Split Lip Rayfield's class-10 tornado spin on bluegrass fusion opened the door for a younger generation of finger-pickers who preferred heavier music, and pioneered the way for an underground bluegrass revolution spiraling from the center of Wichita, KS. Some say it's “Slamgrass,” others have dubbed it debauchery. Overall, the band’s light-speed arrangements and tales of broken love and vehicles have set a standard that has even the Reverend Horton Heat impressed. Galvanizing listeners with the boot-stomping plunk of Jeff Eaton's signature gas-tank bass, The Lip features the simultaneous blast-furnace fury of guitarist Kirk Rundstrom, banjoist Eric Mardis, and mandolinist Wayne Gottstein. Their high-decibel hillbilly harmonies are in prime form, blurring onstage in a fit of stringcore madness. Rundstrom opened up to Maximum Ink, talking about his fight with cancer and the future of the band.
MAXIMUM INK: There are some interesting circumstances surrounding this tour. I’d like you to talk about them if you would like, so our readers have a better idea of what is going on.
KIRK RUNDSTROM: Sure. I got diagnosed with esophageal cancer in January and have been fighting that up until June with chemo and radiation and surgery and all sorts of stuff. [The Doctors] basically, at this point, said that they can’t stop the spread of the cancer, and that it’s spread to my aorta and arteries. They only gave me a couple months to live and wanted me to continue the chemo, but the chemo makes me sick, and I can’t get out of bed. I stopped the chemo and now I can get out of bed and do shows again. You know, it’s pretty exciting, and I’m very grateful to be able to get back out of bed off it. I was sick for quite a while, and I’m currently doing alternative treatments with intravenous Vitamin C, acupuncture, eating really healthy, and doing a lot of prayer. [Laughing]
MAX INK: How long have the alternative treatments been going on?
RUNDSTROM: Since June. I did my last chemo treatment in June. I stopped doing that because they said it wasn’t going to get rid of the cancer, and that it maybe slowed it down. I decided then that I should try to have some quality of life.
MAX INK: Is music the most therapeutic thing that you can do for yourself?
RUNDSTROM: It’s one of them, for sure! It’s something that I’ve been playing on the road for about 15 years now, so I’m very passionate about it. You know, I didn’t get to play basically from January; I didn’t get to touch a guitar until June. It’s been quite an experience. I didn’t get to play or sing. I was 210 pounds, and I dropped to 140. Now I’m back to 170, so I’m doing good.
MAX INK: I want you to talk about influencing a younger generation of players, about taking the concept of bluegrass and putting your own spin and style on it, and getting people introduced to it through a punk sound.
RUNDSTROM: We’re not the ones that started doing this. The Bad Livers were playing their own version of bluegrass way before we ever started doing anything like this. I mean, we’re not a bluegrass band, I consider us a rock and roll band with acoustic instruments. You know, you put electricity and drums behind us and it’s basically rock and roll songs. We’re just using bluegrass instruments. The traditionalists, they don’t like us, but that’s fine, you know, that’s good. With the state of bluegrass music today with the rouge, and bolo ties, and the cover tunes, I don’t want to be a part of it anyway [laughing].
MAX INK: The photo in the liner notes showed photos of torn up hands from playing.
RUNDSTROM: Yeah, those were Jeffrey’s hands, he play’s the bass.
MAX INK: One of the more interesting basses I have seen in my life. It’s a gas tank from a ‘67 Fairlaine or something?
RUNDSTROM: It’s crazy. Yeah, something like that. He whacks on it with weed-eater strings.
MAX INK: Tell me about where your influences come from. I know you’ve name-dropped Rush a few times.
RUNDSTROM: I like Rush, but it’s everything. There was a period when I would I go through different phases, like industrial; Ministry, they’re important, and Minimal Compact. I like more indie style things, too; Superchunk, Yo La Tengo, Ethel Meets Plow, The Cowls. I listen to more jazz these days; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, John Dorn. Which is a study in itself, I’m enjoying the learning process of that. And that goes back to tie in the solo albums; I wanted to create something that is different from what everybody else is doing. You can get those records on kirkrundstrom.com and grainanddemise.com. They feature some great musicians.
MAX INK: How is your outlook and how are you dealing with things.
RUNDSTROM: One day at a time. For a while there it didn’t look like I was going to play again. I’m on alternative therapies, and I know for a fact that if I can stay healthy and I’m able to tour up until December, I’m going to retire from live shows and work on trying to beat cancer. As a matter of fact, December 8th in Wichita is out last show. For a while.
MAX INK: How are the other guys in the band taking everything?
RUNDSTROM: Great. No one wants to have to beat cancer, they’re super helpful and they are my family. They’re doing what’s happening, it’s life. You got to keep moving.
The group’s final tour will pass through the area on Nov. 2 at the First Avenue in Minneapolis, MN, Nov. 3 at the High Noon Saloon in Madison, Nov. 4 at the Empty Bottle (Early Show, doors 6:30PM) in Chicago, IL, and Nov. 5 at the High Dive in Champaign, IL. To support Kirk and help him cover his medical bills, you can purchase merchandise and CD’s through www.kirkrundstrom.com and www.splitliprayfield.com.