Flat Duo Jets - Eye of the hurricane
Even though it's the middle of the afternoon, the Romweber household west of Chapel Hill is dark. The blinds are drawn, all the lights off. In fact, the only source of artificial light anywhere in the house is the television set glowing in the den.
And what is Flat Duo Jets guitarist Dexter Romweber watching? The Weather Channel.
"I'm so sick of normal TV, The Weather Channel is about all I watch anymore," says Romweber as he chain-smokes. "Although I watched the Discovery Channel last night. I try to watching something educational." Romweber turns his attention back to the screen, which displays a map tracking Hurricane Georges. This is not an idle pastime for people who live in North Carolina, which has been hurricane-ravaged more than once in recent years. But Georges is headed toward Florida, sparing the Carolinas, and Romweber is disappointed.
"I always seem to be on the road when hurricanes hit here," he says. "Which is a shame, because I'd like to be here. But...I tend to be gone a lot."
For once, however, Romweber is selling himself short: He tends to be real, real gone a lot. And even if he misses the storms that hit his hometown, similar calamities follow Romweber around, because a Flat Duo Jets performance can be the closest thing to being pummeled by a hurricane this side of the real deal. The Feelies once titled an album Crazy Rhythms, but it's the Flat Duo Jets who are still delivering them seven years after the Feelies broke up, night after night after night.
They just might be the most original cover band ever. What cartoon-metal band White Zombie does with horror movies and bonehead metal, the Jets do with sci-fi movies and rockabilly -- they dig up the bones, make a rocket ship out of them and fly on up to Saturn.
Now the Flat Duo Jets have done something even more radical. They've slowed down, smoothed out and made an actual pop record with their new Outpost Records album Lucky Eye. Eighteen songs, all originals, some of them actually taken at less than breakneck tempo. A handful even have (ye gads) a 12-piece string section. And it's all as great as it is confounding.
"I don't think people believed we could make a record like this, because we have a history of going in and banging it out in three days," says Jets drummer Chris "Crow" Smith, the other half of the duo. "I'm really proud of this record, I think it's by far the best one we've ever made -- because we had the time and the budget and the space and peace of mind to make a real 'record,' rather than just some live raucous thing. But I still love our older records, too, and hope we can do more of the raw stuff in the future. Dex and I want to hold onto that aspect of the band because it's something special."
In fact, anyone concerned that the Jets have mellowed out will find reassurance in the live album they put out earlier this year. Wild Blue Yonder, on Norton Records, is the next best thing to being there, smartly capturing the duo in all their crazed gonzo rockabilly vampire glory with one frenzied raveup after another.
Honestly, though, the Jets have made plenty of records like that already. For now, the focus is on Lucky Eye, and rightly so.
"I wanted this to be something different from what they've done," says Scott Litt, who signed the Jets to Outpost and co-produced Lucky Eye with Chris Stamey. "I tried not to force any ideas on them, and we didn't do anything they weren't enthusiastic about. I just wanted to get the vibe of the group in a way that would appeal to a few more people, hopefully."
During their 14-year history, Flat Duo Jets have broken up and reunited more times than even they can keep track of. Crow says their first breakup actually happened in the middle of their first big newspaper interview, although the writer who conducted the interview (Kirk Ross) remembers it differently. His version is that they'd broken up earlier, and reconciled in front of him and his tape recorder after an impromptu jam session in which Crow used empty ice cream containers for drums.
At least some of the Jets' instability is due to Romweber's shifting moods. Most everyone connected with the group treads lightly around the topic, but...well, let's just say that the crazed abandon Romweber evokes so well onstage seems to come to him naturally. It's worth noting, however, that Romweber seems to be in a far better state of mind now than he was a few years ago.
"It was just...a lot of wild living," Romweber says of his past. "I did a lot of crazy things, and some I'm not too happy I did. But I feel much better these days, and I'm playing better because of it. I've been sober for about four years now and I feel better without [alcohol], although I have to have fun in different ways. I'm not fun anymore, I don't get into any trouble."
But through all his ups and downs, Romweber always seems to wind up back together with Crow because, quite frankly, they belong together. There's no one else who can hang as well with Romweber, who notes of his drummer, "Crow has a helluva radar on him."
Crow and Dexter first met 20 years ago at age 12, initially bonding over a mutual affinity for Kiss. Dexter was growing up as the youngest of seven children in the notorious Romweber clan. His best-known sibling is Sara, a founding member of Let's Active who now plays drums in Snatches Of Pink.
