In the seemingly never-ending mission to group bands into a myriad of categories, Split Lip Rayfield has been allotted the “thrash-grass” label, which can be described as aggressive acoustic music with elements of punk and bluegrass. They’ve influenced a slew of other like-minded artists, but are careful not to take sole credit.
“I’ve never gotten any financial reward for coming up with the genre so I don’t know if we can claim that,” jokes mandolinist Wayne Gottstine.
The humble musician is congenial and soft-spoken yet there’s an underlying sadness in his voice. Bassist Jeff Eaton, banjoist Eric Mardis and Gottstine have encountered all types of hurdles. They haven’t always been a three-piece outfit. Guitarist and founding member Kirk Rundstrom lost his battle with esophageal cancer in 2007 and in his honor, the surviving members decided not to replace him.
“ He’s not someone you can replace. We thought we’d just do it ourselves. We haven’t found anybody that would fit our band anyway, “ he says. “We’re mellower now. It was a big, heavy deal. This documentary he was in just came out and it was hard to watch. We were very close. It’s hard to deal with. I don’t even know what to say. It changed things a lot, but we keep truckin’ along.”
While Rundstrom’s death clearly altered Split Lip’s path and is most likely the reason for Gottstine‘s sorrow, during the nearly five years since his passing, the band has stayed focused on making its imprint on the music world. Gottstine has taken on several roles in the Kansas-based trio. In addition to playing the mandolin, he’s excelled at both the electric bass and keyboard, although he says he‘s “not very good.”
“I’m using a crappy Casio keyboard. You pump it through enough effects, you can’t tell it’s a Casio,” he says with a laugh.
However, he can’t get away with that on the mandolin.
“The mandolin is an unforgiving little instrument because it’s so small and high pitched. There’s not much room for error,” he explains. “When you make a mistake, it sounds like needles going into your ears.”
There’s nothing painful about Split Lip’s sound. They have “Stage Five” vibe and unless you’re a fairly dedicated bluegrass fan, you probably won’t know what that means. Even Gottstine doubts its validity.
“It’s a fictitious label. I’ve heard recently it’s the sound of the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winifield, Kansas. It’s the mother of all festivals. Sixteen thousand people show up and there are hundreds of jams,” he says. “They have a non-sanctioned stage called Stage 5. We’ve played it for 15 years. It’s a weird little stage. We spawned a lot of imitators.”
While Split Lip isn’t the first band of its kind, a number of “thrash-grass” bands do owe a little gratitude to them for helping pioneer the genre. The difference between traditional bluegrass and Split Lip is their choice in song structure. Typically, bluegrass musicians play customary folk and country songs using traditional acoustic instruments and while Split Lip sticks to those instruments, they play songs more stylistically related to punk or heavy metal. They even got the attention of The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. In 2008, the band was commissioned to do a few songs for the “Squidbillies” series, a process they enjoyed very much.
“An old friend of mine, Barry Mills, did a lot of work affiliated with The Cartoon Network. He knew the Squidbillies’ people. “They will call you 2 days before they need it and want it right away. You don’t tell them you live 170 miles away from the other members. You make it happen,“ he explains. “It all takes place within 3 or 4 days. The reason they hire particular bands is because they already have the sound they were looking for so it was easy.”
Seven studio albums and 15 years later, Split Lip Rayfield has shared the stage with everyone from Reverend Horton Heat to Yonder Mountain String Band, carving a nice niche for themselves. They shine during their live shows and, according to Gottstine, they’re “very” high-energy.
“We wear stage costumes. We have robots, a light show, live animals and snakes. We have a Trans-Am that we drive around so we look like Smokey and The Bandit,” he says sarcastically. “Depending on how big the venue is, we might do some donuts. That’s how we get down. We try to rock it every night. I’m really fond of polar bears, too, but you have to play nice or they will fuck you up!”
Split Lip Rayfield with The Legendary Shack Shakers and Mountain Sprout, November 18, at The Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St., 9 p.m. Tickets are $15. Visit www.onepercentproductions.com for more information.