This weekend, Mark Smeltzer and Kris Bruders will celebrate the third anniversary of their gothic-blues duo Freight Train Rabbit Killer. The band turns 3, but the idea for the duo had been simmering for years.
“I wrote a song in 1996 called ‘The Death Song of the Locomotive Angel,’ ” Smeltzer said. “It was a story/song about being able to sing yourself into heaven. It was the first time I’d written a song about magical musical incantations.”
Before continuing down that road, Smeltzer decided he needed a character for the musical narrative, one who was part Pied Piper of Hamelin, part “death-song catcher” and part “sacred clown.”
The character’s name came to him during a performance in 2004: “I was telling hunting stories to a room full of vegetarians and was jokingly dubbed Rabbit Killer. So I started developing Rabbit Killer as the character I needed to tell the story of the death songs of the locomotive angels.”
Bruders joined the project in 2013, adding the Freight Train character to the narrative.
“He’s a dark, violent character,” Bruders said. “It’s completely fictional, but it was informed by a lot of events, many of which happened to me growing up. I don’t consider the character to be me, though. I consider it to be everyone or anyone upset with the status quo.”
Friday night, Oct. 28, Freight Train Rabbit Killer will perform at the RecordBar, where it will unveil in comic book form “Freight Train Rabbit Killer, Issue No. 1,” the duo’s story, which is, according to the band’s official synopsis: Two vigilantes seeking justice and revenge against “the high sheriffs of predation” and “on a mission to purge the world of predators feeding on the innocent, predators like CEOs of banks, insurance companies, politicians and people that run this unfair world.”
Smeltzer and Bruders wrote the story. Artwork was created by artist/illustrator Hector Casanova, who produced the cover art and contributed post-production duties, and mixed-media artist Patrick Quinn, who illustrated the comic.
In 2013, Freight Train Rabbit Killer released its self-titled full-length album and began touring out of town. The narrative evolved during road time.
“For a year and a half or so, we had plenty of time to sit in the car and talk,” Bruders said. “And as we talked about these characters, we thought it would be great to develop a story behind them. We are playing these characters anyway. We wear masks and hand-painted suits. As these characters developed in our minds and we created this story around the characters, it dawned on us to tell the story somehow, maybe a video or animation. I’ve always been a comic book fan, so we decided to go that way.”
Smeltzer said the comic book story was inspired by the songs that preceded it.
“These are stories of redemption, making the powerless powerful again,” he said. “That is what we were doing in the beginning, and it’s what we are doing now. The characters drive us, and we listen to what the characters are saying.”
The duo’s live performances are dark and cathartic, even unsettling at times. The masks they wear are haunting, adding more gloom and darkness to their howling, electric blues.
“At most shows, people are really affected by it,” Bruders said of the music. “You can’t get away from it. It’s not for everybody. Some people are uncomfortable with it. But there’s nothing abnormal other than the approach. It’s just blues, it’s Americana, it’s folk.
“It’s an intense story. It’s a story about suffering and getting fed up with what is normal and every day and doing the same thing over and over.”
At the RecordBar, copies of the comic will be available, including a limited number of signed, bound, hand-sewn editions.
Freight Train Rabbit Killer will get some backup from the Legion of Ghosts, a full band comprising Michael Payne (Bruder’s bandmate in Cadillac Flambe), Steve Gardels, Michelle Bacon and Fritz Hutchison on drums/percussion; a three-piece horn section comprising Kyle Dahlquist, Cole Gurley and Ryan Boone; Damon Parker on organ; Chad Graves of the HillBenders on pedal steel; Jason Beers on bass; and Galadriel Thompson as the Angel of Death.
“There will be a progression of intensity,” Bruders said. “We’ll start as a duo and build to a full band with lots of theatrics. Mark has tirelessly created this great backdrop that we will use during the performance.
“And everyone who comes through the door will receive a handmade mask made especially for the show.”
And will the story continue to evolve? Will there be sequels and more episodes?
“Yes, there will be,” Smeltzer said, “for sure.”
Freight Train Rabbit Killer performs at 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28 at the RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd. Berwanger opens. Admission to the 18-and-older show is $10.