Americana Highways pulled over to have a chat with Todd Park Mohr of “Big Head Todd and the Monsters;” the conversation ranged over profound topics starting from the meaning of the band’s latest release and then touching on culture, inspiration, conflict, and songwriting ingredients.
The first question that arose was about the new album: “New World Arisin.’” “The lyric line in the title track is: ‘there’s a new world arisin’, but that old world will fight you til your dying day,’” Todd Park Mohr said, “The song is about the cycle of things, there are always hopeful times and then dark times.”
The next logical question was: to what extent might music help change the world? “You know, that is really asking an important question. What you’re really asking is what role does culture play in changing human affairs. I think one thing that music can do is bring cohesiveness—we share culture, we share music; there’s a cohesion about that.”
“Our audience is very much split like America is split, our audience is everybody, yet everybody in our audience has a good time together. I think there’s great value in that. Music can do that for people, bring them together.”
“Right now, a lot of culture has lost its way; it’s become very pleasure oriented and very violence oriented and conflict oriented. That tendency to focus on both pleasure and violence reinforces the tendency in society for conflict, and that yields a very negative effect. I wouldn’t say our culture is healthy right now. But hopefully music can be a positive influence on that.”
Park Mohr’s fans are very devoted to him and the BHTM band, truly loyal–he inspires a devotion that people like Jerry Garcia did, or Jason Isbell does now, to form real emotional connections with his songs. So, we asked him what he prioritizes in his songwriting process that resonates with people at that level? He responded: “What we’re after is the universal as opposed to the lowest common denominator. I think all of us are drawn to look in the mirror and see deeply what our human experience is about. In a song, it doesn’t take a lot of complex imagery, a very simple song can cause you to relate to that impulse. That’s what I go for—I try to have just the right tension in the lyric to alert somebody there’s something real happening here that everybody can relate to.”
Next, we wondered about Park Mohr’s degree of connection to roots music — early Americana music. “I experienced a revolution when I got to know Robert Johnson’s Pre-War Blues; Sun House, Lead Belly, and early folk guys like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Traditional music and songs are like the ingredients in great cooking—they’ve been with us for thousands of years and it’s well understood what they mean. And these folk troubadours just trafficked in this stuff. Realizing that truth helped me to understand that I don’t have to be the best songwriter in the world. It’s not about my original innovations so much as that I just have to understand the ingredients. This realization profoundly transformed my outlook on writing.”
He’s lived his whole life in Colorado; grew up there and settled there. What’s inspirational about Colorado, in his estimation? “The landscape is extraordinary, the Rocky Mountains are magnificent, but all of the earth is beautiful; there’s beauty everywhere. I was born in Colorado, it’s my home state. I’m very inspired by it. You wouldn’t really say it’s a cultural hotbed, its a newer place, culturally it is open to things that trend. There’s an essential crossroads experience and an openness about Colorado, and that translates to a musical openness also. The Red Rocks venue in Colorado has been a terrific place for our band to grow up. “
“It wasn’t always like this, but now there’s a thriving, growing music scene in Colorado. It’s becoming like Austin used to be, with smaller venues, great little hole in the wall places with music all around.”
Todd Park Mohr attended Columbine High School in Colorado, back before that first school shooting, back before school shootings became so frighteningly common. I asked him: what would he say about the epidemic of teenage kids who have thoughts of violence. “When Columbine happened people blamed culture and video games; and in a way that was a convenient scapegoat,” he replied. “But a big part of what happened was just inattention, these kids were just left to do what they did. The unraveling of society, the unwillingness for people to take responsibility, this deep disengagement of people—these are all real factors. There’s a lot to discuss that is still unexamined. That needs to change, because it keeps happening. We need to do better, and we can do better, and we need to keep discussing it.”
What’s coming up this spring and summer? “On March 3rd is one of our music cruises. It’s a small boat with only about 180 people, and just us, we’re the only band. We play 3 times during the week and really enjoy it all. It’s been a neat thing to be with lifetime friends and fans, and a lot of great relationships have come out of it. We are close to our fans so it’s a great experience.“
“The band has been together more 30 years. Our whole career is a celebration, we have 11 studio albums, and 30 years worth of fanhood coming home to roost at our shows is really a fun thing. We really enjoy it deeply. We play often! There are other shows too, and the Red Rocks show is June 9th. We’re playing with Los Lobos in August. There’s lots more guitar playing and singing coming up!” (laughs)
What a nice conversation. For more details on Todd Park Mohr and Big Head Todd & the Monsters, look here.