Return of the All Stars
by Jay S. Jacobs
Smash Mouth was one of the huge bands of the late Nineties, knocking hits out of the park with “Walking on the Sun,” “All Star” and their cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.”
They originally formed in San Jose, CA, in 1994, when vocalist Steve Harwell recruited drummer Kevin Coleman, guitarist Greg Camp and bassist Paul De Lisle to form a good-time party band that celebrated the styles and sounds of the previous thirty years of rock. Their 1997 debut album Fush Yu Mang became a surprise hit with the smash single “Walking on the Sun.” Still, it wasn’t until 1999’s Astro Lounge and the smash “All Star” that the band became one of the biggest groups on the planet.
However, after the September 11th attacks, the band’s good-time party vibe became a harder sell in a more introspective radio world. Then the band had a series of fissures, especially between lead singer Harwell and Camp, who over the years was the group’s main songwriter. While the band never stopped touring, their last album was the 2006 indie release Summer Girl.
Years later, with a new line up featuring original members Harwell and De Lisle, Mike Krompass on guitar, Randy Cooke on drums and Michael Klooster on keys, Smash Mouth is rejuvenated. Finally they are delivering their first new album in six years, Magic. The CD takes the traditional Smash Mouth sound and brings it up to date surprisingly well, straddling the traditional band sound with a more current radio vibe.
Right before the release, we talked with Harwell about his new album, his band and his musical loves.
What are your first musical memories?
Oh, my gosh. My earliest musical memory has to be probably sitting on my grandmother’s piano. (laughs) Playing her piano when I was a kid. Her teaching me some stuff. Just doing that. Then when I was a kid I discovered Elvis. My parents thought I was a little crazy, but he was the one. He was the one that changed my life when it came to wanting to be an entertainer. Instantly I couldn’t get enough of him on TV, in his music. Imitating him on the holidays in front of the whole family, making a jackass of myself. I’d do talent shows at school and do Elvis. A lot of my fondest memories are just growing up fiddling around on grandma’s piano and discovering Elvis. After Elvis it was David Lee Roth. He’s the one also. Between those two, they are the whole reason that I’m in this business. It was really something. I guess I was meant to do it.
How did the band come together? I was reading that you had been a rapper previously?
Yeah, my first record deal, I was in a rap group. I didn’t really care for it. Pretty much made a whole record and I don’t even have it, actually, to tell you the truth. That was years and years ago. In the early, early Nineties, like ’93. I got out of that and wanted to be in a rock band. I wanted to be a front guy for the band. My manager always had my back. We started together, basically. He was managing another rap kind of Beastie Boys group that Greg [Camp] and Paul [DeLisle] were in. So I was like, you know what? I’m going to steal these two guys. They were the most talented guys in town. I just started scouting them and kind of bullied Greg into joining the band. (laughs) That’s how it happened. I started the band in 1994 and have been doing it ever since.
In 1997, “Walking on the Sun” became a huge hit and suddenly you were all over the radio and TV. How surreal was that?
It was crazy. I set a goal for the band. It could have backfired on me, but I had everybody convinced to give me two years. Let’s just work really hard for two years and I’ll get us a record deal. I knew we had the talent. It’s just we didn’t really have any direction when we first started. We were kids. We were in our early 20s and we just wanted to drink, party and play punk, ska, whatever. We wrote all over the place, but that’s what made that record special. It’s really a lot of different things going on there on that record. When that all happened, it was probably two years and a couple of months to the day from when we decided. It was a lot of work. We didn’t play around a lot as a band. We didn’t go out and do the gig thing and tour in a van or anything like that. Do the west coast thing. We did do some shows around town, San Jose, but they were mostly showcases. I made a lot of friends over the phone in LA with all the guys that booked the Strip. By the time I met everybody, we actually did start going to LA to showcase, I kind of already had ins. It all fell together. It was a lot of lot of work, but I really enjoy getting on the phone and making friends with all the radio promotion people. Talking to these A&R guys. Kick the door in. It was really weird, because I built some really good friendships that I still have with guys I literally met over the phone originally. There were a few guys I never saw in person until right before we got signed. It was like we already knew each other for a long time. It was really cool. It was easier for us to get really good slots at the Roxy or at the Whiskey. In LA we were playing with bands like Goldfinger, with bands like No Doubt. We were doing all kinds of shows like that. We were getting really good slots and all these LA bands were like, “Who are these guys from San Jose?” I just built a friendship on the phone with all these promoter guys. It worked out.
