Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interview: On The Road With Dex Romweber

Dex Romweber is a man on a mission. His first band, Crash Landon and The Kamikazes, was started when he was 11, and he later started the legendary and highly influential Flat Duo Jets with Chris "Crow" Smith. The Duo Jets were together for 15 years and have been described as a significant influence by such artists as Cat Power, Neko Case, and Jack White.

The Flat Duo Jets' first album, In Stereo, was recorded live in the studio in 1985 and originally released on cassette. The group then relocated to Athens, Georgia and were featured in the film Athens, GA: Inside Out, along with other Athens bands such as R.E.M. and The B-52's. Even though the band's full-length debut LP,  Flat Duo Jets, was originally recorded live in a garage in the late 1980s, the record was not released until 1990. The band's second record, Go Go Harlem Baby, was produced by Jim Dickinson in 1992.

Other Duo Jets' releases include Safari ('93), White Trees ('93), Introducing ('95), Red Tango ('96), and Wild Blue Yonder ('98). In the late 1990s, The Flat Duo Jets signed a major label contract and released Lucky Eye in 1998. But after nearly 15 years as a band, Dexter and Crow went their separate ways. In 2001, Dexter released a new solo album, Chased By Martians, followed by Blues That Defy My Soul in 2004. This incarnation of The Dex Romweber Duo featured Dex along with drummer Sam "Crash" LaResh. In an unexpected turn, Dexter released the album Piano in 2006, which consisted of 13 original classical piano compositions.

In 2007 Sam "Crash" LaResh moved on and Dex's sister, Sara, took over as drummer. The new Dex Romweber Duo released their first full length on Bloodshot Records in 2009, the guest-filled Ruins of Berlin. In April of that same year, the duo recorded a split 7" single at Jack White's Third Man Records to be part of the label's Blue Series. In 2010, The Dex Romweber Duo again visited Third Man studios in Nashville, and recorded a live 12" for the label's Third Man Live series.

With 2011's, Is That You In The Blue, the criminally under-appreciated and impressively prolific Dex Romweber Duo have crafted another excellent album that continues to hit upon all of the group's strengths while stretching out a bit too. Surf, rock, swing, soul, and country are all here. The two move between styles throughout the set, and while stylistically influenced by the past, make no mistake: the genuine passion, inspired energy, and visceral delivery are very much in the here-and-now.  Is That You In The Blue was recorded at the studio of Rick Miller (Southern Culture On The Skids), and the sound of the record intuitively dismisses nostalgia to deliver a set of tunes that is sharply honed in on the duo's songwriting chops, their agile stylistic shifts, and Dex's captivating delivery.

Is That You In the Blue is a great entry point to Dex's catalog for newcomers,  as well as another welcome reward for longtime fans. The duo's energy and passion translates crystal clear here. This is one of the man's best records, and easily one of the year's best too.

Before we get to the interview, I'd like to share a quick story:

I remember when I first saw Dex and Sara live in NYC opening for Cat Power in the mid 2000's. As with many opening acts, I didn't have high expectations to see a band I never heard of. Well, when Dex and Sara took the stage, all hell broke wildly loose. Dex's and Sara's performances were all out enthralling. It was one of the most awe-invoking and inspiring sets I have ever seen.

I still talk about the impression that performance had on me pretty frequently. I mean Dex just poured everything he had into it live. At the time, I was at a low point creatively, and struggling for direction. When I saw Dex and Sara dish it all out with everything they had to a half-filled house (at most)- I was artistically-moved, creatively fired-up,  and freshly motivated in such a BIG way. The crowd didn't matter to these two. They were both just so in it, and to see Dex pouring himself so completely into his performance- it just blew me away. My memory of that performance is one I reflect upon often, and it still inspires me artistically to this day.

So that being said, you can probably imagine just how excited I was to speak with Mr. Dex Romweber. With such a busy touring schedule, Dex preferred to schedule our phone call while he was on the road. And when I say "on the road", I mean it literally- he was driving in the Midwest of America heading from one gig to another.

Hi Dex, Thanks for taking the time to do the interview.

Dex Romweber: No problem. It's fine, happy to do it. We're just cruising. We left Sioux Falls and we're heading over to Chicago. Go ahead, man, shoot.

Well, I wanted to start with some of your earliest experiences first. Can you talk about what you were up to before the Flat Duo Jets?

Dex: Well, sure. The Duo Jets started in 1984, but there was also a few other bands that we had back then. Crash Landon and The Kamikazes which Sara, my sister, who I play with now, was in that band briefly. We were a 5-piece rock band. It was really heavy duty and really cool. We were all just teenagers then and we played at bars, which at that age was pretty cool for us. We were like 14, 15, or 16 or around that at the time. But Sara moved on pretty quick with Let's Active and Mondo Combo and stuff. So there was rock and roll happening before the Flat Duo Jets.

When did you and Sara first start playing music?

Dex: I started playing guitar when I was 11. Sara was probably beating up suitcases around that same time or not too long after that. We played a bit early on, but Sara got picked up pretty quick- people recognized her talent and she moved. And that was OK. 

What would you say of your years in Flat Duo Jets remains for you today?

Dex: I don't know, it's hard to say really. I'd say the touring. The Flat Duo Jets played Florida, Seattle, Austin TX, San Diego, Burlington VT, and all across the United States. We did that quite a bit when we were quite young. We were always heading off somewhere. We didn't tour Europe that much. We actually went over there very briefly for a music festival in 1996. We didn't tour extensively in Europe it was primarily a United States thing.

