“It’s a little overwhelming. It’s a little bit surprising. It’s a bit delightful”: After four decades in music (starting with his Chapel Hill two-piece Flat Duo Jets), Dex Romweber says he’s still learning about his craft. Photo by Meg Wachter
Dex Romweber on creativity, longevity, classical music and what he really thinks of duos
who: The Dex Romweber Duo, Mad Tea opens
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Dec. 28 (9 p.m., $10 in advance or $12 day or show. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)
You don't have to remember Dexter Romweber-led psychobilly combo Flat Duo Jets (with drummer Chris “Crow” Smith), though it's worth referencing '80s-era documentary Athens, GA Inside/Out. Romweber's personality, antics and searing guitar parts and garage-punk delivery inspired Jack White's style and career (for more on that, check out the new documentary Two Headed Cow, which follows the Chapel-Hill based musician over a couple of decades). The Dex Romweber Duo (with Dex’s sister Sara Romweber, of Let’s Active, on percussion) returns to Asheville this week.
Mountain Xpress: Tell us about the trajectory from Flat Duo Jets to the Dex Romweber Duo.
Dexter Romweber: The Duo Jets started in, I think, ‘84 and lasted for, God, 15 or something years. Playing with different individuals is just a different experience in itself. I think my sister is the most professional drummer I’ve played with in that she really spends a lot of time studying percussion. And not only from this country. She studies Middle Eastern rhythms and stuff. She’s really great. Crow, I thought, was a fine drummer, and Sam [Sandler, who replaced Smith], too, had his moments. But it was always sort of just hook up and go. But the Duo Jets rarely held practices. I have to head to my sister’s in an hour for a practice. We’re trying to apply ourselves more than past bands did.
Do you feel like that has changed your approach to creativity — practice versus being more loose?
Every time I had a record due, I would sit down and say, OK, we’ve got to pull together material. I was always doing that. I don’t know if it’s changed my application to creativity. In the past year or so, I’ll sit down and listen to the old records — I call them old now, they’re like 22 years ago! — and think that I’m not going to like them. But usually I come out with something that I do like about them. At the same time I see that we were really crazy youths. There was a certain air of trouble about it, to me. But being where we were at the time and being as young as we were, I guess that makes sense.
Have you ever had the experience of being tapped into creativity and feeling afraid that you won’t be able to make your way back to normalcy?
It’s a little overwhelming. It’s a little bit surprising. It’s a bit delightful. I don’t want to get too cosmic here, but I feel like there’s creativity all around us and all we have to do is look out the window into nature. I’m a painter, too, so there’s fantastic images and things in dreams and other artists and stuff. Whenever I write, I tend to just say what I mean. That’s kind of the way I am. I don’t tend to beat around the bush if something’s troubling me or I need to get something off my chest.
Is there a different process between working on your classical music versus your rock music?
Well, I’ve pretty much stopped playing piano. I wished I’d spent more time in preparing for [13-track classical album, Piano]. I had moved in with a girlfriend and a lot of time was taken up with that and I feel like if I hadn’t moved in with her, I would have had more time to prepare. But, you know, when I learned piano it was all part of some romantic youth-type of thing.
But there’s an incredible power in classical music. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll that came before rock ‘n’ roll.
The thing with rock ‘n’ roll is it’s so loud. Even today, going to practice, I’m like, “Do I really want to hear loud music at 12 p.m. today?” I mean, I love rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll and folk music. I think that has its place, too. But if I were to say my favorite type of music, I think it would be classical.
I wanted to ask you about the history of drum and guitar duos. I don’t imagine you started the Flat Duo Jets with an idea toward historic preservation, but do you feel connected to that piece of Americana?
It was all an accident. Personally, I like groups with more instrumentation. I have another band in Chapel Hill called The New Romans, and there are 10 of us. There’s saxophones and basses and pianos and background singers. I think with more instruments you can get more tones, more vibes and even more balance. With a duo, one person could be slamming it one night and the other person having an off night or vice versa. When the Duo Jets started, it was just because there was no one else around.
What you do on the stage is so visceral. When you go into the studio, are you concerned with how to translate that live performance to recording?
Not now. I think that certain artists have a hard time in a studio. At certain times I’ve been no exception. But the older I get and the more gigs I play, it’s a lot less stressful. You go in there and you do what you’re going to do. Some people think it’s very hard to transcribe what happens live. You want to really get it how it sounds on stage, in the studio. That’s the ultimate thing, if you can do it. I think I was always interested in what could happen in the studio, but the early Duo Jets records were just done live.
Do you think a lot of that does come with age and experience?
Yeah, I do. People ask my who my favorite current artist is. Although he’s been around a long time, one of my favorites is Nick Cave. I always like a lot of what he’s able to do in the studio. People ask me about music and what I often say is that I’m still learning about it. It’s something that’s going to last me the rest of my life. I’m still learning how to do it, even.
Do you still have the capacity to be surprised by things in music?
For sure. And enjoy it, too. Music is such a fascinating thing. At times I’ve thought of it as a brotherhood, whether I’ve liked it or not. In music, as in everything else, there have been quite a lot of unruly characters. Some highly talented by self-destructive musicians. I think, when I was younger, I was drawn to that. I love the artists who have come before me, from the Chopins to the Johnny Cashes to the Benny Joys of the world. It’s quite a cool thing to be involved in.
Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.