Remembering Kirk Rundstrom
For someone who died two years ago, Kirk Rundstrom has had a hard time exiting the limelight.
Since his death, his final solo album has been released. A retrospective album is in the works—his songs covered by musicians he influenced. The most celebrated of his many bands, Split Lip Rayfield, is plowing onward with a new album, a steady touring schedule, and a missing guitar part. String Break, a music festival initially established to pay for Rundstrom’s medical bills, is happening for the fourth year (May 2 in Newton).
And, of course, a considerable number of recordings remain from his bands—Scroat Belly, Grain and Demise, Split Lip, The Kirk Rundstrom Band, and others. Whenever a band from the Midwest emerges with a seemingly incongruous hybrid sound like hillbilly hardcore, his influence is likely buried somewhere in there.
All they got
- A podcast tribute, featuring Split Lip's Farewell Tour (154 MB-right-click and save). Produced by Rachel LeClear; Colin Mahoney recorded the Wichita show.
Beyond this somewhat tangible legacy lies a more indefinable one. Something you could maybe get a taste of by catching his maniacal eyes during a show but not by listening to a recording in your living room.
“He lit a lot of fires under people’s asses. A lot of those fires are still burning, I’m glad to say,” says his friend Mike West of Truckstop Honeymoon. “That’s more important than any piece of work any of us leaves. More important than any record we make or book we write.”
It’s this part of his legacy that people are still picking at and mulling over two years after his death, Feb. 22, 2007, from esophageal cancer at 38.
One of the things people remember most is the way Rundstrom spent the final year of his life. He lived in a way that seemed to give a big ‘fuck you’ to his disease, touring hard, recording a final solo album, taking all of his remaining energy and distilling it into something pure and powerful.
Personally, he dropped grudges, focusing on his wife and two daughters, his friends and his music. The angry, edgy part of Rundstrom seemed to be replaced by something more peaceful, although still vigorous. “He was really the person he always wanted to be during that year,” says his wife, Lisa Rundstrom, “more than he’d ever got to be in his life.”
What happened wasn’t as simple as a man doing good after finding out he didn’t have much time left. In the year or two before his diagnosis, he’d already reached a breaking point. His drinking and drug abuse had become too much. He and Lisa had divorced. Good-humored and fun, he could also be irritable and caustic.
After his family life fell apart, he started making some dramatic changes. The biggest was that he sobered up and quit smoking. The revered wild man who sang about being an outlaw and drinking whiskey was nearing 40 and mending his ways. He and Lisa spent a nice Christmas together with the kids. All of this happened shortly before he got cancer. “The timeline is really bizarre,” Lisa says.
First, let’s go back to the early ’90s, when he and Lisa were introduced in Wichita. One of her first impressions, she remembers, was that he had a huge ego. Lisa is now an artist who teaches at Emporia State and Wichita State, but back then, about 1991, she was working a corporate job for a fitness company. Kirk was in a band called Technicolor Headrush.
Kirk Rundstrom's Final Performance (Dec. 30, 2006)
Produced by Rhizome Productions, digitalBRAND Communications, and Quattlebaum/Zoller, © 2007.
A couple of months later, against what she might have considered her better judgment, they started dating. They were alike in that they were both fiery, rash young punks. They’d go to bars together, get kicked out together. “One of the things that we connected with immediately is that we could both be these intense, imperfect, very flawed and hurt, kind of damaged types of people,” she says, “and bring each other up.”
About two years after they’d started dating Lisa was pregnant with their first girl, Elle. They split up for the better part of a year after she was born, then reunited, got married and had their second daughter, Mollie. Kirk would go on tour while Lisa took care of the kids. They would fight and reconcile.
“Both Kirk and I were very fearless,” Lisa says. “It never occurred to us that we could lose it. It was just, ‘This is what we do. We hit the ground running every day and go as hard and fast as we can and pick up the mess when we’re done.’”
Life went on like that for eight years until, in 2004, he and Lisa split up, divorcing the next year. “It wasn’t one specific thing,” she says. “It was just that lifestyle. Booze and women and the whole bit, you know, it’ll do the job. ... We had turned things upside down. We built a life together and then destroyed it.” He moved into his own place in Wichita. It was a “horrible time,” she says, for both of them.
Then he and Lisa quit drinking within days of each other. He quit smoking. They started seeing each other every now and then. They spent Christmas 2005 with their daughters, “not as a couple, but not not as a couple,” Lisa recalls. “We were, I think, scared to death to get back together. It’s hard when you ruin something that’s what you’re meant to be doing, when you get into that position where you almost can’t do it again.”
He was leaving soon for a short tour with Grain and Demise and then a longer one with Split Lip Rayfield. He went to see a doctor before he left. He’d had trouble keeping his food down all of December. But the wait was too long and he left before he got in.
He and Lisa talked on the phone every day during the tour. They were both hopeful. Lisa remembers when he called during a ski trip between shows in Boulder and Denver. “He was on top of a mountain—he literally was on top of a mountain—and he said he was so happy,” she says. “He didn’t think he was going to get a chance to have everything again: his kids, his wife, his music. Everything was the best it had ever been.”
