The set opens with a blistering version of "Resignation Superman," sounding even rawer without Todd Park Mohr's vocals, which are not yet miked. The song has a new energy for the pared down power trio, and it's hard to keep the feet still, even in an empty concert hall.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters are rehearsing in the Fillmore Auditorium, preparing to hit the road for their most extensive set of Colorado dates in years, including a long-awaited return to Colorado Springs when they play after the Radisson 200 Indy Race at the Pikes Peak International Raceway.
"The past couple of years we haven't been touring a lot," drummer Brian Nevin tells the Indy during a break in the rehearsal. "We've purposely taken it a little slow. We're taking personal time, time to write, time to work on new material."
It's a relaxing week at the Fillmore, as the Monsters settle in for a luxurious rehearsal schedule. Mohr's dog Hannah, an Australian cattle dog, wanders the wings backstage, greeting passersby with dutiful attention, as though she were checking each head pat against the band's guest list.
Keyboardist, Corey Mauser is not along for this version of the Monsters, nor is Hazel Miller, longtime friend and vocalist, an honorary Monster for years. The band is in flux, returning to the original three-piece makeup that saw them move from students at Columbine High School, to mainstays in Boulder's bar circuit, to headliners on the national circuit as Colorado's greatest rock export.
"We're actually in the middle of making a record," Mohr says, explaining the reason for the rehearsal. "We've been kind of rebuilding the band in a way. Learning a lot of new songs."
Bassist Rob Squires relishes the extra time afforded the band as a result of some typical record label complications and delays. "On the early records, we played a lot of the songs live before going in to make those records. We really got a familiarity with those songs. Kind of got our own stamp on them. That's kind of what some of these shows are about, playing these songs live and kind of getting a feel for them."
The write stuff
One of the motivations for touring less has been the desire to write more. It's been three years since the last studio release, Beautiful World, and Mohr has enjoyed the chance to buffer his writing process with extensive time and space. "I can't write when I'm on the road or doing other things," Mohr says, "so I guess you'd say I set time aside to write. I take my time is what I do."
"It's mainly working through ideas," he says of his personal process. "I just write a ton of songs and a lot of them fail. The toughest thing is just being open to have happy accidents. Having the patience to wait through songs and let them kind of write themselves."
The songs come from a myriad of starting points for Mohr. "Any kind of simple idea can lead to a song. It could be a lyrical idea, or an idea for something for a song to be about, or a musical idea, a guitar riff. I don't have any set process for what the first step is. I just take an idea and pursue it and then figure out whether it's worth something."
Like most bands, Big Head Todd and the Monsters cut their teeth as a cover band, playing in restaurant windows and packing tiny clubs in Boulder in the late '80s with boggling renditions of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Rolling Stones songs. Their first album was a cult favorite, and fans routinely watched Mohr break all the strings on all his guitars before necessarily taking a set break. Although the hard-to-find Another Mayberry still holds up and works its way into his set lists, Mohr notes that the band's longevity has had an inevitable effect on his songwriting.
"As a person, you get older and mature and your views change and what you want to achieve as an artist changes. The success aspects of your career, and the pressures related to that, step forward and I think it becomes a lot more difficult as a songwriter and a band to keep a career moving forward and have an awareness that your career moving forward is dependent on the success of the songs. It's tough to keep an honest motivation for a songwriter."
The band has done a good job of dodging those pressures. "We've never really sweated the career stuff," Nevin notes. "We've been really fortunate to have a situation where we can make decisions based on what's best for us and what we want to achieve as a band. ... Most of those pressures come from the label side of things. It's always, 'this next record is the most important one, because we got to break it wide open on this next one.' No matter where you're at, if it's your first record or your second or third or eighth, it's always, 'you gotta really do it on this one.' They are always shooting to make it a stadium act and go for the brass ring. But our career has been pretty steady."
If it ain't fixed, don't break it
Anticipation runs high among the dozen people scattered at various posts throughout the Fillmore, eager to hear the new batch of songs the Monsters are refining before heading to the studio later this summer. Rock 'n' roll rarely looks this laborious. Reinventing the power trio involves some painstaking work on a new dimension of the live show, prerecorded samples of organ chords, string choruses, and water-drop sound effects triggered by drummer Brian Nevin and bassist Rob Squires. Mohr works assiduously at adjusting levels of the samples, honing in one decibel at a time until the perfect mix behind the live instruments is found.
"My voice takes on these superhuman dimensions," Mohr tells sound engineer Andy "T-Bone" Torri, assuring him the unexpected effect is a keeper. "I like it. Makes me feel like a video game."
With a pre-noon starting time for the rehearsal, the band takes three or four hours before they've got the sound ready to play, and a spread of steaks barbecued in the Fillmore alley off of East Colfax is cooling by the time they break for dinner, a good four hours of rehearsal still to go.
The new songs quickly settle in alongside the Monster canon, with a slinky "Gun-shy" singing of its character that "She came in like an animal/ Left like an innocent child." The band rages through "Engineer," hits straight up hard rock on "Runaway Train," and is at its best on an irresistible song called "Secret Mission."
"They're very simple songs, kind of aggressive tempos," Mohr says to characterize the album. "Very melodic, quality driven songs. To me, it's kind of like The Pretenders or The Police or The Clash, with that mindset about a song kind of wanting a rock band."
A road runs through it
It's been years since the band has played a date in Colorado Springs. They once frequented the Underground, where they recall the "three-story load-in" as one of the worst anywhere, but that the place "was always packed with crazy people."
"When we started [national] touring, even home, Denver, became a stop on the road," Nevin remembers. "We played a lot less shows in the area. Now we're doing a Steamboat Springs show next week, Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs, Denver. We're consciously trying to spread out and try to hit some of these places." As the Denver market has grown, the surrounding markets have shrunk, according to Nevin. The attitude is "Just hit the big city and let everyone drive."
It's no small coincidence that the success of the Monsters has coincided with Colorado's emergence as a musical mecca. "Even in the course of our career," Mohr explains, "when we first started, people thought of Colorado as nowheresville. It's definitely a major force in America now."
And although they've long outgrown the club scene, Squires admits that "We're still considering doing real low-profile clubs and stuff."
Although they'll be playing in the middle of the road, PPIR is anything but the intimate, sweaty roadhouse bars the band used as a backdrop to define their sound in the early days. During the course of our interview, Mohr tells me that the band had been invited to come down to PPIR and be in the pit crew with Denver racer Buzz Calkins' Indy racing team. Mohr had never been to a car race before, and was looking forward to both the pit and the show, though the band wonders if they might need to adjust their set to include "all the Lynyrd Skynyrd covers we know." Nevin counters that his cousin races dragsters, noting that "Auto racing has become pretty sophisticated and savvy, it seems to me. I wouldn't expect it to be that redneckish."
Hours later, longtime manager Chuck Morris interrupts the band's superfunk run-through of "Sister Sweetly" to correct his earlier misconception. It turns out they've been invited to be in the pit crew at the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day.
After returning from the Indy, Mohr described the trip as "Outrageous! That experience completely turned me into a racing fan. The excitement of the fast cars and the incredible amount of fans was the best. We want to tour full time with the IRL (Indy Racing League) next year."
Each of the band members served on a different team's pit crew, with Mohr in Calkins' pit. "I was the honorary 'stay out of the way' guy," Mohr told PPIR after the race. "Most of the time I was hanging out by the computer. It was fascinating to learn how technical racing really is. I was taken with the technical aspects of the race."
Mohr was especially enthusiastic about the prospect of getting behind the wheel and driving a race car at 180 mph. "I drive 100 mph now," he joked. "What's another 80 mph?"