Photo by Jarrod Vrazel : zrock.com
Todd Park Mohr – guitars/keys/sax/vocals
Brian Nevin – drums/percussion/vocals
Rob Squires – bass/vocals
Two themes run consistently through Crimes of Passion, the eighth album from Big Head Todd and the Monsters — a love of rock and roll and the need to tell compelling, human stories.
The lead off track ’dirty Juice wastes no time establishing its rock credentials: monster guitar riffs leap out of the speakers sounding like vintage Stones fronted by a growling John Lee Hooker.
And the next track reveals their storytelling side: Beauty Queen, the haunting ballad of a beauty queen whose life never fulfills her promise, with its plaintive chorus, Love is a passionate crime, sets the stage for the rest of the album’s appealing mixture of rockers and ballads.
Many of the songs sound like instant classics. Angela is a ballad of romance and heartbreak showcases Mohr’s most soulful vocals. Come On is a throwback to the late- 60s, early- 70s sound of bluesy hard rock, with its spiraling guitar chords pumped up with keyboards played by Mohr (who also contributes the saxophone on ICU ). ’drought of 2013 has an acoustic foundation that gives it the feel of a timeless folk narrative, but then it turns into an ominous, psychedelic guitar soundscape.
Todd Park Mohr, the singer, songwriter and guitar-player of the trio says that though a pop feel may dominate Crimes of Passion, he’s incorporated anti-pop, old-school psychedelic elements that keep the sound contemporary and the band on an ever-evolving course. I like to call it Techno-Delta, he says. ’delta blues with synthesizers a.k.a. ’dirty Juice, Conquistador, Come on and Lost Child Astronaut.
The juxtaposition of riff-driven rockers against melodic ballads and diversity of styles from folk to funk reflects the band’s career-long embrace of all types of music, while staying deeply rooted in rock and roll. Mohr’s wide-ranging songwriting has always been seamless because the other two corners of the creative BHTM triad, bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin, have an intuitive understanding of the music playing in Mohr’s head.
And they should. After all, the three musicians have played together since attending Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado, and forming Big Head Todd and the Monsters in the late-1980s when they were students at the University of Colorado.
In those early days when Mohr was just starting to write their own songs (they were already well-known for their unpredictable palette of soul, blues and Johnny Cash covers as they were for their latest original music), the band forged a lasting friendship that has endured and grown stronger.
Long before the digital era and the Internet age, BHTM were practicing the DIY ethic, and now, almost 20 years since forming as a trio, theBHTM are still walking their own path. The group launched its own independent label, Big Records, and released their first two albums, Another Mayberry (1987) and Midnight Radio (1990) to exploding local, regional and national acclaim, selling a then-unheard of 58,000 copies on their own resulting in a major-label deal with Giant Records. When the label’s founder–the legendary Irving Azoff–saw them at an Aspen performance he signed them on the spot. The first album on Giant, Sister SweetlySister Sweetly was a platinum-selling smash featuring rousing rock radio hits such as Broken Hearted Savior and Circle, the fan favorite Bittersweet and R&B-flavored It’s Alright. The disc’s glossy production was provided by David Z a Minneapolis colleague of Prince.
The next three albums showed the band’s music continually evolving in spite of a contentious relationship with the label, which wanted to duplicate Sister Sweetly’s commercial success. BHTM insisted on going its own way with Mohr producing Stratagem (1994), a return to simpler production values. The next album, 1997’s Beautiful World, solidified Mohr’s ability to balance guitar rock and his penchant for soul and R&B music. It was produced by the Talking Head’s Jerry Harrison and included a riveting collaboration with blues legend John Lee Hooker on Hooker’s classic Boom Boom.
In 1998, the band released Live Monsters which has become a fan favorite and consistent seller. In 2001, Giant Records was dissolved and BHTM found themselves enjoying the freedom to return to their DIY roots. In 2002 they recorded and released Riviera, their first album of original music in four years, on their own Big Records label which placed three singles in the Top-20 at AAA radio. And now, a re-invigorated Big Head Todd and the Monsters have completed Crimes of Passion, with some of their most compelling and passionate music to date, this time under the Sanctuary imprint. Much of the album was recorded at Mohr’s solar-powered studio in the Colorado mountains, with the rest completed at Immersive Studio in Boulder.
