"Dex Romweber was and is a huge influence on my music. His songwriting, along with his love of classic American music from the South, be it rockabilly, country or R&B, is one of the best kept secrets of the rock 'n' roll underground." —Jack White (The White Stripes)
Dexter Romweber may not be a household name these days, but he should be. The wild-eyed singer/guitarist is still best known among underground rock followers as the jumpy, howl-voiced half of maniacal N.C. rock act, The Flat Duo Jets. This week, he leads his latest "band" project, The Dexter Romweber Duo, into town with an entirely new set of original material and classic cuts.
The new duo features Dex on the Silvertone and vocal mic and his mop-topped sister Sara Romweber on drums (formerly of Let's Active and Snatches of Pink). They're due in town for a show at Cumberland's on Tuesday with support from local trio The Dellortos.
"It started a little over a year ago," says Dex. "Sara was eager to get back into playing live, so it was sort of like our freedom hooked up at the right time. We used to play together when we were very young, like 14 or 15. Our band back then was called Crash Landed & The Kamikazes."
The young Romwebers played bars and clubs around N.C. Then Sara joined Let's Active and then Snatches of Pink. Dexter started The Flat Duo Jets about that time, and their careers took different paths.
"We went down to South By Southwest [last year] and ran into an old friend of ours, Brett Steel, who has been a pretty hardcore rock 'n' roll manager," says the guitarist. "He's been working his ass off, trying to land us a good record deal and booking us shows around the South. Sara and I wanna play as much as possible. We're listening to all different types of music. We're both huge jazz fans. It's wide open to any of that."
Do they sound anything like they did during their teenage years? Only a bit. Their chemistry is still sweet and tough and the music still moves. They're both more fascinated by the musical possibilities and misadventures of writing new stuff than rehashing anything.
"We're a bit older now, and we've already been through the ups and downs of the music industry," says Dex. "It's a little bit more worldly sounding, I think. We don't really sound like the Duo Jets. She has a really different style than Crow did. I generally come up with the songs and she helps arrange them. The music is a little bit more avant garde, in a certain way. I'm more interested in writing material that is influenced by the '50s, but not a direct take-off of music of the '50s. Some of it leans a little more toward jazzier influences. When our new album comes out, it won't just be 13 songs of retro-rockabilly, you know what I mean?"
The swingin' rockabilly thing propelled most of what the Flat Duo Jets tried. They first gained widespread exposure from their spazzy interview segments and fiery live renditions of "Crazy Hazy Kisses" and "Jet Tone Boogie" in the 1986 film documentary Athens, Georgia: Inside/Out. One memorable scene featured Dex jamming on "When the Saints Go Marching In" with the late visionary artist Howard Finster. They released their reverb-drenched self-titled debut LP in 1990, followed a year later by the Orbosonic Go Go Harlem Baby, and continued to play the Southeast as a duo and trio with additional bassists. After 1998's Lucky Eye, Dex and Crow parted ways.
One element of the Flat Duo Jets that never dissolved was Dexter's trashy guitar tone and amp sound he makes on his trusty old Silvertone six-string.
"I really love to play the Silvertone," Dex says. "You know, Link Wray said that he preferred cheaper guitars because the others were too clean-sounding. I've played Fender, but it always sounded too clean. I have a 1964 Silvertone, and another from 1962. Played through a trashy Randall amp, it sounds great."
If the new Duo continues to expand their musical style beyond their individual accomplishments, they might just unseat the likes of The White Stripes as super-cool guy/girl rock act of the decade. As romantic and dramatic as that might seem, Dexter's ambitions aim for something more unearthly.
"If you ask me what I want to do about music — it's to express," he adds. "To express hidden dreams, broken dreams, hope and despair ... I want to break into the world of spirit, basically."