Split Lip Rayfield: Fast, Rough and Loud

By: Sarah Hagerman

Split Lip Rayfield by Ryan Hendrix
It's one of those November nights in Austin where the chill catches you off guard, but inside the Continental Club the heat has forced us to stuff our jackets into all available nooks and crannies. It's a dense crowd to tussle through to the bar and the bottles and empty glasses are piling up near the front of the stage, and, glancing around at the crowd, the effects of the booze are taking their toll. A gentleman behind me yells, "Kansas!" every so often without discernable provocation, and a woman dances on top of a nervously narrow counter against the wall, her hair hanging in her face as she shimmies without inhibition. In the front, concertgoers sloppy with cathartic joy are hanging on every word, some waving their arms like they are at an unholy revival, inspired to shake loose in whatever wicked way they deem fit to the undiluted acoustic aggression. There are acoustic bands kicking around bluegrass and country with a measure of rough belligerence, but then there's Split Lip Rayfield.

Now fourteen-years-old, the gas tank bass named Stitch Giver was originally intended as a washtub bass. That splendid hunk of DIY instrumentation on which Jeff Eaton drives the pulse of their sound with taped up fingers was conceived during a summer he spent in Kansas City.

"It's been rebuilt probably ten times," he reflects. "I've had to redo the neck several times and all kinds of crap. What it is now is nothing like it was then. Now it sounds completely different. You know, it's a twenty-five dollar instrument with 300 dollars worth of electronics hooked up to it." An unglamorous, battle scarred creature, it nevertheless possesses loads of salty charm. SLR has similarly crafted a space where barbed punk and down-home Americana collide in off kilter grappling matches that lay waste to the dance floor. But, as Eaton explained, looking back to 1995 when the band started, "There was really no intention of making it a band in the first place. These guys [Wayne Gottstine (mandolin) and Kirk Rundstrom (guitar)] had this band, Scroat Belly, and I was like their merch dude. Then, I made this weird bass for fun and it just kind of took off on its own."

Rundstrom & Eaton - SLR 2001 by Anne
Talking to Eaton, Gottstine and Eric Mardis (banjo) before the Continental Club show – all straight-shooting, unpretentious guys with a hearty sense of humor – it's apparent they've been through the sort of lineup shake-ups, real world how-we-gonna-pay-the-rent concerns and hard-living that most bands reaching the decade and a half mark have experienced. But in 2006, they were faced with the news that Rundstrom had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. After an over year-long battle, during which Rundstrom outlived the doctors prognoses and bravely got himself back to the stage as soon and as often as he physically could, he passed on February 22, 2007 (please see our 2006 feature for insight into Kirk's fight as well as some first-person discussion with him). In the wake of losing a beloved friend and a source of musical inspiration, the remaining three members also had to at some point face the difficult question of the band's future. A few months after Rundstrom's passing, what Gottstine described as, "a series of opportunities," were presented to the band:

"A friend of mine did some work for the Cartoon Network and he hooked me up with the Squidbillies and they wanted some music done, so I called the guys [together]. And simultaneously while this was happening, Reverend Horton Heat wanted us to open for him. So, we mulled it over, jammed a little bit and did the projects for the Squidbillies and thought, 'Hell, it still kind of sounds like Split Lip.' So we started playing again. It seemed like [the right thing]. I don't know, at that point I was... a mess."

Opening for the Reverend when he played the Cotillion in Wichita on August 17, 2007, "It was pretty intense. I've never really been a nervous-before-the-show kind of guy," Gottstine admits, "but that night, our first show back, was in front of 800 people in our hometown. Pretty much felt like I had a rusty steak knife in my stomach or something. But once we went out there it seemed pretty comfortable; we were just able to throw it out there."

Continue reading for more on Split Lip Rayfield...

 
I had serious doubts about ever doing it again. But then when that TV show thing came up and we started playing together on the porch, you know, we had no ambition to go on tour or even play big local shows or anything. I think it was just the fact that it still felt good and it sounded like the band. It just kind of pulled us back in.