Two days later he called from Denver with the news that he had cancer. He came home to Wichita for treatment. For a while the cancer seemed to be beaten back, and then doctors discovered that it had spread. Meanwhile, he and Lisa remarried and rebuilt their lives. “Really, it was just music and kids and family,” she says. “Even though that may sound a little idealistic, it really wasn’t at that time. It was that simple. Get up and say thank you for today. Your worst-case scenario’s already there.”
Many assumed, after Rundstrom died, that Split Lip Rayfield was gone too. Even Eric Mardis, the band’s banjo player, thought that way for almost a year.
Mardis met Rundstrom in the early ’90s at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield. Mardis was playing with the Creek Bank Ghetto Boys, Rundstrom with the hard-edged, fast and twangy Scroat Belly. Within a couple of years Mardis had quit his band and Scroat Belly had split up.
They’d get together and jam with other musicians, including the Scroat Belly merch guy, Jeff Eaton, who’d fashioned what would become his trademark one-string bass out of an old gas tank. “He had that bass that he had made and I was plinking around on the banjo and Kirk was playing guitar, and it just kind of took off on accident,” Mardis recalls. Wayne Gottstine of Scroat Belly would join on mandolin to eventually form the core Split Lip lineup.
From the outset, Rundstrom was an unabashed promoter of the band as they tried to carve out a name for themselves, employing the ego his wife had immediately recognized as he talked the band up in order to land gigs. Then he’d have to turn around and convince the members of the fledgling group to play some little redneck bar in Asshole, Idaho.
“Early on, there wasn’t a lot of money,” Mardis says. “We all had jobs and girlfriends and whatever. Sometimes you didn’t want to drive 12 hours to Oxford, Mississippi, to play for $200. But he could sell you on it.”
Rundstrom brought an intensity to the stage that became legendary. In an interview with lawrence.com in April 2005, he said, “The last Split Lip tour I was sick as hell. We had two sold-out shows in Austin and I’m throwing up off the side of the stage and then running back onstage and playing. ... Hopefully, if I live to be 60, people will remember me as a good person and a responsible person—I showed up to my gig on time.”
Rundstrom had public disputes with their label, Bloodshot Records, over the level of promotion they received. He had his spats with the band too. After he was diagnosed with cancer, Mardis says, all of his negativity just melted away.
“I would have done anything he asked me in that year,” Mardis says. “If he wanted to go to fucking Thailand and watch strippers shoot ping pong balls out of their vaginas, then I would’ve gone with him. But he picked the things that were most important to him, which was make that solo album and play some Split Lip shows on the road.”
Shortly before his death he went to BiCoastal Music in New York City with Lisa and Colin Mahoney to do the final mixing on his solo album, “Imperfect Spirals.” Lisa remembers how he was lying on a couch in the studio with his eyes shut, days, as it turned out, from death, but still yelling at Mahoney when he did something he didn’t like.
After Rundstrom’s death the remaining three members of Split Lip didn’t see each other much. Then, about eight months later, they met informally at Gottstine’s place in Wichita, having a few beers and jamming on his back porch. “It was strange,” Gottstine says. “It was hard in some ways, and in some ways it felt good. I missed the whole thing.”
They got together off and on for the next several weeks, playing their old songs. A couple of times Mardis or Gottstine tried playing Rundstrom’s guitar part. That didn’t feel right. “It seemed like we needed to be playing the instruments that we always played in the band, and leave that space open,” Mardis says.
Never Make It Home
In January 2008 they played their first show since Rundstrom’s death. Later in the year they released “I’ll Be Around,” the fifth Split Lip album and the first composed of new material since 2004.
In concert, they don’t play the songs Rundstrom wrote. “I just can’t quite put my head in that space yet,” Mardis says. “I don’t want to be a tribute band to ourselves either. I love those songs and I would most certainly play them someday, but I don’t want that to be the core of this second wave of Split Lip Rayfield, like there’s Split Lip Rayfield Classic and then there’s whatever the hell this is that we’re doing.
“We struggled: Should we change the name? But we figured it was better for Kirk’s legacy, the band’s legacy, everybody in general, if we soldiered on. I think we’ll play them someday, a few of them. I miss playing them a lot.”
West, of Truckstop Honeymoon, was living in New Orleans when a friend told him about this new acoustic-punk-rock-type band from Kansas. This was before West had met Katie Euliss, his wife and the other half of Truckstop Honeymoon, and he was touring solo.
He sent Rundstrom one of his CDs, kind of a shot in the dark, and Rundstrom got him a gig opening for Split Lip Rayfield at Kirby’s Beer Store in Wichita. After his set, he watched them and was blown away. “Their harmonies were just so intense,” West says. “It was so loud and beautiful sounding. I’d never heard anything like it.”
A decade or so later, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed West and Euliss’ home while they were on tour, Kirk called and invited them to live at his place. “He laid his cellar all out for us and our kids,” West recalls. “We lived in his cellar for a few days, until the spiders got too much for Katie and she took the kids to Lisa’s house while I made a record for Kirk.”
Rundstrom was continually helping other musicians, West says, and inspiring them. “All the incarnations of punk rockers playing acoustic instruments,” he says, “it’s pretty much directly inspired by Split Lip, and Kirk in particular, in the way he dealt with the two-headed beast of his nature.”