Dexter Romweber answers the door of his blue, wood-paneled house, his glasses perched upon his loose pompadour, flecked gently with gray. The unbuttoned collar of his crisp white shirt pushes past his black V-neck sweater. He says hello and motions toward the living room, another of his omnipresent cigarettes delineating an acrid pathway to a deeply cushioned easy chair. Romweber leans into a couch across the room, his spent cigarettes collecting in an adjacent old porcelain ashtray. A print of Marilyn Monroe leans in the corner of the room, offering bedroom eyes over Romweber's left shoulder.
Sitting in his house tucked back into the woods of western Chapel Hill, this genial version of Dexter Romweber seems a far cry from the intense, proto-rock 'n' roller who played the late show at The Cave last night with upright bassist Stu Cole. That Romweber had been a focused, charismatic frontman, lower lip forever puffed out into a scowl, his voice a dynamic growl that at turns recalled Jim Morrison's swagger and Johnny Cash's robust croon. Romweber's guitar crackled with vintage amplifier crispness, a real slapback rattle. And this Romweber seems even farther from the boldfaced "Dexter Romweber" of the underground legend Flat Duo Jets, a band that's been done for a decade but still counts among its legion of fans Jack White, Neko Case and X's Exene Cervenka.
As longtime friend Hoppie Newton puts it, "He's their celebrity."
That status remains a blessing and a curse for Romweber. On Tuesday, Feb. 10, Bloodshot Records—a big independent label out of Chicago—will release Ruins of Berlin, his new collaboration with sister Sara as Dex Romweber Duo. Case and Chan Marshall (of Cat Power) both sing on the disc, and it's bound to get some attention. But, nearly three decades into his recording career, Romweber, now 42, likes making music and hanging out more than living up to some rock 'n' roll and North Carolina icon status.
"I wouldn't mind just being an ordinary person," he says. "No celebrity, nothing to write about, no big anything—just like someone who's completely ordinary. When you get a taste of all that drama for so long, if you outgrow it, you just really don't want to deal with it anymore."
But Romweber understands the urge to have musical heroes, maybe a little too much. He likes finding out about his own heroes, wild stories about Jerry Lee Lewis, or lost recordings by the obscure rockabilly singer Benny Joy. In fact, talk to anyone who's spent some time with Romweber, and they'll mention that name. Romweber's prone to in-depth investigations of his favorite artists, including a pilgrimage to Benny Joy's home in Tampa, Fla. It's the music he cares about, though, not the fame.
Romweber pulls an old 45 rpm record from a crate. It's in a simple black sleeve with only a portrait of a masked man calling himself The Phantom on the front. Only his stage name and the titles of the two sides are supplied. Romweber plays the A-side, "Love Me," and sinks back into the sofa, lost in the song. When he listens to records, he falls into trance, eyes closed, mouthing the words as if in prayer. His cigarette lies motionless between his fingers. Over the next two hours, it's the only time the usually animated speaker actually sits still.
When the tune's over, he moves again and begins to shares the scraps of information he's found regarding The Phantom: The Phantom, he says, released only one record, the one that just ended. The Phantom didn't like the acclaim the single received, so he abandoned his career, playing small bars and working day jobs just to maintain his independence. Romweber smiles. He likes that.
"I think both of our bands have our certain niche," says Rick Miller, the Southern Culture on the Skids frontman who produced Romweber's 2004 album, Blues That Defy My Soul. "We both kind of developed our own followings and our own niche market. That's really success to me: doing it on your own terms. And I think Dexter's always done it that way."
Romweber has been playing out with various bands since he was a teenager—most notably the Flat Duo Jets, whose riotous rockabilly garnered a cult following in the early-'90s that still forms the core of Romweber's fanbase. "Our parents had to drive us to the gig, or even go in with us because of the liquor laws," he remembers. "The owners were really scared to death that we'd drink. We usually just went out somewhere and smoked weed. I don't smoke anymore, but back then we used to smoke quite a lot."
