Thursday, June 12, 2003
Split Lip Rayfield's Kirk Rundstrom is probably one of the meanest looking guys in bluegrass. With his shaved head, occasional muttonchops and full-arm tattoos, Rundstrom gives the impression that the only way you'd get him in a bluegrass band is to sentence him to community service.
Rundstrom is the kind of guy whose '84 BMW is held together by duct tape, forcing him to crawl in the window and dooming him to a full-body soaking should it rain. The kind of guy who cites Willie Nelson and Ministry as his two biggest influences. The kind of guy who drinks ... "Espresso with chocolate and whipped cream," he says, on the phone from Wichita. "If you're drunk all the time, you don't get a whole lot done."
And Rundstrom's favorite songwriter?
"I love Joni Mitchell," he says. "If anybody dogs on her it's because they don't know what they're talking about."
Like Rundstrom, Split Lip Rayfield -- which will perform its first show in more than a year Saturday at The Bottleneck -- is an anomaly. Equal parts bluegrass, honky-tonk, punk rock and speed metal, the Kansas foursome has spent the better part of 10 years (including its first incarnation as goth-country head-bangers Scroat Belly) freaking out the country music establishment.
"They're appropriate for Stage Five but perhaps not quite appropriate for family entertainment on the Main Stage," says Paulette Rush, 30-year Walnut Valley Festival staff member and member of the selection committee.
The band -- Kirk Rundstrom, guitar; Eric Mardis, banjo; Wayne Gottstine, mandolin; and Jeff Eaton, gas tank bass (all members sing) -- has received numerous write-in requests to perform at the Winfield Festival's Main Stage but has never made it past the main gate. Regardless, Split Lip is pretty much a lock to draw the biggest crowd of the weekend at Stage Five.
"We want to play (on the Main Stage)," Rundstrom says. "They won't let us."
He adds, "When Bill Monroe was young, people didn't like him either."
The bluegrass orphans found a nurturing home in Bloodshot Records, a Chicago-based alt-country label that also counts Kansas City's Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys and country heavyweights like Neko Case and Ryan Adams among its roster. Co-owner Rob Miller first met Rundstrom and Gottstine when they were playing in Scroat Belly, a demon-driven country-metal band from Wichita.
Bloodshot released the band's second album, "Daddy's Farm," in 1997.
"They were a very polarizing band," Miller explains. "People either revered them or just could not stand them, which I liked." Much to Miller's chagrin, Scroat Belly disbanded just after its record was released. But other touring Bloodshot artists soon brought word to Chicago of a blistering new incarnation of the band.
"Split Lip came up to play The Empty Bottle and there wasn't a closed jaw in the room," Miller remembers. "It was unlike anything any of us had ever seen before."
Since then, the group has released three albums for the label -- "Split Lip Rayfield" (1997), "In the Mud" (2000), and "Never Make It Home" (2001) -- and toured extensively on each. The band has also developed a reputation for Eaton's homemade one-string gas-tank bass, which the members refer to as "The Stitchgiver." "It'll rip you open if you don't respect it," Mardis explains. Miller says he's proud to have Split Lip on Bloodshot and would continue working with the band as long as it exists.
"They draw people who don't necessarily like other stuff on our label or anything remotely roots-related," he says. "Anyone who sees them live is a convert."
The band decided to take an "indefinite hiatus" following a three-week tour with the Reverend Horton Heat and a performance at Austin's South By Southwest Music Festival in March 2002.
The pressures of traveling weighed heavily on Mardis, who has two children under the age of three, and Gottstine, who is the primary caretaker of a 10-year-old boy.
"That was kind of rough on the family at times," Gottstine says. "We toured hot and heavy for three years."
The break afforded the band members time to catch up with other endeavors, both music and non-music related. Gottstine enrolled in Spanish classes at Wichita State University and found time to install red pomegranate tile on his kitchen floor and paint the walls granny apple green.
Rundstrom spent time in New Orleans playing music with friend Mike West and preparing new material for the upcoming third album from the Kirk Rundstrom Band. Mardis taught guitar and banjo lessons at the American Music Academy in Lawrence and continued to raise two children at his home at Lone Star Lake.
"I sit up here on my porch sometimes and ominously pick my banjo, and it floats out over the lake while people are out there trolling around on their fishing boats," Mardis says. "I try to freak them out a little bit, a la 'Deliverance.'"
Mardis also stayed active musically, performing weekly gigs with Floyd the Barber, a jazz outfit for which he plays guitar. He also provides pedal steel for The Hearers and gets his "heavy metal ya-ya's out" playing rockabilly guitar for Satan's Jeweled Crown.
It doesn't take long to realize that Mardis is a musician with very diverse tastes.
"My favorite band of all time is Deep Purple," he says, without a hint of irony. "Ritchie Blackmore is the whole reason why I play music at all."
Richard Gintowt talks with Eric Mardis, 06.10.03
Gintowt talks with Kirk Rundstrom, 06.10.03
Gottstine also draws from a diverse musical palate, naming Iron Maiden, Frank Zappa, Lucinda Williams and Bruce Springsteen as influences.
Apparently, Gottstine's tastes are carrying over to his 10-year-old son. "He came back with Judas Priest's 'Unleashed in the East' and 'Willie Nelson and Family Live' all in the same shopping trip," Gottstine recalls. "I was happy about that because he fell in love with Pink Floyd when he was 6 and there was about 3 years of nothing but Pink Floyd around here."
Mardis confesses he's looking forward to playing with Split Lip again. "I was ready to just play on a front porch somewhere, much less in front of an audience," he says.
Though fans can still expect a raucous show, Mardis admits the band's sound may be calming down a bit.
"Some of the new songs aren't quite as 'Slayer fast' as the older ones," he says.
Gottstine claims he's been getting lots of positive feedback about reuniting. "Since we booked these shows I can hardly go to a bar without people 'jocking' me heavily," he says. "People are pretty fired up about it."
The band plans to hit the studio to begin work on its fourth album by winter. Expect to see Split Lip Rayfield back on Stage Five at Winfield this September. "I like the Pecan Grove area the best, anyway," Rundstrom says. "It's not as sterile as over there in RV land."
Success, however, does come with its drawbacks. Gottstine said most of his fondest memories from Winfield date back to before Split Lip.
"We've had fantastic shows but lots of times our camp is just overrun. We don't have the personal space that you kind of like when you're camping and hanging out," he laments.
"You have people looking in at your camp at 8:00 in the morning when you're trying to get something to eat and they're wanting you to pick for them."