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Big Head Start May Not Be Swift, but It's Steady : Pop music: The alternative blues-based band, which will play the Coach House on Monday night, can laugh at past rejections. A hit debut album can do that.

March 08, 1994|DENNIS HUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The letter said forget it, Big Head Tom, we don't want you," chuckled Todd Park Mohr, recalling a rejection years ago from MCA Records that didn't even get the band's name right.

It's Big Head Todd & the Monsters, featuring lead singer-guitarist Mohr, bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin. They'll be at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Monday night.

They can laugh at all those rejections now that they have a hit album. About 450,000 copies of "Sister Sweetly" (on Giant Records) already have been sold, and another 5,000 are being bought each week--quite a feat for a band playing music that hardly any company thought was commercial.

"The record companies didn't hate the music--they just didn't think they could market it," Mohr said. His own tag for it: alternative blues-based rock 'n' roll. "That kind of music is really big on the charts," he cracked.

This trio from Colorado often is lumped with such groups as the Grateful Dead and Blues Traveler, known for lengthy jams that weave unpredictably through the musical spectrum, blending all sorts of elements. The Monsters also are big on roots rock, Hendrix and Sly Stone tunes.

"It's alternative because we explore music with the sensibilities of the current rock groups," Mohr said. "It's not structured like mainstream music, even though the roots are in mainstream."

What really sets the Monsters apart from other alternative groups is their passion for the blues, an integral part of their sound. Mohr has been a blues fanatic, idolizing the likes of Albert Collins, since junior high school.

"I was a weird kid," he said. "I rebelled by listening to the blues. I always felt at home with the blues. It's really the music of my heart."

Starting out as a sax player, he switched to guitar after high school. In college, in 1986, he and Nevin and Squires, who'd first worked together in a high school band, started playing together again. Mohr, majoring in English literature and Oriental history and planning a career as an academic, transferred from Colorado State to the University of Colorado to be with his buddies.

"We went our separate ways after high school," Mohr recalls, "but ended up living together and going to school together. We were playing parties and then bars in the Boulder area. We liked playing together so much that we dropped out of school and started playing full time."

They built a large following on the club scene and even put out two independent albums--"Another Mayberry" in 1989 and "Midnight Radio" in 1990--that sold a respectable total of 75,000 copies. But to the band, those albums were just stepping stones to something bigger.

"We wanted a real record contract and we tried for years and couldn't get one," Mohr said. What finally made a difference was hiring a manager who was able to coax Giant Records owner Irving Azoff to hear the band at a club in Aspen. Two years ago, they signed.

*

"Sister Sweetly" came out about a year ago and has sold slowly and steadily, helped along by the trio's extensive touring both as a headliner and opening for such artists as Robert Plant. There is, however, a big discrepancy between the band's live and studio sounds, and that still bothers Mohr.

"On the album there are a lot of ballads and we're fairly restrained and mellow," explained Mohr, who writes all the band's music. "I don't like that. It's not really us. When we did the album we needed something that was radio-friendly. David Z was the only producer available at the time who had any radio success. We went along with what he wanted.

"That's why we made a slicker radio record. None of us wanted to make an album that the critics loved but that sold only 12 copies."

What about the next album?

"We paid our dues in terms of making compromises to get on the radio," Mohr answered. "We're going to be more involved with the production of this record. It will be a harder rock 'n' roll record. We have a strong band sound. You don't realize it that much on the current record and but it will be very obvious on the next one."

* Big Head Todd & the Monsters play Monday at 8 p.m. the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, $19.50. (714) 496-8930.

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