While there have been plenty of documentaries about musicians (enough to coin the phrase “rockumentary”), few happen at the height of said musician’s career. Unless that musician is Chapel Hill-based Dexter Romweber. Romweber’s psychobilly drum-and-guitar duo Flat Duo Jets (started in the mid ‘80s with percussionist Chris “Crow” Smith) moved to Athens, Ga. for a year at one point — just long enough to be included on the ‘87 cult documentary, Athens, Ga Inside/Out.
There’s a bonus scene in that film (which also features R.E.M, Kilkenny Cats and Love Tractor, among others), where Smith and Romweber visit a store in Athens looking for a five-legged taxidermy dog. The full version of that clip, in all of its surreal genius, served as the impetus for Two Headed Cow, which follows Romweber over decades, from his beer-sloshed early-20s shenanigans to fiercely visionary present day. The film, finally released a year ago, ends eerily with a split screen showing young Romweber and middle-aged Romweber side-by-side playing the same song on piano.
But the thing about Romweber is that his life is art and, while he admits to Xpress that he’s aware of the passing of time and that his desires and abilities are different now than they were in the mid-‘80s, he doesn’t seem haunted by the specter of his fame-seeking man-boy incarnation. Near the end of Two Headed Cow, Exene Cervenka asks, rhetorically, which is better — to be famous or to be legendary? And then answers “legendary,” which is kind of what Romweber has achieved. If he’s not widely known, he’s known by those in the know — Cervenka, Neko Case, Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Jack White all publicly acknowledge Romweber’s inspiration to their own careers.
White is, at least lately, Romweber’s biggest champion. White’s Third Man label re-issued Flat Duo Jets’ Go Go Harlem Baby. White played Flat Duo Jets’ version of “Froggy Went a Courtin’” for Jimmy Page and The Edge on (yet another) documentary, It Might Get Loud. But really, you only have to watch an early Romweber performance to see the genesis of present-day Jack White.
These days, Romweber fronts The Dex Romweber Duo with his sister Sara Romweber (Let’s Active) on percussion. The Romweber sibs make their way to The Grey Eagle on Friday, Dec. 28. Mad Tea opens 9 p.m., $10 in advance or $12 day of the show.
Mountain Xpress: You’ve been based in the Chapel Hill area for quite awhile. Do you feel like there’s a definitive North Carolina or Triangle sound now, the way there has been in the past?
Dex Romweber: A lot of those bands [from the ‘80s and ‘90s] aren’t around any more. That’s when I lived in town. I live in the country now. I was around the bars and stuff a lot more, and I was able to see all those bands. There’s a whole other generation of bands happening now, but the scene is not, I feel, as prolific right now as it was back then.
We only lived down in Athens for a year. We were in and out, playing gigs down there. I don’t know if there’s a specific sound of the Triangle. Every band is very different. That’s the cool thing about music is that everyone who plays is coming from a different angle.
Is it a weird experience to have your past career documented in a contemporary documentary?
In a way. I do feel myself getting older within the business and I feel like things that might have worked for me when I was much younger don’t work for me now. It’s hard to say. Especially when you begin, it’s all very unconscious and you’re just rolling along with everything that happens to you. Now we’re a little bit more strategic about what gigs we’ll take. We’re a little bit more picky and choosy. Still desperate [laughs], but a little bit more mindful about what we’re getting into. It’s not an easy kind of a lifestyle to have because it can be very insecure, financially.
Things are a bit different. 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 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.
Dex and Sara Romweber with Jack White
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, okay, 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.
Another thing I was wondering about your approach to creativity: In the documentary, you’re really up front about the medications you’re taking —
No, that doesn’t affect anything about it. I’m able to tap into something in myself that will bring forth a creative process. For some reason, that’s not really an issue.
You also talk about the usefulness of doing tasks like washing dishes or mowing loans.
I think that’s really combined with mental health [laughs]. I think practical things are the best thing for anybody, personally.
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. I’m just going to say it. It doesn’t even matter if it’s not — even my spelling, at 47, can get really weird. Even commas, dashes, capitals, all those. It’s not completely chaos, but I still say what I want to say.
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. I think my relationship to the piano now is sort of studying notes and tones and chords and vibes instead of trying to make some sweeping concerto that might astound people who don’t know anything about piano.
But there’s an incredible power in classical music. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll that came before rock ‘n’ roll.
It was, and it’s my favorite kind of music. When people ask me about this, I always tell them I’m sort of a failed classical pianist. I’d rather have been that, on many levels, than a rock ‘n’ roll singer. The thing with rock ‘n’ roll is it’s so loud. The thing with getting older is I don’t need my nerves to be completely jangled. Even today, going to practice, I’m like, “Do I really want to hear loud music at 12 p.m. today?” You know? So people like Chopin and Bach are way more soothing to me, and way more interesting. 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. With me and Sara now, it’s back to the financial thing, you know… 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. With two people up there, there’s not a base to level the two together. It’s a really, really bizarre thing. I’m kind of surprised I’m still doing it. When the Duo Jets started, it was just because there was no one else around. We were young and there weren’t a lot of bass players around who would fit in, anyway.
Photo by Judy Woodall
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. Like a concert, although no one was there. It’s more relaxed now. It’s also something I’ve been through enough so that it’s not such a shock and a drag to get the proper take. At least the last record we made, and even the one before that, it wasn’t that difficult to get what we were shooting for.
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. But then I woke up and said, “Hold on. I don’t have to do that.” Waylon Jennings called it the “Hank Williams syndrome,” where an artist could be highly creative but totally self-destructive. Hopefully that’s something in your youth you’ll grow out of. Some people don’t; some people die young. 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.