Songwriter Interviews

Dex Romweber

by April Fox

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For the past 35 years or so, Dex Romweber has been one of music's proverbial best-kept secrets. His southern gothic-infused style of bluesy, punk-tinged rock and roll incorporates everything from surf rock to classical music, creating a sound that no one could replicate - not that folks haven't tried.

If you know Jack White, you know Dex Romweber, whether you've heard the name or not. White freely admits to being Romweber's biggest fan (he called him "one of the best-kept secrets of the rock and roll underground"), but even without such an admission, Romweber's influence on White's style is instantly apparent to fans of both artists; you can hear it in the guitar tones and the simple, bluesy lyrics. Both were in duos with female drummers, Romweber with his sister Sara, who died of a brain tumor in March; White with his ex-wife Meg, who he claimed was his sister. White performed on the Dex Romweber Duo's "The Wind Did Move," which was recorded at his Third Man Records.

White isn't the only artist touched by Dex Romweber's musical genius, however. The Legendary Shackshakers' JD Wilkes cites him as an all-time favorite, and shades of Romweber's eclectic style can be heard in the music of countless other bands, including Angry Johnny And The Killbillies, and the Jim Jones Revue.

Born in Indiana in 1966, Romweber grew up in gritty Carrboro, North Carolina. His penchant for the dark and macabre speak to a life that's been less than idyllic. First with the Flat Duo Jets, then with the Dex Romweber Duo and finally as a solo artist, Romweber's lyrics speak often of heartbreak and loneliness, and there's a poetic melancholy to even the simplest songs.

The melancholy was painfully clear at a recent show at Asheville, North Carolina's Sly Grog Lounge. The brilliant and quirky Mike Kane opened the show, followed by Skunk Ruckus, a tight punkabilly act fronted by a grinning guy with an electric banjo. The atmosphere changed to one of near-reverence when Romweber stepped onto the stage with only a guitar and a small amplifier. He put on a powerful performance, and the audience felt every bit of the emotion he poured into his songs. After the show, he quickly retreated to the back, and the impression was of a man who had just poured everything he had into pleasing his fans, and then some. He later admitted that it had been a rough night, and I was torn between hating that he felt he had to play when he was feeling that way, and loving the depth and rawness that his emotional state brought to the stage.

I spoke to Dex Romweber before his Asheville show, and he immediately opened up about his life and how many others have shaped his musical style. This is a man as layered as the music he weaves and as open as the tales he tells. After a bit of small talk about reptiles, favorite teachers, and the relative creepiness of daddy longlegs invading one's bedroom, we got down to the business of songwriting.
April Fox (Songfacts): I read that you started your first band when you were only 11 years old. Since that's about the age of the kids I teach and quite a few of them are really into music and writing, I have to ask: What advice would you give to a young person who was interested in music or songwriting?

Dex Romweber: Yeah, I was 11. I have kind of a different approach to all that. It's not really rooted in the 3D dimension, but I will tell you this: Sometimes I hear songs in dreams, and I kind of get in some weird reverie and go somewhere else, and songs come to me. I'm not a big Mötley Crüe fan, but I've been reading about Nikki Sixx, and he said to find the artists that you really love and a style that you really love, and then try to write songs in the vein of those artists you love and admire so you're getting in touch with what you like. That made sense to me. And the songs that happen to me are in the vein of music that I like. It's the music that I like to hear.

Songfacts: I spoke with J.D. Wilkes of the Legendary Shackshakers a while back and he listed you as one of his favorite artists and influences. Who influenced you the most when you first started writing songs, and who is influencing you now?

Romweber: Oh, that's cool. I have a lot of influences, and it's not all rock and roll, either. I like classical music. I like Frédéric Chopin. I like Bach, I like Beethoven. I really wanted to be a classical pianist but I didn't have the discipline to read a Beethoven sonata. I ended up writing classical music on the piano in the vein of Chopin and Bach, but it's not nearly on their level.

But that's just that side. In terms of rock and roll, it goes as far back as Jimmy Rogers in the 1940s. It goes to Leadbelly, to big band music, to Stan Kenton. He was a big band leader in the '40s and '50s, and he's one of my favorites. There's a song of his called "Taboo," which I think is one of the coolest songs ever, and then me and my sister recorded one of his songs that's a lot more simple called "Lonesome Train."

Songfacts: I love that one.

Romweber: Yeah, it's really cool. His version is way cool.

Anyway, I like Lena Horne, I like Sarah Vaughan, I like Elvis Presley, I like Gene Vincent, I like The Rolling Stones, I like The Ramones. Let's see, I like instrumental surf music from the early '60s, you know, The Ventures, and all these obscure people. I like a lot of real obscure artists that people don't know about that were really talented but didn't "make it," whatever that means.

There was a fella out of Tampa named Benny Joy who I would consider one of my favorites of the rock and roll genre. I like Django Reinhardt, the jazz guitarist. I like weird movie soundtracks from the '40s, like Marlene Dietrich songs. I like some punk music but not all of it, and I'm not a big death metal guy. At this time in my life I don't like really loud music, although sometimes I play it and sometimes I listen to it. But I like something that's going to soothe me, not agitate me.

