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Smash and Learn

[whitespace] Smash Mouth

After embarking on a manic mission to prove its critics wrong, Smash Mouth succeeded. The homeboys from Silicon Valley sound off about fame, fortune and the price of having all your dreams come true before you're 30.

by Gina Arnold

BRIGHT GREEN, WARM GOLD, SKY BLUE. Those are the colors of Shoreline Park during "Big Friggin' Day," an all-day rock concert sponsored by alternative rock radio station LIVE 105. This is the annual concert blowout which brings together everything young, fun and trendy--play stations and temporary tattoos, extreme sport stops and Save-the-Rainforest booths, T-shirts, light sabers, frappuccinos, email--all accompanied by a background of loud rock music.

Welcome to the center of the summer of 1999, the last stop in pop culture before the century shuts down. BFD is populated by the collected youth of Silicon Valley, and Shoreline Park is a fitting place for it, jutting out as it does from the flat stretch of land from whence the modern world has emerged. Many of the bands here today have hits as big as Yahoo and Excite, and like many aspects of cyberspace, they are young, faceless and derivative. Orgy, for example, is an L.A.-based glam band with a hit cover of the New Order song "Blue Monday." Silverchair is an Australian trio which does a note-for-note impersonation of Nirvana.

Then comes Smash Mouth. Of the 23 rock bands who are going to yell, "Hello, San Jose!" today, none can ostensibly do it with the same kind of fervor as Smash Mouth--hometown boys made good. Smash Mouth's members are like a spiffed-up, grown-up, mirror image of the audience, four well-coifed guys in perfectly pressed thrift store T-shirts and baggy shorts who look like they stepped right off the street--as, in a way, they did.

And just as Smash Mouth's look somehow captures the aesthetic of today, so does the sound they are pumping out, a breezy, slow-tempoed hybrid of punk, ska and '60s garage rock that seems to embody something about the here and now. From the very first chords of their opening number, "Diggin' Your Scene," a mostly lazy, distracted audience begins to perk up. During "Then the Morning Comes," it shuffles slowly to its feet.

When the band pumps out its new hit single, "All Star," the crowd--hyped--begins to dance and cheer. Then, when the opening chords to "Walking on the Sun" spill into the amphitheater, the crowd turns into American Bandstand, a high green vista of jiggling teenage bodies. "Walking" is, after all, a song that will dominate the radio for the first 30 years of the next century, evoking forever the hot rich Californiate world of the late '90s. It's a world where instant success is not so much a dream as a promise, a world where music is a commodity rather than an emotional experience, and every pop song sounds like an advertising jingle.

Smash Mouth has made its way to the top in this world, the first and foremost band from this area to encapsulate, in sound, exactly what it feels like in the here and now. But this world isn't the whole world, which may explain why Smash Mouth is still unsatisfied. They wrote one of the last great rock anthems of the century, which they sneaked into the zeitgeist right under the wire. And when you've done that, what the hell is left to do?

DON'T LOOK NOW, but there's a baby backstage at BFD. Five-and-a-half-month-old Mia Camp is quietly eyeing, from the vantage point of her bassinet, the melee of glad-handing, back-slapping, tattooed men with goatees and shaved heads who are wandering around backstage, and she's doing it with an air of detachment that she could only have learned from her father, Smash Mouth's Greg Camp.

Camp, the guitarist and songwriter for San Jose's biggest band, is not exactly enamored of the things going on around him right now. He's not UN-enamored of them, either--but the scene is nothing new for Smash Mouth, who toured for two solid years for their 1997 hit LP, Fush Yu Mang, and who are now beginning another two years of touring to promote their second LP, Astro Lounge.

But it must be getting old or something, because Camp seems, frankly, fatigued at the prospect of another big push. He is sitting in the corner of the trailer provided for the band, talking--bellowing, really, over the music of the band Lit--about the vicissitudes of success. It's an awkward subject because no one really wants to hear about how terrible it is to have all your dreams come true. Especially not at a time and place like this.

Camp wouldn't put it that way--he's thankful to be where he is, and own what he owns, and have what he has, and be who he is. And he is still driven to write music, the thing he loves most in the world. But that said, there is a downside to success in a town like San Jose.