Smash Mouth was sort of written off as a probable one-hit wonder after “Walking on the Sun.” How important was it for you that the band prove they had staying power with Astro Lounge?
To be honest with you, it probably crossed my mind a couple of times, but I’ve always had the confidence in the guys. I never had that kind of feeling. I guess you’ve got to believe in yourself. I knew we were going to get it. Every once in a while people said that kind of stuff. We never really got it that bad, people saying that, because we came back pretty quick with Astro Lounge and that just went through the roof. It’s nice to be able to build a career over all these years, to be able to go play shows and have a nice catalogue of hits. It really makes for a better show. It also makes for people wanting to have you if you have so many hits. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve done a cover for pretty much every record. Magic has got “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” from Simple Minds on there. Really love that remake. That’s kind of our signature thing, to do a remake.
Well, like you said, beyond “(Don’t You) Forget About Me,” the band has done covers before – like “I’m a Believer,” “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” Why did you choose the new cover, and do you find it easier or harder to record a song by someone else?
I think for us it was can we make this better? If we can’t make it better, if we can’t make it our own, why do it? I’ll tell you how it all started. “Can’t Get Enough of You,” I was in Europe touring and one of our reps over in the UK. We were at a party – we were partying – and he goes, “Dude, take this cassette.” I’m dating myself right now. He goes, “You’ve got to cover this song.” I had that cassette for probably a year and a half. I finally put it on, because he told me about this song “Can’t Get Enough of You” by ? & the Mysterians. I’d never heard it. Maybe I had when I was younger, but as soon as I played it with the band – we were in rehearsal just screwing around and I put it on – and I was like, oh my gosh, we have to record this song. He was so right. That’s the only reason we covered that song, because of him. I have to give him credit for that. “I’m a Believer” was a last minute thing for the Shrek movie. Our A&R guy Tom Whalley, who signed us to Interscope, came into the studio, we were just finishing up our third record and he says, “You’ve got to cover this.” I think they had tried to get EMF or somebody to cover it and it came out like crap or something. It just didn’t fit them for whatever reason. He came in and he’s like, “Stop what you’re doing. You’ve got to do this.” We’re like, “Fuck, man, we’re just finishing up.” But you gotta do what the boss tells you, so… As soon as we started to play it: (snaps fingers) magic! It just happened. “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” we’ve always been a fan of that song. But “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” was another classic example. We reconnected with our producer Eric [Valentine] after not working with him for a while. He was like, “Why don’t you guys fly down? Let’s record a track. Let’s just record something.” I can’t remember the cover song we were going to do, but at the very last minute, right before we started to record it, we got a phone call that said, “Oh, so and so just recorded that.” The Breakfast Club has always been one of my favorite movies. And, “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” has always reminded me of summertime. I was just sitting there and we’ve all got our thumbs up our asses. We’re all like, “Well, that sucks. What are we going to do? We flew down here. What are we going to record?” I said let’s do that song “(Don’t You) Forget About Me.” We recorded that song over six years ago. That song’s been in the archives for a while.
In 2006, the band broke up and you did The Surreal Life. When did you decide that you had to get the guys back together and get back to the music?
Well see, that’s the thing. Everybody kind of got a misconception. We never broke up. Greg and I just couldn’t be in the band [together] anymore. So, I guess you might call semi-[broken up]. We never stopped touring. We actually started touring twice as much as we were when Greg was in the band. It took me a while. It was a little scary. But I always knew that nothing was going to stop me on this one. Smash Mouth is bigger than all of us. I don’t think Greg ever realized that. There were internal issues with wives getting involved and it got ugly. Greg pulled some shady shit in the past and didn’t play by the rules at one time or another. Kind of went against what we agreed with when we started the band. It happens a lot. Decided not to be a team player. I just couldn’t do it anymore with him. And he couldn’t be in the band with me. I’m not saying we’d never get on stage again, but right now is not the time.
So how are things with the new lineup?
