LAist Interview: Dexter Romweber of the Flat Duo Jets
The Flat Duo Jets, a legendary yet diminutive rockabilly band from Carrboro, North Carolina plagued by naiveté and drug-usage, will forever remain under the radar. Prolific and tremendously influential acts like these will be respected by a select few and tucked away in the bottomless vat of musical history. And although their existence, as well as their untimely demise, is thoroughly documented in 2008's "Two-Headed Cow," it is likely that you'll only be watching by chance. But that's not going to stop front man Dexter Romweber from trekking onward. He will never cease to wonder about the places he finds himself. Romweber's utmost force and continual failure are the very embodiment of the artist as a shapeshifter in the grand scheme of things.
LAist: How did the Flat Duo Jets come together?
DR: It started in a garage, in a very small room that we used to call "the Box." It started some time in 1984. We were just hanging out one day and listening to music, doing what young people do. I had already been playing guitar since I was eleven. But we had some instruments in our garage and we just went in there to play. And I think the first song we played was a country song called "Born to Lose." Then we slowly started learning more material and getting local gigs. And a fellow named Josh Grier from a local record company called Dolphin Records heard our live performances and he really dug them. So he decided to release our six-song cassette in '84 or '85. We didn't have a real major release until five years later.
LAist: What was the music scene like in Carrboro and Chapel Hill around then?
DR: Well, I've seen many scenes come and go there. And things were a lot different when I arrived there when I was eleven. Me and my sister came from Florida. I'm the last of seven kids and we arrived in Chapel Hill in the summer of '77. So the bands in those early days were of the post-hippy persuasion. New-wave and punk hadn't really started charging up there. It wasn't really until the early '90s where I really noticed more of a scene there. I mean, there was always sort of a scene, but there were really many different chapters to it. And many bands came and went; Like my first band that was playing around in bars was called Crash Landing and the Kamikazes. And that was before the Flat Duo Jets. My sister played with the Kamikazes for the while, but then she got picked up by some older musicians that lived on our street. Suede was the first incarnation and then Mondo Combo was the second. And that was the early '80s.
But by 1990, ten years later, there, of course, were people like Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, the Sex Police, the Pressure Boys and the Back Shack, who we played a lot of gigs with—they were friends of ours. But to be honest, that really wasn't my kind of music. I wasn't really a part of that because I was listening to a lot of different material at home, which was early jazz records and a lot of rockabilly, eventually classical music. And even though the Flat Duo Jets were a part of that scene, it wasn't really my scene.
LAist: So you guys really stood out in a big way...
DR: We were really influenced by early rock and roll. We loved the Coasters and we listened to stuff that no one else was really listening to.
LAist: You recorded nine albums with the Flat Duo Jets. If you could pick one album, which meant the most to you and why?
DR: Yeah, something like that. I kind of lost count by now. They all meant a lot to me. I think that when I was young I was pretty naive to the pitfalls of being in the business. I didn't know a lot about myself and about what things you could fall into, being young and trying to survive. So some of the records were made under a lot of personal struggle and self-destructive battles. There was a real element of trying to get past all of that and to record good records despite ourselves.
So a few months ago I sat down and listened to all of our records. And I tried to glean what was good about them and what was bad and if I even liked them. To my surprise, I actually liked the records. And the records that I thought were bad at the time actually stood up well in the future. It was sort of an enlightening thing. I expected to hate all of them and be horribly embarrassed, but in fact I gleaned good things from them. I couldn't honestly tell you which one was my favorite. I think I picked up something from all of them. Even the last one, Lucky Eye, I heard on the road about three weeks ago because my roadies had a copy and I was pleasantly surprised. But yeah man, I couldn't tell you what was my favorite. But I can tell you that there's something good that I found for myself in all of them.
LAist: I wanted to talk about that final record, which was recorded with Scott Litt. What drove you to decide to go major with that album?
DR: Well, we'd been in the business a long time. We were hoping to move to another level and get off independent labels for a while if we could. So it was all, more or less, a natural progression of things. It wasn't really a decision. It was more like it was handed to us and it was up to us to take it or not. And, of course, we would because we were hoping, financially and publicly, to be better off.
LAist: What was the state of the band like at that time?
DR: In being a touring band, it's not the easiest thing often. You know, many things can break down either in yourself or with other people or both simultaneously. So for myself, I had struggles I was working to overcome. And then for "Crow," (Chris Smith, former drummer) he had struggles that he was working to overcome. Perhaps the work we needed wasn't fully available at the time. There's just many strange things going on. Recording the record, Lucky Eye, wasn't really the reason we disbanded. I mean, Outpost Records and Scott Litt and everyone were real nice in what they did. But the dynamics in the band were already breaking down. So it was more or less a personal decision for me to move on because I felt there were too many things had been broken down for the band to continue. It was a heartfelt and difficult decision. But in playing with my sister and making this new record, out touring and playing with her—sometimes things work out for the best. It's hard being in bands. The Flat Duo Jets lasted fifteen years, which is actually a pretty damn good run compared to a lot of the bands that came out then.
