By the time guitarist Domenic Romeo joined long-running hardcore band Integrity in 2015, it wasn't a surprise that founding vocalist / mainman Dwid Hellion would choose the A389 Recordings honcho to help with their next album. But that definitely was in neither's mind when they first became acquainted. Romeo and Hellion's first interactions occurred back in the mid '90s via some emerging, futuristic "mail without a stamp" technology. Romeo was so stoked about Integrity that he tracked down Hellion's e-mail, and began pestering the musician with questions.
"Dom would write to me and ask me questions and I wasn't sure how to take it," Hellion recalls. "I wasn't so interested in talking to some kid who wanted to discuss my records, but eventually he wore me down."
Romeo's persistence ultimately paid off, and their talks lead to a lasting friendship, collaboration across A389 and their collective recorded output, and a partnership that would last decades, culminating in Dom's addition to Integrity.
So how exactly did Domenic Romeo transition from Integrity fanboy to becoming an integral part of the legendary band? Below, Dom details his musical growth and discusses his contributions to Integrity's new LP Howling, for the Nightmare Shall Consume, which is out this Friday, July 14, via Relapse Records.
REVOLVER How did you meet Dwid Hellion?
DOMENIC ROMEO When I was in my late teens, I used to ride my bike across town to my buddy's house because he had the internet. Victory Records had this Real Audio player that would let you preview the band's songs, and I remember not really being impressed with any of the bands except like Bloodlet and a few others. But when I heard Integrity, I was floored — It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The song "Systems Overload" was in there and it had these huge riffs and the singer sounded like he swallowed glass. It was the hardest thing I had ever heard.
So me and my friends would save our money from the week, and head to the city on the weekend and blow our paychecks on buying records. I remember seeing Systems Overload at that time, getting it back home and being blown away. We just thought "there are solos on everything" — sort of like if your house is infested with roaches, you just keep finding solos. [Laughs] It was awesome, some of the coolest shit I had ever heard.
It totally changed my life. At the time, I was in this band called Day of Mourning and it totally shaped what I wanted to do with that band. I was a kid that was into horror movies and metal, not gym shorts and youth crew, so Integrity just spoke to me. I was too weird for the metal scene and too weird for the hardcore scene. Integrity was the voice. Even now, that's Integrity's key demographic.
Anyway, [1996's] Humanity Is the Devil came out and I looked through the liner notes and there was an email address in there. I remember sending an email, which I didn't even know how to use at the time, just knew it was like a "letter without mailing it." I would bike to my friend's house, 30 minute ride each way, just to email him everyday. I was just punishing him, question after question, punishing him with questions about the band. I was from Canada, so I didn't know about the band pre-Systems Overload material because those records weren't as widely distributed. So when I did find out about the earlier stuff and traded videos and tapes with others, I just absolutely punished him. He was a complete dick to me for a little while [Laughs] but I think he realized that I wasn't just trying to punish him, but that I was really excited. We hit it off eventually and he sang on a Day of Mourning record. Then from there, our friendship went on. He would go on to do a lot of stuff for A389, recorded and design-related.
It's funny because the way that you speak about Integrity is similar to the way that Phish fans or Grateful Dead fans are. Trading all of the videos and tapes, just incessant on owning everything.
Absolutely. It's a really special thing. It's been a part of my life for decades now whether that is doing their records or doing shows or just plain punishing Dwid.
From what I understand, you did a brief stint with Integrity in the early '00s?
So they came through on the To Die For tour and one of their guitar players quit, so I offered to play. I learned all the songs and bought a plane ticket to move to Cleveland. Unfortunately, my father was really ill at the time and it was getting really bad, so I had to leave the band. It broke my heart, but family first.
Eventually Pulling Teeth came around, and it was my main outlet. He was a big help with that and with A389 Records in general, with visuals, merch, layouts and guest vocals … he pops up on several LPs in some shape or form.
In 2007 you also played with him, correct? At an A389 Anniversary Bash.
Yes, we called it the Blackest Curse. Basically, it was my birthday and I asked Dwid to play the bash with a backing band. He said sure, but we couldn't call it Integrity. It was basically when Dwid was between different eras of the band. Pulling Teeth ended up being the backing band, which is kind of funny because it's a pretty similar lineup years later.
We've talked everyday for decades, so when the opening came again, I offered to play. Eventually I told him that if he wanted to do this, I'd love to write a record. By the time it happened, I hadn't been playing guitar in years because I had kids. I got together with Joshy [Brettell] from Ilsa, after playing a short stint with them live, and eventually write riffs to send to Dwid. He liked them and we ended up with 20+ songs that eventually was pruned down to make the album.
So let's step back a little, because you also ran A389 Recordings, which is responsible for several Integrity releases. How did it feel going from being that nerd on the bike to being the bossman of sorts?
