Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd & The Monsters talks with Pollstar about the band’s latest live album, his own creative process, and why it took him six years to finish writing the group’s latest single.
Live At Red Rocks June 6, 2015 is the third concert album from Mohr and his Monsters. Having already played the famed venue near Denver more than 20 times, Big Head Todd & The Monsters didn’t walk out onto the stage that June evening intent on recording a live album. But there was something special about that gig. Fortunately, most of the band’s shows are recorded.
“That night at Red Rocks, we couldn’t have been more on,” Mohr said when the album was released. “When we heard the playback, we knew we just had our best year of live shows ever.”
Live At Red Rocks June 6, 2015 roars out of the gate with a ballsy rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop” followed by BHTM digging into its own catalog for songs like “Imaginary Ships” and “Sister Sweetly.” It’s an album meant to be played LOUD and captures the band conjuring a magical evening in the mountains.
The band’s new “Wipeout Turn” single arrives Jan. 11
What made you want to open the show documented on Live At Red Rocks with Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop?”
It’s the scene from “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.” We played that on the screen. [It’s] when the characters explain how to have the perfect date. The last thing and most importantly is to play that track from Led Zeppelin. It went with the video as a way to introduce the show.
Do you feel there’s a little more pressure on a band when they open a show with such a classic track?
That’s a big song, for sure. (laughs) I think so. … There are a lot of ways to fail [with] Led Zeppelin.
The band also covers The Rolling Stones’ “Bitch” on the album. Is it a thrill to play songs you heard while growing up?
Not as thrilling as doing my own songs on stage. But being a musician, [it] generally is. Especially the material that we play. We love it and it’s an honor to play it. … It’s like making a great meal for somebody, to have all of the ingredients and to be able to present it is a joy.
Of your own songs, which ones do you never tire of playing?
The ballads are the ones that are that way for me. There’s a half-dozen of them I love. … They’re sort of mid-tempo songs – “Angela Dangerlove,” “Imaginary Ships.” I like “Bittersweet” a lot. Those seem to have the most room for being fresh all the time.
When writing a new song are you also thinking of how it will work in the show?
There’s all kinds of ways to write. Things happen in all kinds of different ways. A lot of times my intention is to write songs that will help our live show. That, a lot of times, drives my creative mind because I want to improve the show. We already have this kind of song or that kind of song.
I do weird things. Sometimes I’ll write a song every day for a long time, like a couple of months as a writing exercise. I’ll write a lot of topical songs, songs about news stories, things like that. You never know how you’re going to come up with a song. You just have to keep trying over and over again. It’s like taking pictures. The key to being a good photographer is volume, volume, volume.
When you begin to work on a new song, do you already have an idea as to what the tempo will be like, whether it will be a ballad or a rocker?
It depends. If a song is kind of riff-driven, then yes. But sometimes songs are lyrically driven or can have a lyric that is being developed without a melody so you don’t really know where it is headed until it all comes together.
It almost sounds as if the song drives you during the creation process. Is the song the master and you are the servant? Or do you feel as if you’re in control?
You’re not in control. No one is in control of that sort of thing. You have to work at giving things an opportunity to happen. Sometimes [with] songwriting you need to wait until the right thing comes around. Especially chorus writing. There’s not a lot of words in a chorus but until it’s really right you don’t have much. Sometimes songs will sit on the shelf for a long time until it’s clear that it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Are there times where you might take a new set of lyrics and match it to a melody sitting on the shelf for a few years?
Sometimes it’s like that. “Wipeout Turn,” which is our most recent single, was a six-year project for me to finish it. I tried to record it three times but I never felt I had the right chorus. Kind of a fluke incident, I saw Florence + The Machine on “Saturday Night Live” and that gave me the exact clues I needed to finish the song, I realized what I needed to do to finish it. I finished it in a half hour. It’s just waiting for the right ingredients to come along and when they do, just to be there … (laughs)
Do you always have a notebook or recorder for when inspiration strikes?
I use Evernote on all my devices.
How about when you were beginning your career?
A notebook, paper, pencil, writing down chords … that part doesn’t change much. You still have to do that part. (laughs)
About songs you recorded years ago and have played tour after tour – do you still consider them to be works in progress that are open to changes even years later?
Yes. That attitude has really benefited us. We’ve been able to [update] a lot of songs. I believe that things should be changeable. Just like when someone covers a song, I would hope that they would change it.
Did you ever think the band would last this long?
Of course not. In this business you don’t know if it’s going to last another year. Every time we have a good show, that’s what I say. “At least another year left and they’ll have me back.”
And those times when the show doesn’t come off the way you want it, do you contemplate finding a day job?
(laughs) Sometimes you feel that way. Our band has been happily a band for so long. A lot of it is because our business works well, we work well together and we love what we do. We have bad days just like anybody else but I don’t think any of us have said, “I’m going back to be a bicycle repair person.”
You’re represented by Hank Sacks at Partisan Arts. What makes for a good agent?
It’s a very small business. I think good agents have all been working very hard, doggedly, in their business. It’s kind of like you’ve got to fight and claw your way to the middle, in a way. It’s a tough, tough business. What we like about our agency is that they’re well-positioned. They do a lot of business in areas that provide opportunities for our band, similar kinds of music and the scales of the bands that they deal with. And we’re a priority to them.
[We’ve had] three agents. We started with Frank Barcelona at Premier. Then Chip Hooper at Monterey. Hank was with Monterey and he left for his own company. That’s how we ended up with Hank.
