#rocksculptors

Rock Sculptors: Dex Romweber and the Power of the Rock and Roll Duo

July 19, 2019

Throughout the month of July we will be celebrating the strides and achievements North Carolinians have made in the world of rock and roll music. This week we look into the one-of-a-kind blend of punk and rockabilly from Dex Romweber and the Flat Duo Jets.

By Sam Gerweck

Dex Romweber, and more notably his band the Flat Duo Jets, are a bit of a rock and roll anomaly. Formed in Carrboro, N.C. the group broke out at the height of the American punk movement with a strange brand of rockabilly, channeling Dex’s early musical loves of Buddy Holly, the Coasters and Eddie Cochran all through a southern-gothic lens. Dubbed “hardcore Americana” by Exene Cervenka of L.A. punk rock band X, the band managed to sound old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time, with song structures echoing their 50s rock and roll idols but played with the veracity of hardcore garage rock. Their image, dark and brooding party animal rock stars, is a stark contrast to their upbeat, old-school tunes. In the documentary Two Headed Cow, Romweber remarks how he is “fascinated what you can do with three chords,” and Flat Duo Jets audiences were as well.

The Flat Duo Jets original line-up consisted of Dex Romweber on guitar and Chris “Crow” Smith on drums. Their early band practices took place in the garage behind the Romweber household, dubbed “The Moz” (short for The Mausoleum and pictured on their eponymous debut album’s cover) due to its decrepit, haunted house appearance. MTV’s Cutting Edge even got an in depth tour of The Mausoleum. Deriving their name from the 1951 Gretsch Duo Jet guitar, made popular by George Harrison and Gene Vincent, the band’s general aesthetic mimicked their namesake – sleek and black, calling back to the old days, but still progressive. Dex chose a black and white Silvertone 1448 as his signature weapon of choice, a cheaply made beginner’s guitar originally sold in Sears-Roebuck catalogs that lent itself beautifully to his messy rockabilly-blues playing.

 

The simplistic approach of Dex Romweber and the Flat Duo jets, both in songwriting and in style, has been mimicked often since their inception, most notably by Jack White of the White Stripes fame, who calls Dex Romweber, “one of the best kept secrets of the rock and roll underground.” He turned that secret obsession into a worldwide phenomenon, with the White Stripes imitating the Flat Duo Jets monochromatic color schemes, affinity for cheap plastic guitars, and simple, old-school songwriting centered around only a drummer and a guitarist. In the years since the White Stripes formed and split, Jack White has celebrated and collaborated with Dex Romweber, notably recording a 7” record with him and his late sister Sara Romweber at his Nashville studio, Third Man Records.

Though his days in "The Moz" are long behind him, Dex Romweber still calls North Carolina home and you can catch him performing his signature blend of rock and roll frequently around the Research Triangle.

Dex Romweber Duo featuring Jack White - "Last Kind Word Blues" (Recorded at Third Man Records in Nashville)
Flat Duo Jets performing "Wild Wild Lover" on David Letterman in 1990

 

 


 

About the Author:

Sam Gerweck works for the North Carolina Arts Council as a Program Administrator for the Come Hear North Carolina campaign. Performing as a solo artist and in garage bands since his pre-teens, he went on to study vocal performance and music theory at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Settling in North Carolina, he has come to love the rich musical culture of the state, and you can likely find him at any number of music venues, record stores, or guitar shops around the region.

Rock Sculptors: Jangle Pop, College Rock, and North Carolina's Influence on R.E.M.

July 10, 2019

Throughout the month of July we will be celebrating the strides and achievements North Carolinians have made in the world of rock and roll music. This week we explore the world of Mitch Easter, the dB's, and their respective influences on R.E.M.

By Sam Gerweck

R.E.M. might be the most successful indie rock band in history, and for many folks they are the first band to come to mind when thinking of Southern college rock. With over 85 million albums sold worldwide, a few Grammys under their belts, and the acclaim of both casual listeners and critics alike, their combination of introspective lyrics, intricate guitar work, and a lively but succinct rhythm section helped define the Athens, Georgia sound of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Though synonymous with the Georgia college town, R.E.M. can credit North Carolina for shaping their sound.