-Eric Mardis

 
Photo of SLR's first show back without Kirk by Ryan Hendrix

"I had serious doubts about ever doing it again," Mardis admits. "But then when that TV show thing came up and we started playing together on the porch, you know, we had no ambition to go on tour or even play big local shows or anything. I think it was just the fact that it still felt good and it sounded like the band. It just kind of pulled us back in. I don't want to be too mumbo jumbo here but when we decided not to have the guitar - to just keep it mandolin, banjo and bass - I could feel and hear the guitar and that vocal line was still there. I felt like it was keeping Kirk way closer to me then just pretending like, 'Well, that was great, but now it's over.'"

By carrying on and kicking ass, the band seems to be keeping him close, not just for themselves but also for the fans. Rundstrom's lasting musical fingerprints and his enormous strength of spirit reverberate in the rousing fervor and unrestrained zeal the band delivers onstage. Each Split Lip show is dedicated to Rundstrom and at the Continental Club the audience cheered at the dedication, glasses raised. I heard a couple folks swapping stories with strangers about past shows, sharing their experiences as vets with newcomers. The network of fans, always well appreciated, has been invaluable during this time. Gottstine says: "It's been real positive. You know everybody wants to hear those tunes. If people didn't like it we wouldn't put it out there, but everybody's been liking it. People have been really supportive. You know, they miss Kirk and they always bring that up, of course. That's normal, but they also say they're glad we're still doing it."

Attacking Around

Jeff Eaton by Ryan Hendrix
Having a batch of fresh material to work with from I'll Be Around (self-released on October 1), the show at the Continental Club was also a CD release party, and we got to hear the album tracks kicking live onstage. Much of it is classic Split Lip material - some grins, some darkness and plenty of musical mayhem - all woven together with a genuinely blue-collar view of the world. There's a sneaky sense of melody throughout, the kind that finds you humming the tune days later, maybe banging the swinging rhythm on your desk until your hand is sore and the guy in the cubicle next to you wants to know what that racket is. It was recorded over the course of a week at Daybreak Studios in Lawrence, Kansas with engineer Colin Mahoney, who worked on the previous three SLR albums. "He knows what we're about. He does a good job capturing our sounds and all this magical business I don't understand," says Eaton. Spontaneity and a hard working ethic combined in the recording environment like it has before. "It was pretty much the way we've done all the records," Mardis says. "It was just kind of throw it out there and hope it sounds good when we play it back [laughs]."

"It was different, but it was good. We just went in there and attacked it," Gottstine explains. "We had all the songs pretty much ready. It wasn't something we over thought too much. We just went in there and started moving until we were finished."

Many bands write songs about working class life, but the guys from SLR live that reality. They still drive their own van from show to show and have day jobs to make ends meet. Gottstine worked in a factory while on a break from the band in 2005 through summer 2006, and this experience was the inspiration for the song "Factory."

"I was in the punch press department, and I would load these huge 100-pound dyes into this machine. My machine was called 'The 400 Ton' because it had 400 tons of hydrologic pressure. I would make those little rings that you see around jet engines. It sucked, the oil from The 400 Ton squirted all over me all day, so I would come home covered in oil; my hands were all black all the time. And then just when I was starting to get the groove, thinking, 'Alright, this will be alright I guess,' they moved me to another department called brake press. What I liked about punch press was that you had two big buttons, [and] the machine wouldn't work unless your hands were on these two big buttons. But brake press, you had a panel and you would hold pieces of metal up to this brake press thing and this finger chopping machine would come down. So I said, 'Fuck that.' But I was probably, well, a third generation factory worker the moment I took that job. My mother worked in a factory for 40-years, my grandfather worked in the same factory for 35-years, and then I worked in that crappy factory."

Meanwhile, an absurd sense of humor and fascination with the dark side led to Mardis' speed metal-esque "The High Price of Necromancy." Necromancy, for those of you not in the know, is the practice of raising the dead. Sounds pretty cool to a zombie-film-fan, but Mardis assures me that it's not a profession worth going into.

Continue reading for more on Split Lip Rayfield...

