Big Head Todd and The Monsters' ninth studio album Rocksteady finds the veteran Colorado band returning to their DIY roots and forging into surprising musical territory.
Funky, lilting, and melodic, Rocksteady features founding members Todd Park Mohr (lead vocals and guitars), Rob Squires (bass), and Brian Nevin (drums), with keyboardist, steel guitarist, and backup vocalist Jeremy Lawton, who joined The Monsters in January 2004. Lawton produced and mixed the album.
Rocksteady cuts across a broad swath of stylistic terrain. "Beautiful," the set's first single, offers a sunny Caribbean vibe, as does the band's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden," long a concert staple. "Back to the Garden" and the homage "Muhammad Ali" pulse with a roots rock groove, while the set's title track is based in the like-named, revved-up Jamaican style that preceded reggae's arrival in the late ‘60s. "I Hate It When You're Gone," dressed with a full horn section, is blazing old-school R&B, while a version of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" is burning Chicago blues in a Monsters pocket.
"It's a soul/Caribbean record that rocks," Mohr says. "We almost went out of our way to take all the rock out of it, but it really rocks. It's the very first album we've ever done that's this cohesive and focused. That's what makes it shine and stand out from our other albums."
Rocksteady is the latest chapter in a rock ‘n' roll career that stretches back nearly 25 years. Founded in 1986 by Mohr, Squires, and Nevin, then University of Colorado students, Big Head Todd and The Monsters became one of the region's most popular acts through constant touring. After issuing two popular independent releases on their Big imprint, the band hooked up with Irving Azoff's Giant Records for the platinum album Sister Sweetly (1993). The Monsters issued four chart albums on Giant and Warner Bros.
Their formidable reputation rests on their stage performances; Big Head Todd and The Monsters Live was recorded on the fabled H.O.R.D.E. tour. Over the years, the group has developed a close relationship with their fans: Their last album, All the Love You Need, was released as a free download, and was snapped up by half a million of The Monsters' followers.
Rocksteady can be seen as Act One of a two-act Big Head Todd spectacular, since the band cut enough tracks to fill two CDs. A projected future release will include the sessions' more hard-edged material.
Mohr says, "We went into the studio and recorded over thirty songs. We've always been a versatile group with a wide range of influences and so our albums tend to be an eclectic mix of different genres of music. Somewhere along the line we realized we had a group of songs that fit together really well as a soul/R&B/Carribian kind of thing. So we set aside some of the harder rock stuff in order to focus on a soulful, danceable sound."
Lawton adds, "We were noticing we had these two different directions in songs. Big Head Todd albums are always like a buffet - there's always a rocker, and then there are a couple of mood songs, and then there are some R&B/soul songs. We said, ‘Let's try to concentrate on one of the branches of the tree.' We went towards this fun, happy R&B kind of sound."
Mohr attributes some of the funk in the Rocksteady sound to the influence of the late Nigerian Afrobeat titan Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his son Femi Kuti, whose work he had been listening to deeply, and to his ongoing fascination with reggae and its intersection with punk rock.
While Big Head Todd and The Monsters have worked with such well-known producers as David Bianco, Jerry Harrison, and David Z, the band found their sound refreshed by working essentially on their own with Lawton at the helm in his home studio, recording on their own schedule.
"Obviously, I have high regard for producers," Mohr says. "In this case, I didn't think anybody else was going to put the time into it - into following each strand. And being able to decide in the middle of something that you have two albums instead of one isn't something you normally can do in a producer scenario. There is just too much pressure and not enough time. For me it's all about being able to have the time and the resources to do things your way, and the right way. It's only when you do it yourself that you have that luxury."
As ever, the hard-touring Monsters will go out to meet the fans this summer. "The quality of the relationship between the band and the fan is the most important aspect of our career," says Mohr. "We've always realized that. That's why we do cruises with fans, and we sign autographs after shows. We still try to play every request. We listen to our audience and do whatever we can to acknowledge that relationship."