There’s no understating how down to earth is Todd Park Mohr. As evinced in his conversation with Doug Collette, THE ‘Big Head’ of Big Head Todd and the Monsters is anything but an egotist. In fact, the casual air he radiates belies the industrious perseverance that’s not only brought him and his band to their thirtieth anniversary, but done so in such a forthright and independent means, the group might well serve as D.I.Y. role models for up-and-coming artists.
Yet Mohr remains fully aware of what’s going on in the world around him. His song for BHTM, “Blue Sky,” was recorded in 2005 in honor of space shuttle missions and the same tune subsequently became the theme of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. As a result, it should come as no surprise then that the group’s new album is titled New World Arisin”. Or that the leader of the band saw fit to draw songs from over two decades ago, then meld them to brand-new compositions, all ten of which were then sequenced into the carefully-wrought whole. Todd Park Mohr and his band, knew what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it.
So, in stark contrast to the Big Head Blues Club rediscoveries of roots in the past few years and the hard and heavy rock of 2014’s Black Beehive, there’s a pop slant to this eleventh studio work of BHTM’s that hearkens back to earlier and well-known efforts like Sister Sweetly. As cognizant of this band’s own history as the blues heritage (including Jimi Hendrix) that forms much of its foundation, Todd Park Mohr speaks in the same fluid but to-the-point fashion with which he plays electric guitar. Little wonder this dialogue is as fun to follow as it is to learn from.
I wanted to ask questions about the new record, but first, I have to compliment you on the positive, optimistic nature of the title. It’s a great sentiment to be promoting given the state of the country and the world these days.
Cool!…I’m glad you look at it as positive.
And I am really enjoying the record, especially as I understand some of these songs are as old as twenty years. What was the motivation to go back in time and how did you go about choosing those songs?
We were hoping to have a focus that was hard guitar rock and these songs I’ve been sitting on were kind of in that realm.. It was a nice happenstance that we included the two of them, “Glow” and “Mind.”
In terms of history, had you ever played those songs live?
Just “Mind” –a little bit, not very much…
You included these with brand new material composed over a more recent time frame: what would you estimate that period is?
Maybe two years or so. Some of the stuff, like “Wipeout Turn” and the title song… maybe four or five years? They all sort of fit together: “Trip” and “Damaged One” are brand new, as is “Under Your Wings:” it’s kind of a mixture the more contemporary rock and stuff we had in our catalog we hadn’t used.
Do you write when the inspiration moves you or do you have designated sessions to write for a new album when the time comes?
I almost never force myself to write, but on the other hand, I’m almost always doing something that’s involved with writing. A lot of times I’ll notice somebody say something that will catch my ear, a twist of a phrase that I’ll write down. And I’m always practicing my instrument, so I always keep a record of things. But I only finish them when I feel inspired (laughs).
That explains why so many of your songs flow naturally. Nothing sounds forced and there’s a great sense of spontaneity about so much of your original material.
Let me ask you how you came to choose the Jimi Hendrix song, “Roomful of Mirrors,” to close the record?
A couple things were involved in that. Hendrix is my favorite. so you don’t have to twist my arm to cover one of his songs, but that particular one fit for a couple reasons: one, the Pretenders had a more straight-ahead rock version of that after which we modeled our arrangement. And I love the lyric of it: I think it’s a very apropos lyric to our society right now. And then I like having the connection with Hendrix, even by a cover; there’s a big shade of Hendrix through a lot of this album and that track is punctuation for that.
I agree. The first time I heard the album, the very first track “Glow” had a definite Hendrix feel to it, so when I listened to the album through to the end and heard the cover, it sounded like an ideal way to bookend all the tracks without being really obvious about it!
Who actually decided on the overall sequence of the album cuts?–Was it you?…Because you produced the album.
That’s a great question, you know? That was a long process, during which there was a lot of debate about it. There were probably thirty or forty different sequences before we fell upon that one. Our manager had a lot to do with it, but a lot of people were involved in the decision.
Thirty or forty different sequences makes it almost sound like that was more difficult than the actual recording; I understand you completed that in six days?
The basic tracks. And I had rehearsed the songs, so I had all my ducks in a row so to speak.
So did you have everything arranged and ready to press ‘record’ when you get into the studio?
Absolutely. As much as possible. And things can change when other ideas come about, but I like to have everything demo’d, so everybody understands what we’re going for, prior to setting up in an expensive space.
So you record demos of the songs you have for the album and present them to the group? What’s it feel like to play everything yourself, then present those recordings as a template for the other band members?
It’s terrific! I’ve learned that listening is such a great tool and so all the members of the group have great ideas that are often different than mine. That’s part of the process that makes the outcome really great, in my opinion. I’m really open to people’s ideas and if they don’t like an idea of mine, I’ll just use it for something else, you know? They’re very instrumental in guiding the direction, the arrangements and so on.
The deliberate pop feel to some of these tracks is a big shift in emphasis from the ‘Big Head Blues’ projects you’ve done over the past few years: was that refreshing?
It was, yes. Both of those efforts came up unplanned in a way, so while we don’t have plans for another right now, that’s because I’m really excited about being Big Head Todd & the Monsters and exploring all that, which includes blues, on our own band stage for awhile. Having said that, it was an incredible honor to have done the blues tribute tours we did for Robert Johnson & Willie Dixon. If something comes up as a great idea, I’m sure we’ll entertain it.
Good to hear: let me suggest the next project revolve around Albert King, a favorite of mine!
Great idea (laughs)!
As you cover songs of. Jimi Hendrix and write those with a feel of his music in them, you’re extending that blues heritage, wouldn’t you say?
I agree. I began to see pop music in a different light as I tried to write something of a followup to “Sister Sweetly.” Then, learning about the pre-war era of folk and blues gave me a different perspective on music in general and on traditional music specifically: there isn’t really a writer in traditional music as there is in a pop hit.
The music is more a way of life…
The music really belongs to the community, in the tradition itself in a way, and to the masters of the tradition, which we’re celebrating. There’s this DNA that everybody already understands, so the writer is like the speaker in a way, putting it together for the moment that’s appropriate for the times
An artist is like a lightning rod, which is why I smile at this album title of yours.
The origin of the song is gospel, actually a Charlie Patton song I heard, then put some words and guitar riffs to it.
Bob Dylan is a big Charlie Patton admirer, so when we talk about tradition and heritage, you are in good company. You sound very enthusiastic about working with the new material with the group, touring, et. al,; that’s a great thing to hear, especially from a fan’s perspective, around about your thirtieth anniversary together: How does that actually feel to you?
We feel very lucky. We love the work and I feel like we’ve achieved all our dreams in many ways–though we’re not as big as the Beatles! (laughs) We have a great audience and we are able to put on great shows for that audience: they’re interested in what we did yesterday and what we’re doing today and that’s an incredible thing. We’re very happy.