SMASHING SUCCESS: Left to right: Greg Camp, Steve Harwell, Randy Cook and Paul DeLisle of Smash Mouth kick off their next tour at the Catalyst this Friday.
Smash for Cash
Steve Harwell of Smash Mouth on why selling out is only cashing in
By Curtis Cartier
STEVE HARWELL is the kind of musician who would sing Pepto-Bismol commercials if you paid him right. And as long as his bandmate and songwriter Greg Camp was involved, the jingle would probably break the Top 40 charts. Harwell's band, Smash Mouth, is now 16 years old, while he himself is 43. And having tried his hand at country music and reality TV, the band's stocky vocalist and self-appointed chief executive is back to doing what he does best—cranking out maddeningly catchy ska pop hits that fit into bite-size, PG-rated, radio-friendly and easily marketable molds.
"We're not that street cred band. We're a commercial, mainstream band and we need the machine behind us," Harwell tells Santa Cruz Weekly from his home in Hollister as he gears up for the second leg of his latest tour, which kicks off Aug. 13 at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. "My bottom line is that the music is fun. Radio expects it from us and they're the gatekeepers; and if you don't give them what they want, they won't play it."
Smash Mouth is a band cut from classic pop cloth. Formed just over the hill in San Jose in 1994, half of the members still live on the Central Coast, including bass player Paul De Lisle, who lives in Aptos, and Camp, who splits his time between L.A. and Santa Cruz, where he leads his local side project band the Maids of Honor. The original lineup came together after Harwell left his rap gig with a group called F.O.S. and joined childhood friend Kevin Coleman on drums (he was later replaced by Michael Urbano), Camp on guitar and De Lisle on bass. It didn't take long before the group's infectious blend of reggae, surf pop and third wave ska garnered heavy rotation on the now defunct San Jose radio station KOME, and the lads found themselves inking a deal with Interscope Records. In 1997 Fush Yu Mang rocketed to the top of the charts on the strength of "Walkin' on the Sun."
Since then, Harwell and Co. have ridden the peaks and valleys of stardom, selling multiplatinum records in their early years and battling lineup changes, infighting, drug addiction, death, divorce and being dropped from their label in the latter ones. They've got a new drummer now, though, not to mention a new record contract and, soon, a new album, giving fans reason to believe Smash Mouth may once again become kings of the rock pop mainstream.
"We've got this new drummer, Randy Cooke, who's an absolute show-stopper," says Harwell excitedly. "After we fired Michael [Urbano] we tried all kinds of drummers until we got this fit. Now, we've got our lineup issues taken care of and the record deal we want. It's all positive steps."
Having first defined themselves as a poppy but still mildly hip rock band, the guys of Smash Mouth hit a deciding fork in the road in 2001 when DreamWorks Pictures asked to use two of their songs in the soundtrack for the animated blockbuster Shrek. The film's use of "All Star" and the band's cover of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" beamed Smash Mouth's peppy sound into the hearts and minds of kids and parents all over the world. At the same time it sounded the death knell for whatever indie cred the band still maintained with the surf and skate music fans that had originally gotten them off the ground. Instead of fighting to maintain a link to their old fans, however, Smash Mouth embraced the new ones and took the "sell-outs" mantle they were handed straight to the bank.
Harwell says the decision to go commercial was easy, as he's always had a mind for the business side of music. But he also says he was surprised that even after becoming one with the record company, reciprocating loyalty was in ever-short supply.
"We carried Interscope for years, and in the end it was a personal issue between Jimmy Iovine [Interscope chairman] and Tom Whalley [former Interscope president], and we got caught in the crosshairs," says Harwell, recalling his group's ouster from the label. "I'm a loyal guy, you know? And after dealing with Interscope, I learned the loyalty thing has gone out the window. We're on Sony now, with a straight up 50-50 deal, and I think it's the right thing for us." Smash Mouth's dismissal from Interscope followed the 2003 release of the band's fourth LP Get the Picture?, which was widely panned by critics and left on shelves by fans. Between then and 2006's Summer Girl, the group was largely MIA with stories surfacing of bad blood between bandmates and hints from Harwell that he wanted to move to Nashville and start a country music career. Harwell also appeared on the sixth season of VH1's The Surreal Life, making more than a few fans wonder if the band was doneskis.
What a lot of folks didn't know was that Harwell was using the time to come to terms with addiction. For years, the only thing he knew how to do better than make music like a rock star was party like one. Living perennially within arm's reach of a bottle and habitually blowing lines of cocaine before shows, Harwell was a mess. But by the time Summer Girl dropped in 2006, the band had a new label, and the vocalist was on the wagon. Like many before him, he says without music to buoy him, he's "not sure what would have happened."
Now on Sony Records, Smash Mouth's new album will be called An Everlasting Love. Harwell calls it a "total throwback record" to the group's early days of ska pop ruckus. Getting a chance to play at the Catalyst in a city he grew up visiting seems fitting, he says.
"Santa Cruz really has a special place for me just because of all the memories I have there," he says. "We've been wanting to play the Catalyst for a while now. We're gonna rip it up."
SMASH MOUTH walks on the sun Friday, Aug. 13, at 9pm at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 advance/$25 door and available at www.catalystclub.com or by calling 831.423.1338.
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