Music News

The Beatdown

"We started out as a rhythm-and-blues/blues cover band," recalls Todd Park Mohr. "It was basically a hobby. It was fun. We were too realistic to think that we'd end up doing it for the rest of our lives, for sure."

That's because when Big Head Todd and the Monsters formed in the mid-'80s, it was just your average bar band, rehashing Stevie Ray Vaughan and Led Zeppelin tunes. "Back when we started playing, you couldn't play bars without doing covers," Mohr explains. "We were just worried about getting through college. Then, at a certain point, we realized there was an opportunity to do something with this. We got to a place where we were playing four or five shows a week -- you know, a party here or a bar there. It became sort of physically impossible for me to be a good student."

Mohr had started playing with drummer Brian Nevin and bassist Rob Squires while still at Columbine High School. Yes, that Columbine. Before a pair of deranged students fired shots heard 'round the world, Big Head Todd was the school's claim to fame.

Mohr was in Boulder recording Riviera when he heard the news. "Numbness was my first reaction," he remembers. "I had a hard time digesting what went down; it seemed very surreal. I can't remember my high school experience without thinking about it. We had the good fortune of having some nice opportunities to spend time with the kids and give some money to their music department and participate in the healing a little bit. But, you know, obviously, it was really a shock. I don't think things have been the same since. It seems to be a concern all over the world now."

Although Mohr isn't a de facto spokesman for Columbine by any means, "periodically, we get asked about it," he says. "It's not like it's in our press kits. But certainly we're proud of where we came from, so I'm not hesitant to talk about it. That's my home, my community."

After Columbine, the three attended the University of Colorado; while Squires graduated, Mohr and Nevin dropped out to pursue music full-time. Since then, the act has released eight albums and played thousands of shows all over the world -- including more than a dozen dates at Red Rocks, with another one set for Saturday, June 4. You might think that playing the Rocks would be old hat for the Cabeza Grande and his compadres by now, but Mohr insists that being on that stage -- the same one U2 graced 26 years ago during its iconic Under a Blood Red Sky gig, when Mohr was in the audience -- is still overwhelming, even after all these years.

"It's great to see a show there, but to play a show there is a different story," he says. "You've got 10,000 people stacked. Because of the history of the place and what a wonderful venue it is, it's by far the coolest place to do a show in the land."

Well, that and the Fillmore West, where the Monsters recorded their latest effort, Live at the Fillmore. "Some of my favorite records were recorded at the Fillmore West," Mohr explains. "Aretha Franklin -- there's a lot of them. It has a lot of lore."

And it was also the right call for this release. By the time Big Head Todd and the Monsters pulled into the Fillmore -- at the tail end of a tour that had kicked off in February 2004 at Herman's Hideaway -- the act had gained a stunning amount of momentum. And while past recording efforts had lacked some of the energy of live shows, the Fillmore dates captured the group at its pinnacle. Mohr hopes to keep up the momentum with the next disc, which he's writing songs for right now at his home in Steamboat.

"It's very much a live, three-piece, tempo-driven record," Mohr reveals. "It's very aggressive for a Big Head Todd record. It's kind of taking a left turn from Midnight Radio instead of a right turn; that was kind of our last pure three-piece, guitar, bass and drums record. The train that we were on since then, starting with Sister Sweetly, was more of a radio-friendly, produced, heavily layered sound. This record is less concerned with that. It's more of a raw, rock-and-roll record.

"Part of it is, when you're a three-piece for a long time, you feel kind of fenced in," he adds. "Sometimes it's a real joy to be able to incorporate other instruments and arrangements. When Sister Sweetly was so successful, that set the tone for our career for a while. You kind of always have radio in your sights and where you fit into the music business in the back of your mind. Now we don't give a shit. We can be who we want to be. And ultimately, that's what our fans want from us. I want to be spontaneous. You know, I think that's my job, to be able to live in the present and celebrate what's going on now. To be able to be a creator without having a lot of conditions attached to that."

Mohr is comfortable with where the band is right now, with being able to fill a couple thousand seats everywhere it goes. And while Crimes of Passion didn't do nearly as well as Sister Sweetly's million and a half units, it was the trio's strongest record to date.

"I can't analyze success based upon numbers of units," says Mohr. "We'd all love to have another successful record. But it's more important to be a successful band and have successful music. Hopefully, our stars will be aligned at some point. But it definitely isn't a litmus, in my opinion, to how successful we are."

Words to live by from one of Mootown's most sacred cattle. And for struggling musicians who dream of reaching the level that Mohr and company have attained, he offers more words of wisdom: "My advice is to just focus on your craft, songwriting, being a great band, focus on the relationship with your audience and building momentum in those areas, being less concerned with getting signed -- you know, getting on the radio, that sort of thing. That's really the recipe for being a long-term band."

Mohr should know; he's already outlasted three music editors at this fishwrap alone.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm pissing in the wind," he says with a laugh. "But as my career moves forward, it's really encouraging to see the fans still engaged. And as long as I don't have to get a day job, I'm doing all right."

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera