Reptile Records is Ernie Dewing’s musical refuge

Ernie Dewing’s home studio and music refuge.


A sea of notes escape a small studio stamped in the middle of a home on Chappaquiddick. It’s the dead of winter, and 60-year-old Ernie Dewing leaves home as little as possible. He’s a recording artist, and he uses this time of year to dive deep into projects. Today, he’s absorbed in a new album, exploring uncharted sound.

He pulled into the driveway in his ’03 maroon Nissan Pathfinder, which he takes pride in driving less than 1,000 miles a year. Dewing prefers to be home, where he has everything he needs — on an island, a stone’s throw away from another Island. He built this shingled, weathered home, and both his parents live in the unit to the left; His partner and two children live in the unit to the right. Dewing occupies the space in the middle.

He walked toward the entrance, leading us underneath a wooden sign that read, “Reptile Records,” the label he created in the 1980s that he’s used ever since. Next to the door, there’s a bench, and on it rested another homemade sign with painted letters: “Chappalachia.”

“Yeah, that’s what we call this place,” Dewing said. “It fits because we’re sort of on the other side of the tracks over here.”

Dewing speaks calmly and thoughtfully, with relaxed and laid-back mannerisms. He wore blue jeans and a zip-up hoodie, and silver rings and a stack of silver cuffs on both wrists. He opened the white-trimmed door to Reptile Records, revealing his music oasis. Amps stacked on amps, keyboards stashed in all corners, and perhaps most striking, seven sleek guitars displayed on a wall like seven works of art. Each trinket had a place. Each sculpture, lava lamp, painting, and piece of photography seethes in endless stories. The hardwood floor came from the State Forest. “Tommy Turner from Edgartown told me, I’ll give you as much as you can fit in your truck for $200,” Dewing said. “I built the whole studio for less than $1,000.” But above all else, Reptile Records is about the music.

“I don’t think I’ve ever bought a guitar in my life,” Dewing said. “These were all gifts. People just leave them here, it’s weird. Mostly, I play this one” — he swiveled his chair over to one of the keyboards, pressed against the back wall. “And I sing. But I’m really not a guitar player. I leave that to the professionals.”

He pointed out another keyboard, across from the one he plays most. “I love this Whirlator,” Dewing said. “This was one of the first electric pianos made. I think it’s from 1962. It’s got a really nice tone. I really like recording on it.”

He also has the really old-school stuff lying around. “I still like using ADATS, which is like a VHS tape,” he said. “I also use a hard disc machine. I know everybody uses pro tools and everything, but I like turning knobs and keys.”

Making music, for Dewing, is like cooking or photography. “It’s all just a mix. And if I can make something that’s cool, then I’m happy.”

He played us something he’s working on. “This is a brand -new one,” he said. “I don’t know about it yet. It’s called ‘Karma Card,’ which is like a credit card. You put money back in the bank and if you keep putting money in, you get interest. You know?”

The track started with piano, then added electric guitar, drums, vocals, bass, “and a bunch of other crap,” Dewing said.

“Karma Card” is inspired by a concept Dewing likes to live by. “Karma. I think that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I think that’s why I get cars for dollars, and guitars for free.”

The tune blends powerful, trippy, droning sounds with Pink Floyd–style sound effects. Dewing’s voice is strong, distinct, and sounded a little familiar to me. I likened it to Tom Petty. Funny enough, the two were friends.

“We hung out a lot when he first got started,” Dewing said. “I spent 20 hours with him once. He was so nice. I don’t think he ever wrote a bad song.”

Making music sometimes only takes Dewing an hour or two, “But the songs are never done,” he said. When ideas hit him in the middle of the night, he wakes up and presses the red record button.

Dewing has about seven ideas for his next album that are “really strong,” but there are a bunch no one will ever hear. He’ll create 20 songs, and then narrow it down to 10 or 12. This album will be different from others, because after 20 years, he’s looking for a new guitar player.

“It happens. Families break up,” Dewing said. “But I’m optimistic. I’m pretty excited about changing it up and doing things differently.”

Dewing hopes his songs will find their way into a movie, be it Hollywood or something independent. But if not, that’s OK too. “It’s not about the money at all, and it never has been,” he said.

Dewing grew up coming to Martha’s Vineyard on vacation with his family. He was born in upstate New York, and his parents bought the land on Chappaquiddick in the mid-1970s. Moving to Martha’s Vineyard full-time was part of Dewing’s recovery. He spent the early part of the 2000s in a sober house on-Island. Now he helps others with their recoveries.

“That’s sort of how it works,” he said. “It seems like there’s always someone here getting it together. I like that. A refuge.”

He sometimes plays gigs at the Chilmark Potluck Jam, and this summer he’s planning a performance on Lake George.

“In the meantime,” he said, “It’s back to the red record button.”