In 1992, Chapel Hill’s Snatches of Pink released a quietly moody, mostly acoustic album called Bent with Pray. You might expect the accompanying shows to have mirrored the record’s more subdued dynamics, but drummer Sara Romweber was having none of that. I remember the first performance I saw of that album’s material, and Romweber’s hammer-of-the-gods drumming was so intense it seemed like she was wielding cannons, not drumsticks. It was incredible, but not in a showy way.
“That’s just how she was, a small person playing really, really powerfully,” says her Snatches bandmate, bassist Andy McMillan. “My big regret in Snatches was that most of the time, I had my back to her, because she was so much fun to watch. Sara was every bit of that.”
Romweber passed away the evening of Monday, March 4, at UNC Hospital, due to complications of the aggressive brain cancer Glioblastoma. She was just fifty-five years old, with a pedigree including some of North Carolina’s most important bands, including Snatches, Let’s Active, and the Dex Romweber Duo. Her death occasioned an incredible outpouring from friends and peers across social media. Fellow North Carolina drummers Jon Wurster and John Howie Jr. were among those paying tribute, noting her personal kindness as well as her inspirational musical influence.
Growing up in Carrboro, Romweber lived in a musical household that produced bands including The Kamikazes, UV Prom, The Remainz, and, eventually, her brother Dexter’s Flat Duo Jets. Young Sara started playing drums years before actually having a drum kit, using whatever household items were at hand. Her sister, Monica, remembers their mother coming home from work to make dinner only to discover all the pots and pans missing from the kitchen.
“I’d use pots and pans for cymbals,” Romweber told me in a 2015 interview. “And the sewing-machine case was slanted, so that was the snare.”
Even after Romweber got an actual drum kit, her distinctive onstage setup was as idiosyncratic as her playing style.
“Not many drummers set up their cymbals perfectly level to the ground,” says guitarist/producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who first saw Romweber with Let’s Active in the mid-eighties. “Especially back in the eighties, a lot of drummers would put them up high because it looked like a big thing when they’d hit them, but not her. She used a very unfussy, distinctive, almost minimal setup. And if you watch the videos, with all her bands, whoever was singing had her undivided attention. She had that radar and was a really good striker.”
She played with precision as well as power across a wide range of styles. During Let’s Active’s key period, the 1983 Afoot EP and 1984’s Cypress LP, she held Mitch Easter’s intricate pop arrangements together with just-right rhythmic flourishes and punctuation, bearing down hard when it served the songs. Snatches, which she joined in 1985, called for more raw power, and that was something she had in spades. And with Dexter, the former Flat Duo Jets bandleader, she deftly balanced runaway-train propulsion with a sense of swing. She probably could have stepped right into Buck Owens’s Buckaroos or James Brown’s Famous Flames and held her own.
“Sara had amazing quickness in her wrists,” says McMillan. “She’d play these little snare rolls from one part to another, and it was her signature transition. From verse to chorus to verse, she was always so dynamic with just the right thing.”
According to Monica, Romweber’s final time on stage in the Triangle was at Cat’s Cradle for the 2014 Be Loud! Sophie charity show. She was back behind the drums with Let’s Active, playing a one-time-only reunion show with Game Theory bassist Suzi Ziegler filling in for the late Faye Hunter (who had taken her own life the year before, at age fifty-nine).
Intensely private, Romweber became more reclusive after her cancer diagnosis. Few people beyond her husband, Billy Stewart, and other immediate family members saw her during the last few weeks of her life.
“People kept asking to see her and talk to her,” says Monica. “But she said no, because she really couldn’t respond in the way she wanted to be able to, because of all the horrible stuff that goes along with cancer. But she was a trooper from beginning to end, strong the whole way, and very much independent up to the last two weeks. All the tributes have been incredible. Knowing Sara, they would be hard to deal with if they were in front of her. That was Sara, behind the drums. She was uncomfortable with attention and fussing.”