Mitch Easter, Chris Stamey, and Peter Holsapple all grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C. As teenagers they formed a band called Rittenhouse Square. After one independent album release, the band split. Peter moved to New York City to further pursue a career in music. Stamey and Easter attended UNC-Chapel Hill, playing in multiple bands separately and together, most notably the short-lived but locally loved group Sneakers, who Easter recalled in a 2017 interview, “has played only ten times, I think, since 1976.” After the split of Sneakers, Stamey moved to New York City as well, and formed the seminal jangle-pop band, the dB’s, alongside fellow Winston-Salem native Will Rigby on drums and former bandmate Peter Holsapple. Their debut album, Stands for Decibels, is a perfect bridge between the power pop sound of Big Star and the folky jangle of The Byrds, and is a defining moment in the history of Southern indie rock.

The dB's - "Black and White" (First track off their debut album, Stands for Decibels)

While Stamey and Holsapple were off in the big city chasing rock and roll dreams, Easter returned to Winston-Salem and started Drive-In Studios, a professional recording studio in his parents’ garage. He also launched a band of his own, Let’s Active, with his then girlfriend Faye Hunter on bass and the late Sara Romweber on drums. One of his earliest clients at Drive-In Studios was an up-and-coming band from Athens, Georgia – R.E.M. By 1981, R.E.M. had established a decent live audience and had opened for some large acts including The Police. They set out to Winston-Salem to record for the first time together, a decision that would lead to years of collaboration between the band and Mitch Easter.

Their debut single, “Radio Free Europe,” quickly sold out of its first pressing of 400 copies, and another 6,000 were released. The band’s label arranged for them to record a full-length album, pairing them with an established producer, but the band did not like the direction the recording sessions were going. Despite push-back from management, R.E.M. opted to return to North Carolina and record again with Easter. The resulting album, Murmur, received universal acclaim, topping Rolling Stone’s 1983 Album of the Year list, cementing R.E.M. as college rock royalty and highlighting Mitch Easter’s significance in the recording booth. The follow-up album, Reckoning, also recorded in North Carolina and produced by Easter, garnered equal praise. By 1984, R.E.M., with the help of their North Carolina producer, had an established sound and fanbase. Around that time Easter and the band parted ways.

With the college rock magic happening in Winston-Salem, the dB’s continued to establish their brand of Southern-tinted jangle-pop in New York City, releasing four full-length records between 1981 and 1987. Chris Stamey left the band after their second release to pursue a solo career, and in 1988, Peter Holsapple departed, effectively disbanding the group. Holsapple set out as a “hired gun,” ready to act as an auxiliary musician for a touring band, and what group did he land with but R.E.M. After the success of their first two Mitch Easter produced albums, R.E.M. was by far the most successful college rock act in the nation and needed to expand their personnel. Peter Holsapple was considered a fifth member of the band from 1988 to 1991, playing guitar, keyboards, and bass, and lending his acute songwriting abilities in the studio. With Holsapple, R.E.M. saw themselves go from college radio darlings to international superstars with their multi-platinum 1991 album Out of Time, which features the timeless classic, “Losing My Religion.” The acoustic guitar heard on that song was performed by Peter Holsapple.

R.E.M. - "Radio Free Europe" (Original 1981 Mitch Easter cassette tape version)
R.E.M.'s Grammy winning hit, "Losing My Religion" featuring Peter Holsapple on acoustic guitar

In the years since these North Carolina jangle-pop greats crossed paths with R.E.M., the dB’s have reunited for several records and benefit shows, and Mitch Easter has opened a new studio in Kernersville, N.C., Fidelitorium Recordings. Chris Stamey has had a prolific career as a solo musician and producer, working with everyone from the alt-country group Whiskeytown to the dance-punk band Le Tigre. Peter Holsapple has continued his work as a “hired gun,” serving as a multi-instrumentalist for Hootie and the Blowfish, as well as starting his own band, the Continental Drifters. Mitch Easter remains one of the most prolific producers and studio men in rock and roll, working on albums with Pavement, Ben Folds Five, Ex Hex, and the Drive-By Truckers as well as continuing to play with Let’s Active. He will be inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame on October 17th in Kannapolis, N.C.