 
I was probably, well, a third generation factory worker the moment I took that job. My mother worked in a factory for 40-years, my grandfather worked in the same factory for 35-years, and then I worked in that crappy factory.

-Wayne Gottstine

 
Photo by Manny Moss

"That song was pretty much inspired by my youthful indulgence in role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy novels and being a super gamer nerd in high school. And I still like that kind of stuff. So, I've written several songs about that era for me. It's basically just a tongue-in-cheek kind of something I personally thought was funny," he says. "I don't know how much other people get it, but that was basically an argument that pursuing necromancy as a career is really a fool's errand. A necromancer is not very powerful; they deal with raising the dead and with curses on farmers and minor witchy stuff like that. But you have a lot of bad side effects like, cosmetic side effects. They are not very popular with the ladies [laughs]."

Split Lip Rayfield
These new tunes show both that hardnosed realism and welcome lunacy that has always snaked through the band's work. But the final, subdued track of the album, underscored by Mardis' acoustic guitar, "I'll Be Around," provides a moving, quieter moment as it draws on the emotions of the past couple years.

"That song kind of took off on its own while I was writing it," says Mardis. "I came up with the chord progression and it was kind of sad, and when the lyrics started to come out, which I finished in the studio, I didn't quite know what it was about until I went back and read it. I wasn't really setting out to write a specific song that encapsulated how I felt about losing Kirk, but that's what happened. There was a couple verses that I axed out of it, that [pauses]... I don't know, it's kind of an emotional one. That one kind of chokes me up sometimes when we play it live, kind of depending on the room that we're in and stuff. I usually write songs that are completely ludicrous like murder ballads or non-personal stuff, and that one's definitely personal. I miss him a lot. We all do."

When The Rayfields Conquer the World

"For me, I love playing with these guys," Gottstine says. "I loved playing with Kirk and I miss him, but I couldn't not play with my two favorite people. You know, no one else can play fast [like them]. I have lots of other projects but they are not as satisfying [Pauses], well maybe The Sluggos, that is one of the sexiest bands you'll ever see [everyone starts laughing]."

Split Lip is hoping to make serious tour tracks in 2009, and looking more generally towards the future, they are keeping the plans nice and simple.

Split Lip Rayfield by Ryan Hendrix
"I want to make the banjo fucking cool," Mardis laughs, as he scrawls out the setlist for the show tonight. "Write more music, make more records, conquer the world. Bring banjo to the masses. I guess I just want this to be our job. No other goal, other than that I don't want a day job. So, I don't know if it's about getting on MTV or whatever the goal is."

"If we were on MTV, we'd have to be on a show," Gottstine interjects. "Roommates or something like that. You'd only see the band and how we live together, not the music."

Until Split Lip Roommates conquers the basic cable airwaves, the blistering live shows will have to suffice as they continue to draw in a diverse fan base, a fold that will hopefully continue to grow. When asked if they think they've carved out a niche, Gottstine says flatly, "I think so."

"It's hard to say what that [niche] is though," Mardis interjects, "because you've got like the green haired punk rocker and the blue haired old lady, and they don't really fit into the same [category], you know depending on where we are and whose listening. It depends on what region you are in. In Colorado it's the sort of hippified people and you know..."

"...In L.A. it's all rockabilly," Gottstine throws out.

"It's good to have that sort of cross appeal but I don't know if it leaves us much like, these [specific groups] are our people," Mardis finishes the thought. "It's hard to say who that is."

But it's surely a sign of quality when you create an open environment. It means you are reaching towards that elusive originality most bands strive in vain for.

"We're just combining a couple of styles of music, playing what pleases us," Gottstine says. "I don't know how it stacks up to the rest of what's going on out there. I'm kind of in my own little world I guess. I think we're doing something different. We're just an aggressive acoustic band, playing our tunes."

The unrepentantly rough and rowdy band from Wichita are gonna keep it that straightforward. Amen.

You can keep up to date with the latest developments of SLR and pick up the new album, as well as share photos of Kirk and donate to his memorial cancer fund, at their website. The band is on tour now a few shows through mid-December, dates available here.