LAist: So now it's just you and your sister. How did that come about?
DR: Well I was playing with my friend Sam. We had a reincarnation of the Dex Romweber Duo, but again he ran into some problems and had to get off the road. I mean, it could be anything—personal relationships or drugs. You know drugs often have a lot to do with it. I mean, people just habitually fall into them. I'm not saying that about my sister. She's lives pretty cleanly. But with the things that I've had with myself and the things that I've had with other people, it tends to be some sort of drug thing often. If it's not a positive atmosphere it can be real drag.
So Sam had to get off the road, although I'm still friends with him. But Sarah was available and ready to go. Because I had a short tour with the Legendary Shack Shakers set up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And Sarah was available to do those dates. And we started doing them and we set into doing the project of the Romweber Duo.
LAist: I want to backtrack a little. You guys toured with the Cramps back in the early '90s. Did you feel like they were like-minded individuals?
DR: It was nineteen years ago. It was that long ago; It's hard to believe. As a youngster, I was a huge fan. I just thought that they were incredible. I thought the taste in music that they had I really agreed with. It was an intense thing to be playing with my idols. It was incredible. But again, I was young and naive and I didn't know a lot about the real world. It was a real eye-opening thing.
LAist: Did their fans appreciate what you were doing?
DR: Oh yeah, absolutely. We had a great response wherever we played across America. The tour was about three months and it was in about every major city. We were working all the time; It was real heavy-duty.
LAist: I wanted to talk about "Two-Headed Cow" a bit because that's actually how I discovered you. I had inadvertently discovered it on public access while I was living in Brooklyn. And I had to purchase the soundtrack almost immediately thereafter.
DR: Well, I gotta tell you. The movie is in two parts. The first part was filmed in the early days during '86 or '87 tour. Then the second part was post-Duo Jets when I was still out touring. And as you know, they go back and forth between the early days and the later days. So on one level you see, for me, my naiveté slipping away. You see all that young innocence blasted away. And in a way, that's a good thing. It's a good thing to not remain as naive as a child. But let me tell you man, my eyes are continually being opened. It's not an easy business. Sometimes I never cease to wonder about the places I find myself as I continue on this road.
LAist: So watching yourself in that film was a strange experience?
DR: Yeah, it's not an easy thing having a documentary made about you. And to be honest, there's things I wish that I didn't say. There are things I wish I had kept private. Of course, that doesn't make good story-telling. But at the same time it is, more or less, a private journey made public. It was difficult to reveal very personal things. Although I told myself before I went into film that I would be as honest as I knew how. I was in such a state mentally that the only way forward, I told myself, was to just tell my truth.
LAist: So, obviously, you feel like it was a pretty truthful portrayal.
DR: Yeah, but as I learned: everyone has their own truth. So my truth may differ from other peoples. I mean it was my own truth; It was mine to tell.
LAist: But, in retrospect, it was good that you were forced to tell it?
DR: I don't know. I was in such an intense frame of mind that I felt like that was the only thing I could do.
LAist: I really want to talk about Elvis. What specifically about his sound, his voice and his general persona strikes a chord within you?
DR: Well, a few weeks ago I had a very weird experience concerning Elvis. I woke up in Chapel Hill and it was late in the evening. I had slept and I went downstairs. And I turn on the TV and there was a movie of his that I had never seen before called "Girls, Girls, Girls." In the beginning, he sings in this nightclub—the movie was made in '61—and I just sat in awe of his body movements, his voice, his clothes, his hair and the music. I was completely blown away. And the weird thing is that he did a rockabilly song even though it was 1961, when rockabilly had virtually almost died out anyway. But we was still doing it though. And the whole movie had these really cool songs in it. Sometimes I have to be reminded of how much I dug Elvis.
I'll go through periods of not realizing it. Then I see something again and I'm reminded; That night a few weeks ago was one of those things. The whole history of Southern music, rock and roll and rockabilly; It was all there in that footage. And I was also thinking about the people he influenced. There was everyone from Buddy Holly to Benny Joy to thousands of others. I was just looking at the historical scope of it and I was just blown away.
LAist: And, lastly, I wanted to talk a little bit about Jack White of the White Stripes. He often cites you as a primary influence and I was wondering how that bodes with you?
DR: I've told this before to interviewers: In a sense, I sort of felt that I was locked away in a Gothic castle for many years. Then I stumble out into the daylight and people walk up to me and say, "Oh you influenced so and so." And I've been living in such isolation that I haven't even noticed. I couldn't even name a White Stripes song to save my life. But me and Sam played a gig with them in Boston about five years ago and I really dug his sound.
As far as myself, there are musicians that have influenced me that came before me that people don't necessarily know about. It's all just a natural lineage of stuff handed down. I'm not lost on the fact that people influenced me either. So if Jack got something out of those records or he saw something that was valuable to him, I thought that was a positive thing because I had done the same thing.
The Dex Romweber Duo released their debut disc 'Ruins of Berlin,' which features Cat Power, Neko Case, Exene Cervenka and Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, on February 10th, 2009 via Bloodshot Records.