Songfacts: I go back and forth on that. Sometimes I want something that's going to chill me out, but sometimes it's cathartic to turn the music wide open and drive as fast as I can in my old Chevy.

Romweber: Yeah, there's a time for that. There's a song by The Ramones, it was the last song on their last record, and Dee Dee Ramone was still writing songs for them even though he had left the band so many years before. It's called "Born to Die in Berlin." Oh, what a great song, April! It's so cool. And Dee Dee, out of all the Ramones, he's the one I liked the most because he was way more crazy. Well, maybe. They all kinda were.

A strange story about Dee Dee is that the Flat Duo Jets were playing in New York City and my road manager walks up to me and he says, "Dee Dee Ramone is warming up for you guys tonight." And I said, "No way!" I didn't even believe him. And then I walked outside and I saw the flyer and damn sure, it said that Dee Dee Ramone is playing acoustic guitar solo in front of the Flat Duo Jets. I watched his whole show, and I loved it. I thought it was so great.

Songfacts: That had to be awesome.

Romweber: It was! And then I went and met him afterwards. He's a fella who looked like he'd done a lot of drugs, you could just tell. They sort of wash over the mind, you know? But he had this really rich girlfriend and the girlfriend had her rich father and rich friends around Dee Dee. And all I could say to him was, "Great show, I loved it, awesome," and he smiled and thanked me, and that was the extent of my meeting him. Anyway, that was a memorable night. It was crazy, and it was so long ago. It was like 28 years ago.

Songfacts: Let's talk about your song "The Wind Did Move." Tell me about writing that.

Romweber: I like songs in minor keys. Hank Williams, Sr. wrote a song called "Alone and Forsaken," which is one of my favorite songs of all that stuff.

I've written my share of songs in minor keys. "The Wind Did Move" is kind of southern gothic music, and basically, it's about the southern trees and wind. It's a slightly spooky chord progression.

It's not a difficult song. I tell you what, David Lee Roth, he's not someone I really like. I don't like for artists to be so goddamned full of themselves! Outside of his colossal conceit, he's an interesting character, and he said, "Rock and roll is nothing but speeded-up folk music." That's what "The Wind Did Move" is. It's speeded-up folk music. It's that simple.

Songfacts: I like the spookiness of it, but I tend to like spooky things anyway.

Romweber: Me too, but don't get too far into it or you won't get back. A lot of us do that though, don't we? A lot of the classical music I like is pretty spooky. I like positive music too, but I was drawn to pretty dark stuff for a long time.

Songfacts: I like some positive stuff, but I don't like the stuff that sounds like an infomercial that's trying to sell you on how to be happy in a certain way, that contrived positivity. Whatever I'm listening to needs to be real.

Romweber: I totally agree. A lot of the music I hear when I go out, I really can't stand. So much of it is really fake-ish, and that was the great thing about old music: It wasn't like that.

Songfacts: There's something to be said for authenticity. I've been listening to "Is That You In The Blue," the title track off that album [2011], and there's one line that really hit me: "I hope you find loneliness within whatever dark night you're in." I'm driving and kind of half-listening, thinking, "Ok, this is one of those sad love songs," and then I heard that line, and had to start the song over. It's a great line. What inspired that song?

Romweber: It was written a long time ago. I think it was about a girlfriend that I had... well, she wasn't a girlfriend, she was someone that I met on the road who I liked very much.

That's the problem with this road life: You get out on the road and you meet people and you don't live where they live, and people have whole other lives. Then you meet them, and they make such an impression on you, but the thing is, it's not going to work out. So a lot of them that I met got married or were settled in with other mates, and it always really hurt that I was never able to make anything like that happen because of the nature of the work I was in.

"Is That You In The Blue" was written about a woman named Tracy, an actress, not well known, but interesting. She had written me saying, "Look, I'm settling down with this guy, I have kids, you don't have a place in my life no matter what we shared, so get lost." And I wrote that line in reference to, you know, "I hope you have dark nights in whatever loneliness you're in, sweetie." It's the nature of the beast, you know?

Songfacts: I've been listening to your latest album, Carrboro, quite a bit lately.

Romweber: Oh, cool! That's something I'm glad to hear, because I don't know who's listening, who cares, if anybody likes it or anything.

Songfacts: I like all of it, but I think my favorite is "Who's That Knocking On My Coffin Lid Door?" Can you tell me about that one? It's such a fun song to listen to, and it seems like it would have been a lot of fun to write.

Romweber: It was, and it came in one of those weird reverie states. I wouldn't say it's between sleep and awakening, it's more like when I'm lying in a dark room in silence, and then I tend to go somewhere else, and when I went somewhere else I saw the whole song completely, right in my mind's eye. The electric guitar part was totally clear to me. The song is just two chords, which is even better. Those types of songs - I wouldn't say it's genius, but it's a little like Nicola Tesla, who saw his inventions in his mind's eye before he invented them. I would never put myself on par with that, it's just that I see the structure in the same way.

