Todd Park Mohr discusses his songwriting process, what helps a tune stand the test of time, and his band’s new album
Over the course of their career, Big Head Todd and the Monsters have become synonymous with the Colorado music scene. For 30 years now, the band has been putting out the kind of rock-pop music that perfectly seems to fit in with the Rockies and now the band returns with their 11th studio album, New World Arisin’.
The songs on the record were written over a period of 20 years, and as frontman Todd Mohr explained, “some songs fell into place immediately, while others took many years to materialize. Yet after such a long-gestating process for the writing, the recording was completed in just six days.”
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Todd Park Mohr to discuss that songwriting process, find out what helps a tune stand the test of time, and all about the band’s new album.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, New World Arisin’, and then you’re setting out on a tour. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Todd Mohr: We are very calm. We are calm and we are looking forward to another release and being out on tour for it. We worked pretty hard throughout the year so it’s not really a gear change for us, but we are looking forward to playing some new music.
CF: This year marks 30 years of the band. Are there any differences for you now, putting out your eleventh studio album versus when you released Another Mayberry back in 1989?
TM: It’s sort of full circle I guess, because we started out as an independent band in a major label marketplace and now we sort of are a major label band in an independent marketplace. Just because of the industry changes and how music has changed in the terms of how people listen to it. But the mechanics are the same, as far as you still have to write good songs and practice and work hard to make a recording. So, pretty much, it’s the same but slightly different.
CF: A few years back, you formed Big Head Blues Club, which has a more rootsy, blues tone to it. New World Arisin’, however, is more of a rock-pop direction. What are the similarities between creating music in both of the styles?
TM: Well, the Blues Club as a project, the concept behind it, has usually evolved around a great blues performer/writer, their catalog. So the first one is Robert Johnson and our second one was Willie Dixon, and kind of in that spirit, we enlisted a lot of the best blues talents we could get in our band to do the tours for them. So that’s kind of a unique project to help me and the band get our blues yah yahs out, but along the way it was a great honor to do the shows. But as you pointed out, the Big Head Todd album is pretty much a straight rock-pop album that’s very non-bluesy in a lot of ways, so it’s nice for us to have alter-egos.
CF: There is some similarity, though. You are taking on great songwriters, and then you are producing songs on this album where you have some that are more Springsteen-esque and there is a Hendrix cover. What do you think makes a song stand the test of time?
TM: The first thing, I would say, is luck, and I do mean that in a lot of ways. Considering myself a skilled songwriter and watching how the songs perform and which ones seem to hit it off with the audience, I would say luck has a lot to do with it. Aside from that, I think for me, and what I respond to in songwriting, are songs that I identify with, songs that mark a certain point in my life or that relate to my life in a personal way. Lyrically, that’s always the goal.
Then musically, as you pointed out, there are a lot of ingredients that are time-tested ingredients to all rock-pop music, and I think a lot of the skill involved is really getting to know those ingredients well, just like a great chef, what ingredients work with what. So that is kind of what my attitude has been about my own songwriting in terms of the original. It is similar, in a way, to doing the blues stuff, just because nobody starts from scratch, is what I want to say.
CF: The songs on this album were written over a 20 year period, but some came right away while others took years to form. Those are drastically different way of putting together sounds, so I’m wondering if you can take us through a bit of your songwriting process?
TM: One of my first rules [laughs] is the thing that you always hear, is that there are no rules. There’s a lot of different ways to approach writing a song. For me, usually music comes first, and when you are a guitar player, I once read that Tom Petty said that he just sits down at the guitar and songs come, and there’s some truth to that. Having said that, I think there are a lot of different approaches that have worked for me. Sometimes lyrical ideas come first. A lot of times I’ll keep an ear out for phrases that people say or that I say in just normal conversation that kind of pops. So I keep notebooks of ideas for lyrics, and sometimes other songs inspire songs, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
CF: Big Head Todd and the Monsters is synonymous with the Colorado music scene. Do you find that your landscape impacts your creative process and if so, how?
TM: That’s a pretty interesting question. I think the first way that it impacts it is the social environment that you live in, I think, has a big impact on the direction and perspective of a band. We were fortunate, I think, to not have grown up in L.A., or New York, where there are very competitive music scenes and where you try and fit in with a certain sound. That didn’t happen with us. Colorado is kind of a between-the-coasts place that absorbs a lot from everywhere, so I think we had a lot of creative freedom, in terms of just pursuing our goals and influences.
The landscape is inspiring to me. I think mountains are incredibly inspiring and I have a house in the mountains, and I consider the earth as the origin of everything [laughs], so get with the earth and creativity is good.
CF: You said about the album and its commercial viability, “We feel like we have something to say and something to offer the culture.” How do you view the voice of the artist in today’s world?
TM: I view the artist’s voice as being one of the most important parts of human society. Now, today’s world is a little different I think, because so much of what would probably be considered art and humanities has become entertainment. So in an environment of entertainment, I think a lot of things become difficult for artists. One, you have to make money, so there’s pressure to be commercial, and so on, because the focus becomes so much on success, I don’t know that artists have much to say. I know that they’re out there, but I just don’t get the feeling from our culture that we’re really tuned into growing up as a society. So I think that there’s a lot of important work to be done for artists in every ilk, every genre.
CF: You’re also about to head on tour. What makes for a perfect night on stage for you?
TM: For me, a lot of it has to do with practicing and where I’m at in warming out and doing all those important things, preparation. The other thing that helps me is to not know who my audience is [laughs]. It sounds kind of funny, but when I play at Red Rocks or at home, it chews up a lot of my hard drive to deal with, you know, this is your life and all of the friends and family, and being considered, about what their opinion of our band is, and that makes it tough to be good. Whereas if we are in the middle of Michigan somewhere, odds are that we can have a really good night, so I would say those are the two things for me.
CF: Throughout your career, we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. Is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
TM: Probably first and foremost for me would have probably been the blues projects that kind of put me working with BB King and Hubert Sumlin, Ronnie Baker Brooks, people that really have blues in their blood. It’s incredibly inspiring for me to have the opportunity to work alongside those artists. Also in our rock world, we’ve just had incredible opportunities: We opened for Robert Plant for a couple months. We’ve just had incredible chances to perform with other artists…