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Rocksteady: The long career of Big Head Todd & The Monstersby Ryan A. Bunch
Formed in 1986, Big Head Todd & The Monsters are best known for their 1993 breakthrough album, Sister Sweetly, which bore hits like "Broken Hearted Savior" and "Bittersweet." But, over the course of a 26 year long career, the band has achieved more than they often are credited for. From working with everyone from Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, blues legend John Lee Hooker, and P-Funk mastermind/legend Bernie Worrell to performing live for NASA astronauts, commemorating 100 years of Delta blues folk hero Robert Johnson's music, and planning their first music festival … Big Head Todd & The Monsters have been busy and proved that they have more staying power than most. The band comes to town this Friday, July 6 as part of the "Last Summer on Earth Tour," which also features the likes of Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveller, and Cracker. The show takes place at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater. Click here for tickets.
We got a chance to catch up with Todd Park Mohr (Big Head Todd himself) to discuss the what the band has been up to recently, discovering blues music, and riding the line between the old and the new.
You're planning Ride Fest in Telluride -- it's a magical place -- how did this concert come together and why there?
Being from Colorado, Telluride is just something we love experiencing. We've been on the bluegrass festival a couple times. It just seemed like a natural fit for us to try our first festival.
You recently put out the Big Head Blues Club, celebrating 100 years of Robert Johnson's music. It got me thinking about what a fascinating and permitting figure he is in music, and the different ways people come to know his music. How were you introduced to Robert Johnson?
Basically through doing this project. Of course I'd been exposed to him in the past, but it was really through this that I kind of woodshedded his recordings and I really fell in love with Delta blues generally and blues music from that era. So it was kind of a recent discovery for me, and kind of a life changing one, honestly.
Did you get to work with Honeyboy Edwards?
Yeah, and got to ride on a bus with him for a couple of months too.
Did he tell you his story of the night that Robert died?
Yeah, he did, obviously he was with him the night he died. He told us that and a lot of others. He was a really important guy for me. It was very influential for me to meet him and work with him. I didn't know him prior, regrettably, he ended up being a really important person to me.
You worked with a cast of pretty amazing people on that record, who else was surprising or inspiring to work with?
Hubert Sumlin and I had a special relationship. He was on a lot of the dates supporting the record, so we had a great chance to get to know each other. He was an incredible, wonderful man. And a pretty damn good player too. He also passed away recently, but he would lay it down.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters most recent album Rocksteady, tell me about that.
It's basically kind of a Caribbean soul album. It's a bit of an oddball album for our band, from the typical rock albums. I've always had a soft spot for R&B music, and we were working on a bunch of songs and wound up with a tightly-focused group that ended up being Rocksteady.
For fans of classic Big Head Todd, any suggestions, warnings? What is your response to how the band has progressed over the years to people who just want to hear "Bittersweet" again?
That's a really difficult thing. Our most successful album was Sister Sweetly, that was in 1993. It's always a tough thing when you have your biggest success now far-passed, and we've had to really struggle to keep … as our career progressed after that … to keep our audience up to speed to where we were [laughs]. So, that's been a tough thing. It's been slow resurgence for the band, I think, for people to realize that we've had a rich career of a lot of songs and numerous albums since then. I'm really pleased that we stuck with it because our current fans' songs are all over the map. We have a lot of material to choose from these days and a lot of diversity in our sets.
The "Blue Sky" song you did for NASA was really cool. How did that come about? You were approached by NASA as an organization, or the actual astronauts?
It was actually a person who works in research and development at a high level. He became friends with us. We did a band cruise a few years ago and he approached me with the idea of writing a song for their launches, because all they have is "Rocket Man" [laughs]. It was a few months that went by and I just sort of happened on a good musical idea and lyrical idea and wrote "Blue Sky." Since then, it's been kind of neat. We won a songwriting contest amongst the top 40 of the 'wake up songs,' - I think 2.5 million people voted - it was a lot of songs, like U2 and Springsteen - and we won. The award was that we got to perform the song as a live wake up song to the astronauts in space from Ground Control, and nobody has every done that before or since. It was definitely a real proud moment for Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
Were you a space fan before? Are you more of one now?
I was always a space fan, just in terms of what it represents - the search for knowledge and the spirit of discovery - I think those are inspiring topics. But I am more so of a fan now having gotten to visit a lot of these places, Cape Canaveral and Houston, and getting to go on these really amazing tours that most people don't get to see. It really made me more of a fan just seeing all the things that people actually do to get into space.
Space might be a fitting segue, I also know you worked with [funk pioneer and Parliament Funkadelic co-founder] Bernie Worrell -- who's one of my personal heroes - what was that like and how was he to work with?
He was awesome to work with. And, I share your admiration for Bernie. When it was a possibility for him to come in and work on a track we were all really excited about that. He basically came in and wrote the hook to the song [laughs], it was just amazing to be in the same room with him and watch him work. He's definitely a musical genius, no doubt about it.
When a tour like this comes through, I'm curious about how the line-up comes together. I always just imagine that Barenaked Ladies call up Big Head Todd and say, "Hey, want to hang out this summer?" But I assume it's a more formal process than that. How did this happen?
Managers and agents get together and brainstorm to put together packages. Our manager has been really aggressive in terms of getting us on festivals and so forth. He'd been in communication with a lot of those groups for a long time, and it just kind of fell into place where promoters were really excited about the idea of getting fans that are our age out to these venues. So, that was kind of the vision for this package.
Well, it's great line-up and we're excited about having you guys in town.
Cool, we'll see you soon!
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