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.
In not chasing radio hits, Mohr and his bandmates have felt the creative freedom to grow as musicians. 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 earthy blues sound of “100 Years of Robert Johnson” filtered into the previous Big Head Todd & the Monsters album, “Black Beehive.”
But those expecting something similar out of the band’s new album, “New World Arisin,’” are in for 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, with songs like the title track, “Long Coal Train,” “Trip” and “Detonator” setting the tone for the album. Meanwhile, more measured, somewhat poppier songs like “Mind,” “Glow,” “Damaged One” play up Mohr’s more melodic sensibilities and help create a varied platter.
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.”
The rocking sound of the new album translates well to the live stage, and Mohr said the new songs are giving the live show a different feel than the shows Big Head Todd & The Monsters had been playing over the past couple of years.
“My vibe so far is it’s really giving a nice energy to our show,” he said.
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.
“We’re going to be playing, obviously, stuff from the new album because our fans haven’t had a chance to hear that,” Mohr said. “And also (we’ll play) peoples’ favorite songs. You’ve got to play those. 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.”