They started by going door to door, like old-time salesmen. They called on the owners of bars, clubs, theaters—anyplace where the three friends from Littleton, Colorado, could set up and rock. Their pitch couldn’t have been simpler: “We’re a band; how ’bout we play for your customers tonight?”
The warmest reaction they usually got was a what-the-hell shrug. Sure, come on in. They’d pass a hat during the show, play their mélange of blues- and roots-based rock, and earn somewhere between 40 and 100 bucks (typically closer to the former)—enough to gas up “the Colonel,” their 1977 mustard yellow Plymouth van, grab some food, and head to the next town. It was the late 1980s. New wave and heavy-metal “hair bands” were fading, and grunge hadn’t yet been born. MTV had evolved from a music business upstart into the industry’s driving force, but it would be several years before the Colorado kids would attract—and quickly shun—the network’s gaze.
To make their first trip out of Colorado, they ditched their “crappy summer jobs” and drove to Chicago before continuing on to New Orleans. They lived, ate, and slept in the van, bunking on an office park lawn one night in the Louisiana heat. They strode Tulane University’s fraternity row, asking the students if they might be having a party that night. Finally, one was. By then, the group’s frequent gigs across the Front Range had made it one of the region’s more popular live bands among college kids; now it was time for the Coloradans to find out if they could make it outside their home state. It was the inaugural leg in what’s effectively become a 30-year tour for Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and it’s become a journey that has no end in sight.
On June 6, the Monsters will make their annual appearance at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre. (What will be their 17th time as a headliner actually isn’t a record—jam bands such as the String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, and the Grateful Dead and its myriad offshoots have played dozens of times at the iconic venue.) But the Big Head Todd shows have become a yearly reunion-slash-celebration for the group’s most devoted fans, a home-field advantage any musician would envy. “We’ve been blessed because the one venue where we can sell the most tickets also happens to be the coolest venue in the country,” says Jeff Wareing, who’s been the Monsters’ tour manager since the early 2000s.
The first time they played Red Rocks in 1991, as a down-ticket act at the old Blues on the Rocks festival, drummer Brian Nevin stood near the stage, watching superstars such as the Staple Singers, Etta James, and B.B. King, and thought, We shouldn’t be here; real bands play here. “It was humbling then, and it still is,” he says. “Red Rocks is the one place we play that’s really special.” (Whatever self-doubt they had back then largely evaporated when blues legend Albert Collins invited frontman and guitarist Todd Park Mohr onstage to jam with him.)
—All the Young Dudes From left: Mohr, Nevin, and Squires load up the Colonel for yet another road trip, circa 1988. Courtesy of Big Head Todd and the Monsters
Despite becoming one of Colorado music’s most treasured exports, the Monsters haven’t changed much at all. Erik Dyce, the former chief marketing officer for Denver Arts & Venues, says the acts that come through Red Rocks range from humble and welcoming (for example, Lyle Lovett) to less so (too many to count). “Some bands have that ‘attitude,’ but Big Head Todd has always been humble and kind,” says Dyce, who now runs a venue consulting firm called Vencore. “They take the time to enjoy virtually anyone who comes backstage, which is rare.” Nevin, for one, attributes this enduring humility to the band’s early reliance on “ignorance, naiveté, and luck.”
The rock ’n’ roll cliché that it’s “better to burn out than fade away” has never really applied to the Monsters. Ever since they were first figuring out what music means to them, the band has been an entrepreneurial success story that has prized hard work, loyalty, and personal connections just as devotedly as artistic alchemy and creative chops. And like any prosperous enterprise, it’s become a self-sustaining way to make a pretty sweet living.
Before Big Head Todd, there was TJ and the Twist, the combo Nevin and bassist Rob Squires first played in at Columbine High School. When Mohr transferred to Columbine, he landed in the school’s jazz band with Nevin, and soon the three friends bonded over their shared love of classic rock, blues, and R&B grooves.
Mohr started college at Colorado State University before joining Nevin and Squires at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Monsters played parties and bars up and down the I-25 corridor and were soon regulars at JJ McCabe’s, Herman’s Hideaway, and Tulagi’s. Wareing first met the band between sets at McCabe’s one night in 1989, when they were finishing their first album, Another Mayberry. Between that self-produced record and the next one, 1991’s Midnight Radio, they developed a following, thanks primarily to their nonstop road schedule. They’d pile into the Colonel and drive to cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Austin, Texas, hitting college towns along the way where (hopefully) there would be a living room floor they could crash on.
Thanks to increasing college radio airplay and solid album sales (more than 50,000 units from the first two records by then), they were earning a rep as a hard-working act that could fill and thrill a room. Squires’ driving bass and Nevin’s frenetically precise drumming provided a seamless backdrop for Mohr’s rootsy, earnest baritone and, most important, his artistry on the axe. From the beginning, the best way to experience Mohr’s guitar heroics—from his gravelly, raw blues jams to his flame-throwing solos—has been in a dimly lit room or under a starry sky.
Once they’d found a groove someplace, they’d return every few months, which often led to gigs at bigger clubs. They made savvy business decisions, such as buying their own soundboard (rather than paying a different sound guy every night) and renting it out to other bands when they weren’t touring. They compiled a press packet and added local radio folks and music press to guest lists. Eventually, someone from the Chicago Tribune showed up and wrote a story that called the Monsters one of the best bands you’ve never heard of.
Back home, promoter-in-waiting Chuck Morris had seen the Monsters play one night. He offered to manage them, no strings attached: If he could land a major label deal, he’d be their guy. If not, he’d move on. The result was the Monsters’ third album, Sister Sweetly, in 1993 on Giant Records, a label run by Morris’ friend Irving Azoff. It went platinum and placed three songs in the Billboard top 25. “We’d been filling up bars and then kicked it up to the next-size venue,” Wareing says. “[After Sister Sweetly came out] we had a tour bus and found ourselves opening for Robert Plant for three weeks. It was like, ‘What happened to that hot, sweaty, second-floor bar back in San Francisco?’ Now it wasn’t 10 shows in two weeks; it was 50 shows in three months.”
After more than five years of dogged work, the Monsters had broken through. To quote one of their biggest hits, the ascension would be bittersweet.
As the bleak but revolutionary Seattle sound ruled the pop-culture fringes in the early ’90s, the mainstream radio industry wanted an alternative. With some notable exceptions, grunge acts were too edgy for radio’s notoriously risk-averse executives. “That’s when they turned to college bands,” Nevin says. “We all started getting record deals because the industry was looking for things palatable enough to put on the radio.”
With the major label deal came an exhilarating but alien fame. Bands such as Hootie & the Blowfish opened for the Monsters, and the Coloradans co-headlined a tour with an offbeat East Coast group called the Dave Matthews Band. For several years, they toured each summer with the H.O.R.D.E. Festival. Although it should’ve been, ahem, nirvana for any ambitious act, the Monsters were ambivalent about the spotlight. “When you get money and exposure behind you,” Nevin says, “you have to deal with the bullshit from the corporate side.”
On this, Mohr was particularly intransigent. G. Brown, director of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, says Mohr once told him that he (Mohr) was the most miserable when the band was the most popular, and even today, the suits’ artistic meddling still chafes. “They wanted me to co-write songs with people I didn’t respect and who didn’t respect me as a songwriter,” Mohr says. He also rejected a request to do a video for “Bittersweet” after Sister Sweetly charted—and he clearly doesn’t regret it.
Things got even more complicated when, a few years after signing the band, Azoff decided to sell Giant Records to Warner Bros. The deal cost the Monsters their biggest corporate advocate. “It happens all the time,” Mohr says. “You get signed by somebody, they leave, and because you’re not the new guy’s band, you get screwed.”