See, no one exactly cheered for Smash Mouth when the album they recorded with their own (borrowed) money was picked up by Interscope records in June 1997. No one clapped them on the back when the video for their single, "Walking on the Sun," was played on MTV in July 1997. No one fussed when the record went platinum, in December 1997. Quite the opposite, in fact--particularly in the local media.

Over at the San Jose Mercury News, for example, Candace Murphy called them "a band in danger of being slapped with the 'HELLO I'm ... a one-hit wonder' name tag," while music columnist Brad Kava persistently called singer Steve Harwell a "Curly lookalike" and warned him not to buy a house "till you've put out the live album," pal.

Here at Metro, things were even rougher: former music columnist Todd Inoue rode the band's ass week after week. Inoue went so far as to call "Walking on the Sun" "Beck-style cheese," offering to eat a Costco-sized slice of humble pie if the band ever developed beyond this.

Though hardly pleased, Smash Mouth took such journalistic insinuations with a grain of salt, using their frustration to fuel an even more intense desire to "make it." It was in the personal sphere where criticisms and jealousies played out more hurtfully.

"When you 'make good,'" Camp says, "you find out who your real friends are. You find out pretty quick. And it's a very ambivalent feeling, because you're, like, happy you found out that people are assholes, but you're kinda sad because you think, 'Wow, I wasted so much time being this person's friend.'"

Success, adds Camp, is "strange. It's a lot different than I thought it would be. I thought--and I think most people think--it would be so much more glamorous. And I guess if I wanted to waste a lot of money I could be a glamorous-living person. But I don't know if people know what our daily routine is. It makes your head spin. You wake up at 8, go do a morning radio show, then do phone interviews--first the international ones really early and then the national ones--and then you go to sound-check, and then you have your show, and then you have a meet-and-greet after the show, and everyone there wants a piece of you.

"And so when you get home, you just don't want to be bugged as much--and maybe that's what people don't understand. Of course, it mostly stems from jealousy, and the very first album and tour, when we got back, people just put us under a microscope, thinking we were going to be all rock-starred out! And I don't know, maybe some of the guys [in the band] are, but I see them every day so I didn't see them change that much."

The truth is, he adds, success hasn't changed everyone for the worse--but it has changed everyone in some way.

"Everyone's life is so different now," he says. "It happened so fast we didn't really know what was going on, and we didn't really have a whole lot of time to enjoy 'success' with the first album."

Smash Mouth
Boys of South First: Smash Mouth band members (L to R) Kevin Coleman, Greg Camp, Paul DeLisle and Steve Harwell take a break at El Charro in downtown San Jose, a favorite chow spot.

HAS SMASH MOUTH changed? Not musically, or even visually. But the world around it has. In the way-early '90s, punk-rock success depended almost entirely on building an underground following through constant low-budget touring. Acts like Nirvana had a hard time getting played on radio, so they formed their own little underground world to play to.

Nowadays, thanks to the success of Nirvana, this type of music is very popular. But the result is that radio has been given a huge amount of power over the acts in question. Radio-sponsored events like BFD are so endemic to the new world order that bands are now slaves to radio stations in a way that is quite unpleasant to see enacted.

This was made abundantly clear while sitting in the backstage trailer of one of BFD's performing bands. At one point, an unidentified guy stalks in, opens their cooler, grabs a beer and stalks out. Now, in the old days, swiping beer from another band's trailer would have been considered one of the biggest backstage no-nos imaginable. I can't even think what would happen to you if you did it to, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Lollapalooza--but it would have been something very bad indeed.

On this day, however, this egregious act goes almost without comment. Almost, but not quite. "We couldn't say anything," a band member whispers to me after the guy departs, "because that's the program director of LIVE 105."

I sigh. Not to sound too nostalgic for the old days, which carried their fair share of harsh and unpleasant backstage rigmarole, but there was at least a sense that bands who were purporting to be rebellious and artistic actually were rebellious and artistic. Now you can barely tell the difference between the lead singer of a glam-punk band and a guy in a gray flannel suit. They're trying equally hard to impress the boss.

During LIVE 105's broadcast of its big event, they lead the bands one by one into a mobile DJ booth. A typical exchange over the air goes like this:

LIVE 105 DJ: So, are you guys having fun today?

Band (all talking at once): Oh it's great! It's fantastic! We're so happy to be here!

LIVE 105: Have you been out in the crowd today?

Band (eagerly): Yeah, we went out when we got here and everyone was rocking harder than anywhere we've ever played yet! It's awesome! We can't wait to play for them!

LIVE 105: So who are you looking forward to seeing today?

Band: Limp Bizkit, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth ... (They go on to name all 21 other bands.)

Smash Mouth didn't have to play this game at BFD, because Steve Harwell did a one-on-one instead, leading a LIVE 105 DJ on a guided tour of their private trailer, wittily pointing out such sights as the deli tray, the beer cooler and the bathroom. ("Steve," Camp says later, "can be very charming when he wants to--luckily for us.")

But later, the band will be led out to another cattle-pen to sign autographs and hug their fans. Camp's eyes grow big and horrified at the prospect. "I just HATE doing that!"

But he will. After all, Smash Mouth made it here through the auspices of radio, and they're cautious about biting the hand that feeds.

DESPITE THE KIND of accusations that echoed down South First Street when Smash Mouth got signed to Interscope, Smash Mouth did not really come out of nowhere. Quite the contrary.

True, they hadn't toured--but they'd sent out thousands of tapes, bugged millions of people on the phone, played 10 new-band showcases in L.A. and been rejected by many an A&R guy who said he didn't hear a single on their demo tape.

Moreover, unlike so many of the 22-year-old band members playing BFD today, Smash Mouth's slightly older members had logged their hours playing clubs like the Omni and Niles Station, Toon's, Mountain Charley's, often in bands other than this one. More than most bands, they know the other side of rock stardom--which may be why Camp writes with such a jaundiced eye about this side of paradise.

On the song "Radio," for example, the lyric goes: Who did you know coming up? Who will you know going down, and, It's a cattle call, in 15 minutes you're a Neanderthal.

Even more apropos to the Smash Mouth story is the song "Home," which asks, What do you do when opportunity knocks and success stalks, and along comes fame? Do you open the door or watch in horror through the peephole, as they all go away?

Smash Mouth, of course, opened the door wide, discovering in the process that, as the song continues, lottery or poverty/you're a commodity. The choice, Camp seems to feel, was simple, but the results have been slightly painful. Ain't no doubt I ain't got the clout that's defined by you, the song continues truculantly--but as we all know, they have clout of a different kind, the kind that puts you at the top of the bill on BFD. Indeed, Smash Mouth's success has been greatly tied up with the corporate consolidation of stations and the tightening up of formats like the one at Los Angeles radio station KROQ which has, for the past eight years, been used to determine what hits will be heard by the kids of America.

In fact, Smash Mouth was "made" by KROQ, when the huge station played "Walking on the Sun" prior to the band's being signed. The very next day, according to a report in the Mercury News, the band scored a check for $1.8 million from Interscope, as well as a touring budget, a $2-per-disc royalty rate and the all-important creative control--all before they'd ever done a U.S. tour or even built a large local following.

In some ways, their story is like a blueprint for how to make it in today's industry, but it is not a typical story at all. "Smash Mouth," says former KOME and current LIVE 105 DJ No Name, "are a phenomenon. It just doesn't happen that way. And with fewer and fewer record companies around, it is getting even harder [for that to happen].

"But it's not like they just sent a tape and it got played. People don't understand how hard it is to write even a mediocre song. To craft something that people all over the world like and listen to and hum--that is just a huge achievement. Huge."

Smash Mouth detractors (of whom there are many) would accuse them of getting where they got through "connections." And it's true the band was 'discovered' by Carson Daly--currently one of MTV's most visible DJs and the boyfriend of teenage movie star Jennifer Love Hewitt--along with several other friends of both the band and Daly, who also worked at KOME.

But according to Daly, that connection was made organically. "What happened," Daly says today, "was that I used to spend every night hanging out on First Street listening to bands--and I heard Smash Mouth kind of impromptu at F/X one Tuesday night when there was nobody in the audience, and I really dug them."

