that the Duo Jets were not really retro at all. While their music was certainly inspired by the rock-n-roll of the 1950's, one got the feeling that nothing was calculated. There was no marketing ploy on anyone's part to capitalize on a trend or movement at the time. Dex and Crow brought the music to life with such vitality and passion that the styles did not seem antiquated in their hands. This was the genuine article. This music was alive and well.
While much of the band's recorded output has a ragged, rushed feel to it, the Duo Jets were able to record some fine discs. Standouts are the Jim Dickinson-produced Go Go Harlem Baby, White Trees, and their last record, Lucky Eye, co-produced by Scott Litt and Chris Stamey. Dickinson played to the band's proven strengths on Harlem- deep grooves and rhythms, driving guitar, the interplay between Dex and Crow. The record has a spontaneous, kinetic feel to it that really captures the sprit of the band. White Trees sees the Duo Jets stretching a bit toward musical territories not previously explored by the two. The band flirts with more conventional rock song structures and a somewhat adventurous use of the recording studio, courtesy of producer Caleb Southern, with varying degrees of success.
After recording for small indie labels for years, the band made the move to the majors by recording Lucky Eye for Outpost Records. Scott Litt and Chris Stamey would co-produce. Expectations were high and the band delivered. Lucky Eye is a combination of lush, beautiful ballads and searing rockers. String and horn arrangements sit comfortably along-side Dex's razor sharp riffs and Crow's powerful drumming. It's a fabulous record that had a polarizing effect on fans when it was released in 1998. Many enjoyed the new approach and careful handling of the songs while others felt Dex had betrayed his lo-fi rockabilly roots. Producer Stamey replies to the charges this way: "I think it's a shame that people tend to want to put artists into a box, stylistically speaking. It's especially unfortunate and inappropriate when you're dealing with a vision as significant as Dexter's." Things were looking up and seemed to be heading in the right direction for Dex and Crow.
The band would not last however. After an impressive run of 15 years and 10 records, Dex and Crow parted ways. While touring for what would be their last studio recording, Lucky Eye, the two abruptly parted ways. No one is talking about the specifics surrounding the breakup of the band. When asked if there was anything he did not want to talk about during the interview, Dexter replied, "Yeah. Anything directly related to the breakup." As for Crow, Dexter says somewhat plaintively, "I haven't talked to him in over two years. He's gone, man."
With that significant musical chapter in his life closed, Dexter has moved on. He's teamed with Virginia-based drummer Sam Sandler and recorded a new record, Chased By Martians, for Manifesto Records out of Los Angeles and is due in September. While this is the first official release by the two, Dex and Sam have been playing together for five years. They perform as a duo but employed an array of musicians on the new record. Stand up bass, fiddle, and banjo are sprinkled throughout the recording to give the new songs a bit of country flavor without betraying Dex's rockabilly roots. The record explores various musical styles adeptly with nods to surf, country, rockabilly, as well as a few ballads. Dexter's guitar playing bursts with energy and he seems to be having a hell of a time on the record. Much of this invigoration can be credited to Sandler. He feels the time he spends with Dexter outside the studio and off the stage is just as important as their time working together. "There was a lot of positive time spent together that led up to the recording of this record," he says. "I think it's a very positive-sounding record with great performances. People are gonna be blown away." He's right. When Sam is talking about Dexter, one hears genuine affection in his voice. He laughs at the image of Dexter as the possessed 1950's throwback. "The perception that people get of Dexter from watching him perform and what he's really like are two different things." He's right again. When I spoke with Dexter recently, I encountered a very agreeable, generous man excited about his prospects.
PSF: You started playing guitar at a young age, didn't you?
Yeah. I was eleven. I took a few lessons, but not many really. I used to hide from my guitar teacher. Maybe I didn't feel he was teaching me the right stuff or something. I don't know.
PSF: How did you hook up with Crow?
We were in fifth grade and met by being into music. The band just kinda happened. We had a band in Junior High school called The Remains and that only lasted for like a year.
PSF: How did the Flat Duo Jets recording career come about? Did you pursue it ambitiously?
What happened was that R.E.M.'s manager Jefferson Holt formed a label (Dog Gone) and he used to be from Chapel Hill. He was a fan of the band and he wanted to put out our first record.
PSF: Was that the EP In Stereo?
No. The EP was five years before and that was on Dolphin. This was the debut full-length record.
