By Brian Tucker
The Dex Romweber Duo will perform at Ziggy’s this Friday, returning to a venue once called Jacob’s Run in downtown Wilmington. Romweber performed there in the very early 90s as one half of Flat Duo Jets, the legendary North Carolina duo of Romweber on guitar and vocals and Chris “Crow” Smith on drums. The Duo, Romweber along with his sister Sara on drums, are performing an album release show for Images 13.
“I completely remember that place. I remember those gigs,” Romweber said. “I met the sweetest girl at Jacob’s Run and I never saw her again. I wonder where she is.”
Homecoming or not, the Romweber of the early 90s meant a wildly energetic display of what Exene Cervenka called that band’s “hardcore Americana.” Born in Indiana and living in North Carolina since 1977, he’s been playing music since his early teens. Romweber has a unique vocal presence, singing in a crooner’s howl that combines the swagger of Elvis and combustibility of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Romweber may be older, but his visceral power of performing hasn’t disappeared, just matured perhaps. Not bad for a guy who used to throw up before shows in the back alley.
“That’s lessened a lot more and I’m more eager to get the work done and play as well as I can. Sometimes that’s difficult when you’re really burned out on the road and not feeling well. Generally we have a job to do and we want to do it as good as we can.”
Romweber travelled to Spain several months ago to play a festival where he suffered the worst case of jetlag ever. Lying in his hotel room Romweber experienced nightmares saturated by images he says came through his unconscious. Those images led to a painting that became the Images 13 album cover.
The album is a buffet of music from the Duo, twelve tracks ranging from surf/garage rock instrumentals to a mix of ballads. Recording again at Rick Miller’s (Southern Culture on the Skids) studio in Chapel Hill, it’s their third album together. Romweber appreciates the space for its ability to capture a band’s raw sound.
“It’s not too clean. It’s nice and raw and the drum sound is really full in that room. He’s a musician so he gets what we’re trying to get after. It really depends on how relaxed I am at the time. This record was kind of both, it was difficult and relaxed, actually wasn’t that stressful to do. We record in increments, a few months before and then we came back.
The album finds elegance in stark, bittersweet and surreal qualities and has raucous fun like lead track “Roll On” or a cover of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” sharing vocals with Southern Culture’s Mary Huff.
“Sometimes we’re scheduled to make a record and I starting writing songs. I should probably write songs all the time just to write them, but I do when we have a project to do. It’s kind of intuitive really. The songwriting process is very intuitive. I get myself into a state and begin to hear music. The covers are more what I was listening to or that I was digging.”
In the last year Romweber revisited an old favorite television show called One Step Beyond that ran from 1959 until 1961. Its music, composed Harry Lubin, inspired him to record the instrumental “Weird (Aurora Borealis).”
“It was a Twilight Zone type of show but based on real psychic events,” Romweber said. “Even way back then they had an episode on magic mushrooms, meaning what they do to you and the fact that down in Mexico the shamans were taking it in to take voyages to the 4th dimension. The music Lubin wrote is very much like that. “Weird (Aurora Borealis)” is like the music during the show when things start to get far out, dramatic. I love “The Outer Limits,” one of my favorite shows of all time.”
Images 13 surprises throughout, from the jungle drumming and howl of “Long Battle Coming” to the cool, witchy feel of “Beyond the Moonlight.” But “I Don’t Want to Listen” is a heavy centerpiece to the album, both sad and grand. It’s a ballad Romweber played off and over the years, adding it back when Sara started to play with Romweber.
“It was essentially like an Edith Piaf song, like an orchestral song. We wanted to add violins to it. I kind of wished we did. It’s a tense song about loss of love which I’m sure all of us have gone through.”
Romweber has been through much himself, a musician whose career has spanned three decades. He played in his early teens with Sara briefly in Crash Landon and the Kamikazes before she left to play with older, more seasoned musicians (Mitch Easter, Mike Bandino). Romweber went on to form Flat Duo Jets with drummer Chris “Crow” Smith.
“She moved on and there were no hard feelings. We were mostly tied up with other bands over our life. At the end of all that we found we were both free so why not give it a try.”
After making several records together the pairing could be seen as coming full circle, especially since its possible Romweber may tour less and play more shows closer to home.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I play a lot of solo gigs around the Triangle, that’s always easier. I told myself when all this calms down I’m just going to play around North Carolina when I get older just to get off these horrendous drives.”
Still, for Romweber, it remains about discovering music, whether exploring classical music, picking up old 45s from the 1950s in thrift shops or recording a song like “We’ll Be Together Again” for new material. Written by Sharon Sheely, “We’ll Be Together Again” was written for Eddie Cochran after his death in 1960 when they were in an English cab accident with Gene Vincent (whose statement about having a guitar called his flat duo jet gave Romweber’s band its namesake).
“I like records that jump around a lot, I mean personally,” Romweber of the varied material on Images 13. “I want to make a record called “Music from Around the World” and have everything from Arabian music to blues to classical to everything because I like a lot of different kinds of music.”
More with Dex Romweber
If this was the last record you ever made, what does Images 13 say or suggest about Dex Romweber?
