I don't know where the Slayer comparisons first started," says Eric Madris, quick-fingered banjo picker for bluegrass quartet Split Lip Rayfield. "Obviously, other than just the speed, there isn't much of a sonic comparison. The tempos are there, but it's not like we're trying to get bucked off a goat the whole time."
Still flirting with saddle rash, the Kansas-based outfit does possess a certain acoustic intensity. Not dependent on distortion pedals, Marshall stacks or the Devil himself (at least not to the point of overkill), the band's music somehow keeps critics likening it -- time and again -- to that of the blistering thrash-metal cabal from Orange County. But fleshing out the Split's overall breakneck sound -- one that relies as much on high-lonesome harmonies as it does speed-demon chops -- is a rootsy warmth that would be wasted on a tribute to Joseph Mengele.
"Back in the late '80s, being a metalhead, I can remember the first time I heard "Angel of Death," Madris says, recalling Slayer's infamous air. "At least half of me came from the Megadeth-Anthrax-Iron Maiden school of thought. Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple is the whole reason I wanted to play music in the beginning. So how I got sucked into the bluegrass vortex, I don't know.
"I've played jazz in different quartets," he continues, "but I was wasted one night on New Year's Eve and heard this radio show of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. And the first time I saw Béla Fleck, his banjo head was three or four feet away from my face, and it was just religious. So it wasn't really bluegrass that got me into the banjo. It was more like hearing this insane, jazz-fusion kind of countrified stuff."
No strangers to weird hillbilly hybrids, Split Lip spun off of a goth country trio called Scroat Belly in 1998. The current, unplugged outgrowth features Madris, Kirk Rundstrom on guitar, Wayne Gottstine on mandolin and harmonica and Jeff Eaton on upright bass -- one built from a '65 Ford gas tank and a single string of Weedwacker line. Weighing over fifty pounds, with resonating F-holes shaped like rocket ships, Eaton's monstrosity is nicknamed "The Stitchgiver" for obvious reasons.
"Jeff has got some puncture wounds from those corners, but most of the wounds come from him actually playing the thing," Madris says. "He just opened up a real gruesome one in Chicago on the last leg of this tour. You usually see him duct-tape the fingers on his plucking hand, but those pop off eventually."
"He was looking into making a normal washtub bass," Madris adds. "But it works out fine. Acoustically, it's not so loud. But he's got pickups in it."
With the Stitchgiver's percussive sound eliminating the need for a drummer, Split Lip joins inventive alt-country groups like Austin's tuba-grounded Bad Livers by maintaining a mostly one-man rhythm section. And while such bluegrass variations might border on heresy compared to the trad-and-true music from hardscrabble forefathers like Jimmy Martin or Ralph Stanley, the act has yet to be reprimanded for thinking outside the Appalachian zip code.
"If there's a sentiment that we're pissin' on some heavy's grave, they keep it to themselves," Madris says. "My stepdad is, like, 73 and super-traditional, but he taps his foot to the band when he hears it. If he knew what all the words were going by, he'd probably shake his head."
"We're not trying to bastardize any style or anything like that," Gottstine adds. "People have always been killing people, so there's been murder ballads since the dawn of time. It's just modern words with old thoughts, I guess."
Considering how a tune like "Kiss of Death," from the band's latest disc, Never Make It Home, references LSD and laments countless autos that "took a crap" on the open road (a common Lip theme in addition to bloodshed, whiskey and heartache), it's not hard to picture bluegrass oldsters rolling their eyes if they were actually paying attention to the lyrics. But Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, whose roster includes luminaries such as Neko Case and the Old 97's, certainly likes what it's hearing, enough to have released the outfit's last three efforts: the 1999 self-titled debut, 2000's In the Mud, and Never Make It Home. After touring exhaustively in support of each release, last year the Splits took a well-deserved hiatus for housekeeping and kid-raising.
Charges of not being family-oriented, however, have kept the Splits from the main stage at the annual Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival down the road in Winfield. Then again, the small, conservative community where the festival resides is a dry county.
"We could play shows for green-haired Mohawk kids or snow-on-the-roof guys and get a good response," Madris insists. "I don't think it's an age thing, necessarily. But it seems like the big bluegrass establishment has really been watered down and homogenized for the retiree set."
Daring to combine Jesus and moonshine in the same breath, the group has shared bills with bluegrass royalty Del McCoury as well as jam-noodlers Leftover Salmon. In fact, the Splits have established a sizable tie-dyed following without even trying.
