By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
The Mongol Beach Party reunion was already booked when Mark Southerland found out about it.
“I think what happened was (drummer) Bill (Belzer) booked the show, called (guitarist) Jeff (Freeling), and everyone else found out through third parties,” said Southerland, who plays saxophone in the band.
Although the idea had been floated casually in conversation before, this time no one said no. Seventeen years apart seemed like the right time to hook back up.
“When we started this band, none of us had been in bands before,” singer Christian Hankel said. “Now we’ve spent our lives since then in bands and music.”
Today Hankel and trombonist Kyle Dahlquist are part of Alacartoona; Belzer is in the New Amsterdams with Get Up Kid Matt Pryor; and Southerland is involved in several projects, including the Malachy Papers and Snuff Jazz. Bass player Scott Easterday fronts the reconvened Expassionates; and Freeling, the lone Mongol based outside of Kansas City, plays guitar with Chicago’s Blue Man Group.
“The fact that we’ve all continued on as musicians and none of us have set down our instruments has helped us reapproach the Mongol songs again,” Freeling said. “It’s not as if we’re reliving our glory days.”
Fans who show up at the RecordBar Friday and Saturday are guaranteed the same good-time, quirky dance-rock songs they heard nearly 20 years ago at the Shadow, Harling’s Upstairs and the Hurricane.
“I get the big sense that this isn’t just our reunion,” Hankel said. “People are using us as a way of getting together with their circle of friends from that time.”
Kansas City in the late ’80s was a different scene. There were fewer places to play, fewer outlets for exposure and fewer bands.
“Back then if you wanted to be known it was expensive and difficult,” Hankel said. “You couldn’t set up a MySpace page or Web site because those didn’t exist. You could make a CD, but that was worthless unless you could get somebody to play it.”
Instead the Mongols took whatever gigs they could get, even when it meant they were packaged with completely different bands like the Sin City Disciples.
“Bands were country or blues or whatever and had their own music scene that would go with them,” Easterday said. “We were different because we cut across the sub-scenes.”
Record producer Tom Mardikes was introduced to Mongols by his aerobics instructor, Freeling’s mother.
“Tom believed in a ‘Kansas City sound’ unique to our town,” Hankel said. “He took us to City Spark Studios, offered us unfettered access to the studio to record a full CD and promotion to college radio.”
“Toast,” the Mongols’ only album, was recorded in 1991. Long out of print, it was remastered and reissued this month.
“We included a few new additions to this version,” Easterday said. “There are our three demos cut at City Spark and a couple songs from a limited-edition cassette we made.”
Mongol Beach Party formed out of the Rockhurst High School friendships of Belzer, Freeling and Hankel and the musical partnerships forged at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. After five years of living together in a house at 43rd and Harrison, and a single-minded focus on the band, the group unraveled when Belzer joined Uncle Tupelo.
“Jeff Tweedy would come drunkenly into Cicero’s (a St. Louis club the Mongols sometimes played),” Belzer said. “I loved his band, and when I was talking to him one time the idea came up for me to tour Europe with them.”
Belzer couldn’t be blamed for taking advantage of the opportunity to play for bigger crowds and share the bill with Bob Mould, Michelle Shocked and bluesman Taj Mahal. He wasn’t the only Mongol looking to expand his horizons.
“Bill did not break up the band,” Hankel said. “Because we were so close emotionally, but starting to branch out artistically, there was enormous pressure within the group. Side projects were not part of the culture at that time.”
Today the only musical trend hipper than a side project is a full-blown reunion.
“I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to the rehearsals more than the shows,” Hankel said last week. “Jeff and I were best friends before Mongol Beach Party, and we lost touch for a long time. I’m excited about reconnecting with these guys.”
The Mongol Beach Party shows are Friday and Saturday at the RecordBar. The Friday show starts at 9 p.m. with opening act the Afterparty. The Saturday show starts at 9 p.m. with the Last Call Girls. Tickets for either show cost $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the RecordBar or through groovetickets.com.