Everything is going fantastic. I had been looking and looking for the right guy who had the production talent, the songwriting, the guitar playing, the look, the right attitude. Our new drummer Randy Cooke, his best friend Michael Krompass is from Canada also – they are both Canadians. I had another gentleman playing in the band at the time who Randy also recommended. I really liked the kid, but he was a little bit too clean-cut for me. He didn’t have the edge, but he had all the talent. But he wasn’t a songwriter, and that was the big downfall. I really wanted a great songwriter. Mike showed up one day. I needed a fill in. I had met Mike about ten years ago when I was doing a solo rock record. I never put it out, actually. He was friends of a buddy of mine that I was making the record with. When he walked up to me, I’d never played with him. He walked up and I go: Mike Krompass? You little fucker. What the hell? I knew how talented he was already. The second he got onstage with us, it literally was magic. Honest to God truth. We hit it off. He’s like my little brother. We butt heads here and there, but who doesn’t? He’s one of the most talented producers. I could compare him to Eric Valentine, who did all of our big stuff, all day long. He’s great. He’s a great producer. He surrounds himself with great songwriters. He necessarily is not a lyricist for the most part. He is and isn’t. But he is just a musician. He’s the best I’ve seen. Probably literally one of the best producers I’ve ever been around. He’s very connected with all the good songwriters. I really wanted to get in and co-write this record. That’s what made it really fun. When we got him in the band, it was a situation where: wow, we’re finally going to co-write a record. Greg never let us co-write.
Yes, Greg had written many of your earlier songs. Was it interesting to be able to have all these different points of view behind the songs?
It was amazing, actually. Mike is much more current with what’s going on, because he produces a lot of current artists. That was a plus. I’ve always been the one that has no problem working with other people if it is going to make for a better product. I always wanted to do it. I did it a little bit in the early stages of the band, which was the fun times. Then to get in and have this new energy instantly. Let’s put it this way, the first day, I sat down with this lady Shelly Peiken, who is a very, very famous songwriter – you can look up her records. Look up her résumé, you’ll shit yourself when you see all the songs she’s written. [She wrote Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants,” Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” and Mandy Moore’s “I Wanna Be With You” amongst many others.] She’s really close friends with Mike. I called her up. She flew up to San Jose. The very first day we wrote “Justin Bieber.” Then we wrote “Better With Time.” On the second day we wrote… I can’t remember which one we wrote after that. But it was magic. It was crazy. Then we came out to Nashville, I wasn’t living here yet, which I am now. Went out to Mike’s house and he’s got a friend of his, Andrew Fromm, a great songwriter. And a girl named Jennifer Paige, who had a hit called “Crush” in the Nineties.
Sure, I loved that song.
She’s a great songwriter. I got to work with a lot of different guys, even some local country guys who were great pop songwriters. The song “Live to Love Another Day,” I wrote that with Randy, our drummer, Mike, myself and another really popular country guy. I cannot remember his name [Jim McCormick], but he’s a really big guy. It was nice to have all these different perspectives. It was electric, I’m telling you. It was electric. We wrote this record pretty damned fast, compared to records in the past. Just to be able to get back in it and feel the confidence of: We did it. We got it. I knew we had it. Once we finished the record up, at the last minute I said I want to put “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” on this thing. It just seemed to work. I said, okay, we’re done. I had my hand in the whole process. I used to be like that, but you get to a point in the band… I was cool with Greg being the main songwriter… we all had our own roles. We did it for a long time. Then he decided to really stop writing, and I don’t know why he did, I don’t know if he had writer’s block or was just not confident in himself any longer. I tried to pump him up all the time. I always gave him the benefit of the doubt. I said I know you can do it, buddy. [But] Greg just stopped working. There are reasons for it that I can’t talk about, but there are reasons for it. Like I said, getting in and doing this record with the new bandmates and outside people, there is plenty of pie to go around when it comes to writing hit songs. I’m not a greedy man at all. I just wanted as many hits as I could get on this thing. That was our whole point. There are a couple of songs on there that are personal to me. But for the most part, I just wanted to make a fun record. We all did. It was a blast making this record. I hadn’t had this much fun since probably doing Fush Yu Mang.
One song that sort of stood out to me was “Out of Love,” which seemed like a bit of a stretch for you. Was it fun to do a more traditional love ballad?
That’s honestly probably one of my favorite songs that I ever sang in my career. It was a personal relationship. I had a really bad relationship I went through about a year and a half ago. Kind of volatile, you know? We were madly in love, but when we went out partying, it was like oil and water. It just wasn’t healthy. To this day, I still love her to death, but she won’t take my phone calls. (laughs) She blocks every phone that I call from, let’s put it that way. But she’s a wonderful person. We just weren’t meant to be together. We went to high school together. I always had a crush on her when we were younger. We reconnected after I got divorced and instantly fell in love. Spent every minute together. So it was kind of an apology to her, in a way, but also expressing my point of view. I was just as much to blame as she was, if not [more]. I took the high road and took all the blame for the relationship. It was a weird time, but I think something really beautiful came out of it, that song. I really loved it. Another song on there is also about the same girl.
