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Freight Train Rabbit Killer marks 10 years of haunting Kansas City with 'doom blues'

Freight Train Rabbit Killer Unmasked! Playing at a Kansas City fashion show for Mark Smeltzer’s dead rabbit-themed clothing.
Frank Morris
/
KCUR
Freight Train Rabbit Killer Unmasked! Playing at a Kansas City fashion show for Mark Smeltzer’s dead rabbit-themed clothing.

Ten years ago on a cold dark night of the soul, Freight Train Rabbit Killer began its life as a scary band/opera/near-death experience for Kansas City music fans. This Halloween season, there's a flurry of live shows to celebrate their new record.

One great thing about being Freight Train Rabbit Killer: No worries about what to do for Halloween.

“I mean, my suits are covered in four words, most of them: ‘rage, anger, pain and hurt,’” said Kris Bruders, quoting Lou Reed. “Which are the four things that get passed down from generation to generation, for sure.”

Bruders is Freight Train in the band Freight Train Rabbit Killer, so-called because of his affinity for train songs. The other guy is Mark Smeltzer, who picked up the nickname Rabbit Killer up after running out of money for food. He was down to $5 for the month.

“So I bought bullets,” said Smeltzer. “I learned to shoot rabbits with a nine-shot Colt pistol, basically a snake gun.”

Just before Halloween 10 years ago, Bruders and Smeltzer forged Freight Train Rabbit Killer around a love of hardscrabble American music. The stuff they play is crashing, heavy blues, swirled with dark opera and the devil.

“I think a lot of it is about pain, and finding power within pain, finding yourself in there,” said Bruders.

Freight Train Rabbit Killer songs tend towards an Old Testament sweep, and there aren’t a lot of happy endings. Like in “Saw Brother Judas,” about that time Judas was trying to hide from God.

Said now rock will you hide me,
Rock will you hide me, from all things that I done?
But the rock said, “No.”
Because the rock was melting.
Yeah, the rock was melting.
Because it was Judgement Day

“If you bring the death of a mountain to a song, then every single thing has the biggest amount of gravity,” said Smeltzer. “Everything is heavy. Everything is intense. Everything is this pregnant pause, and man it’s twins, and it’s just going to come right out and here we go!”

Mark Smeltzer, Rabbit Killer, checking apparel for the Halloween black light show
Frank Morris
/
KCUR
Mark Smeltzer, Rabbit Killer, checking apparel for the Halloween black light show

Smeltzer says some of that power comes from masks — elaborate, horrifying, homemade masks he and Bruders wear as Freight Train Rabbit Killer on stage. Smeltzer’s are generally big, floppy eared bunnies with blood erupting from their mouths and eye sockets. Bruders sits with his face blacked out behind an ominous steel fish fry spatula that evokes the cow catcher of an oncoming locomotive.

“Sometimes you wear the mask, and sometimes the mask wares you,” said Bruders. “And you want the mask wearing you, if you’re gonna put on a show.”

Freight Train Rabbit Killer is more than a band, though. It’s a project that has taken over half of Smeltzer’s old house in Westport. The place is packed with costumes and banners, most of them splashed or speckled with the dead rabbit heads that Smeltzer paints on just about any piece of clothing he touches. Ancient amplifiers lurk in the corners and Frankenstein instruments sit there daring somebody to pick them up.

“I put a neck on this snare drum,” Smeltzer said as he snatched up a silver metal snare drum with an old wooden guitar neck stuck on it. “Why, because I wanted a rabbit snare ... thunderous.”

The two-string banjo drum used to have four strings.

“Pretty loud, and you know it’s all like all messed up,” Smeltzer said proudly. “Whenever things lose parts of themselves, like lose parts of their voice, other parts make up for it.”

Mark Smeltzer, Rabbit Killer, playing his homemade two-string, snare drum banjo, in his Westport home stuffed with Freight Train Rabbit Killer apparel and props
Frank Morris
/
KCUR
Mark Smeltzer, Rabbit Killer, playing his homemade two-string, snare drum banjo, in his Westport home stuffed with Freight Train Rabbit Killer apparel and props

Smeltzer and Bruders started playing together at Rural Grit Happy Hour, a regular Monday night music show at the Brick that Smeltzer has been putting on for close to 25 years.

“The Rural Grit is basically a music cult,” said Smeltzer. “You put your name into a hat, you get drawn out duet partners, then you get five minutes to learn or write a song, then you get on stage and do it. Well, we were not taking five minutes. We were not taking any time at all,” he said of early jams with Bruders.

“People were coming up to us with tears, or just, you know, saying what an incredible experience it was,” recalled Bruders. “I don’t get that with all my shows, but when I was doing it with Mark it was happening every time.”

Freight Train Rabbit Killer

Now, after a decade of honing their doom blues, Freight Train Rabbit Killer is releasing its fourth record, “The 10 Year,” and doing a flurry of live shows culminating in a blacklight “cave show” at The Ship on Halloween.

Smeltzer promises it will be good for what ails you.

“If it makes you drool,” he said, “then that’s the right medicine.”

Freight Train Rabbit Killer: Tuesday, Oct. 24 at the Boulevard Brewing Co.; 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 28 at Stockyards Brewing Co.; 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31 at The Ship.  

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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