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White Blood Sells

The Fiery Half of the Flat Duo Jets, Dexter Romweber Broke in the Next Generation of Garage-Rocking Duos

When You're a Jet: Still shy of 40, Flat Duo Jets frontman Dexter Romweber is the godfather of the roots rock revival.

By Rob Trucks | Posted 4/14/2004

Nobody plays rock 'n' roll with as much raw and naked passion as Chapel Hill, N.C.'s Dexter Romweber. Still shy of 40, Romweber is the godfather of this generation's roots-rock guitar/drum renaissance. According to Romweber, the conception of a two-piece band was an "accident," but, he says, "I think drums and guitar are like the basics of rock 'n' roll, you know. I think you can have a pretty full sound with just drums and guitar, so I'm not really surprised that there's a lot of people doing it."

This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the first Flat Duo Jets performance--Romweber on a 1965 black-and-white Silvertone, his childhood buddy Crow on a simple set of brand-nameless drums. The group's roots/rock-styled music was first heard outside the South in the 1986 documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out, but it would be four more years before a full-length Duo Jets record appeared. A year later the pair traveled to Memphis to record Go Go Harlem Baby with legendary producer Jim Dickinson. In 1998 R.E.M. knob-turner Scott Litt offered a major label deal and his production services. But by the release of Lucky Eye Romweber and Crow had drifted apart and a less than amicable split was a foregone conclusion.

Though Romweber insists that only the music matters, his career is at a crossroads between being confined to a casket of unrecognized influences and reaping what he has sown. This June sees the release of Romweber's second post-Jets disc, Blues That Defy My Soul, (his last one, Chased by Martians, suffered the double whammy of a small label and a Sept. 11, 2001, release date), and a Romweber documentary, the 17-year odyssey of a singular musician, is now in editing.

Stories about the former Duo Jets frontman abound: Dexter, wearing a Russian ushanka, attempting to cross the border into Canada with only a high-school yearbook for identification. Dexter, punished for bad table manners as a child, cheerfully eating from the dog food bowl placed on the table before him. Dexter's fascination with extraterrestrials. Dexter giving up showers and baths for an extended period of time. Dexter's ubiquitous walks through the streets of Chapel Hill carrying his guitar like a college student with a backpack. Dexter's assertion that he learned rhythm from ancient Egyptians in a prior life.

It doesn't matter whether or not these stories are true, because onstage and off- Romweber resides where few artists have visited. He is soft-spoken, insular, almost childlike--until he takes up his guitar and is inhabited with such fury that credence is lent to every 1950s preacher who proclaimed that rock 'n' roll was the devil's music. Romweber mainlines every element of Sun Studios-era rock 'n' roll--R&B, country, and soul--with recondite fervor. He is a musician's musician, appreciated most by those who come closest to comprehending his gift. Jack White is a fan, as are the Cramps, Exene Cervenka, and an untold number who have seen him perform.

"It's nice of him," Romweber says of White's recent commendations. "I mean, we played a gig with the White Stripes about nine months ago and he was telling me that he had basically slept with Go Go Harlem Baby. I listen to other artists and stuff, so if other people listen to me I don't have anything against it at all. I'm happy that he mentions us."

"You realize that Dexter truly is an original," says producer Bill Cody from his home in Seattle. Cody co-produced both Athens Inside/Out and the upcoming, as yet untitled Romweber documentary. "His playing and his singing come from a place that is so, so different than the average performer. That place that he comes from, that he taps into, is from some place that the rest of us don't have."

Alt-country singer Neko Case has been a fan since seeing Athens shortly after its 1986 release. "Basically from that moment, the Flat Duo Jets became my favorite band in the world and they still pretty much are," she says. "I was so into R&B and gospel music and stuff, and there's always that stigma that white people have no soul. The Flat Duo Jets totally blew that lame cliché away. They made me feel really hopeful and excited. They made me feel like I could play music, too. They're very out of time, very eerie, but very imprinting, you know. It's all about the passion."

The wellspring of Romweber's ardor is the mystery that attracts musicians and nonmusicians alike, and it seems to run in the family.

"We were very young, and he and his buddies were kind of putting a band together," Sara Romweber says of her brother. Dexter is the youngest of seven children, and Sara is older by three years. "Of course, they didn't have a drummer and we didn't have a drum set, so we just set up suitcases, all these different suitcases, and we started playing. And it didn't take long before I started to realize it was something I wanted to do for a very long time."

Sara became the original drummer for the Mitch Easter-led Let's Active before beginning a 15-year stint with Snatches of Pink. She then appeared on just one song on one Flat Duo Jets album, White Trees, before joining her brother in Rick Miller's nearby studio to play on two of the new record's 14 cuts. Miller, best known as Southern Culture on the Skids' frontman, co-produced Blues That Defy My Soul and wishes Dexter and Sara would perform together more often. "I was very happy to get her to do a couple tunes on it," Miller says. "Kind of the Family Romweber. They had a great chemistry."

"I'll tell you that nobody knows him in the way that I know him better than me," Sara says. "When he's sitting out on the front porch and he's just singing and playing his guitar, there's nothing else like it. It's one of those things where you grow up with it so you'd think I'd take it for granted, but I don't."

"Rock 'n' roll is based on instinct," Sara continues. "You don't know what's going to happen. But Dexter and I are cut from the same cloth, so when he goes into that terrain I'll follow. I'll follow him wherever he goes. It's not new terrain for me, but at the same time it's terrain that only he knows really well. Wherever he goes, you want to go there."

Romweber likes the road, and for the near future he'll tour. And in June, when Blues That Defy My Soul comes out, he'll tour some more. He'll carry on, unconcerned that this might be the year that musical fashion finally catches up to what he's been doing since the age of 11.

"Has he gotten the attention he deserves?" his sister asks. "No. Of course not. But I wouldn't say disappointment is there at all. I've gotten to be around him most of my life, and it's not like anything was taken. When I look at Dexter and I see what he has inspired, one can only feel good about that.

"The music business is a brutal business," Sara continues. "The thing about Dexter is he's happy with his guitar, so whether they pay attention to him or not is really almost unimportant. He'll die with that. It's sort of like when you have that kind of talent, they can't take it from you."

Dexter Romweber plays the Mojo Room April 15. For more information, call (410) 325-7427 or visit www.mojobalto.com.

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