Behind The Music: “Steal My Sunshine”
It’s Weird ’90s Week on Stereogum. All week long we’re looking at the strangest musical moments and trends of the decade. Check out more here.
Every year, we at Stereogum hold a poll to decide our official Song Of The Summer. Every year, our readers vote and select a worthy jam like Jamie xx’s “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” or Future Islands’ “Seasons (Waiting On You).” And every year, it feels like a hollow exercise, eternally doomed to failure. Because there is only one true Song Of The Summer — the song of every summer, past, present, and future — and that song is Len’s “Steal My Sunshine.”
I’m joking, of course. But the thing is, I’m only kind of joking. Because of all the nostalgia-bomb ’90s pop hits in heavy rotation on karaoke machines across the nation, “Steal My Sunshine” holds the rare distinction of actually, you know, being a good song.
Len were less a band than a revolving cast of characters centered on Marc Costanzo and his sister Sharon. They put out two albums of goofy alt-rock in the early ’90s before switching to an eclectic hodgepodge of styles — “white boys from Canada hip-hop,” as Costanzo bluntly dubs it — for their third album, 1999’s You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush, aka the album with “Steal My Sunshine” on it.
Len are often thought of as a one-hit wonder, and in literal terms, the label fits. They had one massive hit with “Steal My Sunshine,” and they never topped it, releasing a few more albums years later before eventually fading into obscurity. And when I say obscurity, I mean obscurity — their website doesn’t work anymore, their social media pages are updated infrequently, and it took me weeks of pestering Len on Twitter to get in touch.
But talking to Marc Costanzo, you don’t get the sense that the traditional one-hit wonder narrative really fits — the story of the band who hits it big and then tries and fails to live up to that glory. “One-hit wonder,” at least to me, carries a sense of failure. But Costanzo doesn’t feel like a failure. He seems as surprised as anyone at the success of “Steal My Sunshine,” and although he admits that “it’s an unbelievable privilege” to have a song that so many connected with, he’s not the kind of guy who welcomes the celebrity that comes with having even one hit single. At the peak of Len’s popularity, he says, when people came up to him on the street asking for autographs, he thought they were trying to fight him. Stumbling into the limelight was an accident, and getting out of it was a blessing.
Costanzo is happy with his current lower-profile job in the music industry — when I asked him what it was, he just joked, “You don’t need to know that” — and holds no regrets about the past. But when we spoke on the phone while he went about his day, occasionally pausing our conversation to comment on the price of premium olive oil while grocery shopping, he was happy to discuss Len’s past at length with clear-eyed honesty and good humor.
STEREOGUM: What’s the story behind the name Len?
COSTANZO: It was just one my friends. Over time, you kind of make up stories just to make them more interesting, but in the end it’s just one of my boys. One of those cats you get high with all the time when you’re in you’re teens and your 20s and all you’re doing is sitting around in someone’s basement getting high and it’s the funnest thing on the planet.
STEREOGUM: The band started out with just you and your sister Sharon, right?
COSTANZO: It was never really a band. Since I was probably 13 years old, I started getting gear, and I would record anything. I was trying to make music just to get it out. And Sharon comes downstairs and I’d be like, “You wanna sing on my track? Cause this could have a girl on it.” It was never, “Let’s sit down and write songs.” I mean, are they really songs, any of Len’s shit? Everybody else, I put them in there just to say it was more than a basement project. But in reality it was just me.
STEREOGUM: Your first two albums are, for the most part, alt-rock albums. And then on You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush, there’s some of that, but there’s also “Steal My Sunshine,” and obviously most of the album is a straight-up hip-hop album.
COSTANZO: Well, I wouldn’t say straight-up hip-hop, I’d say “some white boys from Canada hip-hop.” I grew up half punk-rock, half hip-hop. When I was a kid I started buying samplers, MPCs, I started fucking around making beats. And then when I came to make the third album, I went to Halifax in the ’90s and I hung out with these guys Cory, Derek, and Brian, a rap group from Nova Scotia called Hip Club Groove. Cory ended up being on Trailer Park Boys. That’s how the third album ended up being what it is, and that’s why some of it’s terrible. A lot of it’s terrible.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about “Steal My Sunshine.” How was the song conceived?
