The following is a complete transcript of my recent phone interview with former Flat Duo Jet Dexter Romweber, in advance of his new duo’s show at The Jinx.
Dexter, you seem really busy these days.
Dex Romweber: Man, I’ve been swamped with interviews. I’ve done three this morning!
Well, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.
Dex Romweber: Let it fly, man.
This seems like the biggest burst of promotional activity you’ve dealt with in many, many years.
Dex Romweber: It’s all the new record. We’re doing a bunch of radio stuff and some TV appearances, and we had a CD release party the other night. Plus, we’re about to embark on a seven-week tour. So, the ball is really rolling in terms of promotion.
I know you made a solo piano record a while back that received some mention in the press.
Dex Romweber: That’s true. I made a classical record before this.
I really liked that album.
Dex Romweber: Thanks. I’m glad you heard it. Of course, I know it’s not on the level of Bach or Chopin, but I’m such a fan that who cares, ya know?
Well, Bach and Chopin aren’t around anymore, so you won’t have to worry a bout them critiquing it.
Dex Romweber: Good point! (laughs) I was signed to Yep Roc Records before that. They’re located real near my house, and they put that out a few years ago.
How exactly did you wind up bringing your sister Sara in to play drums with you in this new group?
Dex Romweber: I was playing shows with my friend Sam at the time, but he had some problems and had to get off the road and deal with them. Sara was ready to go. We were fans of each other’s music. Me and Sara spent most of our lives playing in different bands, but we played together when we were very young. She wanted to help get my career going again and has been nothing but supportive.
There’s a renewed sense of interest in your music since the making of this documentary. Does it feel good to have more people paying attention to your career these days after a period of being out of the limelight, or in some ways, do you find yourself pining for some of the anonymity and lower public expectations that can come from being out of the spotlight?
Dex Romweber: It’s kinda gone through different phases, but at this time, I’m enjoying myself. I feel like more life is getting put into my soul and getting out to the public though doing interviews and shows and —in a sense— getting known again. In the past week I’ve been feeling really good about it. And I didn’t think I would! In fact, I was more drawn to living a life more dedicated to myself. But it’s a good feeling, and I think that comes back to the sense that I am doing what I need to do.
It’s no secret that there are an awful lot of loud, raucous, guitar and drum combos out there these days, as opposed to back when the Flat Duo Jets were in their heyday and blazing that trail. Is that a good thing for the Dex Romweber Duo in 2009, or is that a bad thing? Is it easier for people who are unfamiliar with your back catalog to get what you and Sara are doing, or do you find that some folks have no concept that you helped to create this entire, stripped-down format and assume you’re just another cat trying to jump on a bandwagon?
Dex Romweber: (Laughs) Yeah. Maybe they think I just started because all these other people are doin’ it. That would be really crazy! (laughs) The fact that the White Stripes could hit it so big actually helps us. The truth is The Flat Duo Jets didn’t use that stripped-down format because we thought it would sell, but it wound up working for us. We actually had a bass player for a short time, and I’m a big fan of bass and a big fan of saxophone and a big fan of piano. I think if Sara and I had more money, we’d hire someone to add some of that stuff periodically to our set. My hat’s off to the duos, but for me, it was not planned. It had a lot to do with finance. There are so many expenses, Jim, that you have to pay just to make this your job. I know you know this! We might take in a hefty sum, on a given night, but it’s pretty much all given away immediately. Anyone who does this for a living understands that right now it’s a real struggle to make this your job.
My friend Jimmy Brad from the band Jimmy & The Teasers is a huge admirer of your music.
Dex Romweber: Oh yeah, man. Sure. I know Jimmy.
He told me he was at the N.C. premiere of the documentary and that it received a pretty glowing reception.
Dex Romweber: Yeah, it was a big night. I have mixed feelings about the documentary. It’s not an easy thing for me. For one thing, that movie was made four years ago and I’ve changed a bit since then. I recognized the things I wish I’d said in the movie and the things I wish I hadn’t said. It’s a little strange to allow a camera to monitor your private life and your private world. It’s a very bizarre trip, and I didn’t know just how bizarre it would be!
Some friends view it a different way. Some think it was poorly made. Other people like it a lot. And some feel that I appear pretty damaged in it. That’s because some of the segments were shot while I was out on the road. The lifestyle of the road can be harsh. Lots of cigarettes smoked, lots of 24-hour driving, and at times I think I do appear damaged. However, the film is a look into just what it takes to survive in this business. Maybe that’s something people should see. You know, you do get a take on certain things. But documentaries rarely tell the whole story.
Man, documentaries NEVER tell the whole story. (laughs)
Dex Romweber: (Laughs) That’s right, they never tell the whole story! It’s just a point in time. But hey, it’s done. What can you do, man? I did have a struggle. I wanted some stuff taken out of the film. The producers said “no go” on that, and I got the feeling that they wanted to show the most raunchy, fucked-up elements of my life. There were things about the end of the Duo Jets that I wanted to have taken out as well, because I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt through the documentary. I don’t mind airing my own bard karma, but I didn’t want to air anyone else’s. They seemed to want me to do that, though. But I’ve seen worse documentaries about bands and how they get along. So, there are places where privacy wasn’t respected, but at least they made the film, and the producers tried to do the best job they could. I can’t completely slam them, but at the same time, I wish they’d been more sensitive.
I know that for this Savannah show, they’re advertising that they’ll be screening the documentary first and then you guys will come out and play. Is that taking place at a lot of your club dates nowadays?
