It’s easy to get bogged down in Dex Romweber’s past. He is, after all, the leader of cult-favorite neo-rockabilly firebrands Flat Duo Jets, which is perhaps how he is best known to his fans, including Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, X’s Exene Cervenka, Neko Case, and Jack White, who has called Romweber “a huge influence.”
Not to disparage any of his past accomplishments and accolades, but Romweber is even better in the present tense. As the frontman of his eponymous Duo (with drummer and sister Sara Romweber), and the sprawling big-band Dexter Romweber & the New Romans, Romweber has expanded greatly upon his famed rockabilly sensibility, incorporating country, blues, jazz and lounge music into his set. Slithering surf riffs meet smoky jazz horns for a sound Romweber described as “lascivious stripper music.”
As the New Romans gear up for their June 21 Music in the Gardens performance, we checked in with Romweber by phone. In the second part of our interview (read part one here), we find out how he might translate a dark, lascivious sound for an outdoor, after-work concert. A hint: we’ll all end up pleasantly surprised.
The Thread: How faithful do you feel like you need to be, or want to be, when you’re taking on a cover?
Dexter Romweber: It doesn’t have to be too faithful, but a lot of these singers I really, really admire. And I’ve found throughout all these years that every musician plays different, no matter who they are. It’s pretty impossible to sing like Charlie Rich or Patsy Cline. And there are some singers that really have influenced me a lot, but even then, I have to be careful not to directly copy them.
Is there anything that you wouldn’t cover, because it just seems like a sacred cow or something?
No, you know, most of the songs I don’t cover is if a lot of people cover them. I don’t like to do a song that everybody does or everybody knows. And it’s not always like that—there are bands like the Cramps, they borrowed a lot from ‘50s obscure rockabilly artists and they picked really, really great ones. But I tend to not do those types of songs because the Cramps already recovered them.
How have some of the songs that have influenced you, or that you’ve picked up and added to your set, informed the songs that you write?
Off and on. I don’t know if I borrow everything from everybody. I like a lot of different types of music. Frédéric Chopin is one of my favorite artists, J.S. Bach, people like that. I like Django Reinhardt and Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole, and then into the obscure rockabilly artists, people like The Phantom and Roy House and Ronnie Self, and more well-known ones like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. A lot of different stuff.
But the real obscure stuff, I really like a lot. I like the people that weren’t well known. There was an instrumental band called the Sparkplugs out of the ‘50s, and when I hear stuff like that I hope to write material along those lines. And you know, the Romans have a bit of instrumentals in our set, so we borrow everything from The Ventures to early Dave Clark Five, before the Fab Four took over everything. Stuff like that.
You said you try to create this sort of lascivious, seedy bar ambiance with the Romans.
Yeah, that’s what I prefer.
Is there a certain quality that you look for and you know you’ve hit on that sound?
Yeah, yeah. It’s chord progressions and certain riffs. And I’ve always liked music not to be too clean for myself, but that’s not to say I haven’t heard music that was well-produced that I thought was really, really good, too.
How do you think you’ll be able to take that dark and smoky atmosphere into an early evening performance at Duke Gardens?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I can. But the Romans have played outdoor sets and it had a very big-band type of feel. People like Stan Kenton, I’ve always admired a lot. I remember we played an outdoor gig at The Station in Carrboro about two years ago. It was an early summer, rainy evening, and just with the way we were all going and the horns blasting, I felt like I was at some 1940s outdoor concert. It was a really great memory for me with the Romans, so it could be more like that, I hope. I’m not really sure where it all goes.
A lot depends on all our frames of mind, if we’ve had a chance to calm ourselves before we hit the stage, or if it’s just chaos. You know, sometimes setting up for a gig is absolute chaos and that can have a really good effect or it can have a weird effect. I don’t want to put a negative spin on it, I’m just saying that you never know how a gig’s going to be. That goes for every show I’ve played with any musician.
I think we’ll be ready for the performance, and I think we’ll have a lot of fun.