PSF: Why such a long period of time between the ep and the debut full-length?
I've asked myself that and I guess it was just because there weren't any labels that wanted to put anything out.
PSF: You had a third member on the debut.
Yeah, Tony Mayer was the bass player.
PSF: It seems as though you were really popular from very early on, at least in this area.
Yeah, that's true.
PSF: Why do you think it happened so quickly, this response?
Well, there were a lot of bands around Chapel Hill in the 80's that were drawing, you know? I can't remember all of them but there were the Pressure Boys, The Connells, Johnny Quest. We were in that era and we were around pretty early on, Our EP was released in '84 or '85, you know? I had just gotten out of high school.
PSF: So your connection to Jefferson Holt explains your appearance in the documentary film Athens Ga.-Inside out?
Yeah. Actually, we moved down there for a year because we were playing gigs down there and we were getting a good reception and it seemed like a happening town so we docked there for like a year. And through that is how we got into the movie. But I'd already known Jefferson and he didn't release our first album until '90 and the movie was before then.
PSF: I recently saw a tape of a mid-eighties MTV program called The Cutting Edge on which you and Crow appeared. Was this after the Athens documentary?
Yeah, I remember that. It was before the Athens film, actually.
PSF: And there was a David Letterman appearance around this time as well?
That was in 1990.
PSF: That's a lot of exposure early on. Was that because of the record company you were working for at the time?
Well, we had put out the first album and we had toured with the Cramps for three months and it was all sort of the touring and the record and it all culminated with that. And they had publicists that were pushing us in different directions.
PSF: What was touring with the Cramps like at that time?
Well, it was a long tour for us. It was a lot of work, you know, playing like six nights a week, 55 minutes sets in big halls and hitting about every major city in the U.S. There was no time to think, you know, just get up and go. It was a lot of work.
PSF: Did it make you a better band?
I think it did, yeah.
PSF: Were the Cramps supportive?
Oh yeah. They were very supportive.
PSF: Are you still in contact with them?
I haven't talked to them in many years. I went to one of their shows a few years ago and talked to them, but I haven't seen them in awhile.
PSF: So did all this early attention have a positive effect or a negative effect on you?
I don't know, I just looked at it as work. And, you know, work has good effects and bad effects. I didn't think about it that much. It was sort of like, we were booked to play and we went for it. We just tried not to fuck it up too bad.
PSF: What happened to Tone, the bass player that appeared on your first record?
Well, me and Crow had started out as a duo and we weren't adverse to going back to it after Tone left.
PSF: Did you like the sound with the bass player?
Yeah, I liked the sound. I like bass a lot. I like the instrument. I think Tone got a little sick of the road and the business and stuff. You know. America's a very big place and it's easy for bands to get lost in America. We worked really hard and the thing about music is that a lot of times other people are making decisions about your life and sometimes it's hard to say no. Like, 'Yeah, we'll do that tour' and it keeps adding up and it gets to a point where it feels like it's out of your hands. So it's easy to get to a place where you say, 'I want my life back.' And all those factors had entered into our band.
PSF: Did Flat Duo Jets ever tour Europe?
We went over for ten days in 1996. I found out that I liked America more than Europe.
I don't know. I guess because it's newer or something. We didn't go to Paris or Berlin or London or any of the real places. We were in these real out of the way places which I didn't really like much. I wanted to be in the more happening towns.
PSF: I want to talk about some of your records. You recorded some of GO GO Harlem Baby at Sun Studios?
Only the two piano songs at the end of the record were recorded there. And the rest were recorded at a different studio in Memphis.
PSF: What was recording at Sun like?
It was fine. It was on an upright piano and they had the pictures of all the early pioneers on the walls. It was a neat place, I guess. You could see how a lot of raw stuff could come out of there. It was like visiting a, um...
Yeah. It was sort of going back in history a bit, you know? We just spent a few hours there and cut the songs and headed out. But it was cool.
PSF: What was it like working with Jim Dickinson on the record?
Well, I'm a big fan of Jim's songs. He's a singer himself and he used to put out a lot of 45's in the sixties, I think. But I always thought he was just the greatest singer and I still do. So I was happy to work with him because I'm a fan of his.
PSF: You also recorded with Scott Litt [Lucky Eye]. What was the main difference between these two?
