The vintage tones, stylings, and themes of early-era rock 'n' roll have always been dominant elements of singer/guitarist Dexter Romweber's music. From his raucous heyday in the late '80 and early '90s with drummer Crow in the Flat Duo Jets, through his solo career and his latest project with sister/drummer Sara Romweber (formerly of Let's Active and Snatches of Pink), Dex has been snarling and crooning marvelous songs that rock and swing.
As the Dex Romweber Duo, the brother and sister act actually dates back to when they used to play together as young teenagers. Their first band was called Crash Landed and the Kamikazes. These days, the Romwebers eke out a living performing at bars and clubs around the country.
"We played a show in Asheville this month that was very positive and really powerful," says Dex, speaking from his home in North Carolina on the eve of the duo's current three-week national tour. "Although some shows aren't well attended, like in Greensboro in front of 10 people two weeks ago. The show was good, but it was hard to take. We head out into America over the next few weeks, and some of the places are going to be hit-or-miss, but that's generally the way it goes. But there are always moments of beauty during shows."
Dex and Sara have experienced just about everything that can happen during a rock show — good and bad.
"We toured Europe with Cat Power in front of thousands of people, and we've been in front of a bartender and a couple of stragglers in a bar in Keithville," Romweber adds. "But a good show for me is based on how I was able to execute the intensity and the timing — when things within my body are flowing, you know?"
This month, the Romweber siblings celebrate the release of their new studio album Is That You in the Blue? (Bloodshot) with a lengthy road trip across the U.S. It includes a stop at the Tin Roof in West Ashley. The collection follows their last Bloodshot album, 2009's Ruins of Berlin, a 7-inch single of hillbilly folk-blues with Jack White, and a limited-edition live album recorded at the Third Man record store in Nashville.
"It's a pretty heavy record," says Romweber of the new collection. "Sara and I were struggling to put songs together for this record. I had some old songs sitting around, and I wrote a few new ones as we went. It naturally took shape without a real theme to it. But I've been a song connoisseur for a long time, so I had strong tunes ready to go."
The duo recorded Is That You in the Blue? at a garage studio in North Carolina owned by Southern Culture on the Skids' singer/guitarist Rick Miller.
"I've known Rick a long time, so recording with him was really comfortable," says Romweber. "He had a vision of what we wanted, too. Sara and I have done a lot of road work over the last three years, so we'd honed what we do."
Carried over from his Flat Duo Jets days, one element that never diminished in Romweber's style was his trashy guitar tone. The distorted and echo-y twang he makes on his trusty 1963 Silvertone six-string has long been his trademark — until now.
"That Silvertone was my main guitar, but I stumbled over a mic in practice last week and crashed it and broke it," Romweber admits. "It's being repaired. It never stayed in tune very well, though — and Rick wouldn't let me use my Silvertone much in the studio because of that. Most of the album was recorded with vintage guitars that Rick had on hand. I have a reissued Danelectro with me now that stays in tune a lot better, and it feels okay."
As with their previous album, the duo's latest set explores a variety of moody and romantic lyrical notions. Some are heartbreaking ballads, others are total ragers. With additional guitars, bass, and sax, there is a richer, more full-band sound going on, though.
"When were in the studio, we experimented quite a bit," Romweber says. "I had a vision of what I wanted pretty much before I went in there. I knew I wanted a sax solo on 'Gurdjieff Girl,' and I had ideas for extra guitar parts for other songs. When I get into songs, I get into a sort of reverie and things just come to me. Like with the title track, it came forth out of the ether."
If the instrumental "Gurdjieff Girl" and the similarly dramatic "Climb Down" are two of the raging, fast-tempo surf-rock songs of the bunch — each ready to go as a theme song to a hip film about greasers, punks, or teenage derelicts — the sweeping, slow-swaying "Is That You in the Blue?" demonstrates the duo's Roy Orbison influences and penchant for crooning, strumming, and thumping in 6/8 rhythm. With lines like, "I hope you find loneliness with him/Whatever dark night you're in," Dex's sly lyrical wit come through as well.
"I don't have a different method to songwriting these days," Romweber says. "I just kind of get into a very silent place ... it's hard to explain. I try to clear my mind and listen to the voice in my heart on how the song should go."
The music on Is That You in the Blue? generally rolls with a blue mood, but the guitars and drums lock in tightly.
"Sara's definitely one of the most studied and applicable drummers I've ever played with," says Romweber. "You know, Crow was real good, but Sara takes the drums very seriously, and I think she tightens up the sound a lot. When I write a song, she understands what needs to be done, and not a lot is discussed. She'll ask a few questions, but she really puts together what needs to be behind these tunes I bring forth."
Sara swings with natural ease on waltzy songs like an old big band timekeeper. She also bashes with muscular force on the rockin' stuff. Her extended vocabulary of rhythmic patterns and fills allows her to stretch beyond typical garage-rock drumming, though. Her complex, Latin-style beats on the snare, toms, and cymbals on their rendition of the theme to the film Brazil ("Aquarela do Brasil" by Ary Barroso) is quite impressive (see the video clip below).
"She studied flamenco percussion and stuff," adds Romweber. "I can honestly says she's the best drummer I've ever played with. She's not into jamming, although sometimes I am. But ever since I was a young kid, she had a vibe on the drums that always pushed me forward. And there really is that brother/sister connection, too. Johnny Cash once said that music sounded best when family played it together. I can say that's true."