Dex Romweber isn’t known for his piano playing, necessarily. When prodded on the particular subject, Romweber will describe himself as “a failed classical piano player.” Romweber is a legend of North Carolina music, though, as an energetic frontman revered for his explosive guitar playing and singing, and his snarling, kinetic performances. I spoke to him earlier this week when he had a few hours before a standing gig, a Monday-night piano residency, at a club in his hometown of Chapel Hill. Romweber returns to Winston-Salem for a second time this month when he plays Monstercade later this week. (He made an appearance at the Heavy Rebel Weekender festival over the Fourth of July weekend.)
Romweber, 53, stays busy. In addition to his dates playing piano, and his shows with his guitar-drums duo, this month he was also in the process of finishing up a new album for Bloodshot Records, a follow-up to his 2016 record. He’s also begun doing extensive interviews with a writer for what could turn into a biography or a memoir. The death earlier this year of his sister, Sara, who had played drums in the Winston-Salem band Let’s Active with Mitch Easter, and frequently with Dexter, prompted Romweber to think more about getting the details of his life and career down on paper.
Sara also played a role in getting Rombweber to pursue his passion for piano music. She introduced her brother to Chopin, and the composer served as an inspiration for Romweber’s piano work, which can be heard in the brooding and Chopin-esque pieces on his 2006 record, which has études showcasing bold, cascading octave patterns on both the high and low ends of the keyboard as well as somber melodic figures. Romweber has said that as he’s gotten older, he’s gotten mellower, and maybe the piano is a way for him to explore the more low-key side of things because he still plays guitar and sings with impressive combustible power, menace and drive.
With his guitar and singing, Romweber can evoke the twitchy, pent-up punch of Elvis Presley or the other early rockers. But he also summons a vast range of musical influences and connects dots from all over the map, from the gypsy-jazz of Django Reinhardt to the belting fervor of Mahalia Jackson, the sophistication of Tin Pan Alley, the feverish thrum and twang of surf rock, the country suavity of Charlie Rich, or back deeper to the old, weird America of 78s or raw blues and old-time. There’s always been a dark, haunted quality to Romweber’s music, something that gives it a kinship to Nick Cave and Screamin Jay Hawkins. When his band the Flat Duo Jets emerged in the late ‘80s and started getting national attention in the early ‘90s, Romweber stood out with his magnetic performance style in an era of slouches and ambivalence.
The Flat Duo Jets, which were a drums-and-guitar duo most of the time, ended up making the template for a kind of stripped-down, two-person format that became almost commonplace, even if it was radical at first. The White Stripes, the Black Keys, the Japandroids and numerous other high-octane two-piece outfits owe a debt to Romweber. (Jack White has been outspoken about the inspiration he took from Romweber, and the two have worked together.)
But for every time Romweber gets cited as the progenitor of a bare-bones rock revival model he insists that it was not a part of any design or even an aesthetic preference.
“It was a total accident,” he said of how he and his Flat Duo Jets drummer and friend Chris “Crow” Smith arrived at the duo set-up. “I don’t recommend them.”
He said the duo arrangement creates problems of dynamics, balance and control. The Flat Duo Jets broke up 20 years ago, but Romweber has kept returning to the drums-and-guitar set-up because it’s a pragmatic way to keep a band together, to add rhythmic oomph to things without having the expense of a full band. (He records with a full band and says he’d like to add a saxophone player or organist to his ensemble if it were practical.)
One thing the drums-and-guitar arrangement preserves is an elemental brute force, a pounding and bashing, piston-pumping power. That’s one aspect of Romweber’s genius. Romweber has always pulled from and gravitated toward more subtle and complex models, but he’s never turned away from the expressive primitivism and crazed id-shaman characters that inspired him.
In a documentary about his life and career called Two Headed Cow, Romweber says that he was always drawn to idols that he described as “wreckage makers.” He lists the actors Erroll Flynn, John Barrymore and the poet Charles Baudelaire as inspirations, all of whom had a self-destructive bent. Elsewhere in the film Romweber said that at certain points he’s “toyed with madness,” and he alludes to mental breakdowns, sometimes sped up by drugs and alcohol, and the role of spirits. But he says it all with an impressive steadiness and control. It’s rare to see someone who has delved so deeply into dark extreme states and who can still summon the level of clarity and precision that Romweber clearly still has in his work. Romweber has walked a unique musical path. He’s almost existed outside of time and place. He’s remained receptive to so many varied sources of inspiration, all of them dictated not by any trends or specific regional features, but by his own tastes and preferences.
When I ask him what he might be doing if he wasn’t making music, he said he’d probably be a writer or a painter, two things that he does on his own already.
As he says in the documentary, “You don’t want your soul to become too closed up.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See the Dex Romweber Duo at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, on Friday, July 26.