COSTANZO: I was at an outdoor electronic music festival up north, like a rave, and I just got caught up in the night. The song is about how I felt, and then it was exaggerated by the fact that I’m sitting in the middle of a field looking at the stars, about 1000 feet away from the stage, watching everybody dancing at 3AM. And I wrote part of it on my leg and a lot of it on a napkin. And then we were hanging out at Brendan [Canning, of Broken Social Scene]’s place, and Brendan ended up playing that Andrea True Connection record, and I just sampled it right then. I looped it and I just tied the two together.
STEREOGUM: I’ve heard some anecdotes about the music video shoot. What was that like?
COSTANZO: In my deal I said to the record label, “If we’re gonna get this, part of the deal is that you’re gonna let me do my own videos.” Just give me $150,000 and I’ll bring you a video. So I called Brad [Walsh] up and said, “We’re shooting a video, do you wanna co-direct this with me?” We made the budget — film stock, one camera, a DP, very basic. And at that time when you’re spending $150,000 — who convinces someone to let you spend that kind of money? Especially me. I mean, the first week I got signed to Work Group, I call up the label and leave a message telling them I’m in jail. Just as a joke, you know? How are you gonna trust me with $150,000?
Anyway, in the beginning of the video we’re on the plane, and we’re going to Daytona, because there were movies in the ’80s that were all about Daytona. And we were like, “Let’s go to Daytona! Let’s do that ’80s movie shit!” We thought it was hilarious. We had no permits. We just took permits from other film sets. The guys were like, “Let’s plan the next five days.” And I was like, “Let’s not.” We had to shoot at one, because we were too drunk after five and too hungover before one. So we’d wake up, and I’d be like, “Let’s get some fucking Harleys!” But they wouldn’t rent us fucking Harleys, so we ended up with scooters, which I hated at first, but then we were like, “Let’s destroy these things.” We destroyed like four or five of them. And we passed the same license over and over to the guy, he didn’t even notice, because half the guys didn’t even have licenses. We shot at Chuck E. Cheese, that didn’t work out. “Let’s go here, let’s go there, let’s ride some fucking go-karts, let’s get on some little swings.” I think we shot the same amount of film as you would for a feature film. It was that ridiculous. And then I sat with Brad and this guy Chris Van Dyke, who’s awesome, and we just edited the fucking thing.
STEREOGUM: I’ve heard a story that you guys broke the elevator in your hotel because you bought too much alcohol.
COSTANZO: Yeah, I guess you’re supposed to take a service elevator for like…it was really that much liquor. It took us 20 minutes to load up the elevator. I mean, there was something like 20 of us, you know? Just for two nights. We were drinkers. We’re like, “OK, well, $5000 of liquor is a couple of days. Just to make sure everybody’s cool.” The elevator just couldn’t take it.
STEREOGUM: At what point did you realize that “Steal My Sunshine” was gonna be big?
COSTANZO: Well, the record label sent it to KROQ, and we’re listening live, and KROQ right there said, “This is gonna be the song of the summer!” And we were like, “Holy shit.” Probably the most influential station in the world. So when they said that, every station picked it up. A week later we’re in a cab driving down Sunset, and from the time we went from North Hollywood to Santa Monica, we heard the song maybe five times going past us in a car. And right there, we knew something was going on. I mean, we didn’t know it was gonna be that big or last for 20 years, but it was pretty obvious something was going down.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys deal with suddenly being super famous? What happened to Len?
COSTANZO: Here’s the deal, when you have that kind of a quick single blowing up, you sell a million records in what, six months? When it goes that fast off one single, and you have no other singles — we knew there was no other single. We were surprised there was even one single. So we were looking at this whole bigger picture of what’s gonna happen next, and we knew it’s over in terms of generating more money from the rest of the album. So we just kind of backed out in terms of being public figures. We had 200 shows planned, and after 80 shows, we turned the tour bus around and went home. I went back to my house in BC and just hung out with my friends. We were just like, “We need to go home, I’m sick of this shit.” Our manager and the record label said, “You can’t do this.” And we’re like, “Well, we just did it.”
