“I think I’m in Raleigh-Durham.”
It’s 11 a.m. in North Carolina, but Todd Park Mohr sounds a little tired over the phone. No judgment, though: It’s February, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters have been on the road since early October, a few breaks tossed in around the holidays.
But Mohr and company — Rob Squires on bass, Brian Nevin on drums and Jeremy Lawton on keys — are old salts when it comes to touring. It’s in their blood. It’s what they do. It’s how they’ve traversed three decades as a cohesive unit, and how they’ve maintained a loyal following the whole way.
It all started in the late ’80s with the original trio — Mohr, Squires and Nevin — knocking on the doors of bars and clubs up and down the Front Range looking for gigs. They’d land a gig, make enough money for a little grub and a little gas, then hop in their ’77 mustard-yellow Plymouth van, lovingly dubbed “the Colonel,” and head to the next town.
The guys met as teenagers in jazz band at Columbine High School and quickly formed a bond over a shared love of classic rock, blues and R&B. The bond was so strong that Mohr transferred from Colorado State University to join his pals at University of Colorado Boulder so they could keep making music together in college.
The band was savvy and hard working from the get-go. They built their following by playing college towns over and over, crashing on couches, and ultimately snagging bigger venues each time they’d pass through.
Fast forward to 1993 and the boys landed a deal with Giant Records and released their third album, Sister Sweetly, which they recorded at the famed Paisley Park, Prince’s production complex in Minnesota.
“One of the funny things about Paisley Park is that in order to work there we needed to sign agreements that we wouldn’t talk to or make eye contact with Prince,” Mohr says. “But because we were there every day, I would run into him every day. I’d be playing pinball and he’d pass through the room often when I was playing pinball. This went on for about three months and I never once acknowledged him. I like to think that he thought I was cool because I never acknowledged him.”
While we’ll never know if Prince thought Mohr was cool, the album was definitely hip. Sister Sweetly went platinum — right in the sweet spot between the twilight days of hair metal while grunge was still in utero — spawning three Top 25 singles on the Billboard charts. But it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops as the band found commercial success. The boys felt stifled by the demands of the label, and their discontent was visible. Mohr declined to make a video for the band’s biggest hit, “Bittersweet,” and refused, despite the label’s insistence, to co-write songs with artists he simply didn’t respect.
The band survived the sale of Giant Records to Warner Bros. just a few years later, weathering a period of extreme creative incompatibility with their new overlords before they were finally, mercifully released from their contract.
From then on, Big Head Todd and the Monsters called the shots. They took control of their own marketing and distribution just as the internet began to blossom, and they got back to doing what they do best: touring.
“I think the music business has a lot of positive in it and some negatives,” Mohr says. “The way that the music business used to be … there were mid-level careers because labels were interested in growing bands, realizing that bands just didn’t appear on day one. So these days it’s like there’s no middle class; there’s giant bands and small groups. I would say that’s the bad news. The good news is that there are a lot of small groups that have kind of boutique audiences and I think it’s very viable to have a career like that these days, a smaller career.”
While Big Head Todd and the Monsters don’t really fit in with the small-career crowd, they’ve certainly developed a cult-like following, if that’s anything like a boutique audience. This year they’ll play their 20th show at Red Rocks Amphitheater, a major benefit of being one of the crown jewels of Colorado’s music scene. The guys do a lot of what Mohr calls “fan-friendly things,” like cruises to Europe and the Caribbean. Connecting with their fans is the lifeblood of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and the guys don’t take it for granted for even a moment.
Today the band’s touring on their 11th studio album, New World Arisin’, a record that makes good on the pioneering promise of its title. Yes, the hallmark blues sound fans know and love is there, but Mohr didn’t shy away from making a record that’s as eclectic as his own taste in music. There’s country rock, a little punk, some funk for good measure, and even a straightforward pop song, with no piece of the puzzle feeling forced into place.
Conflict is a recurring theme on the album, with songs like “Glow,” “Wipeout Turn” and “Under Your Wings” examining the ever-raw sensation of love lost, but the message is bigger than that. In general, Mohr says he’s been fixated on the concept of conflict for some time now.
“I guess it comes from a couple different sources,” he says. “I’ve gone though a couple divorces, so on a personal level it sort of sent me scrambling to understand how our own conflicts arise, but also … it seems the world is trapped in conflict. It seems to be repeating itself over and over again. I think it’s not well understood, the relationship between pleasure and conflict. I feel like pleasure is basically winning as far as the brain is concerned. You can’t have a culture of pleasure and expect a life of culture that can make responsible decisions. You just want to win and punch back and that prolongs the problem.”
His examination of conflict seems to have landed Mohr in a good place these days. He’s married again, with a 1-year-old daughter and a stepson. He’s a self-proclaimed family man, and he’s blissfully content to spend time at home watching his daughter learn to walk and talk.
And as for the band, well, that’s never been better either.
“We’ve been part of each other’s lives our whole lives practically, since high school. It’s a marvelous thing to have common goals, to work together, to listen to each other and to achieve those goals together.”
It would seem the best is yet to come.