Beyond Bittersweet: Big Head Todd & The Monsters
In response to Lollapalooza’s success in the early Nineties, John Popper and Blues Traveler organized the Horizons Of Rock Developing Everywhere tour as the jamband alternative to Perry Farrell’s wildly popular traveling festival. Starting with H.O.R.D.E.’s second year, Big Head Todd & The Monsters were a steady presence, joining with Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, The Samples, the Aquarium Rescue Unit and The Allman Brothers Band, amongst others, to create one of the early prototypes for today’s festival experience. Although the term makes the far-from-old Todd Park Mohr grimace slightly, Big Head Todd & The Monsters are true grandfathers of today’s jam scene. Their legend may not have grown to mythic proportions like some of their peers from the mid-Nineties jambands boom but neither did the band fade ungracefully into obscurity. It’s been more than twenty years since Big Head Todd & The Monsters guitarist Todd Park Mohr, drummer Brian Levin and bassist Rob Squires emerged from Colorado and just as they did two decades ago, they’re still lighting the way for those who come after.
At the end of February, Big Head Todd & The Monsters made their return to New York City, moving their annual extravaganza from the recently Fillmore-ized Irving Plaza to the more intimate Bowery Ballroom. After battling the always unpredictable downtown traffic for a couple hours, Todd Park Mohr a/k/a Big Head Todd relaxed before one of the shows in the club’s dressing room and talked about life without a record label, finding artistic freedom on the Internet and reconnecting once again with an audience that, like Mohr himself, may not truly appreciate his role in forming today’s jamband scene.
The Bowery Ballroom shows followed the release of All The Love You Need, Big Head Todd & The Monsters’ ninth studio release and their first full-length album that they are essentially giving away through their web site. Upon first blush, you might assume that they are emulating the Radiohead model of music distribution; to the contrary, through the band’s Toddcasts, BHT & The Monsters have been providing newly recorded tunes to their fans for the past eighteen months. “It’s a great model for running your musical career,” says Mohr of circulating new music via the Web. “One of the things I liked about it was the fact that we could continue to write and produce new music and not necessarily have it be married to a two-year album cycle. My thought was just to have it seem like we’re always putting out new songs. I still really like that model,” he says of the podcasting structure. “With All The Love You Need, we’re doing it a little bit differently by putting out a traditional album.”
Not only did Mohr find the Toddcasts to be a wonderful tool for delivering new music to the band’s fans, it also turned out to be a beneficial business model. “The response was great and more importantly, people were coming out to the shows to hear the new material.” Being one of the first bands to venture down this road in earnest, they’ve learned a lot quite quickly and become firm believers in the medium. “Podcasts are a great way of keeping in touch with the fans: they automatically get the music as you post it. We liked that a lot. It’s free and most people who have a computer can have access to it.” Acknowledging that some of their fans (older ones) may not have the wherewithal to download and burn a digital album while others are old-school listeners that simply want a disc to hold in their hands, the band made the album available, for free, in the traditional CD format.
The band’s foray into the potentialities of the digital age has caused Mohr to ponder the bigger repercussions of what they are pursuing. “Looking back on Napster and PTP, which started even several years before this, it seems like the implication is that people are expecting music to be free or that it should be free or de facto it is free,” explains Mohr. “I think the shift is really healthy. I’ve always been of the opinion that commoditizing music or art in general is not the best idea. I think the commercialization of music has had adverse effects on the quality and diversity of music; losing its marriage to corporations has been really great. I’ve always thought music is something that goes into the air and disappears. Prior to technology, people really didn’t get paid for playing music” says Mohr, getting to the core essence of the enjoyment of music by those who play it as well as listen to it. “It’s something that people participated in for the joy that it brings. Keeping that feeling intact is something that’s starting to happen because of the Internet.”
Mohr is fully versed and quite eloquent when it comes to the ideology behind free music but he’s not blind to the practical benefits to be reaped. “No major label is chomping at the bit to sign bands like us. Besides, they don’t know what to do with bands like us,” he explains. “Since there’s such a shrinking pool of CDs being sold, we realized, early on, that we have to figure out a different way of getting our music out.” The band arrived at the idea of giving away recorded music long before Thom Yorke and company popularized the industry-shaking concept. “Radiohead’s not the first band to give away music for free,” states Mohr before giving them their due. “Their innovation was the voluntary pay scheme which worked out very well for them to my understanding. I didn’t necessarily foresee that,” he admits. “These days you have to think every which way about how to get music out.”
In reclaiming control over their music and their career, Mohr is enjoying his freedom after spending years working with and battling against his own record company. “The label system is a very non-musical process. The more we got away from that, the more fun things got for me.” When Mohr talks about working within the corporate system, he speaks honestly, concisely and directly. It’s hard to tell from his tone of voice whether there is any lasting acrimony or enmity but it’s very clear there is no love lost on his end. In the aftermath of their critically beloved 1990 album Midnight Radio, Big Head Todd & The Monsters were signed to Giant Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. However, the momentum that had propelled the band onto stages nationwide seemed to stall once the big label stepped in. “A couple things happened,” reveals Mohr. “Our label changed personnel and the people who were pushing our band were gone. It’s the same story that happened to so many groups,” he adds. “I have to take some responsibility as well: I refused to do a video for “Bittersweet” – which was arguably our biggest song and our best commercial shot – at a time when videos were really breaking bands,” referring to the early 90s era when Pearl Jam, Nirvana & R.E.M. videos ran regularly on MTV. “I didn’t want to be a video band,” he says of his decision. “At that time, videos were breaking bands and then a month later they would be gone. I felt like I wanted to be known for more than just one song. There were a whole host of reasons why that wasn’t appealing to me at the time.” The fact that “Bittersweet,” one of the band’s most revered songs was involved, especially after since it appeared on Sister Sweetly, their 1993 major label release as well as Midnight Radio, didn’t make things any easier. “[Re-recording “Bittersweet”] was a label decision. I never liked that. I didn’t want to have a song appear on two different records.”
Mohr’s battle with Warners/Giant over the direction of the band’s career came to a head when the label suggested that one of rock and roll’s most gifted and literate songwriters compromise his greatest skill. “They wanted people to co-write with me for Big Head Todd & The Monsters,” says Mohr. As Mohr’s lyric sheets often read like poetry, this is a stunning revelation. “It was sort of a trend and it still is. People like Sheryl Crow, not to knock her, but all that stuff is written by teams of people.” Who did they want him to co-write with? “Dorks,” he deadpans.
Anyone who has ever tried to sing along with Mohr quickly realizes that his lyrics are denser than your average rock and roll song. On their first release, Another Mayberry, Mohr based songs around a Sam Shepard play as well as a John McRea poem and “Monument In Green” stand as a lovely testament to the losses experienced along the Oregon Trail. “I like to zero in on something: I’m a fiction writer and I’m a storyteller,” he explains. “I think songwriting is the marriage of music and lyrics and a lot of time the music is where the hidden meaning lies. I always write music first and that’s the heart’ part of it. Lyric writing for me is difficult, an arduous long process. A lot of time I don’t get it right for a couple years after I’ve written the music. I’m not trying to suggest that the lyrical side of it is sheer calculation but it’s a lot of work to make it seem intricate.” His colorful and descriptive lyrics show an intimate knowledge of Bob Dylan and one listen to “Messenger” off the new album shows his gift for Bruce Springsteen style wordplay.
The impasse over whether Mohr would co-author any of the Monsters’ songs held up the release of any new Big Head Todd music for four years and resolved only when the label closed. It’s given Mohr an appreciation for what they are able to do on their own. “Labels don’t have a lot to offer a larger band like us and the megalabels, all they care about is the Kelly Clarksons,” he says, matter of factly. “The problem is that the [label’s] desire is to make as much money as they can, so they tend to center around the past and the things that they know can make them money. As an artist, you’re trying to focus on the future, on how to create something new and different that’s exciting. It’s not a very musical circumstance. What’s interesting now is that there are a lot of great producers that for lack of a better word are less than employed or employed differently. They’re working now on stuff that they want to work on and bands without labels are getting to work with them. That was our scenario with David [Bianco] on All The Love You Need and it was really great to collaborate with someone who’s seen every trick in the book and to get the benefits of working with a producer without the down side of working with a label.”
Even though Big Head Todd & The Monsters have been a touring entity for close to two decades, Mohr doesn’t take anything for granted. “I don’t look at my life like history,” he says. In mentioning his role in the H.O.R.D.E. Festivals and their lasting influence on today’s jamband scene, it’s clear that I was more impressed with Big Head Todd’s role than he was. “I’d never thought about it until you just said that,” he says with a flattered sense of humility, pleased that he and his band would be thought of with such regard on the jamband world. “It’s an interesting genre and I think we have a place in it. It’s been a tricky thing for us: how we’re classified; who our demographic is and where we fit in. I think a lot of what we’re about musically is very song-oriented and composition-oriented. We don’t have the same emphasis on jazz or improvisation that a lot of the jam scene has.” Citing Warren Haynes & Gov’t Mule and Robert Randolph & The Family Band, he continues. “There are a lot of groups that fit into the jam scene that aren’t so jammy.”
In suggesting that BHT fits squarely within the genre they helped refine, I point out that people come to a Big Head Todd show to see the band play. As their set list continuously changes, they are coming for the experience of the show, not any specific song. More relevant to Mohr, I propose that if they left “Bittersweet” out of the set list, – something that along with “Broken Hearted Savior’ and “Circle” they never do – their fans would still walk out of the theater feeling they saw a great show. Mohr disagrees. “We’re sort of in-between because there are people who would be really upset if we didn’t play “Bittersweet” or who want to hear certain songs,” he explains. “I think our audience comes from a lot of different pools of people who use music differently. It’s a little confusing. Me personally, I dig that [jamband] scene and the reasons that those people go see music. I really think that the distinction is that they’re music fans, they don’t want to see fashion or style or any of that stuff.”
In the meantime, Big Head Todd & The Monsters are working at reestablishing their connection with their roots. Over the Earth Day weekend, they participated in the New York portion of the Green Apple Music & Arts Festival in Central Park and in the first week of May, Mohr will be one of the performers at the 7th Jammy Awards at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. “We’re kind of transitioning to having more jam elements. The record is really concise songwise but our live versions of them are pretty expanded,” explains Mohr. “We have a pretty lengthy song list when we head out on the road (more than 100 songs) so that gives us the liberty to change up our sets pretty considerably from night to night. It’s a pliable affair. We’ll test the mood of the room and go with what works.” Mohr also admits that they listen to the audience if they’re shouting requests and are prone to comply when the spirit moves them. At the first Bowery Ballroom show, they added “Monument In Green” and “Forever Man” to the set after persistent fans kept calling for them. When I point out that the flipside of that night’s cool concert moment was positive reinforcement for some pretty obnoxious behavior, a sheepish grin comes across his face as he realizes the exact type of fan we’re talking about. “Sorry,” he says with a laugh. “There’s usually a lot of people requesting stuff and we try to do as many as we can.”
“The big thing is to not have a mediator between our music and our fans,” says Mohr. “We just worry about making ourselves happy and making our fans happy. That’s a great environment for us. Obviously, we have great fans and great music. We have a nice setup: we have a lot of people excited to come out and see the band, we’re filling places and our music is still relevant. The fans have a reason to hear the next Big Head Todd song.” For a band that’s gone out on the road with Robert Plant, recorded with John Lee Hooker and sells out Red Rocks in their hometown each year, Mohr hasn’t let his ego swell to gigantic proportions, even if it is the band’s name. “We still feel like a little trio from Colorado, we haven’t changed much.”