Daly--who at the time was a recently transplanted Angelino with a new job at KOME--buddied up to the guys in the band. He was also friendly with a KOME co-worker named Justin Whitmore, who was a friend of singer Steve Harwell from high school.

The next thing you knew, Daly says, "we all become kind of inseparable. They played at my birthday party, and I'd go drink beer with them at BBQs. I was a fan and a friend. They'd come into the studio, and whenever I was short music--that means I'd played everything I had to play within an hour--I'd play them on my show."

At the time, both Daly and Camp admit, Smash Mouth was being shunned by the local scene, for various reasons unconnected with their music. Camp: "I think that was because we were a pop band, writing pop music. A lot of bands in San Jose are either punk or rockabilly, and they're true to those styles to the core."

But Daly has harsher words for the town that gave him his start. "San Jose is a really unmotivated town," he sneers. "If you're from Gilroy, you better play the Garlic Festival until the day you die. But we were all younger and hungrier than that. We had career aspirations. I was really trying to create a local scene through KOME. It was just your basic alternative-hybrid station, but what made us great was there were a lot of really young DJs there and we went out a lot and talked about the scene and acted like there was one at the Cactus Club. We weren't supposed to play unsigned acts on the radio, but we didn't give a rat's ass--we were 21; we didn't even really know the rules!"

Presently, Daly was hired by KROQ, the biggest alternative station in the country, and he says, "I was like, 'I'm taking you with me!' Smash Mouth stayed behind in San Jose, but slept on his floor when they went down to L.A. to play showcases. "They'd be playing at the Coconut Teazer on a Tuesday night or something, and I would call everybody I knew who was a record company bigshot--I'd call Guy Oseary [the A&R guy for Madonna's label, Maverick] even though I didn't know him, and beg him to come to the show."

Daly's championship ended up paying off, when he and Jim Pratt, another KOME hire, got the song "Walking on the Sun" on KROQ's playlist before the band was signed. Literally minutes later, Smash Mouth signed to Interscope. "It was a perfect deal for them," Camp shrugs, "because our record was already made and recorded and paid for--even the art was done. All they had to do was stamp 'Interscope' on the back of it and ship."

The rest is history, although Daly points out, "You can get someone's foot in the door, but it doesn't help them if they aren't good at what they do. 'Walking on the Sun' was one of this decade's biggest songs. The music spoke for itself, and the timing was just great."

Could it happen again today? Daly says yes, but he says it extremely hesitantly. Former KOME DJ No Name is both more cautious and more optimistic. In fact, in hopes of discovering the next Smash Mouth, he has just put together a compilation of music by local bands, titled LIVE 105 Presents the DJ With No Name's Local Lounge Vol. 1. It features 21 local bands, one of whom, No Name hopes, will become the next Smash Mouth.

"Technology has liberated so many bands--made it really easy to make music and CDs at home," he says. "But that just makes it harder to be heard, because there's so much out there.

"Radio can play a key part in the process [of being heard]," he adds. "And you won't be heard if you don't send out your tape. Send it to me. Send it to everyone here. Send it to someone in the sales department; maybe they'll like it and get me to listen to it, too.

"Sure, getting signed is a long shot; it's a really complex process. It's rare, but I don't think it can never happen again. It's easy to be cynical, but I think if you do what you do for the right reasons, because you love doing it, you will succeed--within limits--whether it's getting a gig at some club, or just some letter from someone who loved your band."

And then there's Smash Mouth, whose level of success is on another plane entirely--as is, in its own way, Daly's. "It's really been fun for all of us to watch each other's careers go to the places where we wanted them to go five years ago," Daly comments. "These were the places that we sat around in backyards talking about at BBQs in San Jose. It is the way professionalism should work, at its best."

Smash Mouth
Sitting in the Sun: Smash Mouth's story is like a blueprint for how to succeed in today's music industry, but it is not the typical story of most bands.

DALY'S POINT IS well taken, but it would sound better if he was talking about a PC startup, rather than a rock band. When applied to rock & roll bands, there's a sinister overtone to the idea of professionalism--the very tone that makes watching Carson Daly on MTV difficult and that makes critics of Smash Mouth feel slightly cheated. From a distance, it seems like their success was calculated, a series of politically savvy moves.

Up close and personal, it wasn't like that--and yet one can't help getting the feeling that Smash Mouth feels slightly cheated too.

For example, when it came to recording their new record, Astro Lounge, the band felt untold pressure to, as Camp says, "prove ourselves."

"People who write about us invariably say, 'one-hit wonder, Cali-ska punk band Smash Mouth that you'll never see again after this song,'" he says. "I mean, every single article says that! We're just the kind of people who want to prove everybody wrong, and we kind of tried pretty hard to do that."

The band exerted their creative control by recording in the same place as their first album--in Redwood City at Eric Valentine's studio, House of Shit. But it was a very different experience than the recording of Fush Yu Mang.

"We're just used to going in and knocking every song out in a week or two. But we had a budget this time, and we'd just gotten off tour, so everyone was all scattered, and we couldn't get everyone together in one place," Camp explains. "So the whole album was done in pieces, the drums, and then the bass and then the guitar and the vocals--we barely ever saw each other in the studio, or anything."

This time, also, Camp says, he was fixated on writing a hit pop album. "I really had to think about a lot more things than just writing a song that made me happy. I had to think of making fans and radio and record company executives and grandmas and parents and DJs happy. I would write songs before and think about my friends and family and my girlfriend. Now I think about everyone. I worry about everyone--and I'm not afraid to say that."

Of course this is one of the most non-credible statements ever uttered in rock, but when this is pointed out to him, Greg just laughs. "Sure, I know bands aren't supposed to say things like that out loud, but ... there's a lot of bands that want to keep their credibility. We never had any credibility, so why bother? We've never been accepted in any credible route--or an artsy-fartsy thing."

"Smash Mouth," agrees No Name, who shared a rehearsal space with them in 1994, "were always rock stars. A lot of bands are happy with a cult following and sleeping on the floor. Not them. They were talking about how much tour buses cost even before they'd ever played a gig."

One big difference between a "credible" band and a noncredible one is that of tone. Cred bands tend to be angsty and negative; pop bands tend to be positive. And at least on their singles, Smash Mouth is most definitely the latter.

Camp agrees. "We don't want to talk about the negativity in life; we want to make people feel better. That's what 'All Star' is about; it's like a daily affirmation for kids who are having a tough time."

Smash Mouth succeeded, in no uncertain terms: Astro Lounge has a huge hit with "All Star." (Chart info this week: album, No. 8; single, No. 4.)

But Camp doesn't seem quite satisfied with his lot in life. This time out, he sort of dreads touring, because he knows he'll miss his daughter, Mia, so much.

And something else is gone as well. "The sad part to me is there's not a whole lot of togetherness anymore. Before we were, like, attached at the hip. It was us against them. We really had to stay together, we had to really do this. Now, when we're on the road, we're attached again and it's the same, but when we're home, everyone goes off and does their own thing--I'm married; I have a child. Paul's married--it's just really different."

But, one wants to protest, that's called growing up. It would have happened whether the band became successful or not.

Greg: "Well, it might, but if we were still slugging away in a little rehearsal space in San Jose, at least we would have been working together every single day for the band. Before, we had this pact that we would do something every single day to better Smash Mouth--whether it was putting up a flier or giving someone a tape or a sticker--something to promote the band. And that was cool. Everybody had a role. Everyone has a role still, but it's just different ..."

His voice trails off, and his eyes, as usual, swerve toward the bassinet, where Mia is calmly awaiting the start of Smash Mouth's set. He smiles, distracted as usual by her innocent gaze. It seems to me like Camp is suffering from Weltschmerz--homesickness for the past. Perhaps such a feeling is particularly odd, given that everyone else here is fixated on the future.

Then again, perhaps that's just what everyone feels when their dreams come true before they're 30 years old.

Smash Mouth will be playing in the Bay Area on Oct. 11, opening for Lenny Kravitz at the Concord Pavilion.

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From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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