For the rest of his life, Steve Harwell will forever be known as ‘the dude from Smash Mouth.’
Every time he places an order at Starbucks, the barista will remember those little record-scratching noises in the middle of “All Star.” As he hobbles around his future granddaughter’s college graduation in 2053, onlookers will think back to his pivotal role on the Shrek soundtrack. If he ever has to go in for surgery, the nurse will momentarily remember the day she bought Fush Yu Mang at a Sam Goody in 1998 and peeled off the Parental Advisory sticker so her parents would let her listen to it.
And if you ask Steve, that's totally OK. Harwell, who has been Smash Mouth’s frontman since co-founding the band in 1994, says he’s finally begun to take pride in the band. What’s more, Smash Mouth is still active and at large. Instead of remaining under ice in some cryogenic freezer from 1999, the band is touring this summer and released an album as recently as 2012, which contains a song about Justin Bieber. “It’s not even half over,” Harwell promised me. “I’m adding on to this rollercoaster, let me tell you.”
As the 15th anniversary of Smash Mouth’s historic Astro Lounge album approaches, we invited Harwell to reflect on life, music, and the time some “little gamer kid” made him eat 24 eggs for charity in 2012. He was a genuine delight to talk to.
Noisey: So what’s new with Smash Mouth?
Steve Harwell, Lead Singer of Smash Mouth: We’ve got this big summer tour coming up, Under the Sun 2014, second year we’ve done it. [It’s] Uncle Kracker and Blues Traveler and Sugar Ray and us. Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth are kind of the foundation of the tour. Mark [McGrath] and I started it a few years ago. We kind of knew we had to wait a few years for it to really come into play where it worked. Right now we’ve been touring a lot, we’re in the studio later in this year. We’re gonna do a reunion show with Greg [Camp] and Michael Urbano, the two original members. That’s really exciting. I think next year we’ll probably jump in and do an original Smash Mouth record.
Everything’s been fantastic. The band I have right now I wouldn’t trade for the world. We’ve never sounded better. The shows have been great. Crowd response is fantastic. There’s just a great camaraderie in the band now. We’re all getting older, and I take more pride in it than I did years ago. You take advantage of it when you’re younger, you know?
What is the crowd like at your shows these days?
The crowd is great because the crowds are basically our original fans, who bring their kids and some of their kids have kids. Our crowds are very festival-type crowds. You got some four-year-olds up to fucking 50-year-olds. It’s not like a bunch of 21-year-olds. We do a bunch of college shows, which are great too, and the kids love it. They all grew up on our stuff!
It’s come full circle for Smash Mouth. The nineties were like, it’s the hot thing. It’s just never been better. It’s like a rebirth of the band. Musically, I get people walking up to me going, “Hey, you guys sound just like your records” and I’m like, “That’s what I want to hear.” That’s the coolest compliment you can give me.
Speaking of the 90s, it’s been 15 years since “All Star” came out.
It feels like it came out yesterday. It’s weird, people ask me, “Do you get bored of playing these songs?” I’m like, “Why would I get bored of playing them? This is what puts bread and butter on my table.” You know, there’s always somebody in the crowd who hasn’t heard it. Or hasn’t seen it live. When I go out onstage, I look at it that way. Once that classic song starts, people just go bananas. Has “Free Bird” ever got old?
It’s part of pop culture to anyone who was alive then.
I love it. I really do. It kind of pisses me off sometimes when people ask me that question because I’m like, “Really? Why would I get bored of singing these songs? These are probably some of the best-written songs ever.”
What was it like being in Smash Mouth in 1999, when your song was everywhere?
Well, in ’97 when “Walkin’ on the Sun” went to Number One, that was fucking big. I was 27 years old. I’d fucking never owned a new car, [and] I went and bought a BMW fucking two days after signing a record deal. And paid cash for it. I was living in an apartment with my drummer, eating Taco Bell, and running extension cords over the roof to steal power off my neighbour's house because we couldn’t pay our fucking bills. Stealing marijuana plants to pay our bills and pay for studio time. I’d do whatever it took, and that’s honestly how it happened.
I grew up in a middle-class family, my dad was a truck driver with UPS. He made good money, so it wasn’t like I came from poverty. From childhood, this is what I knew I was going to do. But when it happened, this was two and a half years of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. I pounded the phone every day, in and out. Made friends on the phone with A&R people and promotion people. A perfect story: we were doing a showcase somewhere on Sunset Strip. I became friends with a promoter on Sunset Strip over the phone, never met him.
What year was this?
This was in 1995, ’96? We weren’t even signed yet. We rarely ever played in our hometown, I said, “We gotta go to L.A.” I started making friends with this guy, and this guy started getting me opening up for Goldfinger and bands that were blowing up then and we started getting all these killer slots. I’m doing a showcase at the Roxy and I hear this voice. He goes, “Hey, Steve.” And I go, “Kevin Williamson.” I’d never met this guy, never seen his face, and I turn around and it’s him. I go, “You just missed the show.” He goes, “Sorry, man.”
