Romwebers lay it down in a family way

by Jordan Green

Dexter Romweber is a man you see once and never forget: starched white shirt rolled up at the elbows and tucked into pine-green slacks, sunglasses, imposing physique, sensuous eyes and lips formed in a hard pout. You might imagine him as a striving gas-station owner from the ’50s about to explode under the weight of business and family responsibilities, and given to lush outbursts of anger and affection.

Instead, he is a man totally committed to his art who takes fluctuations in personal fortune in stride. He looks thoroughly possessed as he steps onstage with a black and white Danelectro guitar smartly strapped over his chest, crooning and snarling lyrics about a “lonesome train,” and playing cascading riffs that reverberate with naked intensity, that modulate from spare rhythm guitar to shards of rockabilly quicksilver. Dexter Romweber’s guitar playing can lurch forward or slow down, explode out of the gate or pull back at any moment, and the drums – ably handled by older sister Sara – respond to the most subtle shifts; her drumming mimics and prods. A guitar trill begets a drum roll; quick, loud strokes receive immediate percussive reinforcement.

“If we were actors, he would be the lead actor and I would be the supporting actor,” Sara Romweber says. “It’s really a hard job, and my job is to create a platform for him. If everyone in the room doesn’t walk away feeling like they’ve seen one of the great rock-and-roll artists of our time, I feel that I’ve failed.”

Sara finishes each song in the Dexter Romweber Duo’s set at the Garage in Winston-Salem on May 20 with a pixie-like grin that counterbalances Dexter’s perpetual expression of dissatisfaction. She hunches over her kit, elbows out and body rocking while her brother hops around the stage.

“When he pulls back, you have to pull back,” she says. “When he leans in, you have to lean in. You have to be able to follow him very quickly. He doesn’t repeat things. You can’t hang on to him…. It takes a lot of energy to be in the moment, and that’s where he is most of the time.”

Everything about Dexter is out of step: his keening sentimentality, his punk-inflected agitation, most of all his raw, unprocessed music. He says he has little notion of what’s going on in the current music scene, and expresses more than a little nostalgia for the 1980s, when he and Sara were growing up in a large family in Carrboro and each was displaying precocious instincts for music that was strange, new and exciting.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Dexter says. “Maybe it’s just the Bush administration. Everybody’s more conservative. Computers hadn’t completely taken over [in the ’80s]. People have less money now. I mean, they didn’t have a lot then, but you could get by. Everything is more tight, but not for me.”

After playing together in a band called the Remains in their early teens, the siblings made their respective marks on North Carolina music in separate bands, Dexter with the Flat Duo Jets and Sara with Snatches of Pink. They spent about fifteen years apiece with those bands.

“Crow was a fine drummer, but we couldn’t work together anymore,” Dexter says of his erstwhile partner in the Flat Duo Jets. “It wouldn’t be the first time that happened to a band. I hope he’s all right now. I have some really wild memories. It wasn’t all bad…. We were trying so hard to make good records when our own personal lives were self-destructing. We were trying to live together, and having very different personalities.”

Snatches of Pink emerged as a raunch-rock unit in the 1980s, harnessing punk’s fury and tilting against the jangly college rock of the day. When MTV came to Chapel Hill to document the scene, Snatches of Pink got edged out of a bill drawn up by a committee to play the Cat’s Cradle, Sara says, but then owner Frank Heath told the network that Snatches of Pink was one of his favorite bands. In the late 1980s, bands like Superchunk that emphasized a more noisy and cerebral approach helped bring the Chapel Hill scene its moment of national renown. Again, Sara says, Snatches of Pink and the Flat Duo Jets, as torch-carriers of straight-up rock and roll, seemed to miss their moment.

“We were like a punk-rock hair band,” Sara says. “Hanoi Rocks was around then. The New York Dolls were really big in my life. No one seemed to get it.”

Sara retains fond memories of Snatches of Pink, and left on a positive note.

“I needed to build a house,” she explains. “I needed to get an actual day job. I started to play music professionally when I was fifteen. I played through my mid-thirties. I went to the bank and they said, ‘That’s nice that you saved up all this money, but you need an income.’ So, that’s what I did: I got a regular job. You have to appease the monster.”

Seeing Dexter and Sara together, it’s easy to sense how much water has passed under the bridge and at the same time how much fun they have together. They confer onstage before their set begins, and Sara smiles beatifically as if to offset Dexter’s chronic disgruntlement.

A clip of MTV’s “Cutting Edge” from 1985 that is circulating on YouTube gives a distinct snapshot of the teenaged Dexter, who is impenetrable in some ways and certainly eccentric. He clanks around in a bus-driver’s cap and black leather jacket giving a tour of his living quarters, a shed behind his parents’ house dubbed the “Mausoleum.” He flashes a still of Herman and Lily Munster in front of the videographer, and earnestly explains, “This is what gave me the inspiration for this place. That’s my father, my mother. Very nice. Very nice couple.”

Later, after he and Crow have given a performance in the yard, Dexter bids farewell: “Thanks for coming to the Maus. I’m always around. ‘Cause this is a lonesome town. But then again all towns are lonesome.”

Dexter wasn’t really the spawn of a monstrous invention. In fact, the Romwebers’ parents were really cool.

As a teenager, Sara would drive out to Winston-Salem after school to practice with Let’s Active, one of her first bands. She also helped out as a gofer when bandmate Mitch Easter was producing the first couple REM records. Then there were the tours.

“We’d go down and play in Athens and Atlanta, and we’d drive back all Sunday night,” Sara recalls. “I’d get to school, and I reeked of cigarettes and beer. My teacher was kind of concerned, and wanted to talk to my mom.”

In the beginning, Sara would put on headphones, put on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti – placing quarters on top of the needle to keep it from skipping – and play along on her drum set in emulation of John Bonham. At that time, she says, Karen Carpenter was the only female drummer she knew about. Later, when Let’s Active signed to IRS Records, she was proud to be label mates with fellow women drummers Gina Schock of the Go-Gos and Debbi Peterson of the Bangles.

“I know what I want to be,” Sara Romweber remembers saying. She mimics her mother’s dubious response: “Really.”

“I want to be a drummer.”

There’s a pregnant pause in the telling of the story, and then her mother’s decisive affirmation: “That’s a great thing to be.”

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