Athens, Georgia produced a lot of great bands in the ’80s and ’90s: R.E.M., the B-52’s, Widespread Panic, Vic Chestnutt, Pylon, Love Tractor, and Bloodkin, to name a few. For a year or so, Flat Duo Jets also called Athens home, having settled in to the thriving music community from their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Frontman Dex Romweber again calls Chapel Hill home today, and he doesn’t particularly consider himself a part of that Athens scene. He’s hesitant to attach himself to anything, really; not the Athens scene, not Jack White’s Third Man Records, which released a record from Romweber and his sister a few years ago. Dex is just Dex.
“We were playing successful gigs [in Athens], and the town had a lot of energy,” Romweber says of the band’s original decision to call Athens home for a while. “It was a party town, and we were big partiers ourselves. Not so much these days. So we docked there for a year.”
So it was convenience. It wasn’t really style that influenced the move. It wasn’t any relationship with other bands in the scene. It was about what worked best for Dex.
“I wasn’t really a fan of the Athens bands,” he said. “They’re alright, and it was certainly a wild atmosphere, but I was listening to different types of music. I guess R.E.M. put it on the map. The artists I listened to were rock and roll and rockabilly from the old days, but I also listened to country music, and I eventually got into jazz and classical music. Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. While people were going out and listening to Love Tractor, I was at home listening to Eddie Cochran.”
The band was a big inspiration for Jack White and The White Stripes. In 2009, White invited Dex to cut a live record at Third Man Records in Nashville, which included a track in which White joined Dex and his sister Sara on bass. While Romweber appreciated the attention, it was likely more memorable for White.
“I like Jack, and it’s cool that he gave me a good word,” said Romweber. “But I was a veteran at that point. It was nice of Jack, but I didn’t dwell on it.”
Nor did the original recordings with Jim Dickinson in Memphis, Tennessee, influence Romweber’s sound.
“We already had a sound,” he said. “Jim just made sure the lights were on. We came to the session with the songs and the ideas of what we wanted to do. Jim is someone I miss, and he was a great guy. But he didn’t have any input on our sound.”
Back then, Flat Duo Jets frequented the Nick when they came to Birmingham.
“God, that place has 10,000 million nights of drunkenness and drugs and darkness, man,” he said. “That’s one hell of a place. That’s the only place I remember playing in Birmingham; it’s been a long time.”
The current lineup isn’t the original one — and that’s kind of an accident. They’ll play some dates with Reverend Horton Heat and Agent Orange as “Flat Duo Jets.” But this isn’t a reunion; Romweber is still recording under his own name. No, this lineup is Dex and Crash LaResh, who replaced “Crow” Smith in Flat Duo Jets in the mid-’90s. But they’ll largely draw from the Flat Duo Jets catalog.
A lot of people may think Romweber took some time off in the early 2000s, but if he did, it wasn’t much.
“When the original Flat Duo Jets would take breaks, me and Sam [LaResh’s real name] would play a lot together,” Romweber said. “After the original lineup ended, we picked up playing together again in 1998, and we’ve basically been playing together, off and on, since then. There may have been a little bit of a break, but if there was, there wasn’t much of one. Especially in the past few years.”
While he’s passive about his influence, it’s far-reaching. Duos became all the rage, and Dex Romweber was doing the rock duo thing a long time ago. Whether solo or the Dex Romweber Duo or “Flat Duo Jets” with an asterisk is no matter. It’s Dex, and Dex is what sells the ticket.
Flat Duo Jets opens for Unknown Hinson at Zydeco on Friday, May 5. Doors open at 9 p.m. and the show begins at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit zydecobirmingham.com.