Well, Jim had toured a lot and been in bands before where as Scott has just been a producer. I think Scott plays harmonica but he's more into recording bands rather being in one. So working with Jim was different in that way, but they were both easy and nice to work with. They were both open to ideas, They were cool.
PSF: I heard some negative reactions by hardcore Duo Jets fans concerning the production of Lucky Eye.
Oh, really? Wow! Why?
PSF: Some didn't care for the strings and the horns and the more lush treatment of the tunes. The movement away from your lo-fi, raw roots seemed to upset some.
I think it's a fine record. I can't understand why someone would not like the production. I mean, I like records with horns and strings and stuff. Like Jackie Gleason's records I think are great and the Rolling Stones with horns are good. I don't like being tied to one thing. I like opening up new instruments and vistas.
PSF: Which is your favorite Flat Duo Jets record?
I like them all in a way. I like them all as the years go by. Sometimes when they first came out I was a little weird about it but as time goes by, I like them all.
PSF: Do you listen to them still?
Actually, I haven't listened to them much since the band broke up. But I have a friend who has all the records and he's a DJ at a dance club and sometimes he plays the first record and it just sounds really good to me in a big dance hall over big speakers.
PSF: So you're recording for Manifesto Records now?
Yeah. I just finished recording and I have a record due out in the Fall.
PSF: Will it appear under your name or is there a new name you're recording under?
No, it'll be released as Dexter Romweber. It's called Chased by Martians.
PSF: How many musicians worked on this one?
It was just me and Sam. But we added a few other instruments. The bass player from Chrome Daddy Disco and we had a horn player in their briefly but it was mainly just me and Sam.
PSF: Do you and Sam intend to stay a duo?
We're actually looking to add a bass player at this point. I'm not going to say until it happens.
PSF: Can you describe the difference between playing with Sam and playing with Crow? You played with Crow for so long, do you see this as a completely different experience?
Actually, it's not that different. Sam stands up when he plays and Crow sits down.
PSF: I was always amazed at how you and Crow communicated on stage through your playing. Have you gotten to that point with Sam yet?
I think it takes a while. I think Crow has a hell of a radar. I think a lot of drummers do, but you know, it's hard to say.
PSF: Do you keep in contact with Crow? Is he still playing?
I have no idea what he's up to. I haven't spoke to him in two years. I don't know if he's still playing, or what he's doing.
PSF: Are you and Sam planning on touring for the new record?
We hope to go on tour for it in the fall and go all around for five weeks and book more after that I'm hoping.
PSF: Do you think you're becoming a better guitar player as the years go by?
I don't know if I'm getting better. I think I could work harder.
PSF: Do you practice every day?
I don't. I practice, hopefully, a couple times a week. I'd like to go at it more. It's kinda weird; I've been in the business a long time now and, you know, you get a little jaded sometimes and this makes me not want to play the guitar sometimes.
PSF: What do you do when you're not playing music?
I like exercising a lot. I have subjects that I like to study. Geology is what I'm getting into now. I was a fan of Astronomy and read a lot about that. science stuff, you know? Everything from religious things to science things.
PSF: You have the reputation, a false one in my opinion, as being a throwback to the fifties. Do you think that has hindered your career at all? Do you think you could reach a larger audience with a different musical approach?
Well, when I started playing, the music we listened to was the music from the fifties. Like the Coasters and all these other groups. We weren't really thinking about if there was an audience for it. We were just playing what we liked to play or liked to hear personally. And then you get older and it starts becoming a business and you start touring and you're sticking with that type of music and you suddenly realize you're not in a top 10 band, whatever that means. The type of music we play will never be really popular with a large audience. I've always found it hard to play newer types of music in certain ways, you know? I never thought I really fit with it too well. So I don't feel bad about playing an older style of music because I feel it fits me better. You know, bands like Pavement or something--that stuff was current and others fit in with it more and I can understand that but I've never felt that I could go that way so I didn't really think about it too much.
PSF: It almost looks as if you're channeling ghosts at times on stage. You're so intense.
Well, there's a big spiritual element to it, I think. You know, music and rhythm and notes come together and you sort of intuitively know where to go.
PSF: It's interesting to hear you put it in those terms. Not being a musician, I've never had that experience myself.
Well, I'm still working at it, you know? It's a journey and I'm just trying to find out where to go.
see some of Dexter's favorite music
Also see our 2009 article about Dexter Romweber Duo
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