Scowlin’ with Dexter Romweber
If rockabilly had things like elder statesmen, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Dexter Romweber. With deeper, more thorough roots than The Cramps’ Lux Interior — and all-around superior musicianship than the cheeky Brian Setzers of the world — Romweber first garnered praise alongside Chris “Crow” Smith as the better half of the Flat Duo Jets. His older sister Sara is behind the skins now, and as the Dex Romweber Duo, the two are expanding the notions of the traditional, 12-bar rockabilly record.
ND’s Logan K. Young recently caught up with the rockabilly icon in between gigs, en route to Tampa, Florida.
No Depression: Thanks so much for speaking with us this morning, Mr. Romweber. How are things?
Dexter Romweber: Well, you know, “Sunday morning coming down.”
ND: Ah, yes, the old Kristofferson tune. “On the sleeping city sidewalks” – a rough night, I assume. Where were you exactly?
DR: In St. Pete’s, Florida at this cool little club called Dave’s Aqua Lounge. Sara and I played pretty well. We’re on the way to Tampa right now though. Got a few days of rest before the Macon gig.
ND: That’s certainly good to hear. Let’s talk about the new record, Ruins of Berlin. There are a lot of different styles, aside from the straight-ahead rockabilly stuff, that you guys are going for.
DR: Yes, we wanted to cast a larger net — stylistically at least — with this one. For example, that Stan Kenton tune that Exene and I do.
ND: That’s another thing with this album. There are tons of guest spots here, mostly from women with rather distinct voices. Like that song from Blue Velvet that you and Cat Power do, for instance.
DR: “Love Letters” is such an amazing song. I’ve loved it ever since I heard Ketty Lester sing it back in the ’60s. And there’s another one on the record where Neko Case joins in. I don’t know. I guess I just like their voices, and the way they mesh with mine. I don’t consider myself an expert singer in any respect, so it’s nice to collaborate with someone that can bring out the better parts of my voice.
ND: Your voice sounds particularly stout here, especially on the original, piano-based numbers.
DR: Two of those songs, “Camillia’s Gone” and “Oh, Lover’s Gone,” are pretty heavily indebted to Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen … if you couldn’t tell.
ND: Obviously, there’s a dark, almost morbid sound to them. Would you consider them big influences?
DR: Yes and no. Like most people, I like a lot of different artists — at a lot of different times no less. Right now, as we’re on the way to Tampa, I’ve been blasting some Benny Joy.
ND: I’m afraid I don’t know who that is.
DR: It’s okay, most people don’t. He’s pretty obscure. Benny died several years ago, but his style of playing — lots of echo-drenched, pre-surf stuff — really got a hold of me when I was younger. I like to revisit his music from time to time, and since he was based in Tampa, it’s been on my mind.
ND: Speaking of influences, I finally saw that documentary with Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White — It Might Get Loud.
DR: Oh yeah? We’re going to check it out tonight. The guys over at Bloodshot [Romweber’s record label] just got us tickets. I’ve heard good things.
ND: It’s an awesome film; I think you’ll like it. There’s a great scene where Jack White is playing one of your songs, explaining how much of an impact you’ve had on him as a musician. I know you get asked it all the time, but would you mind talking about your relationship?
DR: No problem, Jack’s a great guy. And he’s certainly gone out of his way to tell other people about me, time and time again. I’ve really appreciated his support over the years.
ND: A good friend of mine recently bought that huge White Stripes box set, and I got to hear that incredible seven-inch you did with Jack White up at Third Man in Nashville.
DR: You’re talking about “The Wind Did Move” single, right?
ND: Yes, and especially that killer B-side where you and he share vocal duties.
DR: That’s an old blues number from the ’30s by a woman named Geeshie Wiley. It was a particularly fun one to record. We had a few days off, and Jack invited us up to his place there to cut a few songs. We had to work pretty quickly, but the whole time Jack was as laid back and accommodating as any producer I’ve ever been with. His work ethic reminded me a lot of myself, like in the early, Flat Duo days where we would just press record.
ND: It probably doesn’t help the whole Jack White thing now that your sister has joined the band?
DR: Honestly, Sara is one of the most naturally talented drummers that has played with me. She applies herself like no one else and is a real student of the kit. That, and she really is my older sister!
ND: Ha, well there you go; myth dispelled. How long have you two being playing together, not as a family or anything, but as official band mates?
DR: You know, I think it’s coming up on three years real soon. It’s hard to imagine that, but since we rarely fight about anything (unlike some of my previous drummers), the time has just kind of flown by it seems.
ND: I assume that’s a quip directed at former Flat Duo Jet Chris “Crow” Smith? Or could it be Crash LeRash?
DR: Actually, I’d rather not say. In fact, I probably shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that I feel Sara and I are making the best music of our lives — without all the ridiculous squabbling and in fighting I used to have to deal with. We’re in a good place right now.
ND: And Sara’s got quite the rock pedigree herself, having played with Snatches of Pink and all.
DR: She was a founding member of that band, too. And don’t forget her stint in Winston-Salem’s Let’s Active. Man, that was an incredible band.
ND: I know you’re based there in the piedmont of Chapel Hill, but you also spent a few years in that other SEC town, Athens, Georgia. Pound for pound, apples to apples, which city is the better place for music?
DR: I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think Athens is the more interesting town. And really, the only thing that’s keeping me in Chapel Hill is a mortgage.
ND: Ever given any thought to moving?
DR: Who knows? I’ve made a life and a name playing this weird type of music in weird Southern bars, so I guess anything could happen.
Logan K. Young is a freelance music scribe living in Columbia, South Carolina.