Many would argue that, in the world of creativity, there is a fine line between genius and insanity. The best artists, so the argument goes, usually straddle the line, often relying on the latter to achieve the former. Now, I'm not going to claim that John Michael Dexter Romweber is insane, but let's put it this way: if he has achieved genius, it wasn't by being level-headed. "Well, being in a rock-and-roll band, traveling around, playing around, I guess people see it as being pretty wild," is the way Dex puts it. "But when I started, I was just so young. To me it's always just been about finding inspiration, and trying to learn and grow."
UNSTOPPABLE: After barnstorming the ’80s and ’90s with the Flat Duo Jets, Romweber now plays with his older sister, Let’s Active drummer Sara.
Romweber, who comes to T.T. the Bear's on Wednesday, is what you'd call a natural — someone who never had to agonize over musical direction or inspiration. Over a three-decade career, both with his first band, the influential '80s two-piece Flat Duo Jets, and subsequently with his solo work, Dex has shown that songs and music just flow from him. Most would peg his music as rockabilly, or at least roots — and they'd be right, to an extent. It's as if his whole musical existence had been hermetically sealed from contemporary trends — all the better for him to marinate in his traditional influences.
Growing up in Carrboro, North Carolina, pre-teen Dex was obsessed with his family's extensive '50s record collection. He eventually moved into a detached garage behind the house that he named "The Mausoleum." There, in the "Maus," amid the trash, cigarette butts, and stacks of classic records, he formed — with drummer Chris "Crow" Smith — Flat Duo Jets.
The Jets played hyper-energetic rock music that managed to stay entirely within the domain of '50s rock and rollwithout pandering or being dated. This was due in part to the telepathic mania of Crow's trap hitting, but mostly to Dex's magnetism. As a singer, he was a thousand different voices all within one teenage mouth, whether he was hollering hellward or sweetly crooning. As a guitarist, he took advantage of the space afforded him by the duo format: with just a beat-up Silvertone and a modest combo amp, he was able to sound larger and more frenetic than any shoegaze band with an army of pedals and stacks.
"We didn't really know what we were doing," he says over the phone from North Carolina. "It was pure accident how we started, with people sitting in here or there until it was just me and Crow. And now it becomes 'in'!" Indeed, but at the time it was novel, though Dex maintains that there's nothing really new about the duo in the history of rock. "I love the duo format, in part because drums and guitar are just the basis of rock and roll. When we started, it was tricky for me as a guitarist, because I had to learn to play chord solos and stuff, playing leads and chords at the same time, that sort of thing."