His latest effort, Ruins of Berlin, returns Romweber to duo form via the Dex Romweber Duo with Sara. She's drummed in Snatches of Pink and Let's Active, and together the pair created a dynamic, 14-track trip that only vaguely recalls the rockabilly and garage grit of the Jets: "Me and Sara really wanted to get away from the sort of neo-rockabilly thing. Not to put that stuff down, it's just we wanted to get different moods."
Instead, Ruins focuses more on '60s crooner pop, surfy twang, and a general vibe of rock classicism that would come as no surprise to anybody who's ever met Romweber, an avid record collector who is always eager to share his finds. Half of the songs on Ruins are covers Romweber decided to do while leafing through his own record collection. "Love Letters," on which he sings with Cat Power, was originally a Ketty Lester song that David Lynch used for Blue Velvet. Romweber found a copy of the 45 digging through the PTA Thrift Shop in Carrboro. The album's final cut, "It's Too Late," was inspired by a song of the same name by Durham honky-tonk singer Roy House. Romweber had that on 45, too, but he's lost it. He re-wrote the original tune from memory in order to get it on Ruins.
In December, Romweber also released a full-length album, Night Tide, with Dexter Romweber & The New Romans, a nine-piece big-band started by Romweber's best friend and roommate Dave Schmitt. The Romans remains Romweber's deliberately anti-rockstar band with a Phantom-esque career map—play for fun, play easy-to-reach local bars almost exclusively, and let the online CD orders roll in from as far away as Germany.
Indeed, even at the height of the Jets' fame, Romweber strove for some tie to normal life. Miller recalls working at a coffee shop in downtown Chapel Hill the day after the Flat Duo Jets played Letterman. Romweber came in with fliers for his lawn service: "I was like, 'Wow, this says a lot about the music business, doesn't it?'" he laughs. It said more about Romweber, actually. Even today, after more than two decades on the road, Romweber says, "I admire the common laborer and at times I even envy them, too."
That doesn't mean he hasn't had fun. The now-sober Romweber remembers one Raleigh house show in particular, a bacchanal of alcohol and mushrooms that became a sort of drug-induced nirvana. "It was one of the most rocking nights," he says. "I think because everyone was sort of collectively on the same trip, but me and Crow [Chris "Crow" Smith, the Jets' drummer] and the crowd were all absolutely moving in one rhythm. It was an incredible night. People still talk to me about that night even today."
After the Jets broke up, Romweber fell to crushing lows, slipping into what Waylon Jennings called the Hank Williams syndrome—being a creative person prone to self-destructive behavior. "I never expected it to go that low, but it did," he says. "And again, that goes back to getting out of the taking LSD and drinking a bottle of wine before you play."
Even if the booze is gone, Romweber still supplies the same intensity for the stage. "I would see the show night after night, and it was almost more of a religious experience than it was a show," says Newton, who has toured with Romweber and says the sober set is still transcendent. "He's sort of this really intense fucking character and you're just transported into this show ... it's like you're experiencing something different. There's something timeless about it and you're feeling it when you're in the room."
But sitting in his living room as the sun begins to drop behind the trees, Dexter Romweber is just Dexter Romweber: "Rock star, schmock star. Just living a pretty normal, basic existence has its allure. It does for me." And, in some ways, he does live a normal life. He hangs out with friends and talks about books and records. He takes walks and has trouble figuring things out on his computer. He frets about whether he should go out with the girl who called him a third of the way into this interview.
Or, as Newton puts it, "He's goofy as fuck. He cracks me up non-stop. He's wicked intelligent. He's a genius cat, but he's also just funny. He's a joy to hang out with."
It's just that he's a rock 'n' roll star even when he's not, and even when he doesn't want to be. "There were times when playing music and doing it as it's done, I knew that I wasn't going to bed a happy person." But it's not about the fame, or the influence. It never was. It's about the songs, the crisp tone of a vintage guitar and that primal energy he can't help but lay into every inch of tape he records and every show in every dive bar he plays.
But even so, as the afternoon sun casts its last glow through the old screen door, Romweber admits, tellingly, "I think that rock and rollers are as frail as anybody."
Dex Romweber Duo joins Killer Filler and Marc E. Smith & Michael Rank at Local 506 Saturday, Feb. 14, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $5-$7.