Q&A with Split Lip Rayfield

Q&A with Split Lip Rayfield
Split Lip Rayfield

Courtesy Photo
Split Lip Rayfield is (from left to right) Eric Mardis, Wayne Gottstine and Jeff Eaton.

This Saturday, Split Lip Rayfield, one of the region’s bluegrass greats will be playing the George’s Majestic Lounge stage with homegrown “jamgrass” band Foley’s Van.

The Witchita, Kan. trio, made up of Eric Mardis (banjo), Wayne Gottstine (mandolin), and Jeff Eaton (a homemade one-string bass) who all contribute vocals, are coming up on 20 years performing together. The band originally formed in 1995, and became known for their “cow punk” approach to bluegrass. The style, mixing metal, rock, and alt-country — comparable to the “thrash-grass” music of Bad Livers at the time — mixed with bluegrass went on to influence many modern bluegrass bands of today.

The band has released seven albums, and they’re in the process of coming out with a new album soon. Kirk Rundstrom, a founding member of Split Lip Rayfield, performed and wrote music as the guitarist for the band until early 2007. Rundstrom suffered from an aggressive esophageal cancer, and died in February 2007. The trio continued on, and the band’s latest album, “I’ll Be Around” was dedicated to Rundstrom’s memory.

The Free Weekly was able to get an interview with Eric Mardis about the band’s oddity of songwriting and the evolution of bluegrass.

TFW: It appears your songwriting comes from all angles. In one song you sing about a woman drowning in a quarry, another about necromancy. What’s the band’s approach to songwriting?

Mardis: It’s always pretty much been either Kirk or Wayne or I that writes the song and brings it to the band and we flush it out. We don’t really write together, but stuff gets fleshed out instrumentally. Wayne and Kirk have a much more instrospective style to their writing. I don’t like to do the emotional poet. My stuff is more fictional, third person stuff. That’s probably where all the divergent sounds and styles come from. Any record can kind of a mix of writers and whatever’s jumped into people’s heads at the time. The band has always been a freefall and blessed happy accident anyway, so there hasn’t been much of a formula. Whatever happens and sticks is what we roll with.

It’s kind of informal, we just show up with the tunes and say, “Hey, it’s in G, here are the changes.” We record it if it’s good. If not, we have a boneyard of stuff we may return to at some point. The cool thing about the band is, there’s so many places it can go.

TFW: So you have been playing bluegrass-influenced style music for more than a decade, right? How have you seen the genre evolve?

Mardis: Yeah, we’re coming up on our 20th year next year. It’s hard to believe, actually. It doesn’t seem that long ago to many of us. We’re going to have a new album next year. It’s a pretty exciting landmark.

When we first started doing it, there were a few bands that influenced us beyoned tradtional bluegrass such as Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers. There were some bands around, like The Bad Livers that were pretty influential to us. We all kind of grew up as heavy metal and punk rock kids with a definite country vein to it. As we’ve started doing our brand of music more and more the scene’s evolved around a rock-abilly thing and then there’s the jamgrass scene in Colorado, that’s sort of become its own thing. It’s evolved in lots of different directions. There’s still a lot of traditional fans that want things to sound the same, like a Bill Monroe record. We were the young guns at one point doing this weird thing to it.

Subsequently, over the years some of these really great bands we really like have said, “Hey you were an influence to us,” in the same way The Bad Livers were to us, so that’s pretty rewarding. Everyone’s putting their own stamp on it, and that’s great.

TFW: I’m sure you get asked this in every interview, but how did the idea for Jeff Eaton’s gas tank bass, Stitchgiver, come about?

Mardis: Jeff decided he wanted to make a washtub bass, but he didn’t have a washtub. He had this old gas tank he bought for $20. He ended up just bolting a neck onto it and using a weed wacker line and it worked out pretty well. I remeber the first time he pulled it out. I remember thinking, y’know… that’s interesting looking… but we were amazed that even in the early stages he could really get around on that thing. It wasn’t as restrictive as I thought it was. It was a happy incident. One hundred percent hillbilly ingunity on Jeff’s part.

TFW: What are some bands you guys are into right now?

Mardis: I still like all the bands I’ve always liked. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden. I tend to go back in time rather than forward, so I like Jango Rienhardt, some old music before I was even around. Honestly I guess I don’t listen to the radio, and I don’t have cable TV. New music is hard for me to listen to. I guess I’m stuck in the past. At Harvest Fest we thought the Carolina Chocolate Drops were awesome, as well as Mountain Sprout, Yonder Mountain String Band, they’ve been friends of us for a long time. We weren’t there as long as we wish we would have been.

TFW: Foley’s Van, one of Fayetteville’s homegrown bluegrass bands, is opening up for you. What do you think about those guys and their approach to bluegrass?

Mardis: We’re really looking forward to seeing them play live. We’ve heard nothing but good things about their live show. Any time we can hook up with up and comers is fantastic. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the hubub is all about.

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