The Monsters released two more albums on Giant and toured constantly, playing more than 200 shows per year by 1997. But they’d reached a stalemate with Warner Bros.: They could play live but were forbidden from releasing any new music they’d want to attach to their name, stranding the rockers in a particularly hard place. “We sold a couple million records for Giant, but I think we saw one royalty check,” Nevin says. “And we dealt with a lot of hassles and stress that might have broken up the band.”
But instead of imploding, the Monsters fell back on their friendship and passion for music until the label freed them. Their return to the self-propelled indie slog might have been the band’s coda—but in many ways, it proved to be a rebirth.
Although they didn’t realize it at first, the Monsters left the major label game at precisely the right time. As the late ’90s Internet revolution began upending the music industry’s traditional business models, they found that the Web offered them a new sort of freedom. “It gave us the tools to maintain the marketing and distribution we already had but keep it in-house,” Nevin says. They even hired some former Giant staffers who had lost their jobs when Azoff sold the label.
The band rediscovered its mojo back on the road. Forget about royalties and record sales; the only place for acts to make real money has always been by touring, an area in which the Monsters have few peers. Around 2003, Mohr decided to freshen the band’s sound by adding keyboards. They recruited Jeremy Lawton, “the most low-maintenance ringer we could find,” and a veteran of the local music scene. He played his first show with the group on New Year’s Eve in 2003 at the Fillmore after a single four-hour rehearsal. “I was a little sweaty that day,” says Lawton, who also learned just before the concert that it would be broadcast live on KBCO. “I played on the subsequent tour, kept my head down, and kept showing up.” Some 12 years later, band and crew still call Lawton “the new guy.”
—Fab Four From left: Bassist Rob Squires, Todd Park Mohr, keyboardist Jeremy Lawton, and drummer Brian Nevin. Courtesy of Wikipedia
The 2000s, so challenging for most of the music industry, were kind to the Monsters. They realized they could make the same financial living they’d been enjoying during their Warner Bros. days while pushing their own musical boundaries—minus the corporate intrusion. “Working for yourself, you feel the joy of working toward something you’re proud of,” Nevin says. “You might not have that marketing muscle, but you have a career.”
The band would take another evolutionary step after Mohr’s seven-year hitch in Chicago. He’d moved there in 2006 to be with a girlfriend, and although the relationship didn’t work out, his exposure to the Chicago blues scene deeply influenced Mohr’s songwriting and guitar work. The band’s two most recent albums went heavy on the blues and included several guest appearances by artists Mohr met in Chicago. “Living there really helped him as an outsider looking in,” says Scott Arbough, program director at KBCO. “Now he’s a lot more open to believing in what he does.”
In 2016, Big Head Todd and the Monsters will mark its 30th year together, a remarkable stretch for any group. “It’s comforting to lose the illusion of becoming a ‘big’ band that plays 250 dates every year,” Squires says. “This life is great. We can do a tolerable level of gigs”—about 75 per year—“to maintain the living we’re making. You hope the audience continues to grow, but as you get older, you realize that doesn’t really matter.” (Each Monster, forever looking for a place to play, has occasionally sat in with other local musicians, and Mohr has been known to show up for unannounced solo shows at clubs such as Lincoln’s Roadhouse and Ziggies.)
Many fans who first discovered the band in college now have kids of their own, and about 9,500 members of this extended family will jam into Red Rocks in June. “The way their brotherhood and friendship has endured is as indicative of ‘Colorado music’ as anything,” Brown says. “Todd was never caught up in being a rock star; he has the soul of an artist, and he and the band just did the things that ensure a long-term following. They were willing to work.”
And until something changes, they’ll always be willing. “Whenever you do something for a long time, it can be a struggle,” Mohr says. “But it’s still a great job. If interest dried up, we’d rewrite the plan. But as long as people keep coming out and we’re enjoying it, we’ll keep going.”