Once again, Mohr produced the band. Todd has become an excellent producer through watching some very talented people we have worked with like Jerry Harrison, Karl Derfler, Andy Wallace, David Z, Tom Lord-Alge and others, says Squires. No outside producer has a clearer vision of what Todd is after in his writing and therefore he is the perfect person to produce our records.
The irresistible combination of catchy, rough-and-tumble rock, with the storytelling often describing dark themes, Nevin explains, was Mohr’s vision for the record. With Mohr at the helm, he says, we had the freedom to produce very accessible hooks. Todd felt comfortable exploring the hooks and making it easier for the listener, because the darkness balances the pop.
But production is just one of Mohr’s talents. During their long and successful career, Mohr has often been tagged with the label guitar god. His blues-influenced, aggressive style and proficient musicality easily place him beside many of the guitar greats he has been compared to. Mohr acknowledges this growing reputation, but adds, I’ve never thought of myself as an instrumentalist, because I think the emphasis I have is more on composition–songwriting. The playing has to always be in the service of the song, so I’m more of a big picture guy when it comes to chops.
Those chops are always in evidence on stage to devastating effect, though Mohr remains reserved and shy off stage. The trio loves playing live. And with more than 3500 live performances under their belts, BHTM have nurtured a fanatically loyal fan base.
Squires says of life on the road, We still consider ourselves at home on the road. This is where we have made our living, built our fanbase and we still absolutely love it.
He adds, I feel very proud and fortunate to be releasing our eighth disc. The friendship amongst band members and the unbelievably strong support from our fans has allowed us to continue doing what we enjoy so much, despite the ups and downs of the music business.
Nevin adds that the band’s longevity is a blessing. I never thought that we’d be lucky enough to keep doing this. It’s still fun playing together, he says.
Mohr says he’s matured as a songwriter, and explains the sound the band was after with Crimes of Passion.
Lyrically, I’ve lost some of the sweetness and sentimentality that I had as a younger writer, he says. Being young distorts some things. You make mistakes. Experience makes a person colder and more accurate, but also a better storyteller.
As a songwriter, I try to tell as many different stories, in as many different ways as I can. Lost Child Astronaut and Beauty Queen are two of my favorite storytelling songs. Something between Dylan’s Tangled up in Blue, which I think is the greatest storytelling song ever, and Zeppelin’s Kashmir is what we were after: storytelling with atmosphere!
Big Head Todd and the Monsters released their first full-length DVD, Live at the Fillmore on August 10, 2004 on Sanctuary Records. Filmed at the historic San Francisco venue, the DVD features 15 songs from throughout their nearly 20 years together, from the debut Sister Sweetly album through their latest critically acclaimed Crimes of Passion, plus a raucous interpretation of Eric Clapton’s Forever Man. Live at the Fillmore is also available on CD.
The film was shot March 19 and 20, 2004 and also includes a documentary about life on the road with the band, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the legendary Filllmore and its archive of old concert posters and memorabilia.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters : Live at the Fillmore track listing:
Broken Hearted Savior
Forever Man (Eric Clapton cover)
Vintage Guitar magazine (August 2004) said, Mohr’s guitar anchors the trio… Mix it with the John Lee Hooker-influenced vocals, and you’ve got a fine stew. That’s kind of how their whole deal works. Beauty Queen is the kind of slow soul with sly arpeggios dominating the solos and fills that Mohr has become the master of… Great stuff, down to the slinky chords driven along by a quiet wah. Angela Dangerlove is a rock ballad with serious soul overtones, and a hook big enough to drive a Mack truck through… Mohr is one of the better rock guitarists of his generation.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters are some of the hardest working musicians you will ever come across – check out the Big Head Todd and the Monsters official website for tour dates and free downloads. If you only buy one music DVD this year, make it Live at the Fillmore and experience for yourself true American Rock n Roll at it’s best!
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