Big Head Todd stays the rock ‘n’ roll course
January 12, 2007
I ask Todd Park Mohr, singer, guitarist and leader of Colorados Big Head Todd and the Monsters, if much has changed in the 20-plus years since he began jamming with bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin. The 41-year-old Mohr laughs with what sounds unmistakably like a touch of embarrassment.Same three guys, doing the same thing, said Mohr by phone, in advance of a Jan. 19 gig in Aspen. I look at them, and its as if nothings changed. Were older, but still doing the same thing.Its not just that Big Head Todd and the Monsters have endured, but how little they have strayed from the path that started in 1983, when Mohr transferred to Littletons Columbine High School. Apart from the acoustic gigs he has recently started playing with Jeremy Lawton, Mohr has made precious little music that hasnt included Squires and Nevin, his fellow Columbine grads. The music is the same brand of guitar-driven, meat-and-potatoes rock n roll; the recent Big Head Todd albums, like the early ones, mix soothing ballads with ferocious rockers driven by Mohrs blues-tinged guitar playing. The most experimenting by the band was the addition of some extra musical parts for an album or for a few tours: a keyboardist here, Denver r & b singer Hazel Miller on occasion, and of late, Lawton, who plays a variety of instruments and joins the band on its upcoming six-week tour. (The tour opens Friday, Jan. 19, at Aspens Belly Up.) There have been no flirtations with different styles, no hiatus and reunion, not even a Todd Park Mohr solo project.Im very content, said Mohr, whose biggest change of late has been spending part of the year in Chicago, with his sweetie and her kids. The rest of the year he lives near Yampa, some 30 miles south of Steamboat Springs. I get a lot of encouragement from Brian and Rob, in all of my creative efforts. Were just very compatible as friends and musicians.Weve been very successful and had a great experience as a band. If it aint broke, dont fix it.Perhaps the reason Big Head Todd and the Monsters is so unshakable Ive never even heard a juicy rumor about the band is that they were built so well to begin with. In 1984, Mohr and Nevin, who had played together in Columbines Jazz Ensemble (with Mohr on saxophone, his first instrument), invited Squires to a jam session. They formed T.J. and the Twist, which specialized in blues and 50s-style rock n roll. Two years later, while all three were student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, they restarted the band, this time as Big Head Todd and the Monsters, taking the first part of the name from blues guitarist Eddie Cleanhead Vinson. (Mohr has anything but a proverbial big head; he is humble, mellow and self-effacing.) The band covered a range of classic rock and electric blues, but for their debut album, 1989s Another Mayberry, Mohr wrote 11 original songs. Even before its release, the Denver weekly Westword voted Big Head Todd Denvers best rock band, and raved, at last a power trio worth its weight in hype.
The following year, the band released Midnight Radio, featuring another 13 songs written by Mohr. On the strength of the two independently produced CDs and the bands extensive touring, record industry executive Irving Azoff flew to Aspen in 1992 to see the band play at the old Double Diamond. Big Head Todd and the Monsters were signed on the spot to Azoffs Giant Records.Big Head Todd and the Monsters latest CD, From the Archives, features mostly unreleased recordings, some of which predate the first two CDs. The oldies album is, in a way, meant to buy the band some time. It has been three years since their last studio CD, 2004s Crimes of Passion, and the bands next studio effort is only in the early stages. Its just a little teaser, said Mohr.But From the Archives has given Mohr and his mates an opportunity recently to revisit the early years. In those first songs, Mohr sees ample justification for staying his course.Theres a lot of great things about us when we were young, he said. I think, as a writer, Im still focused on many of the same aspects of writing as I was then. I was always interested in that approach to songwriting, like Dylan or Springsteen. And I havent veered from that. Its folk-songwriting in a way very simple melodies, and words that seem simple but are very expansive, talking about ordinary life.If the songs come from a folk-music grounding, the bands sound stems from another world altogether. Mohrs guitar work is influenced by the most fiery electric players; he mentions Albert King, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmy Page. Some of them are good writers, some of them arent, offers Mohr.Mohr can easily group himself with those that could write an enduring, affecting song. Sister Sweetly, the bands 1993 debut for Giant Records, yielded four hit singles, from the roaring, arena rock-style Broken Hearted Savior to the delicate Bittersweet and Its Alright. The hits didnt stop there: Stratagem, from 1994, featured In the Morning and Wearing Only Flowers; 1997s Beautiful World got extensive radio play out of Resignation Superman, Please Dont Tell Her and the title track. While Mohr considers himself and the band to be treading an unwavering path, he has consistently made new discoveries on the way. For Stratagem, he took a bold approach to song-writing, aiming to write the entire album as one whole piece, with the songs striving toward the poetic rhythm of iambic pentameter, and the lyrics as mystery-laden koans. Riviera, released in 2002, featured politically oriented songs like Freedom Fighter. Mohr points out that the song-writing predated 9/11, and was largely inspired by the bloodshed in Latin America at the time. The next album, which is written and should be recorded this year, Mohr envisions as a pretty straightforward, guitar-rock album. Of course, all of Big Head Todds albums could be described that way, but Mohr sees subtle differences between them. Sometimes my writing is a little darker and more emotional and less poppy. These are brighter, shorter, very guitar-oriented, said Mohr, who said the new material will be featured in the upcoming tour.Fans will notice two additional innovations at Belly Up. The shows will open with an acoustic set, an avenue Mohr has been exploring both with the band and outside of it. (Mohr played his first solo, acoustic show several years ago in Aspen, at the old Howling Wolf, and he has played some shows with Lawton as an acoustic duo.) Also, Mohr expects to play a little bit of saxophone on the upcoming tour; he added that he could see bringing in a full horn section for future tours.Outside of music, Mohr has expanded in a variety of directions. He is an ambitious painter and writes philosophical essays; both of these endeavors can be seen at his blog (morephilosophy.blogspot.com). His latest posting is titled, What Is Loneliness? While he keeps politics on a most subtle level in his music Politics is very polarizing. Weve tried to avoid polarizing our audience, he said he hasnt kept his political leanings a secret. In fact, he has appeared as a political pundit on Jay Marvins Front Range radio show, and he did an opening set for Al Franken in October at Denvers Paramount Theatre. Mohr says his politics are to the left of the dial.Big Head Todd and the Monsters, with the Brakes opening, plays the Belly Up Aspen on Friday, Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. The show is sold out.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org