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Rob Warmowski, dead at 52, started surf-punk band the Defoliants, also played with Buzzmuscle, SIRS

Chicago musician and engineer Steve Albini says Rob Warmowski (above) “was one of the first people to see the intersection of the music community and the Internet as useful.”
Henry Heine

Rob Warmowski couldn’t just walk past the homeless people he saw on his evening commute without stopping to talk.

He knew which one had a sore leg that wasn’t getting better, which one needed medication or a pair of socks. “He probably gave them $100 a week,” said his wife Maureen Sullivan.

Mr. Warmowski, a Chicago musician and audio engineer who never lost his belief the world could be a better, and more fun, place, died Sunday at the University of Illinois Hospital. He was 52, and the suspected cause was encephalitis, according to his wife.

“The music scene feels like a family, and Rob was always the gregarious uncle who knew all the cousins’ names and would make introductions and start conversations so everyone felt at home,” said Chicago musician and recording engineer Steve Albini, owner of Electrical Audio studio. “Most of the people I know in music had at least a glancing relationship with Rob. And all of them cherished it.”

Mr. Warmowski, who also was a systems administrator, “was one of the first people to see the intersection of the music community and the Internet as useful,” Albini said. “And he was instrumental in helping me and other people see its value.”

Young Rob grew up in Rogers Park and graduated from Mather High School before going on to Northeastern Illinois University while also deejaying at WZRD-FM.

He taught himself to play guitar by listening to the Ramones and helped form four bands. In 1984, he started the surf-punk band the Defoliants. It toured Germany and played in Chicago at the Cubby Bear, Metro and the Riviera. His next groups were Buzzmuscle and SIRS. Later, he helped found San Andreas Fault.

Rob Warmowski (foreground) with his band San Andreas Fault.
Henry Heine

His bands, while not household names, opened shows for the Circle Jerks, Dead Milkmen, Fugazi and Naked Raygun, as well as Dick Dale, the king of surf guitar, and Link Wray.

And the early 1990s record cover he designed for his band Buzzmuscle, replicating an Oscar Mayer bacon package, is in the collection of Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum.

Mr. Warmowski performed at Chicago clubs including the Double Door, the Hideout, Lounge Ax, Thalia Hall and Reggies Chicago. He did sound engineering for bands and for Club Dreamerz, 1516 N. Milwaukee Ave.

In 1986, the Defoliants were playing the now-defunct club Gaspars, 3159 N. Southport Ave., when a woman began heckling him to play surf rock. During a break, he tapped her on the shoulder.

“He asked me if I had change for a dollar for the hot nuts machine,” his then-future wife said.

In 2016, after Maureen Sullivan became a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic national convention, he told her, “ ‘I wish I could say my wife was a Bernie Sanders delegate.’ ”

Rob Warmowski.
Provided photo

So, after having been together for 30 years, they eloped, honeymooning in London, where they went to a concert by The Damned at the Royal Albert Hall.

They lived in Bridgeport, where he ran her unsuccessful 2015 campaign for 11th ward alderman.

He handled sound on projects for the city of Chicago including the World Music Festival and events at Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center, where his wife said “he miked the mayors — Lori, Rahm and Richie.”

Mr. Warmowski helped compose music for the old Redmoon Theater’s 2013 Redmoon Winter Pageant.

“He created this phenomenal Indian-surf-hip-hop music,” said Frank Magueri, who was the Chicago theater company’s producing artistic director. “He was kind. He was generous. . . He was somehow a constant delight.”

Though Mr. Warmowski grew up near Wrigley Field, “He became a devoted White Sox fan from age 7,” his friend Kelly Hughes said, and started a White Sox Twitter account, @whitesoxski, that grew to have nearly 9,000 followers.

He also started a pro-labor Twitter account, @ScabbyTheRat, named for the inflatable rodent labor activists use.

“He was an active participant in online communities and was always the smartest, wittiest voice in any conversation, whether it was about the White Sox, labor organizing or bass guitars,” Albini said.

“He was just really a Renaissance man from the South Side of Chicago,” said John Haggerty of Naked Raygun and Pegboy, another Chicago band.

“He always had a passion,” Buzzmuscle’s Greg Dunlap said.

Mr. Warmowski loved barbecue at Lem’s and breakfast at Sweet Maple Cafe. He read all he could on the Battle of Midway, liked playing Call of Duty, and, over the years, took in at least a dozen cats, including the musically named Joey Ramone.

He is also survived by his father Rob and mother Olga Warmowski Precht.

His wise said his ashes will be kept in a White Sox urn.

UPDATE (Oct. 21): A benefit concert in Mr. Warmowski’s memory is being held from 5 to 10 p.m. Oct. 21 at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St. The club announced Albini will emcee and dozens of Chicago musicians will play, “including current and former members of PiL, Pegboy, Naked Raygun, and Local H.” Proceeds are to go to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. According to Metro, “Cheer-Accident, ONO, Silver Abuse, Watchmen, 007 and Dummy will perform, along with Warmowski’s own bands, The Defoliants, Buzzmuscle, SIRS and San Andreas Fault.”

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