The Let’s Active drummer left an indelible mark on southern alternative rock—and was taken much too soon. Jon Wurster of Superchunk shares her story and describes her lasting impression on him and many others.
The drumming community lost a beloved figure this past March 7 when Sara Romweber passed on at age fifty-five following a battle with cancer. Though not necessarily a household name, Romweber played a key role in forging the sound of early ’80s southern rock and pop as the drummer in North Carolina’s Let’s Active.
Let’s Active guitarist, songwriter, and producer Mitch Easter recruited Romweber to drum for his band in 1981 while she was still a teenager living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Romweber would go on to tour extensively with Let’s Active and supply the inventive, left-of-center rhythms at the heart of the trio’s first two releases: 1983’s Afoot EP and their 1984 LP, Cypress.
Easter remembers Romweber as an exceptional drummer who helped bring his early music to life. “She was always great,” he says. “A lot of our songs needed to fall between ‘flailing away with abandon’ and ‘disco at 160 bpm,’ all of which Sara instinctively understood and executed with aplomb.” One needs to look no further than Afoot’s “In Between” and Cypress’s “Ornamental” for proof of Romweber’s masterful ability to shift gracefully between manic 16th-note hi-hat patterns and off-kilter beats that wouldn’t be out of place on a Gang of Four album.
Romweber left Let’s Active in 1984 but continued making music, recording multiple studio albums with the Stones–influenced North Carolina rockers Snatches of Pink (who also used the band name Clarissa for two releases) and performing/recording with her younger brother Dexter in the Dexter Romweber Duo.
Romweber was an inspiration to and a champion for many young drummers during her life. Rob Ladd, who would go on to drum for Roger Daltrey, Don Henley, and Alanis Morissette, attended high school with Romweber. He cites her as a flashpoint for his musical ambitions. “She really was the catalyst for my professional life,” says Ladd. “We’d cut school and talk about Stewart Copeland and XTC’s Terry Chambers. The thing is, she could really play like them. Seeing her grow into a professional drummer like I wanted to be was huge in making me think, ‘Hey, maybe I could do it, too.’”
I’m one of the non-North Carolina natives whose life was touched by Romweber. We met in the fall of 1983 when Let’s Active opened for R.E.M. at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. We became friends that night, and she’d go on to play a crucial role in my late teens by supporting my musical aspirations and exposing me to music that was outside of my wheelhouse. Without her encouragement, I don’t know if I would’ve relocated from Philadelphia to North Carolina in 1986, a move that eventually led to my joining the Chapel Hill indie-rock band Superchunk.
I was fortunate to be on hand for Romweber’s final onstage appearance in August 2014, when she reunited with just Easter— original Let’s Active bassist Faye Hunter had passed on in 2013. The two played Let’s Active songs at a benefit concert at Chapel Hill’s famed club Cat’s Cradle. Though they hadn’t performed together in decades, the magical guitar and drum interplay between them was in full effect. Romweber was a force, pounding out her iconic Afoot and Cypress beats as well as adding her unique take on several post- 1984 Let’s Active songs. “I had the great pleasure of playing with her again that night,” says Easter. “And there it was—more than thirty years later—her truly distinctive sound in all its glory.”
Though her time was much too brief, Romweber made an indelible mark as one of the most important drummers in the earliest days of modern alternative rock. Just as crucial, she will be remembered by those who knew her closely as a kindhearted friend who helped people achieve their best.