What do you think makes for a great live album?
A great performance. You don’t even know where it can be. The size of the audience. A lot of my favorite live albums are pretty small audiences, unbelievable performances, great moments in the career of a band, I would say those things, mainly.
Does the band record every show?
Most of them. We’ve experimented with mixing a lot of them and posting them. We’re still continuing to do that.
The Red Rocks show that’s on the live album – did you know you were recording a live album even before you stepped onto the stage?
I don’t think so. I think it was more that the performance worked out so well.
Do you and your bandmates have any rituals, exercises or group meetings?
We’re all pretty involved in the setup. That’s kind of our ritual. We all enjoy setting up our rigs. … We usually share a meal together before the shows.
How about after the shows? Do you have any way to burn off excessive energy?
I play a lot of video games. Like a “Halo” or “Borderlands.”
Looking back at decades of making albums and touring, what do you think was the group’s biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
There was a period in the band’s career where we were at odds with our label. They refused to release us and we couldn’t agree on how to proceed to continue making music. That was about a four-year ordeal. That was Riviera.
Why do you think fans keep coming back to your shows?
I think because the songwriting is high quality and the band is a good band that works really hard to keep getting better. We try to give fans a reason to come back.
As a songwriter, do you feel you have yet to write your best song?
When you’re in the creative moment, are you aware of the potential of the song you’re working on?
Not until the piece is done. A lot of times I really think I have something great and it just doesn’t ever come into being. Sometimes, the little pieces that I have seem really poor and they end up finishing up to be something meaningful. You just never know.
Do you consider new albums as being more of a blueprint for the live show or do you see the live show as supporting a new release?
I always looked at albums as a whole entity, a collection of songs that belong together [and] are designed to be listened to in one sitting, if possible. Something that kind of sums up where a band is at a certain point. Shows are completely different. There are a number of songs that you are obliged to play because they’re your hit songs. … There are a lot of other considerations for shows. I think [albums and shows] are two different things.
Do you see the band as more of a group unit or a collection of individual personalities?
We’re definitely a group. Obviously, everybody has their own personalities but we live for each other, we function as a group and we’re driven to improve. I’d say that’s more of what we are than individuals.
What have you learned about maintaining a band that you weren’t aware of during those first few years of Big Head Todd & The Monsters?
I don’t really think about a band as something that has to be maintained, necessarily. For me, I feel like I still have stuff to say. But I understand why many artists get in and out [of bands] because they said what they needed to say and they want to move on with their lives.
What’s the toughest thing about being a musician?
Traveling. I don’t mind it but it is the hardest thing. You get sick a lot, it’s hard to eat right. … It’s hard on relationships.
What do you see for the future?
Interestingly enough, we’re continuing to produce music and that’s very pleasant. We’re involved in different types of things. Coming up in the fall we’re going to be [doing] Willie Dixon blues shows in performing arts centers with Mud Morganfield and Billy Branch. We have this thing called Big Head Blues Corp. that we do every two years.
If you could send a message back in time to Todd Park Mohr 30 years ago, what would you say?
Don’t worry about status. Status gets you in all kinds of trouble when you worry about it. … It can prevent you from enjoying your career or from making smart decisions.
Zac Brown's Southern Ground Music & Food Festival, Blackbaud Stadium, Charleston, S.C.
October 11, 2014
Tonight marks the beginning of the first 2016 road trip for Big Head Todd & The Monsters. Here’s the schedule:
Jan. 8 – Grand Junction, Colo., The Mesa Theater
Jan. 12 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The Depot
Jan. 14 – Seattle, Wash., The Showbox
Jan. 15 – Portland, Ore., Wonder Ballroom
Jan. 16 – San Francisco, Calif., The Fillmore
Jan. 17 – Crystal Bay, Nev., Crystal Bay Club Casino
Jan. 19 – Hermosa Beach, Calif., Saint Rocke
Jan. 21 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern
Jan. 22 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern
Jan. 23 – Anaheim, Calif., House Of Blues
Jan. 24 – Phoenix, Ariz., The Crescent Ballroom
Jan. 26 – Santa Fe, New Mexico, Lensic Performing Arts Center
Feb. 3 – Council Bluffs, Iowa, Horseshoe Council Bluffs / Whiskey Roadhouse
Feb. 4 – St. Louis, Mo., The Pageant
Feb. 5 – Minneapolis, Minn., First Avenue
Feb. 6 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues
Feb. 9 – Indianapolis, Ind., The Vogue
Feb. 11 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club
Feb. 12 – Port Chester, N.Y., The Capitol Theatre
Feb. 13 – Boston, Mass., House Of Blues Boston
Feb. 14 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live
Feb. 16 – Birmingham, Ala., The Lyric Theatre
Feb. 18 – Raleigh, N.C., The Ritz
Feb. 19 – Charlotte, N.C., Fillmore Charlotte
Feb. 20 – Atlanta, GA Variety Playhouse
Feb. 21 – Greensboro, N.C., Cone Denim Entertainment Center
March 5-12 – Phillipsburg, St. Maarten, Star Clipper Cruises - SV Star Clipper (Big Head Todd And The Monsters Big Caribbean Cruise)
March 24 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues
March 25 – Houston, Texas, House Of Blues
March 26 – Austin, Texas, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q / Waller Creek Amph.
June 11 – Morrison, Colo., Red Rocks Amphitheatre
For more information, please visit Big Head Todd & The Monsters’ website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel.