Interview

Q&A: Steve Harwell On 20 Years Of Smash Mouth And Coming To Terms With All Those “All Star” Memes

Smash Mouth’s trajectory isn’t like that of any other band, really. They began life as a ska-punk act that broke out with the debut album Fush Yu Mang — which came out 20 years ago tomorrow — and its left-field retro-pop smash “Walkin’ On The Sun” (B-side: “Sorry About Your Penis”), whose ’60s lounge vibe and satirical, zeitgeist-provoking lyrics slotted them aptly alongside oddball bedfellows like Chumbawamba and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies in the grab bag that was modern rock radio in 1997.

For 1999’s follow-up album Astro Lounge, they dove even further into the trippy sounds of obscure novelties, particularly more organ-led pop tunes like “Diggin’ Your Scene” and “Then The Morning Comes.” But their biggest hit was the omnipresent “All Star,” initially included on the Mystery Men soundtrack before becoming so linked to the Shrek franchise that people began to heckle the band on Twitter about it.

In the last year or so, “All Star” has developed new life altogether as a springboard for a rather large chunk of memes: the entire song retuned to the note of C, the entire song remade from Bill O’Reilly saying his name, and countless Neil Cicierga mash-ups, or Jon Sudano cover songs. You get the idea. The Chainsmokers even pop it into their live set before segueing into “Closer,” which we can also blame on the internet.

In honor of Smash Mouth’s 20th anniversary in the public eye and this strange recent relationship with social media, we spoke to the band’s singer Steve Harwell over the phone about the band’s bizarre journey, as well as Harwell’s hip-hop past and what’s looking like a surprisingly EDM future.

STEREOGUM: Hey, what’s up man?

STEVE HARWELL: I’m well! What are we talking about today?

STEREOGUM: Well, I think you guys are celebrating a 20th anniversary, aren’t you?

HARWELL: We are, yeah. We are right now actually, the 20th anniversary of our first record and “Walkin’ On The Sun” going to #1.

STEREOGUM: So how does it feel to look back on that?

HARWELL: I wish I could remember half of the shit that took place. [Laughs.] But it’s pretty cool to be on the other side of it, to have done what we’ve done and accomplished what we’ve accomplished. And now we’re out doing shows and riding it yet.

STEREOGUM: Do you remember thinking “Walkin’ On The Sun” was going to make waves like that?

HARWELL: Well, we had been a band for a couple of years and we were showcasing around and our manager set up a bunch of gigs in L.A. and we had just had this horrendous show at the Roxy — we fucked the pooch hard.

STEREOGUM: What made this show so bad?

HARWELL: Everything! Our set got pushed, we had A&R guys coming out early and they didn’t get to see us, problems with electrical equipment, my guitarist smashed his guitar on the stage. It was just all bad. So we drove home with our tail between our legs and we thought for sure, this is it, we’re done. So we called up our manager and said, “I think we’re fucking done, why don’t you come over, let’s have a conversation.” And in that conversation we decided, “Well, wouldn’t it be fun to make a record and just sell it to our friends.” So our manager agreed and said, “I’ve got this producer friend, Eric Valentine,” who at the time was producing Third Eye Blind’s debut record, “why don’t I see what he’ll make a record for?” And he actually offered to pay for it, but he said, “Give me a couple weeks to go back to the industry and try to get you a deal.” We kind of laughed.

We had the majority of the record done, and Kevin [Coleman], our drummer at the time, he sucked. He had to practice every day to keep up with us. So Greg [Camp, guitarist], the main songwriter, he had a bunch of cassette demos he had written along the way and that’s what Kevin would practice to. And Kevin came across this demo version of “Walkin’ On The Sun” and called us up and said he thinks he found a hit song. Next thing you know, everyone’s down in the studio. We knew this was different than anything else we have — we were a ska-punk band at the time. We had no idea it would go to Number One.

STEREOGUM: And you guys are recording a whole new acoustic version of Fush Yu Mang for its anniversary?

HARWELL: Yeah, we thought we’d do a couple things. We’re doing a remix EP, so we have some dance mixes and we’re gonna be working that on the Billboard dance charts and it’s gonna be in all the clubs. And then, yeah, we decided to record the album acoustically.

STEREOGUM: That’s definitely going to stand out in 2017, a ska-punk record being redone like that.

HARWELL: [Laughs.] And it sounds really cool, we’re really liking it.

STEREOGUM: I’ve read that you had a rap group prior to Smash Mouth called Freedom Of Speech?

HARWELL: Yeah, F.O.S.

STEREOGUM: What can you tell me about that? I’m amazed at the number of styles you’ve cycled through in your career.