It was such a huge accomplishment for me. Such a milestone. Before that A389 dabbled in this and that, and I'm proud of all my releases, but that was so important to me. Such an iconic record, A389-23, the Walpurgisnacht EP. From there it was just easy to do — we're pretty efficient when we work together.
During your time with A389, what record do you think you are most proud of releasing? Something that you didn't have any say in as a musician.
That's a tough one. So many great ones. Well I think there are two ways to look at it. I'm so proud to have released bands like Full of Hell, Young and In the Way, Nothing, Xibalba, Noisem, Iron Reagan, so many great young bands. These bands have gone on to do some incredible things, but it all started with A389. That said, I'm also really proud to do a record by Eyehategod. What a true "what the fuck" moment.
What is your favorite Integrity record? Why?
Seasons in the Size of Days, hands down. It's just perfect. It has a colder tone. The production is better. Integrity always had that perfect fusion of metal and hardcore, but Seasons leans more toward metal. This really nailed in a darkness, with the artwork and photography and everything. It's a mood. When I put that record on, I feel like I'm in some dark basement, in a castle or something.
So going from fan to collaborator with Dwid, when the time came did you have any trepidation about joining the band?
I was a little nervous because it's big shoes to fill, plus I hadn't been playing in a few years. I figured that the worst-case scenario was I could try and write some songs and nothing would come of it. No big deal. The ideas just came though, and things started producing themselves in layers and fast. The entire record felt like a stream of consciousness, almost like it wrote itself. It's pretty weird.
We all have our records that we go back to constantly. Do you feel like you go back to Integrity less now that you are part of the band?
You would think that, it's just a weird thing … it's still my favorite band. All of the Integrity albums are still on my iPod. It's fun for me, still. Integrity is such a massive and varying body of work that has had so many people contributing bits to it, that it's just like a quilt. I'm honored to add my little part to the quilt. The story just keeps going. It's awesome.
Going into the new Integrity LP, it had been six years-plus since you had actually recorded an LP, Funerary by Pulling Teeth. In that time you had kids, were hyper-focused on the label, and went through a lot of changes. Did you have your guitar by your side that entire time?
No. And I just really didn't have time to play, so I sort of stopped playing for a while. But my second kid really liked to hear me play, so that kind of got me back into playing. Then once I decided that I would play with Integrity in 2015, I sort of focused and started to get back into it.
Old Integrity influence is all over this new LP, yet there are other influences that rear their head — everything from Iron Maiden to Randy Uchida to Pulling Teeth, obviously. What was in rotation in the months leading up to this record?
When it comes to how I approached this record, I didn't want to rewrite the past, but I also wanted to honor it. The thing with Relapse is we knew we were going to reach another audience, so I wanted them to know the band's history while moving forward at the same time.
As far as what I was listening to in the time leading up to the record … honestly, I tried not to listen to anything. I didn't want to pollute it. I listened to a lot of weird Armando Sciascia and Alessandro Alessandroni, as well as a lot of jazz. I needed music that was going to clear my head out and leave it a blank slate, nothing that would latch on. Sort of like a purge. I got in the zone from that.
It's funny you mention Iron Maiden, because that was the first concert I ever went to. They are one of my all-time favorites. Integrity is my favorite though, since I first heard them. I think that some of the guitar parts on Seasons and some of Humanity, I'm more in sync with that on Howling.
I will disagree with you on the fact that ambient music is a purge. I do think that if there are a few things that ambient music is very good for — slow-burn pacing and dynamics. Lots of crescendos and drama.
Absolutely. It's cinematic, and you really have to invest the time to reap the reward. I dabble in every genre of music, as far as being a listener. There is something of merit to everything. For a while when I was doing the A389 distro, I would have all these noise records and would have a hard time describing them. Then one weekend I got really into noise music and realized the rewards of those records are the fact that the more you listen, the different layers of things you hear. That's pretty much what we did with the Integrity record too in that repeat listening reaps rewards.
Did you have any other goals for the record in approach or aesthetic?
I think one goal that we had came from Dwid's and my love for Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, particularly how when you listen to Led Zeppelin IV, there isn't a single other song on that record that sounds anywhere near "Black Dog." Every song sounded different, but it still sounded like Zeppelin on every song. That was the angle we kind of decided on, every song should be different but every song should sound like Integrity. I just wanted to try different things and still keep it in the Integrity world.
So once you went back into writing again, do you think that writing riffs was easier for you because of that time away?
Yeah. I think that time caused them to subconsciously build up in my head. Every band I've ever been in, I've thought of a riff while walking down the street and have recorded it into a tape recorder or my phone. So I feel like I ignored that part of my brain for years and then once I tapped back in, it all kind of started spewing out again.
The funny thing is my entire career I've always said to myself, "God, I hope this riff doesn't sound too much like Integrity." Now I don't have to worry about that.