“Future X Wife” perhaps? No, I guess that’s a different kind of romantic…
That song came about really funny. We were in LA writing at the A&M studios. Shelly and I… I kind of had a little crush on Shelly, she’s a really pretty lady, but she’s happily married and I’d never, ever go down that path… I had a little crush from afar and she knows it. I think we both knew a little bit, kind of in a fun, friendly way. She was sitting there and I said you want a cocktail? She said, “Yeah, I’ll have a cocktail with you.” We were having a blast. It was going so good that we were just like, “Well, let’s have a little party. We’re kicking ass right now.” I looked at her and said, “You know what? You’re like my future ex-wife.” She goes “What the fuck did you just say?” “You’re my future ex-wife.” She goes, “Oh, my God, we’ve got to write that song.” Right then. Within an hour later, that song was written. It’s getting so much positive response. So many people are going, “Dude, you’ve got to put that song out as a single.” That song is the shit.
What did made you want to write a song on “Justin Bieber?” I know you guys have done songs about pop culture icons in the past, like “The Fonz.” Why is a song like that fun to make?
Well, it’s about everything. It is pop culture. We talk about everything from Twitter to Facebook to streaking to clothes you used to wear. It is not about Justin, but it’s about the bigger picture. Where is he going to be ten years from now? Is he going to be the next Brad Pitt? I don’t know. What’s he going to be doing? Is he going to be the next Justin Timberlake, who goes into acting and has another huge career? You never know. I thought it would be fun. We’re definitely not poking fun at him. You get it. I thought it would be funny. I’m hoping he hears it and gets a kick out of it. We had a blast writing it. There, once again, it was Shelly and I and Mike. She said, “Let’s write a song and let’s call it ‘Justin Bieber.'” It’s just funny, you know? In no way, shape or form would I be poking fun at the kid. He’s a hell of a talent. It’s just little things you bring up over the years – you see things come and go. A lot of these things stick. I think he’s one of them, so… Anyways, that was a fun one to write.
So it sounds like the recording process was a good time.
The whole record was fun, bro. I don’t think I had a shitty time in the studio at all. It was just a blast. Especially being able to sing songs you co-wrote, you know? There is a more confident level there. It makes it easier to go into the studio and get on the mike and sing those songs when you know you co-wrote them. There is a bigger bond there with that song. There is more to attach me to it. Sometimes it is tough to take another song and recreate it to where you make it yours. I’ve run into that over the years with stuff that Greg has written. It has taken me a day or two to knock a song out. It gets frustrating, but then once you get comfortable in it and you start living with it… as long as your producer is not in a hurry, I knew I’d always get it done at the end of the day. Once it gets in your head and sinks in, it just falls together after that. But being able to go in and sing something you co-wrote, it’s really easy tracking this record, personally. That’s one of the cool things about it.
It seems from listening to your songs that the two most important things in the world are summer, parties, women and booze. Do you feel that is not giving the band enough credit for being serious, too?
Honestly, I’ve got nothing wrong with it. I’ve always considered us kind of a sun and fun band. At the same time, there have been moments when I’m like, “Are people really listening to how good some of these songs are?” Still to this day, I don’t think we’ve gotten the credit that we do deserve as a band. Hopefully it will come soon. But I pride myself on having shows and bringing people onstage and making it a party. The last thing I want is the crowd standing there with its arms folded. I want them going nuts. I want them singing along with us. I want to have interaction with them. It’s paid off for us, not only for being requested for a lot of corporate shows – we probably do more corporate shows than any band out there, just because we have this reputation as a fun band. Back when I was in my 20s, you were up there making an ass of yourself half the time. You get more mature. I do pride myself, and I think the rest of the band does too, on having clean shows. We don’t say a bunch of knucklehead shit to get our point across or to be cool. We let the songs speak for themselves and just the show, itself.
How do you feel the new band compares live?
We’ve never played this good, I’ll tell you right now. We’ve never, ever been this good of a band. It’s to the point where, I have to knock on wood here (he does), but it’s to the point now when you get on stage, we talk about it every night, it’s got that feeling like you don’t have any reservations about getting up there. You’re just like: Let’s go. Let’s go do it. It’s on that level of musicianship and the amount of fun and the confidence level that we have. We have a team now so dialed in with our sound guys and our crew guys. It’s a big family. There’s no second guessing, hey man, what’s it going to sound like? Is this going to mess up? Is that going to mess up? That can put a damper on a show. The thing I used to dread the most was walking up, getting on the microphone and something goes drastically wrong. That can ruin a show in fifteen seconds. It’s really hard to recover from that kind of stuff, personally. It’s been fun, smooth sailing. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a new record to be able to play. We’re starting to. We play “Magic.” We play “Flipping Out.” We’ll probably bring “Future X Wife” in. We’re going to bring “Padrino” back. We’re going to bring “P.C.P. [Pacific Coast Party]” back and probably “Nervous in the Alley” off of the first record. We’re going to revamp our show for Australia. Start a whole new set list in Australia, and then carry that back to the States and tour on that set list.