HARWELL: You know, we were just really into Chuck D and that shit at the time and I just thought, “I want to be a rapper.” I had just one song that I recorded with this guy in the studio one day and that’s how I met my manager. We ended up getting some love at a local radio station, Hot 97.7, with the one song, and we worked that into a recording contract with Scotti Bros. Records, and at the time they had “Weird Al” Yankovic and… Survivor. And they were also a production company that owned the rights to Baywatch, that’s how they made all their money. So we did a singles deal with them.

They were scary. I remember being in their office in Santa Monica with my manager and just, crazy shit happening. Literally this A&R guy got tossed down the stairs in the back, this car pulls around and they throw him in and take off. We’re terrified staring out the back door. And the brothers, the Scotti brothers, are like, “Hey, eyes over here.”

Around the time we were about to put out our single, this kid Snoop Dogg came out and changed everything. I was at a radio convention in Las Vegas watching MC Hammer of all people, and I just looked at my manager, “I’m tired of all this hip-hop shit, I want to start an alternative rock band.” He said, “You’re crazy, it was hard enough getting this.” But he followed me down the path and here we are.

STEREOGUM: What was your one song called?

HARWELL: “Big Black Boots.”

STEREOGUM: OK!

HARWELL: [Rapping.] “Kicking down the door with the big black boots.”

STEREOGUM: So how sick are you of “All Star” and all the memes? Do you get tired of it?

HARWELL: You know, I try not to pay attention to social media very much. I try not to personally read and look at all that shit. But I think it’s cool that “All Star” has made such a resurgence — we do have a team of people that are working that stuff regularly, helping work our social media. And all of us are personally involved in the things we tweet out and post. But in terms of all the memes and blogs, I don’t look at that stuff much.

STEREOGUM: Was there one that you particularly disliked?

HARWELL: You know, that big guy, I can’t remember his name. [Jon Sudanoed.] I don’t like his.

STEREOGUM: It’s kind of cool to me that it’s become this challenge to see what people can turn into “All Star.” Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly’s voice…

HARWELL: Right, yeah, or Star Wars. It’s entertaining, I get it. It doesn’t bother me, but at the same time, I don’t love it.

STEREOGUM: Are you familiar with Neil Cicierega’s mash-up albums that are kind of based on your music, Mouth Sounds and Mouth Moods?

HARWELL: Yeah, yeah.

STEREOGUM: I wasn’t sure if those were a cut above for you or anything.

HARWELL: We get calls from, like, the Chainsmokers. They do “All Star” at the end of their set as a mash-up, and they’ve asked me to come out and perform in the Bay Area with them. I got a call from Marshmello, the DJ, who wanted me to come out to Coachella. I didn’t, just because we had shows and we were busy and they overlapped. But much respect to both of those artists, and I’m flattered that they asked.

STEREOGUM: Is there anyone you do really want to collaborate with who has that kind of standing in 2017?

HARWELL: I would love something with some EDM artists like Marshmello, it would be kind of cool. We’ve got this one band, Car Seat Headrest, they’re kind of cool.

STEREOGUM: So are you guys actually going to make a collaborative record with Car Seat Headrest?

HARWELL: Eh, probably not a record. We’ve been talking about doing something but… we’re just so busy on the road all the time so it’s really a matter of finding the time to get in and cut something and do a collaboration. But we’re fans of music! We’re happy to jump on something if we hear something we like or if we really like an artist. If we’re feeling it, you know?

STEREOGUM: You mentioned being on the road all the time, what’s the most memorable show you’ve played in the last few years or so?

HARWELL: We just did a show in Guadalajara, Mexico, the Roxy Fest, with Morrissey, which was super, super cool.

STEREOGUM: Did you get to meet Morrissey?

HARWELL: Yeah! It was brief. But super weird and cool. He was great.

STEREOGUM: Is he a fan?

HARWELL: Yeah, he was very complimentary toward us.

STEREOGUM: What’s the most surprising person you’ve discovered was a fan of Smash Mouth?

HARWELL: We get a lot of athletes we’ve come across who’ve identified themselves as big fans: actors, actresses, athletes. I’m a big NASCAR fan, I know some NASCAR drivers who love Smash Mouth.

STEREOGUM: Speaking of actors, have you ever heard from Al Pacino about Fush Yu Mang?

HARWELL: We haven’t. I would love to put Al Pacino in a video.

STEREOGUM: Maybe for one of those 20th anniversary remixes. So do you have any other plans on the horizon?

HARWELL: Well, besides the remixes and a Pledge Music campaign to get the acoustic record out, we are in the process of making a wine. We have a Cabernet and a Chardonnay that are gonna be our 20th anniversary Fush Yu Mang bottles of wine, so we’re excited about that.

STEREOGUM: Where did the idea behind that come from?

HARWELL: We like wine. [Laughs.]