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THE BAND IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUITTHESE MONSTERS HAVE A HEAD FOR BUSINESS

Once upon a time, a Colorado alternative band emerged from the semimoribund Denver music scene and began to create a buzz. Loyal homies packed large and small venues. Locally produced cassettes sold out entire runs in record time. The local alternative weekly began championing their cause. Shows in jaded metropolises...
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Once upon a time, a Colorado alternative band emerged from the semimoribund Denver music scene and began to create a buzz. Loyal homies packed large and small venues. Locally produced cassettes sold out entire runs in record time. The local alternative weekly began championing their cause. Shows in jaded metropolises like Chicago and Minneapolis caused a stir. Finally, they blew away a crowd of music critics, radio drones and A&R geeks at a national music showcase. Everyone said their time had come. Labels sniffed, nibbled, and a few even tried to swallow. But in the end, infinite wisdoms decided not to chance it. The group lacked that mysterious something. Marketability. Airplay potential. Table manners. The band returned home, expecting to play out their careers as local legends that fade into day jobs, mortgage payments and regrets over what should have been.

Blink again. It's two years later, and instead of another music-biz-done-them-wrong saga, this is the story of how one band managed to do it their way. It's one o'clock in Boulder, and Todd Park Mohr, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for Big Head Todd and the Monsters, has been at the office for a couple of hours. In the morning (anytime after 11 a.m. in musician time) the band can be found in the office of its indie label Big Records examining the books, talking with distributors, even calling a plant in Philadelphia to find out what's holding up the next shipment of its latest CD Midnight Radio.

When the sun goes down, the business world recedes. Mohr, drummer Brian Nevin, and bassist Rob Squires are musicians again: practicing, honing lyrics, arranging tunes.

The business of music is what usually drags musicians down. The more they get involved with the lawyers, the contracts, the corporations and, of course, the money, the less time and creative energy they have for the music.

Not so with these Monsters. Now one of the best powerhouse-alternative bands working today, they thrive on the business. Proud of their unwieldy name ("Are they heavy-metal?"), they write and play the music, produce the recordings, handle the distribution, book their own gigs, write their own press releases and, most important, sign their own paychecks. They know where all the money goes. They've been so successful at it that they've had to hire three, going on four, people to run Big Records. Avoiding the hassles and sellouts that come with a major record label deal sounds great, but doesn't it take too much time away from the very difficult task of making music? "Writing and performing is still our lives," Todd Mohr, he of the "Big Head" moniker, says from the Big Records office. "Since we've hired a couple of people, we've been able to get back more and more to being musicians. We aren't trying to be an example here. The only thing we've proven is that it can work another way."

This journey to self-sufficiency has been one of necessity, not corporate diversification. They didn't get signed--so they did it themselves. Despite their success story, the band still wouldn't pass up a major-label deal.

"There's a zillion tragedies out there between bands and big labels. We've witnessed a few," Mohr says. "But it's silly to say that we will never be a major-label band. What we'd really want from a big label these days is a licensing agreement that keeps our record company intact but uses their promotion and distribution networks."

Taking care of business hasn't detracted from the Monsters' music. At the center of the trio is Mohr, a dynamic front man. Beginning with a kinetic strumming guitar style that doesn't wander into half-hour jams (a common trio malady), Mohr adds a raspy, expressive voice and a hook-filled songwriting style. His tunes nod at everything from Springsteen's solo ballads and R.E.M., the mother lode of alternativism, to Stax soul and revved-up punk-pop. Never just a rhythm section, Nevin and Squires both are also memorable instrumental "voices." From the moment they step onstage or the laser hits the groove, it's obvious that this is a band whose style and determination are unmistakable.

That style stems in part from familiarity. Pals and bandmates in high school in Denver, the Monsters moved to the University of Colorado after graduation. In 1988 they scraped enough money together to put out their debut, Another Mayberry. A best seller in Colorado, Mayberry convinced the band that they could produce their music as well as any big label.

This newfound confidence encouraged them to launch into a second and much more grandiose recording project. A two-track digital tape machine was purchased and they set off, armed with new material, to make a live record.

"We decided to tape everything that happened musically for a period of six months," says Mohr. "We taped at clubs, theatres, our practice hall, someone's basements, even a live radio broadcast. What we ended up with were 30 two-hour tapes of around 150 songs. From there we started cutting."

Dragging a tape machine around for six months sounds like a nightmare, and according to Mohr it had its moments. But what came out is a pretty startling piece of work. Unlike most live records, the sound of this self-produced effort is clear and consistent. Made for a grand total of $2,000, Midnight Radio has sold around 5,000 copies so far, a very respectable number for a band-produced indie. A new record is in the works and should be released in August of this year. Sure, more money and a more-experienced producing team would be nice. But the Monsters are riding high on what they feel is right for them now.

"The best in American culture has always been what's happening regionally--delta blues, Dixieland, country--not something that's been boiled down by a corporation so it will sell," says Mohr. "That's what we feel our records and live shows are about. What we are doing right now, at the level we are doing it, is immensely satisfying. We aren't spending any time wondering, `When are we going to make it big?'"

Big Head Todd and the Monsters will perform at Chuy's on Wednesday, February 13. Showtime is 9 p.m.

They play the music, produce the recordings, handle distribution and, most important, sign their own paychecks. The Monsters are riding high on what they feel is right for them now.

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