In the '80s, Dexter Romweber's band, the Flat Duo Jets, was ahead of the curve. The pair, which featured Romweber on guitar and vocals and Crow Smith on drums, churned out intense, bare-bones, raunchy rockabilly songs that paid homage to icons like Elvis Presley, as well as to lesser-known innovators from rock & roll's infancy. But while early rock & roll revivalism was everywhere in the '80s, the Duo Jets' stripped-down, no-nonsense sounds never led it to commercial success; the band split in 1999.
Romweber's music, however, did inspire many young listeners, although this influence didn't become apparent until the next decade. Similarly bassless acts like the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs began to make a big noise with very limited instrumentation, while a wide range of artists (including Cat Power, Neko Case and the Reverend Horton Heat) cited the Duo Jets' music as a major influence.
A movie about the Flat Duo Jets, Two Headed Cow, was released in 2006. The film, which was shot partially in 1987 during the band's heyday and later follows Romweber on tour, was made by director Tony Gayton, who also profiled the Duo Jets in the 1987 documentary Athens, Ga. — Inside/Out. On Monday night, Cow will be shown in conjunction with a performance from the Dexter Romweber Duo, which features his sister Sara — of Let's Active and Snatches of Pink — on drums.
B-Sides: You're getting ready to enter the studio later this summer. What can we expect from the new album?
Dexter Romweber: It's a few covers and a few originals. I know with Exene [Cervenka] we're doing a song called "Lonesome Train" by Stan Kenton, the big band artist. We're trying to get Neko [Case] on a song called "Still Around" which is a little-known Tammy Wynette song, and then hopefully with Cat Power we're going to do a song called "Love Letters," which is sort of an old, jazzy ballad by a woman named Ketty Lester.
Do you have an idea of what the record is going to sound like? How do you think it will be different from your previous work?
I'm hoping to add many instruments to the songs, so it definitely won't be completely stripped down. Some of the songs are kind of retro and some of the songs kind of aren't, but this one might have a bit more of a jazzy flavor. It's hard for me to describe it at this point, but I can certainly tell you that it's not going to be a typical retro, rockabilly record.
Where did your intense fascination with '50s music come from?
I just remember playing outside at a school fair with my buddies, and we had instruments that weren't in the best of shape and a sound system that wasn't in the best of shape. But with how stripped down we were, and how simple the songs were, we were able to get the music across without the most hi-tech equipment or production. I just remember the raw exuberance of it was what counted.
Your band the Flat Duo Jets was very influential. At the time, though, were you expecting the records to be more successful?
Well, no, I don't really expect anything from anybody. I think it's more of a play on what music I was listening to at the time, which was very obscure rock & roll that no one heard about. For me, these really obscure rock & rollers were more fascinating to me than Elvis, and their stories seemed more interesting, too.
Were you trying to pay homage to some of those unsung artists?
Yeah, there was some of that, but at the time I didn't really know that was what I was doing. It was just that I was writing music that I liked, but it just happened to be along the lines of this stuff that no one had really heard much about. I just stuck with what I did and lived relatively in private, so when Jack White was listening to my records, I didn't know he was. I didn't know these records were making an impression on anybody, but they were and that's a good thing. I guess the truth is that my heroes were quite unknown themselves.
— Shae Moseley
9 p.m. Monday, July 21. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $10. 314-773-3363.
Pokey LaFarge is the definition of the word "throwback." He writes and performs songs that sound plucked from a hobo's knapsack or a long-forgotten 78, picking from a century's worth of jazz rhythms, blues-style guitar-picking and country themes. LaFarge is a former member of the Hackensaw Boys, where his duties included "ripping solos and singing harmonies and eyeing girls," but his solo work reveals a singular talent for inhabiting the tiny universe of his songs. His newest disc, Beat, Move & Shake, will be released on St. Louis' Big Muddy Records (home to the 7 Shot Screamers and the Vultures). LaFarge described his chance meeting with the hometown label and his relationship to early American music.
B-Sides: How did you get hooked up with Big Muddy Records?
Pokey LaFarge: It's a pretty funny story, at least on the side of irony more than hilarity. I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, and playing on the street. Johnny O & the Jerks and the Vultures were stopping in town playing at the Heavy Rebel Weekender in Raleigh. I was playing on the street and they saw me and invited me to their party. We kept in touch and three months later they booked me at Magee's. I played there once before they tore it down. When the record started to get ready, we started talking about having them put it out.
What is different about your new record compared to your first?
I'm trying to figure that out myself. It's more cohesive from song to song. In the evolutionary process of an artist, I'm starting to find my voice. The first record, I was chomping at the bit to get out it.
What is your voice?
contributing writer] Roy Kasten said it best — my guitar sounds like a ukulele, my voice sounds like a transgendered Bessie Smith, and I look like a hobo Pee-wee Herman. I write songs in the old time style but I write about today's issues — I don't pick cotton, I'm not a black guy.
How do work in more modern themes in these songs?
These old-timey singers, they're singing about women, whiskey and traveling, and I particularly enjoy all three of those things — very much so. That's the basis of blues music. Heartbreak songs are big, but nothing too ethereal or too out there. All those good songwriters are about writing simple songs that people can understand. Then you throw a big chorus in there — you gotta have the hook.
Are those old-timey singers big touchstones for you?
Oh, yeah — anywhere from [blues and ragtime guitarist] Blind Blake to old jug band music. That prewar blues and early jazz from the '20s and '30s is my base. But Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt are my bases as well. I write some funky nonsense tunes and whatnot, but I also like a lot of good old country — Johnny Paycheck and Ernest Tubb.
I understand that St. Louis is one of your usual stomping grounds. What attracted you to the city?
I am on the road full-time, but there was a month and a half where I was spending a good deal of time there. St. Louis was kind of a home base. I don't have a residence right now, but St. Louis is a great place. We got this place where we like to gamble and hang out. It seems like a lot of those cats like to sit around and smoke cigarettes and drink Forties.
— Christian Schaeffer
9 p.m. Friday, July 18. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $7. 314-773-3363.