Dexter's Kiss fixation didn't last long once he discovered '60s rock, and that soon gave way to rockabilly. By the time he was a teenager, Dexter was trying to put bands together. One of his many short-lived bands from back then was an unnamed ensemble with Sara and a bass player named Sean Reynolds, better-known nowadays as Sean Yseult from White Zombie. Another was the Kamikazes, whose lineup included Sara Romweber's future Snatches Of Pink bandmate Michael Rank.
Flat Duo Jets first convened in 1984. Jefferson Holt, who was then managing R.E.M., remembers seeing them pretty early on at the Cat's Cradle nightclub in Chapel Hill. Holt's main memory of the performance is that Romweber's guitar cord was too short and kept coming unplugged.
"He'd start a song, go into his death rattle dance and pull the plug out," Holt recalls. "He'd play for a while before realizing it was out and then stop, plug it back in, start again, get carried away all over and pull it out again. It was one of the most marvelous things I'd ever seen."
From the start, Flat Duo Jets were different. There weren't too many guitar-and-drums duos out there (anybody remember House of Freaks?); fewer still playing volcanic, primal rockabilly; and absolutely no one else exhuming the obscure oldies the Jets routinely offered up onstage.
The best recorded representation of this side of the Jets is Safari, a 1993 compilation on Norton featuring lo-fi recordings the Jets made between 1984 and '87 that sounds for all the world like a '30s-vintage Alan Lomax field recording. Of the album's 34 tracks, 28 are covers of songs by the likes of Hal Winn, Benny Joy and Marty "The Phantom" Lott -- about whom Romweber can quote you chapter and verse, on every last one.
"How many bands during the '80s did everybody talk about for their amazing covers?" asks Holt. "Most of those bands only knew maybe three or four songs. But Dex knows this stuff -- and it's not just knowing, it's being. It sounds corny, but it's like this stuff is in Dex. He's not like, 'I'm gonna be cute and play a cover now,' he's lived and breathed and eaten it since he was a kid. His head's a helluva jukebox."
Holt was enamored enough of the Flat Duo Jets to sign them to his label, the now-defunct Dog Gone Records, where they joined Snatches Of Pink as labelmates. Dog Gone released the amazing Flat Duo Jets in 1989, a preternaturally raw album putting surreal Romweber originals such as "Pink Gardenia" alongside a choice assortment of covers (including a definitive version of Louie Prima's "Sing Sing Sing"). The Jets picked up some nationwide notoriety on the road in 1990, expanding to a three-piece with a bassist to tour as opening act for kindred spirits the Cramps and routinely stealing the show. Another stellar effort followed in 1991, the Jim Dickinson-produced Go Go Harlem Baby.
On the business side, however, a funny thing happened. Or rather, didn't happen. The Jets were one of the best live acts in the country, but no major label would take a chance on them. After Dog Gone went under, the Jets kept making records for small independent labels and toured relentlessly, scraping to make ends meet. The early-'90s "alternative rock" boom came and went without doing a thing for them; it looked like alternative country was going to be equally unfruitful before longtime fan (and Outpost Records founding partner) Scott Litt came to the rescue.
"I'd always hoped to be in a position to do something with them beyond producing a record and handing it over," Litt says. "The Jets always seemed like the kind of thing that needed more than the typical production project -- like a champion at the label. So when we got the label going, I had it in mind to do something with them, and I kept playing their demos around the office until finally everybody asked, 'Will ya just go ahead and sign 'em already?!'"
From here on out is a crap shoot, of course, but the planets might finally be lined up on the Jets' side. After being softened up by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, radio stations may be willing to give the Jets a shot. There are plenty of possibilities on Lucky Eye -- the hyper-dramatic "Love Is All Around", the finger-poppin' "Hustle & Bustle", the wonderful jazz-flavored instrumental "N.Y. Studio 1959", even Crow's vocal cameo on the country shuffle "Little M".
Even if Lucky Eye doesn't hit, there is a certain justice in this album being made at all. It's the record Flat Duo Jets always had in them but never had a chance to make until now, and better late than never.
"When I heard it, it broke my heart in a good way; in happiness," says Holt. "Because I can remember during one of Dexter's dark periods trying to tell him to look at the bright side: 'You can always make records, which is what you want to do. We can make records with orchestras, without orchestras, whatever. The sky's the limit.' So when I heard Scott and Chris got them in there with strings, it was just too good.
"Dex has been through some periods that have been kinda scary. I'm glad he hung in there and got to make this record."
When contributing editor David Menconi was moving to North Carolina about a decade ago to take the rock critic job at the Raleigh News & Observer, he counted it a major plus that the Flat Duo Jets were a hometown band.