The lyrics, I have to write. I see the song, but I have to write the words. That song is about my old mausoleum on Pine Street in Carrboro, and having people knock on the door early in the morning, a girl or something, and you're not even awake and you basically have nothing for them.

Songfacts: Wait, so was this literally a mausoleum that you lived in? I can't just let that go.

Romweber: It was a small house filled with a lot of really weird things. There was another old house, abandoned, just a few feet away, and we got tons of gothic, weird stuff there. It was the Danziger house. But I made my place in the motif of the '30s and '40s Munsters and Addams Family gothic horror. It was a gothic horror rockabilly kind of house about the size of a mausoleum, so we called it that. It was amazing. It went up in an LSD trip gone bad. It went up in flames and my best friend almost died in that thing. It was really close.

MTV came to the mausoleum in 1985 - there's footage that MTV aired. If you put in "Flat Duo Jets Cutting Edge MTV," you'll see the mausoleum.

Songfacts: I'm going to look that up.

Romweber: Yeah, it's on YouTube. That's me in 1985, which was a real hellbent teenage time. I gave a little tour of the maus, it's pretty dark but you'll get the picture.

Songfacts: On the song "Go Go Harlem Baby," the lyrics are very simple and the music is more complex. Did you write the music first on that one, or the words?

Romweber: That was written so long ago, and it took me a long time to like that record [Go Go Harlem Baby] - it took me like 13 years. I can be really critical.

The records I made with my sister [Sara] were my favorite records, more than the Flat Duo Jet records. But that song, the music was written first. I thought it sounded a little Stones-ish. I wasn't trying to emulate The Stones, but it was just a grooving, rocking little tune about New York City.

Songfacts: Another one I really like is "The 309." What's the story behind that?

Romweber: Well that is so cool, but I did not write that. My sister Sara wanted to cover it. She passed away a few months ago.

Songfacts: I was really sorry to hear that.

Romweber: Yeah, it's been rough. But she said something I'll always remember. She said she loves playing covers. I hear so many that I love, and "309" is one of them. It was from a record called Sin Alley, which is my favorite record. It's the most raw, lascivious, sexy, fucked up, low, weird, '50s music. It's not the clean stuff, it's the dirty stuff. I mean not lyrically, but the recording. Sex is written all over it. You can tell it's pretty wild. But I think that was recorded by Mel McGonnigle, whoever that was, and it's something else. [The recording on Sin Alley Vol.1 was actually by Johnny Thompson.]

Songfacts: Another one that I know is a cover is "My Funny Valentine." Your version is instrumental, and I'm really curious how you came up with that arrangement, because it's right from the start clearly recognizable as that song, but it's also 100% a Dex Romweber song. How did you come up with that idea?

Romweber: Well, I'll tell you, April, one night we were on tour in New York City, and they have some great radio stations up there. I had some crazy friends and we're driving around the city in the middle of the night, and there's a DJ up there called The Hound. He plays this instrumental, it's not "My Funny Valentine," it was something else, I don't even know what it was, but it was just organ and drums. It sounded like it maybe might have been a jazz tune, but I don't know. And then there was this great breakdown of a drum solo in the middle of this song. I thought it was so great! I'm lying in the back of this Cadillac or whatever we're driving around in, and I hear this tune, and I'm like, "I've got to do something this cool."

With "My Funny Valentine," again, it's back to that dark room and lying silently, listening. Another thing is that I love Chet Baker, and he does "My Funny Valentine." It's somehow Chet Baker and that recording up in New York City and the digging of that song all sort of meshed together.

In the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White plays Flat Duo Jets' version of "Froggie Went A Courtin'" for Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and U2 guitarist The Edge, citing it as an example of why Dex Romweber and Flat Duo Jets had such a profound influence on him.
Songfacts: The last one I want to ask about, and it's purely for sentimental reasons, is "Frog Went A Courtin'." I love it, my grandma used to sing it to me, and when I heard your version it blew me away. I play it for my tiny little grandson now. But what made you decide to cover that, of all things?

Romweber: I gotta tell you, April, a lot of rock and roll, I wouldn't say all of it, but you're primarily influenced by other people or you find stuff from other people. That song was on that record, Sin Alley, by some obscure rockabilly guy [Danny Dell] who cut it rock and roll style. That record had such an amazing impact on me, and again, you hear these things and you're like, "I want to do that."

I was young, too. It was a long time ago. I wouldn't necessarily do that now... I mean I might, but if you look up that album, and you listen, you'll hear really bizarre '50s people. I was just copying someone else, but that's what we're all doing. We find what we love and we do it.

June 29, 2019
Dex Romweber has a new album in the works. While you wait, you can catch him live on the following dates:

July 6, Boone Saloon, Boone, NC with The Karloffs
November 6, The EARL, Atlanta, GA with Southern Culture on the Skids
November 7, Saturn Birmingham, Birmingham, AL with Southern Culture on the Skids
November 9, The High Watt, Nashville, TN with Southern Culture on the Skids
November 10, The Pilot Light, Knoxville, TN with Southern Culture on the Skids

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