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Comments

Flat5 Thu 12/4/2008 09:22PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Flat5

thats cool that they havent replaced the guy who passed away. its kind of like one of those things that keeps a band playing together like if they decided they had to replace him maybe they wouldnt have even kept playing so thats really cool

Parsonsgoggles starstarstarstarstar Thu 12/4/2008 10:49PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Parsonsgoggles

Slit Lip makes me dance...nice article!

BungledMorphine starstarstarstarstar Fri 12/5/2008 06:26AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Love these guys.

Seen them as a 3 piece when Wayne lafet the band. Saw them as a 4 piece, when Wayne cameback for Kirk's "farewell" tour, and saw them without Kirk after he passed. That farewell show in Minneapolis was heart-wrenching knowing that was the last time I'd see them with Kirk onstage.

Great article about a great band that more people need to know about. See these guys live...you'll have a blast.

sitdancer starstarstarstarstar Fri 12/5/2008 07:35AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

sitdancer

R.I.P. Kirk, you will not be forgotten.

But I agree it is great that the rest of the band keeps on rocking. I have 'only' seen them at Wakarusa a couple of times, never had the chance to see them in a club unfortunately. But the live DVD makes up for it somewhat. Keeping my fingers crossed for some South East tour dates ;)

Ryan Dembinsky Fri 12/5/2008 09:45AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Ryan Dembinsky

I love these guys. Great write up.

iAMuANDwhatIseeISme starstarstarstarstar Fri 12/5/2008 10:28AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

iAMuANDwhatIseeISme

AWESOME BAND.....does anyone else think that on the cover picture the banjo player looks like brian posehn, the mandolin player like lou reed, and the bass player like a guy with a weird-ass bass???

Jukebox Hero Fri 12/5/2008 11:18AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Jukebox Hero

This band doesn't get nearly enough credit. Never Make it Home is one of my favorite albums. I saw them on the "farewell tour" as well and it was incredible. You could tell that Kirk was in really bad shape, looked like he could go at any moment. He had to rest b/w each song and they only played for less than an hour, but each time he stepped up to the mic he gave it his fucking all and it sounded perfect. It was avery touching show. I'b be interested to see the 3-piece. Does anyone know who sings the majority of the tunes? I know that the mando player used to sing a few.

enelson starstarstarstarstar Fri 12/5/2008 12:22PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Wayne and Eric split the majority of the vocal duties with Jeff singing a few here and there.

Great article. This band inspired a whole lot of imitators in Kansas (I'm one of 'em) and across the Midwest, dare I say the world? Go see them!

rainydayman Sat 12/6/2008 05:11AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

rainydayman

Great band. Nicely written article.

chuckus starstarstarstarstar Sat 12/6/2008 03:22PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Very fucking cool.

tron420 starstarstarstarstar Sun 12/7/2008 03:30PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

tron420

Please come to the string summit! Only Split Lip, no east coasties.

Entangled Minds Clothing Wed 12/10/2008 09:34AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Entangled Minds Clothing

I've seen them play the front porch.

There was even an old rocking chair off to the side,

and handfull of dogs weaving between the members.

And when Jeff beat that ford gas tank about 500 heads popped!

Worth checking out.

eskay23 Wed 12/10/2008 01:31PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

the very first time i heard SLR was at the YMSB fest in oregon in 2005. they were the late night act on saturday night. they completely and 100% blew me away. i never saw any band play so fast, and the combination of sarcastic and funny lyrics was great. i see a lot of music, lots of different and varied stuff, but i will never ever forget my first experience with SLR. What do you call this stuff? Bluegrass on Meth? ha ha. either way i loved them it was the show of the year for me. i miss kirk but i'm glad to see they are trudging on without him.

bcbishop2003 starstarstarstarstar Mon 12/15/2008 08:56AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I love Split Lip so much. I have been following them since like 98. Seen them I don't know how many times. This is a great article. I am glad they are getting the recognition. I moved to TN 4 years ago, I only wish they would come out this way. Jambase is doing good by writing about them.

RIP Kurt.

Keep on Rock'n Split Lip.