Early in the career of Big Head Todd & the Monsters, the group seemingly had a shot at pop radio stardom.
“Sister Sweetly,” the group’s third album – and first for a major label -- produced hit singles in “Broken Hearted Savior” and “Bittersweet,” and briefly gave singer/guitarist Todd Park Mohr and his original bandmates, bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin, a taste of the rock star life.
But rather than try to use that success as a springboard to try for a much bigger breakthrough hit on top 40 radio and a shot at major stardom, Big Head Todd and the Monsters chose instead to base their career around their live show and gradually build an audience along the way.
“I sometimes wonder about that because there’s something about it in this business where you just get one shot (at major stardom) and that’s it. And then there’s a glass ceiling after that,” Mohr said, reflecting on the decision about whether to chase more radio hits during a recent phone interview. “I don’t spend too much time second guessing that. But in a way, it’s good that we’ve had the career we’ve had, I think, because it forced us to keep working really hard. If I had had (really big) early success, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Thirty-plus years after forming the group, Mohr, Squires, Nevin and later addition, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Lawton, are not only still around as Big Head Todd & The Monsters, the group is going strong and feeling there’s plenty creative fire left in their furnace.
The group hasn’t had any songs that matched the radio play and success of “Broken Hearted Savior” or “Bittersweet” (although the two albums that followed “Sister Sweetly” – 1994’s “Strategem” and 1997’s “Beautiful World” -- both went gold), but Big Head Todd & the Monsters have built a loyal audience that continues to give the band a very viable touring business and the kind of career stability that isn’t easy to achieve and sustain in the music business.
Perhaps more importantly, Mohr and his bandmates have felt the creative freedom to grow as musicians and artists. As the band’s songwriter, Mohr has expanded his palate, building on the gritty melodic rock and soulful pop balladry of the 1990s albums and deepening his ability to draw on blues, funk, pop and other styles within the band’s music.
Perhaps most notably, the group took a deep dive into traditional blues with a side project, the Big Head Blues Club, that allowed Mohr and the band to collaborate with such blues legends Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards, B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite and Billy Branch and explore the music of Robert Johnson (on the 2011 album “100 Years of Robert Johnson”) and Willie Dixon (on 2016’s “Way Down Inside”).
Some of the blues sound of “100 Years of Robert Johnson” filtered into the previous Big Head Todd & the Monsters album, “Black Beehive.” While still a rock album, there was a bluesy, earthy quality of tunes like “Everything About You,” “Seven State Lines” and especially “Hubert’s Dream.”
But those expecting something similar out of the band’s latest album, “New World Arisin,’” got a surprise.
Instead, Mohr has cranked up his electric guitar and the band rocks harder than on any of the previous 10 Big Head Todd & the Monsters albums. The title track is a crunching rocker with big guitar riffs that would make Led Zeppelin smile. “Long Coal Train” is a taut, edgy rocker, while “Trip” adds a bit of funk to the rocking sound. And “Detonator” is different kind of rocker all together for the band, a crisp, punky tune that recalls groups like Everclear or Stone Temple Pilots. There are also some more measured, somewhat poppier songs on the new album like “Mind,” “Glow,” “Damaged One” that play up Mohr’s more melodic sensibilities.
Mohr said the band’s bluesier recent work had something to do with the shift in direction on “New World Arisin’.”
“I think part of it is, the last couple (albums) anyway, were pretty bluesy and atmospheric, I would say,” Mohr said. “We were just kind of excited about having an album conceptually that was basically a guitar-rock album. There are really not ballads on it. It is brash, but at the same time there’s a lot of songwriting depth in it, I think. So I’m really pleased with the outcome of it.”
In making “New World Arisin’,” Mohr chose to handle the producing chores. He’s produced several of the band’s albums, but has also worked with outside producers, including Steve Jordan on “Black Beehive.” The new album, he felt, didn’t call for such a collaboration.
“Well, I’m the cheapest producer I know,” Mohr joked, when asked why he decided to self-produce. “But I think part of it is a confidence thing. I’ve just kind of felt confident that I understood the band and the material well enough to present it and I have really excellent engineers and mixers and a lot of great heads in the mix (helping out). So it just seemed to be the most direct course to getting where I wanted to be.”
The group figures to play about two hours each evening -- enough time to cover plenty of musical ground from the band’s catalog, including some deep tracks as well as several singles the group has put out since “New World Arisin’” was released.
“[We’ll play] peoples’ favorite songs. You’ve got to play those,” Mohr said. “So what’s left is what we have fun with every day and mix it up. I have a master song list of about 160 songs, so there’s a lot to choose from. We’re pretty receptive to what people scream out in the audience or somebody Facebooks us with their request, I try to honor requests if I can.”
And as years go on, Mohr is proud of the group’s development and excited about the future.
“I guess it’s kind of like becoming a chef,” he said.
“Early on in your career, you have some early wins and you’re moving along pretty well. But then you become exposed to other types of cuisine and other master chefs and you want to deepen your skills and your experience in the craft. We’ve just had the good fortune to have been around long enough, I think, to have gotten a taste of ‘Oh, you know, I could be really good in this (other) area and that area.’”
“There’s a certain joy in that, to me, about when, it sounds trite, but it’s not about me. It’s about the food. It’s about putting out this great experience, kind of as a band maturing together to get to this point. And the fact that we have an audience that is as excited about it as we are is a really great thing to me, to have viability, to be able to go into a club and have this thing go down is really fun. So I think we’re enjoying it more than we ever have.”