 

About the Author:

Sam Gerweck works for the North Carolina Arts Council as a Program Administrator for the Come Hear North Carolina campaign. Performing as a solo artist and in garage bands since his pre-teens, he went on to study vocal performance and music theory at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Settling in North Carolina, he has come to love the rich musical culture of the state, and you can likely find him at any number of music venues, record stores, or guitar shops around the region.

Rock Sculptors: North Carolinians who Changed the Sound of Rock and Roll

July 3, 2019

Throughout the month of July we will be celebrating the strides and achievements North Carolinians have made in the world of rock and roll music. We kick off the weekly series, Rock Sculptors, with Link Wray – the father of the power chord.

Rock Sculptors: North Carolinians who Changed the Sound of Rock and Roll

By: Sam Gerweck

“My Generation” by the Who. “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. “Search and Destroy” by Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Pillars of the first wave of hard rock and punk music. While groundbreaking in their own right, the true innovation is credited by all the aforementioned artists to a Shawnee Indian man from Dunn, North Carolina – Frederick Lincoln “Link” Wray, Jr.

Born on May 2, 1929, Link Wray spent his childhood in Dunn, a small city in Harnett County, about an hour south of Raleigh. A childhood bout of measles left Wray hard of hearing, a diagnosis that might seem like a death sentence for a hopeful musician. After a short stint in the army, serving in Germany and Korea from 1951-1953, Link Wray returned home and ordered himself a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. As a child he was exposed to some travelling blues men and learned a few chords, but started seriously pursuing music after his time in the army was up. His first group was called Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands , formed by Link and his two brothers, Doug and Vernon, but they disbanded quickly when his bandmates left to find steady work in Washington D.C. Link kept at his music though, and in an effort to establish his own sound, made some unique changes to his playing. Link would prod holes with pencils in his guitar amplifier’s speakers to distort the sound being projected. Instead of relying on open-chords like most guitarists of that era (think Bob Dylan strumming “Mr. Tambourine Man”), he would play barred-chords up and down the entire length of the fretboard, a technique that would come to be known as the “power chord,” and to this day remains the most important tool in any rock and roll guitarists arsenal. And that childhood battle with measles that effected his hearing? Well, that just meant he had to turn his amp way up and play his guitar louder than anyone else.

In 1958, his new group Link Wray and the Wray Men released a single that changed the world of music forever. “Rumble” clocks in at a little over two minutes, doesn’t have any words, and was banned by radio stations across the country out of fear it would incite riots. Give it a listen above. It sounds mean. It sounds tough. It was recorded 20 years before punk rock became a household name. Iggy Pop, often referred to as the Godfather of Punk Rock, recounts in the documentary Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World, “'Rumble' had the power to help me say ‘F--- it, I’m gonna be a musician.’” Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin talks about his first time hearing Link Wray to Jack White and U2’s The Edge in the documentary It Might Get Loud: “The first time I heard ‘Rumble’, I was like, ‘that’s something that has profound attitude.’” The other two nod in agreement. In the years following the release of “Rumble,” Link Wray put out countless other singles and albums with the Wray Men, as a solo act, and with punk-rockabilly legend Robert Gordon, with genres ranging from hard rock to gospel to country.

Beyond his breakthroughs in the sound of rock and roll music, his influence on the style might be even greater. A slicked-back black pompadour with sideburns, a leather jacket, black pants and boots, chains and rings, and a prototypical rock star scowl, Link Wray looked cool. He played pointy electric guitars with glasses on. He’d pop his collar. He’d march around the stage like he owned the place, because he did. Pete Townsend of The Who once said of him, “He is the king. If it hadn’t been for Link Wray…I would have never picked up a guitar.”

Link Wray passed away in Denmark in 2005 at the age of 76, but his profound influence lives on with every kid who picks up an electric guitar and turns the volume knob all the way up.

 


 

About the Author

Sam Gerweck works for the North Carolina Arts Council as a Program Administrator for the Come Hear North Carolina campaign. Performing as a solo artist and in garage bands since his pre-teens, he went on to study vocal performance and music theory at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Settling in North Carolina, he has come to love the rich musical culture of the state, and you can likely find him at any number of music venues, record stores, or guitar shops around the region.

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