We decided to get out of the Sony deal because we could, and we signed to DreamWorks. And I forced myself to make another album. It was really difficult because DreamWorks paid us like $750,000 based on me dancing around their office and telling them I have a whole bunch of other hits, which I didn’t. So we started it, and we were just partying, we weren’t connecting to the outside world at all. So it got even crazier and deeper and darker and weirder. And that’s the album that ended up being The Diary Of The Madmen. Fortunately, DreamWorks fell apart just as we were supposed to deliver an album, so it never happened.
They were asking me to make another “Steal My Sunshine,” which is essentially getting all fucked up, getting an old ’70s reel-to-reel, and doing a raspy voice over a sample talking about crazy shit over a disco beat. That’s not gonna work! So we just walked away from it. And you have to walk completely away for like, five, six years, because people still recognize you. So you have to hide, and you’re not living a regular life and you’re kind of secluded and weird.
STEREOGUM: So what made you decide to come back in 2012 with It’s Easy If You Try?
COSTANZO: Well, we didn’t really come back. I never stopped making music. That was never gonna happen. Me and my sister started hanging out again, and I just did the same thing I used to do, which is, “Hey, wanna sing on this track?” And that was it. With my sister, whenever we get together it has to be called Len. And I was like, “Wow, I did a Len record, that’s funny.”
STEREOGUM: Do you see yourself releasing any more Len stuff at any point?
COSTANZO: No. I don’t think so. I mean, we haven’t really talked in a while, me and my sister. But if we ever do make an album, it’s gonna be an acoustic thing, ’cause that’s what I’m doing right now. I bet if I started just making songs by myself like that again and digging deep, it’s just gonna be some Starbucks fucking kinda shit. It would be interesting for me to get that deep into myself again and could be really bad.
STEREOGUM: So now, looking back, what’s your relationship with “Steal My Sunshine”?
COSTANZO: The second that song blew up, it’s not my song anymore. I was a part of it, I was there. But the fact that it does what it does every year, you know, movies, commercials, whatever, has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the people that have a connection to it, you know? I listen to it and I don’t have any memories of it. I don’t listen to it and go, “Ah, those were good times.” It feels like it has so much more power than me as just one individual.
I went to karaoke last week and I did it. It’s funny, ’cause it doesn’t seem like me, you know? I’m singing it and I’m going, “Holy shit,” I can do the voice perfectly, and it’s just like, is this really me? Did I really sing this fucking song? I mean, I love the fact that it still makes a fortune every year and the royalties are incredible. And that no one’s pushing it to make money, it just happens. This song has just been going for fifteen years straight, and at some point it’s just gonna disappear. But right now, it’s there.
With Len, it was never supposed to be for anybody. So the fact that people react to it in any way possible, it’s hilarious. Who could’ve thought that I could ever be this guy who wrote a song that 15 years later is on cool-ass shows like Mr. Robot? And this was a song that wasn’t supposed to be cool at all. This was almost a joke. Not a joke, but almost like — “Ha, disco beat! Ha, raspy voice! Ha, girls singing about being all in space! Aha, let’s see if we can combine those things together! It’s never gonna work!” You know? And then suddenly you’re like, “What the fuck just happened, I’m on fucking MTV.”
I don’t even understand how people relate to it. When I listen to that song, I just can’t make sense of it. Because there’s nothing right about that song. The elements are all wrong. But that’s why I love it so much. I still love it to this day, because I listen to it and I go, “I don’t know what happened, man!” It’s like a perfect storm of the weirdest shit.
Think about this. Think about how unusual it is that even Deryck Whibley from Sum 41 was there when I recorded vocals. What are the chances that two people in one room end up having these careers? And making completely two different kinds of music? You know, Brendan Canning’s talking on one of the versions, ’cause the record label said, “Well, you need something at the beginning.” And that ended up being Brendan. And what are the chances that a guy who ends up being in Broken Social Scene, the guy who ends up being in Sum-41, and the guy who ends up having a huge success with Len are in the same room? It’s mind-boggling.
That’s why I’m trying to share with you how strange the whole experience is. Life is random, usually, but usually when you make music it’s so calculated. This not only wasn’t calculated, it was like — people colliding together that should never have, things happening, a storm of weirdness. The deeper I get into it, the more perplexed I get. I’m trying to figure it out right now while I’m talking to you. So you’re asking the wrong guy, man!