He’s one of my great friends now, he’s worked for Warner Bros. for years, and it’s just funny, all the work we put into it. My drummer was like, “I’ll go out and paint houses, you stay home and pound the phones.” We’d be out silk-screening our own shirts to sell at shows. It’s just a classic story you hear from bands who really fought hard to get here. I knew I had the talent in the band. Not necessarily me, but with Greg and Paul, I knew I had it. Especially Greg. Greg is probably one of the best songwriters I’ve ever been around. I’ve seen the guy write a song in a half hour. He’s a huge part of why we’re here. Greg and I and Paul, we just clicked from day one. Our hometown hated us for a long time. They probably still do. Not the fans, but other bands back then—they were all pissed off and jealous. I’m like, “Hey!” I went out and scavenged these guys and stole them from other bands. I was in a rap deal back then, on Scotti Bros. Records in 1994 or whatever. I was like, “Fuck it, I want to be in a pop-rock band.” We didn’t know what we were doing back then. The first record is a mix of everything, and you can tell. The second record is much more focused and mature. Getting with Eric Valentine, who produced our big records—I call him the fifth Beatle. He’s a major part of our success. And Carson Daly! Carson was the first one to play “Walkin’ on the Sun” on KROQ in L.A.
If I can change gears for a bit, can you tell me about the time you ate 24 eggs for charity?
I couldn’t even get fucking 10 of them down. Guy Fieri, a buddy of mine, put everything but the eggs in the damn thing. I was on fire. It looked like somebody took a big shit on a fucking plate of eggs. I was dying.
But you know what? After the whole thing was done, the kid that actually started this Twitter thing, came up with this fucking egg-eating contest, he walks up to me. He was a little gamer kid, some kid that sits in his bedroom playing Call of Duty all day long. Him and his buddies were just sitting around, and I think they were huffing paint or something that day because they were all high as a kite. Little teenage kids. I go, “Why did you do this?” He goes, [stoner voice] “I dunno. I was just bored.” I go, “What!?” But hey, it fucking raised $10,000 and we matched it and it was for a good cause. An actual friend of mine who grew up around the corner from me showed up. I hadn’t seen him for 20 years. And he actually, I kind of passed the baton—or passed the fork, I would say—and he finished the eggs for me. We had a really good time. It was really cool.
How many did you actually manage to eat?
I probably ate 12 eggs. Maybe ten.
You also appear at the charity concert at the end of Rat Race.
That’s probably one of the highlights of my career. Getting to meet Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Lovitz and Cuba Gooding and Seth Green and those guys. Talk about a prankster—Cuba Gooding was shooting that scene and he’s standing there and he’s got his balls hanging out of his zipper. And I’m cracking up. Nobody noticed it, but he pulled his balls out of his pants. I fucking lost my shit during the scene, but what a great, great time with that cast.
Is it weird that Smash Mouth has become something of an Internet meme these days, like the eggs thing and that BuzzFeed post a few weeks ago?
What’d you say?
Smash Mouth references are really popular on Twitter. Also, there was a BuzzFeed postabout the lyrics to “All Star.” Do you read any of that?
Some of it. I try to keep up as much as I can. I need to get a little more up to speed on it. I try to tweet here and there. I’m just not a big Twitter guy. What was the thing about the lyrics?
It was a quiz called “Can You Remember Every Word to ‘All Star’ by Smash Mouth?”
Oh, that’s funny. You know what? My bass player doesn’t know the words to any of our songs and it’s been 20 years. That’s not a joke. We were down in South America somewhere, we were doing a grand opening for Hard Rock Cafe, and I literally couldn’t get a word out of my mouth. I’d never lost my voice like this. Couldn’t even talk, and we had a show that night. They brought doctors out and the promoters are all coming to my room, and Brandon, our tour manager, comes in like, “Dude, you can’t talk. How are you going to do this?”
And down there, there’s like this one phrase you say. Everybody says it and the crowd goes crazy. It’s kind of like a love phrase, an “I love you” type thing. The promoter goes, “Wrap this fucking flag around your neck and keep saying this,” so I had Paul sing the lyrics. I said, “Paul, can you do this?” He goes, “Yeah, I’ll cover you.” I couldn’t get anything out. I’m not even singing, I’m just going going [makes whispering noise] and I’m jumping around and I told the band, “Just fucking play like Metallica right now. Crank that shit up. If you’ve got any pyro, blast that shit off right now, just go for it.” The fans were screaming, singing every word. I didn’t have to sing. They knew every word to every song I’ve ever done. That’s God’s honest truth. South American crowds, they know every fucking word to every song we’ve ever done.
So Paul’s singing and we’re all jamming and I start hearing him during “I’m a Believer” going [makes wordless humming noise] and I lose my shit laughing onstage. I look over at Brandon and he’s cracking up. Everybody’s laughing. I look at Paul and I go, “You don’t fucking know these fucking lyrics, dude! It’s been 24 fucking years, we’ve played this song five million times!” He’s just going, “Uuuuhhh.” Funny as shit.
Do you listen to any new bands these days?
You know, I’m a big classic rock guy. I love STP, Van Halen of course, been getting into a lot of older stuff. They have a classic rock station here. Guy named Greg Kihn, who was a pop star back in the day, he’s a radio DJ friend of ours. I listen to that a lot. They play a lot of Smash Mouth, to tell you the truth, and it’s kind of trippy to hear that. Usually I only hear it when I walk into a Chili’s or something.
Zach Schonfeld, too, would like to buy the world a toke. He's on Twitter - @zzzzaaaacccchhh