Steve Harwell and the guys in Smash Mouth have a gift for crafting irrepressibly catchy pop infused with a sunny, surf-inflected California vibe, and they have the chart-toppers to prove it. The San Jose quintet hit the big-time just ahead of Napster, so they know what the bands these days are missing — platinum-selling albums and regular rotation on MTV.
Smash Mouth's heyday has been over for awhile now, but that hasn't stopped them. Over the course of the last decade, they've released two original albums, including 2012's Magic, the first without founding guitarist Greg Camp, and a Christmas LP. And as always, they still like to hit the road. Apparently, there's still some life in this old girl yet.
"We do a lot of touring, and we're busy pretty much year round, but at the same time we like to shake it up a bit," says Harwell from Columbus, Ohio, where he's been watching Gunsmoke on the tour bus TV. "I don't ever want to stop making records, so getting back in there was nice."
Harwell notes that he and his Smash Mouth brethren are keen on hitting the studio some time soon. "We want to start working on another one. We have a bunch of cool ideas going on," he says.
Speaking of the band's studio efforts, Magic is a good album lined with Smash Mouth's brand of punchy rock, despite a couple overly indulgent stabs at adult-pop (the string-laden melodrama of "Better With Time" and "Out of Love"). The LP has three high points: "Live to Love Another Day," which sports a guitar-and-organ combo that evokes "Walking on the Sun," the jangly surf popper "Flippin' Out" featuring rapper J. Dash, and "Justin Bieber," Harwell and company's hand-clapping ode to pop-culture sensations.
"These overnight sensations and YouTube artists — when are they going to be not cool, and what happens when he's not cool? I've seen some things that Justin Bieber's done lately," Harwell says with a derisive snicker. "He walks out at Floyd Mayweather's boxing match carrying three belts like he's some gangsta. I'm like, dude, are you really going to do this right now? You're like 12."
Of course, it hasn't been so long since Smash Mouth themselves were overnight sensations. They had been playing around San Jose for several years and had paid for their debut LP Fush Yu Mang themselves when they passed the record to their friend, Carson Daly, a new hire at KROQ. Thanks to Daly, "Walking On the Sun" got into the station's rotation, and it wasn't long before Interscope signed them.
"We started together," Harwell recalls. "[Daly] was 21 years old when I met him, a local DJ from my home town. He used to watch us rehearse and drink beer with us. We happened at the same time. It's so crazy how all of sudden he became an MTV star and we had the No. 1 single on the worldwide charts. It's like, 'Is this really happening?'"
Of course, there wouldn't even be a "Walking on the Sun" if not for homegrown California pot. It's what paid for most of the band's early music. Harwell isn't a smoker, nor a grower. He was just well-connected with roofers.
"You're on top of a house every day fixing roofs and repairing shit, and you've got a great view. [My friend] would call me up, 'There's a crop of weed in the backyard.' I swear to God," he says. "I'd get my crew together. I was the driver and they were the pickers.
"It paid for all our studio time and a lot of months' rent," he adds. "You got to do what you got to do."
Fush Yu Mang went triple platinum, and the 1999 follow-up, Astro Lounge, with the hits "All Star" and "Can't Get Enough of You, Baby" went double platinum. Their eponymous 2001 album only went gold, while their last two albums, 2006's Summer Girl and last year's Magic, haven't charted.
And yet Harwell and Smash Mouth remain a durable draw, particularly on their latest tour which pairs them with other '90s hitmakers like Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms, Vertical Horizon, and Fastball. Smash Mouth reigns over their peers in part due to the ease they've had porting their songs over to TV and movies. They appear on more than 40 soundtracks, including Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and, of course, Shrek.
"We're fortunate to have these iconic songs that have been worldwide from TV to movies. That's probably our biggest upside," Harwell says.
The Smash Mouth singer says that he still finds comfort in the tight-knit bonds of a band. "They're guys I can hang out with, lean on, and talk to and vice versa," Harwell says. "That's why I moved back [after my marriage ended]. I started missing everybody. It's great to be around people you can talk to and trust. In this business, you get a lot of people that you think are your buddies, but you catch on really quick who's real and who's not."
However, he readily admits that life on the road can be something of a job. After all, he's forced to spend a heckuva lot of time away from his loved ones. "You don't think about that when you're 22," he says.