Working across genres and against the mainstream grain has defined much of Todd Park Mohr's career. The creative force behind Big Head Todd and the Monsters has cultivated a loyal fan base by touring hard for more than 20 years and exploring new sounds on his own terms.
An independent approach means heading to rural South Routt County after serious commercial success during the '90s "alt-rock" heyday - success as in 1993's Sister Sweetly going platinum followed by two other major-label releases with five songs landing top-30 spots on the charts.
In 2000, Mohr and the Monsters (drummer-singer Brian Nevin and bassist-singer Rob Squires) headed to Mohr's solar-powered recording studio outside of Yampa to work on two self-produced albums. The Colorado trio that met at Columbine High School and added keyboardist Jeremy Lawton in 2004 continued to defy industry rules with the distribution of their most recent studio album, "All the Love You Need." In December, BHTM mailed out half a million free copies to radio station mailing lists and to fans signed up on their Web site (www.bigheadtodd.com), where they offer it as a free download.
So even if you can't recall the tune to "Broken Hearted Savior" or "Resignation Superman," you have plenty of chances to catch the Golden-based group live, considering its goal of getting music to its fans with nearly 100 shows a year and regular tour stops in Colorado (next closest is Sept. 5 in Grand Junction).
Not that Mohr is just rehashing the glory-day classics. For a songwriter-singer-guitarist who's shared the studio with John Lee Hooker and the stage with Robert Plant, Mohr's music keeps evolving, ever maintaining a blend of inspired songwriting and narrative creativity, polished classic guitar chops and soulful delivery.
At Home: At your free Steamboat concert last winter (March 22), after a big James Brown encore finish, you closed and announced, "I'm from Yampa." What's the connection?
Todd Park Mohr: My father actually emigrated there, from Korea, when he was 17, and so I kind of grew up fishing and spending time in the hills around there. And then when I had success as an artist, the first thing I did was buy some land and build a log house there near Yampa. I've had it since about '93 and I've had, off and on, periods of residency up there and I hope to continue it, to get back into living up there. We recorded all of "Riviera" (2002) there and some of "Crimes of Passion" (2004), and I did a couple of other projects up there. But I haven't been there in probably about eight months.
AH: How do the Colorado roots influence your songwriting?
TM: We all grew up in Colorado and never left and we're all very fond of the mountains and the sky and just the vastness of it, and we all were convinced it's the greatest place in the world to live. So from our standpoint, it's been a great life for us. How it relates to the music, I can't really quantify how it turns up in lyrics, because I'm inspired by all kinds of things. I'm kind of a storyteller-songwriter. I tend to think you are your environment, so obviously that's pretty critical - your relationship to the land.
AH: What's it like to have someone far from that land, and such a political figure like Hillary Clinton, pick up on your music and use "Blue Sky" as her campaign song?
TM: It's very flattering and we were all thrilled just to have that song reach a new audience and get some different kinds of exposure. The song was actually written for NASA. We ended up becoming friends with a couple of people who were bigwigs, I guess, and they suggested to me that I write a song for their launches. All they have is (Elton John's) "Rocket Man." Nobody's really written music for them, so that's how the inspiration came about.
As I was researching in the songwriting process, the commander of that mission (2005's STS-114 Discovery "Return to Flight," the first after the 2003 Columbia disaster) at that time was Eileen Collins, who was the first female commander of a shuttle mission. So the song's about pushing boundaries - all kinds of boundaries, and that's what Hillary picked up on.
AH: When was the moment you figured out you'd made it?
TM: I still haven't figured out that I've made it yet; I'm still scrapping. I mean, we've just had a very consistent career, and we're fortunate that way.
AH: What do you chalk up 20 years with the same band to?
TM: We love what we do. We all realize that this is a great opportunity. The odds are slim to be a working musician. We're just very good friends and have a great relationship professionally and personally, so it's really quite easy.
AH: What advice would you have for a local band self-producing music and working hard on the road to broaden a Colorado base? Is it just about getting out there?
TM: I think so. The big thing is your relationship to your audience, having it be a good relationship. Quality is more important than quantity. So I believe in starting and reaching and getting a following and having that be really good and then if it makes sense to expand it and go from there. The other advice is to focus on songwriting. I think that's the most important part of music.
AH: What plans does the band have now?
TM: The cruise thing (Big Caribbean Cruise 3, setting sail with close to 300 fans) is not happening until 2009. Basically we have a lot of fair-type things. For now we'll continue to play out the summer, keep playing consistently, while at the same time putting out new music.
AH: When will we see you in Steamboat?
TM: I'd love to come back, probably in the wintertime is what's going to make more sense for us. But I can't wait to get back there.
- Interview by Dave Shively