"We did a couple of shows at that Salmonfest thing in Lesterville, and it kind of took off from there," Madris says, sounding a bit mystified. "Without being much of an aficionado of the jam-band scene, I think it has a lot to do with the end of Jerry Garcia. He was doing a lot of bluegrass stuff with David Grisman and Old and in the Way. I think it turned a lot of those spinner hippie folk into that sort of thing."
"We don't go into any jams," Gottstine notes. "All of our songs are formatted."
As concise as they are rusticated, the members of Split Lip Rayfield are a product of the Midwest: restless hell-raisers weaned on good barbecue, tornadoes and Judas Priest. If the desolation of the Kansas flatlands can breed rollicking acoustic devilment, it must also have something to do with what keeps all four bandmates rooted to their stampin' grounds.
"I like ridin' dirt bikes and being out in the country and not having any neighbors," says Gottstine, who was raised in the Flint Hills. "And being able to blast your shotgun off in the middle of the day, right out in front of your house, and nobody cares."
Eaton, a transplant from tiny Gumbo, Missouri (home of the ultra-chapped townie who provides the band's name), boasts 87 different recipes for gar, a prehistoric-looking alligator-fish with a long beak full of teeth.
"They get pretty big," Madris says. "It's like carp, though -- not really for eating. We used to go down to Toronto, Kansas, with thirty or forty friends and have a gar-fishing tournament with joke-ass prizes for whoever won."
In addition to its curious, indigenous cuisine, Split Lip's home state also lays claim to the demolition derby's answer to tag-team wrestling: caged cruiser racing, in which one man steers while another in the passenger side controls the brakes and gas.
"We're all super Kansas-proud," Madris declares. "We have running water and television. I've traveled all over the place, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."
The late William S. Burroughs would certainly agree. The well-traveled counterculture icon lived in the University town of Lawrence longer than he lived anywhere else before dying there of a heart attack in 1997. Through Burroughs's secretary, editor and companion James Grauerholz, the Splits secured a historic rehearsal space in exchange for some light caretaking duties. Old Bull's former red cabin, two lots down from Madris's own rural homestead, has had its share of hoedowns over the years.
"I live down near this little lake south of Lawrence, and Burroughs had property out here where he'd paint or read or seclude, 200 yards from my back door," Madris says. "I'm looking at it from my own second-story window now. The Burroughs trust still owns it all. I'm sure they'll liquidate it soon.
"I was never big on the Beats or whatever -- if that's even a proper assessment of what he was part of," Madris continues. "But I've come around to it. I feel like I kind of half know the guy just from being around all his stuff, the echoes of himself. I'll find, like, old science-fiction paperbacks with scribbling in all the margins and an extensive gay-porn collection. There's Burroughs's junk hanging all over the cabin, paintings that he made. He liked to get a bunch of leaves together and spray-paint them for silhouettes -- almost like grade-school art projects."
Still drawing a rough outline for a fourth full-length, Split Lip is keeping its collective shoulder to the wheel with the help of percussionist and fifth Lipper Colin Mahoney, who's engineered all of the band's albums at the Z'gwon,th Studio in Lawrence. The group also has a seven-inch single in the works, scheduled for pressing in early 2004. In the meantime, plenty of other musical side projects should keep the fellas busy, including the Kirk Rundstrom Band, Floyd the Barber, Madris's jazz quartet and a heavy-metal effort called Satan's Jewelled Crown. Gottstine has even resurrected the politically minded Sluggos, a raucous folk-punk affair that was shelved after the George Herbert Bush era.
"We took off the entire Clinton administration," Gottstine says. "Then, when George W. came into office, all the songs we'd written about his dad kind of fell back in line. So we're doin' that again, just for grins."
Not that Split Lip Rayfield is on the back burner. With plans to tour fourteen days out of every month this upcoming year, Madris and company are geared up for what they like doing best: playing old-timey chestnuts with a metal-informed style that's fast and shreddy, heartfelt and half drunk.
"I gotta keep after my house payment however I can," Madris says. "And I'm not gonna go back to waiting tables. The end goal of all musicians is just to play and not have to do something that sucks to get the bills paid. So if that's the end, I guess I'm already there and ready for step two."
Could there be a triple bill with Ritchie Blackmore and Slayer on the horizon?
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