So that's still kind of similar. Me and Sara have gone over a few times but primarily we play in the United States. Which is such a crazy thing to do because this place is so Goddamn big. It's really a lot of territory to cover. I mean, we left Seattle a few days ago and we've been hittling the Midwest pretty hard for the past three days. It's really hard work. It's also really hard work sitting in this space capsule!(Laughing).

I first saw you back in the mid 2000's opening for Cat Power at Town Hall and then again at the Apollo with her in 2008. This was before Ruins of Berlin came out. How did you and Sara decide to work together?

Dex: Yeah, there's a recording of that Town Hall gig and me and Sara listened to it after the gig and we thought it was really cool.

Well, a tour just ended in 1998 and then I was playing with my friend Sam "Crash LaResh" Sandler who was out of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Me and him toured and we made a few records together. We even toured with Neko Case one time. That was pretty wild.

Well, Sam ran into some trouble and when I was free Sara was free, so we decided to kick up this band and to try to tour around and earn a living, make records, and play shows. And it's really been fun. It's been a little bit of everything from really big shows, to moderately attended, to smaller more intimate shows too. We've really seen the gamut, and have gotten to see what it is to tour in America from 2006-2011. We've already seen a lot. 

How is that for you: going back and forth between playing smaller rooms all the way through big venues?

Dex: Well, I really notice how different venues have different sounds. I really see that. Like, if it's a really condensed stage and there's not much room and I'm right next to Sara, I can hear her really well. Preferably, I really like us more on a big stage with good sound. I like us on a decent, big stage with a good PA. I really notice the different sounds in different halls. 

Ruins of Berlin had quite a bit of high profile guests, and is a standout in your discography. Can you talk about that expereince making that record?

DR: That was actually our manager's idea (laughs). I mean we didn't mind at all. Ruins of Berlin had Rick Miller, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Neko Case, and Exene Cervenka of X. So that wasn't too much of a problem (laughing) and it's not like it was a bad idea or anything.

When we set out to do Is That You In The Blue, I wasn't really crazy about having more guests again. I mean we had Rick Miller on it because he produced it and we also had Django Haskins of The Old Ceremony, which is a very successful Chapel Hill Band. Django even wrote a song for me and Sara called "The Death of Me". We had various members of his band of the record, including Matt Brandau who played bass on quite a few songs. But Is That You In The Blue is not a "guest artist" record really, it's just our friends helping us out on it. 

How do you and Sara work when writing and putting together material?

Dex: Well, usually if I have an idea or an outline of a song I'll bring it to Sara and she'll work out a drum part for it.  We don't write together. Maybe someday we'll do that. Sara figures out the drum parts when the songs are brought in. We also do cover songs together too, so I might hear a song and say "Hey, how about this one" and then we go from there.

Can you describe your recording process for the new record?

Dex: Rick's room was what we were hoping to get. We recorded the initial tracks in 6 days and it was a pretty quick process. It took no more than two weeks.

So you must have been ready and had it all together before you went in to record?

Dex: Oh yeah, we pretty much know what our parts are going to be, to a high degree, before we even go into the studio. But also, sometimes if we have other players, like Rick Miller or Django Haskins, who will be adding on their own things, then we'll experiment a little more. Those kinds of things get done in more of a spur-of-the-moment kind of way. But for us, I mean Sara and me, we pretty much always knew what we were going to do.

After wrapping up Ruins of Berlin and touring for that record, you recorded a 7" single of "The Wind Did Move (original)/ Last Kind Word Blues (Geeshie Wiley)" for Jack White's Third Man Records and then the Live at Third Man 12" vinyl-only release. Can you talk about how those records came together?

Dex: We were actually on tour and going through Nashville when Jack called my road manager and asked if we could stop by his studio to make a record. We were headed that way anyway and we had a day off, so we recorded the first track that night we arrived and then went in the next day to record the other track. Making that 45 was a pretty quick affair. Before we even went in, Jack already had that song "Last Kind Word Blues" in mind, which has always been a favorite of mine, so it was kind of funny how he had that one waiting there.

And then the live record was all planned. Jack was going to throw this big shin-dig and we would come there and record this live record there. Again, we were on tour at the time, and he just threw this big party and a lot people showed up. We thought the final product was actually pretty cool.

Were you connected with Jack before these recordings?

Dex: I remember Crash and I played in front of the White Stripes in Boston in the early 2000's. That was the first time I had met Jack in person. Throughout the years Sara and I have been making these records and then we played a really successful gig with Jack backing Wanda Jackson at The Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, which was maybe a year ago. So, off and on we crossed paths and it usually revolved around doing some kind of work. Sometimes it might have been a gig, or it might be a record we were doing. We just kind of cross paths when we do.

Your records include surf, rockabilly, soul, county, rock and roll and all kinds of styles that can be traced back through the decades. Can you talk about how intentional the sense of "timelessness" rather than nostalgia is in your work?

Dex: Me and Sara worked hard at that. We really like a lot of different kinds of music. I mean, Sara knows a lot about different types of music, including a lot of music from other countries. There's just all kinds of stuff. I mean like flamenco, classical, and all kinds of various bands... We really like everything from jazz music to rock and roll and everything in between.

We also really like that our live show and our own set-up jumps around between lots of different kinds of music. The new album jumps around a lot too. That was our plan: not to ever pigeon hole ourselves into any one thing. I would never say "Hey we're not a surf band" or "We're not a rockabilly band".  I rather remain a mystery to the public and keep it all undefined. My motto is that if a song is good let's do it! We play a lot of different types of music and we really want to keep it that way. Who knows, maybe we'll even go into even more bizarre things in the future. We really like Nick Cave and a lot of things he's done. He's been doing all kinds of things that are all over the place too. We really like when things are like that, and that's how we want it to be.

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