Romweber: I don’t really know, it could be a combo of…I don’t know how to answer that. I’m glad of all the albums I’ve made. Looking back, to me, even the difficult ones to make, I look back with fondness. I try not to judge and I’m thankful to have made them. It’s been a pretty intense year; records are like snapshots where you are then in your life. That doesn’t mean it remains like that, you move on and go to other places as each day changes, in the years I’ll remember what this time was like, good or bad it doesn’t matter because time’s moving on. (The songs are) about ordinary life really, relationships, struggles, glories and failings you know,
You worked again with Rick Miller. Is it easier, because he knows your instincts?
Romweber: This will be third record made with him. The first was with Sam Sandler from Virginia Beach (for Blues That Defy My Soul). Is That You in the Blue and Images 13 was with (Miller). It’s really relaxed working with Rick. He’s a musician so he gets what we’re trying to get after. I like the raw sound his studio gets.
It was (recorded live). Mostly we cut the drums and guitar first and might do a scratch vocal and then go back and do another vocal and add other instruments to it, it was mostly live.
“I Don’t Want to Listen,” that’s a heavy song.
Romweber: Man, it is heavy. It’s actually a song I’ve had around a long time. It was a ballad I was playing live and then I wouldn’t play it live. When Sara started to play together we had it in our set. When I was in the New Romans we would play it but it was essentially like an Edith Piaf song, like an orchestral song. We wanted to add violins to it. I kind of wished we did. It’s a tense song about loss of love which I’m sure all of us have gone through.
How does it go over live?
Romweber: I think they like it. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell what’s going on in the audience until the song’s over and you hear the claps and then you move on to the next song. I probably should look more at faces and things while I’m singing songs like that. But generally if the response isn’t too awful we felt we played a pretty good night then everything’s’ cool.
“Beyond the Moonlight” feels like a song you’d hear played on the back porch late at night.
Romweber: That’s exactly what it was. I live out in the country, when I composed it I was out on the back porch. That’s exactly how the song was composed. I walk a lot and I love swimming. I love summers here and I can swim in pools and lakes or whatever. Reading a good book and lounging by the pool and getting swimming in is one of my favorite things to do.
Diet is real important, diet and exercise. Touring is pretty raunchy. You tend to smoke a lot and drink coffee. Sometimes getting a good night’s sleep is really difficult, sometimes a drive is eight hours a day confined to a small space. You’re with the same people. Sometimes it’s really fun, sometimes it sucks. It’s just everything, but the best thing is to get in mental and physical shape for it.
You played with Sara briefly (Crash Landon and the Kamikazes) but why so short?
Romweber: We were a five piece, a great band. Me on guitar, Sara was the first drummer for that band. When I was fourteen or so we were in this band but she quickly got picked up by older, more seasoned musicians. People like Mitch Easter and Mike Bandino who thought she was great. She moved on and there were no hard feelings. We were mostly tied up with other bands over our life, I was in Flat Duo Jets and she was with Snatches of Pink and we went our separate ways. At the end of all that we found we were both free so why not give it a try.
In Snatches of Pink, did she bring some of that to your music, maybe change it a little?
Romweber: Sara takes her drums real seriously. With Flat Duo Jets it was more jamming, even with Crash Laresh. Songs might go on for five minutes or so and there are good things about that. Sara figures out her parts and she’s very consistent and solid in a lot of ways. But she’s probably technically the most talented drummer I’ve played with.
Has that made touring and travelling better, healthier?
Romweber: Yeah, its both, we don’t get in that many fights and when they do happen they are a drag. Every band does but also with siblings they’re you’re kin so you forgive each other a bit quicker.
What music did you hear around the house as a kid, before playing? Your mother is a classical pianist right?
Romweber: She was, she still is, but she doesn’t play very much. She read music and played very well. I was a child of the 70s so I liked KISS and Led Zeppelin, growing up in Florida during that period. Then I discovered early rock and roll in the 80s. I liked The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, there’s so much music out there I discovered obscure artists like Bennie Joy, Roy House.
I discovered classical music Frederic Chopin, J.S. Bach the list is endless. Lately I’ve been getting into organ music, these 50s records that came out. What I’ve been listening to now is The Magic Fingers of Merlin, and it’s called Midnight Moods. Its just moody organ music that you play late at night and it’s really soothing. I love collecting old records.
Footage of you young singing and playing, you just seem to be born a natural.
Romweber: In a way that’s true and I’ve had friends like that. I thought Crow of the Flat Duo Jets was a natural musician. I would agree with that, that I have a natural rhythm with me. I used to love dancing a lot and I could always see the rhythms of my body and I moved pretty well.
Lucky Eye was recorded in Muscle Shoals. The Two Headed Cow documentary presented you thinking it was a disappointment.
Romweber: It wasn’t a disappointment. The problem with that documentary is they cut the hell out of it. It actually went on a lot longer. I think I was referring to the disappointment in how everything ended not on the record itself. The way they cut it, with editing you can do just about anything. I hated that. I had a real problem with it. There was a lot more of the story but they cut it. That’s just the truth.
There were parts I said I wanted taken out and they wouldn’t do it. I wish in that moment I had put a better spin on it. The Flat Duo jets were coming to an end and it was a really stressful period and we had been together for a long time and it was time to split the scene with me working with Crow. That’s what I meant by a big disappointment.