Dex Romweber: I didn’t know that, actually, until you just now told me. But me and Sara have done a lot of dates in America where they did show the film, so it’s not too much of a surprise.
How weird is that, to have your opening act be a movie about your life?
Dex Romweber: Well, I’ve already seen the same thing so many time! (laughs) I just leave the club and have a cigarette or a coffee and talk to the people outside. I just take it as a given evening and wait till it’s over. Then me and Sara hit the stage.
Does it ever feel strange or awkward to take the stage after people have just seen a retrospective of sorts of your entire musical career? I would imagine there’d be a lot of pressure to top whatever musical highlights of your past bands have just been showcased.
Dex Romweber: Well, that might be true, but at times they play the film and I feel such a surge of energy to hit the stage. Those have been some memorable gigs. It’s not really too much of a problem for me to feel I have to top it. It almost makes things more exciting for me.
You’ve got a lot of very well-known artists making cameo appearances on this new album, and I wondered whose idea that was. Did someone come up with that concept, or was it just a friendly invitation from you that mushroomed into several other people wanting to help out with the record?
Dex Romweber: That’s a good question. A lot of it has to do with that freakin’ movie! What it was, was that Exene and Cat Power and Neko Case were in that film and our manager came up with the idea of asking them to sing a little on our record. They were friends and fans of mine and it seemed like an appropriate thing. Plus, we all share a love of the type of music we chose to record. I think they all did a fine job and were easy to work with. It was the right time and the right place.
You’ve played Savannah a handful of times in the past.
Dex Romweber: I have, but I haven’t been back in a really long time. I get Charleston and Savannah mixed up in my mind sometimes.
I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but I remember one night almost two decades ago when I went down to hear you at a long-gone bar on Bay St., and they told me the show had been cancelled because you’d been arrested earlier in the night for climbing around on the roof of some building. Was that true, or just a bizarre rumor?
Dex Romweber: (Long pause) Jim, it’s true! It’s totally true. (laughs) I tell you what, man — I completely forgot about that! (laughs) It really happened, just like you said. I was with a roadie and we were just pallin’ around before the gig, exploring Savannah. Suddenly, these cops appear and haul us away, simply because we were on top of some building. I mean, okay, we’re on top of a roof, but you have to arrest us? They could have just shooed us away! I remember we had to get in a goddamn jail cell and the whole thing. Crazy! I forgot all about that. (laughs)
What are your sets like these days? Do you include old Flat Duo Jets material and stuff from the period in between that band and the current lineup with Sara on drums, or do you concentrate solely on stuff from the new record?
Dex Romweber: It concentrates on the new record, but we still do some songs the Duo Jets did. We open with “Mexicali Baby,” which the Jets used to do. Mostly, though, it’s new material.
I’ve seen Sara play over the years with both Mitch Easter and Snatches of Pink. Did she have to modify her natural drumming style much to fit in with your guitar playing, or did the two of you fall into a groove quite naturally.
Dex Romweber: Oh, she actually did have to change her style, because those bands were quite different from mine. She had to reapply different techniques — and she’ll tell you that flat-out. It wasn’t hard for her to do, though. She’s a real student of drums, and likes all styles and many different instruments like congas and bongos — which I like too. We use those on the record and her knowledge of percussion added a lot of color to the album.
Do you and Sara support yourselves solely through music, or do you guys keep day jobs?
Dex Romweber: No, and that’s always been a torment for me. When stuff wasn’t happening with the music, I wished I had the structure and a place to go. Even just for extra cash. There were times when I wished I was a common laborer. Sara and I tend to leave each other alone and have our own lives outside of the music. We spent so many years together when we were younger, and she is a private person. But when there is business to be done and music to be made, we’re right there.
What are the best and the worst parts about being in a band with your own sister?
Dex Romweber: Well, I would never want to say anything negative about someone like that.
Gotcha. With that in mind, what is the best part about being in band with your own sister?
Dex Romweber: Well, there’s something to say for families playing together. We have a similar energy and a similar blood. There’s also a certain degree of understanding between us that I wouldn’t get from playing with people who aren’t in my family. Johnny Cash used to play with the Carter Family and he always said that family bands played best together and communicated more easily than those that weren’t related. It’s true.
It’s fortunate for you that she happened to play the drums!
Dex Romweber: (Laughs) That’s so true! Although she’s a big classical buff and I think she’s about to start learning to play the cello. She turned me onto classical music and we share a love of jazz and Gypsy music. We know that’s good for both of us.
What would the Dexter Romweber of 1989 think about the Dexter Romweber of 2009 if he were to happen upon his show in a bar somewhere?
Dex Romweber: That’s a really good question! No one’s ever asked me that yet, and I think it’s a great question. The older me would tell the younger one, “I could see — but it’s not what I thought.” Meaning there are things in the future that the young lad will strive for that he no idea about, because he’s very naive. He is on this one path, and he has an idea where it will take him, but the older one should certainly enlighten the younger guy.
If the younger one was smart enough or wasn’t so cocky, he would listen closely and ask for advice. The older one would have to warn the younger one about certain things. And Jim, I could only pray that the younger me would take the warning. But I’m not sure that he would, because in stories of time travel, it seems like the person in the past never does what he’s told!
I would give him a warning and perhaps he could alter his fate. If the younger one were smart enough he’d ask, “Well, where will this lead me?” Or try to get some insight into what the future holds in store for him. I guess let’s just say I’d pray the younger guy would be more interested in changing for the better than changing for the worse. Does that make any sense? No one’s ever asked me anything like that before.
Dexter Romweber Duo + Dex Doc Film
When: Sat., 10 pm
Where: The Jinx