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Scott Thompson’s 1980s art-punk band Mouth Congress returns

February 18, 2016

The fearlessly queer Kids in the Hall comedian shares tales of his band before returning to the stage.

Illustrations: Randall Finnerty

A transgressive timewarp into the Toronto of the ’80s emerged last September when Scott Thompson and Paul Bellini posted a collection of recordings from their band Mouth Congress. The name was a reference to oral sex from Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Kama Sutra, and the project was born after writer and comedian Bellini (who you may recognize as the towel-clad man in countless Kids in the Hall sketches) rented a beatbox from Long & McQuade.

Improvising songs and creating characters in their basement freezer (not unlike another band born in cold storage), Mouth Congress enlisted a rotating line-up of musical accomplices including the other Kids. Everyone except for Dave Foley, that is, who apparently hated the band.

After playing their first show opening for Bruce McCulloch at Toronto’s Rivoli in 1985, the fearlessly queer art-punk band developed a cult following. However, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, Mouth Congress were also hit with homophobia from audience members and less progressive musicians. As the Kids in the Hall began to take off, the band was set aside and may have remained lost forever if it wasn’t for Bellini’s dedicated documentation.

With the restless anything-goes spirit and playful provocation of groups like Devo, The Homosexuals, or The Frogs, they combined ramshackle glam/new wave ditties with sound collages and sketches. Favoured Mouth Congress topics included gay sex, golden showers, and interplanetary transsexual superheroes. Now, you can hear their 647 songs spread across 30 albums on one of the busiest Bandcamp pages this side of R. Stevie Moore.

A Mouth Congress documentary is currently in the works, and the group will return to the Rivoli for their first live show in decades on Sunday, February 21. Read on for an interview with Scott Thompson on the long-lost band’s glory hole days.

AUX: I’ve been fascinated by Mouth Congress since the band reappeared back in September. It was so amazing to see 15 (now 30!) albums pop up out of nowhere.

Scott Thompson: Thanks! They’re pretty loosely called albums, though. We were constantly making shit up. Paul Bellini is a devoted archivist, one of those people who has to have everything recorded. When the home video revolution started, he was the first person I knew who bought a camera. From that moment on, he documented our whole group of friends all through our 20s.

It’s great to have that archive now, so many years later. I imagine it might have been lost to time otherwise.

No one else was doing it at the time. He shot all of the Kids in the Hall stage shows in the mid ’80s along with every Mouth Congress show. We created characters and acted out stories in his basement, and Bellini recorded everything. Everything. Everybody does that now, but back then it was unique.

Did Mouth Congress start around the same time as Kids in the Hall?

Pretty much exactly the same time. We were all friends who hung out together and no one really knew where anybody was headed. When you’re young, you don’t know if you’re going to be sing in a band, be a comedian, or be an actor.

The first time the band played live was opening for Bruce McCulloch. I think he was a fan mainly because he didn’t have any idea what the hell we were doing! We didn’t have a following because every time we performed we would write it all from scratch. It was much like the Kids in the Hall in that way.

The truth is that the Kids took off, so the band was forgotten. I knew very on that our comedy would hit. Mouth Congress was always a place for us to experiment because there were no rules. We just created. The other members are real musicians, but Paul and I never have been. We can’t play any instruments or read music. It was just an outlet for youthful energy.

On Damian Abraham’s Turned Out A Punk podcast, you said your lives performances were also an outlet for your pent-up sexual energy.

You have to remember that Paul and I were the only gay members. People would call us a gay punk band but we were more of an art band. It was unheard of for two gay men to front a rock band in the mid ’80s though. It was ugly and dangerous because homophobia was huge. This was the height of the AIDS epidemic. So, for me, a lot of it was my sexual outlet. It saved my life because it stopped me from being a whore.

I was afraid to have sex because it could kill me. It seemed safer to write angry songs and fuck the audience!

What kinds of scary things did you experience as an openly gay performer?

All the usual things. People called me ‘faggot’ from the audience; that was fairly common. There were members of other bands who said things too. I remember one musician who said ‘gay guys shouldn’t sing rock ‘n’ roll.’ I could out them and there are probably a lot of people who I could hurt. But nah.

I’ve heard you got naked on stage a lot too. Can you confirm or deny?

I took my clothes off a lot. I was thinking that wouldn’t happen this time, but then I realized nothing is more punk than a middle-aged, out of shape man taking his clothes off. It’s easy when you’re 25, but now? That’s fucking punk. For me to get out of bed when I’m there with someone and go take a pee is a very punk move.

Did you perform with Toronto punk bands back then? I could imagine you sharing a stage with The Viletones or The Dishes.

I saw The Viletones, but no, we were never part of that. We played all of those places – the El Mocambo, the Turning Point, the Rivoli – but we never even got paid. We were never a name of any kind. We were freaky; people thought we were freaks. A lot of it was performing in character and discovering where your real talent lay. The songs took on a lot of different perspectives because we didn’t think it had to be limited to the things we believed. Just what the characters believed. It was storytelling.

Did any Kids in the Hall characters emerge from Mouth Congress?

Buddy Cole definitely. There was another one named Madame Alfonso, although she didn’t really take off on the show. I performed entire shows as her in drag. The introductions to the songs got longer and longer until I realized I was better at intros than songs!

This is kind of a basic question but I haven’t seen it answered anywhere – who are the other members of the band?

Oh! It was rotating, but mainly Rob Rowatt on guitar, or Brian Hiltz on guitar and keyboard, Warren Phillips on guitar and keyboard, Tom King on bass and sometimes singing with us, and Steve Keeping, who was pretty much always the drummer. Blaine Vanstone and Gord Disley also played bass, and Steve Gelling also played guitar. Basically everyone who was there.

Kevin McDonald and Mark McKinney are on some of our songs too! The only Kid who doesn’t appear anywhere on the recordings is Dave Foley.

Why not Dave?

Dave hated us… and he still does! He recently tweeted something about it, saying ‘thank god I never had to listen to this.’ He likes the performances, but never wanted to have anything to do with it. Kevin did the most, because he’ll do anything.

He even moved to Winnipeg…

That means you’re up for anything.

Why did you and Paul decide to release this music now after so many years?

Paul said he’s in his legacy years, so he wanted people to see it. He’s also working on a documentary, so he’s started putting together some footage that he had, and we’re shooting new stuff now. When you go back to it after so much time it really seems amazing. You can look back on it and it feels historical.

Number one: It just seemed fun. There’s nothing more fun than singing in a band! It’s ludicrous because we’re too old to be doing this, but it keeps you young.

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Is this the final Mouth Congress show?

Most likely, but we’ll see what happens. If someone wants us to do something again, we’d probably do it.

What kind of show will it be?

You’re gonna get about 12 songs, a bit of comedy, a lot of costume changes, and some education in the form of a CPR demonstration. You’ll come away learning something.

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