Around 2001, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, rock music got very serious – making it hard for good-time bands like you and Sugar Ray and Barenaked Ladies to get radio play. Why do you feel the world is ready for some more lighthearted music now?
I just felt it. I felt like it was coming around. I’ve been saying this for a couple of years. This is going to come full circle. People are going to want to start hearing [fun stuff]. Music is pretty stale right now. It’s really manufactured to me. I get what these kids are raving about. I respect all these musicians. But it got to the point for me where I didn’t want to listen to radio. I just didn’t want to listen to it anymore. I was just tired.
We like asking some questions about your musical favorites and background just to get a feel for where you come from as an artist. What was the first record you bought?
First record I ever bought? You’re killing me right now. I’d have to say probably Van Halen I. Mom and dad had all the Elvis records, so I didn’t have to buy those.
What was the first concert you ever saw?
Van Halen, 1980. I was a kid.
What music do you put on when you are in a bad mood to cheer you up?
There’s nothing wrong with some good AC/DC. Stone Temple Pilots. The Cult. Depeche Mode. The Cure. Yaz. I like a lot of the older stuff, because I used to be a total mod, too. I was really into all those bands from Consolidated to… all those bands back in the day. I still am. Basically, there is nothing really current. If there was anything current that I listen to, I listen to a lot of country. My taste goes everywhere. A lot of my friends here in town are artists. I write with a lot of these guys. I’ve been working on a country album for the last three years. That’s almost finished. Doing a solo album on that, just to expand my horizon a little bit.
What song can automatically make you cry when you hear it?
I’ll tell you which one. “Out of Love” [from the new album]. (laughs) Shit, I cried in the studio singing it. It was an emotional day. It came out in the end.
What do you listen to when you are in the mood for romance?
Oh, man. Probably just porno music. (laughs) No. You know, that’s a good question, brother. I’ve never really though about that. I don’t know. You know what I used to really be into? There was a band, I don’t know if you remember, called P.M. Dawn.
Yes, of course. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.”
That was a good love-making album, right there. That was a good record.
What record would you say you have listened to more than any other in your life?
Back in Black [by AC/DC]. Or Van Halen II.
Great album. “Beautiful Girls” would be a perfect cover for you guys, by the way.
Yeah, we used to play it live. I’ve talked about covering that, actually.
Are there any records you are ashamed to have in your collection?
No, because I was also a total closet hair rocker, too. Ratt, Cinderella, White Lion, BulletBoys. All those bands, I was really into, man. No, I don’t think so. What would I say I’d be ashamed of? I couldn’t tell you, what are you talking about? (laughs)
What song do you most wish that you wrote?
Oh, that’s a fucking great question. I would have to say “The Lady in Red” [by Chris DeBurgh]. I love that song.
What is it like knowing that several of your songs, particularly “All Star,” have had such long rides? It’s almost like a standard at this point.
It’s funny, because you really realize how big something is when you’re walking into a Chili’s and it comes on when you walk in. (laughs) Or, you walk into the Macy’s or something. Yeah, to be able to turn the radio on and hear “All Star,” hear “I’m a Believer,” hear “Walking on the Sun…” They come on the radio, [or] I’ll be listening and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” comes on or “Can’t Get Enough of You” or “Then the Morning Comes.” They are all still being played. But “All Star” and “Walking on the Sun” and “I’m a Believer” are probably the ones that played the most. Believe it or not, live is a toss up. The crowd goes crazy for “All Star,” but they also go bananas for “I’m a Believer.” The minute you hear that signature keyboard part come at the beginning the crowd goes nuts. It’s nice to have that amount of songs and be able to get that kind of reaction from the crowd, you know? People always ask me if I ever get bored of playing these songs? I say would you? Why? It’s pretty much a different crowd every night. Of course you’re going to have fans that are going to come and see you for the next twenty years. Once again I’m not trying to date myself, but it’s cool to go out and to have our young fans bring their kids to the show. To have our close buddies come out or people I’ve met over the years that were eight years old and they bring a photo of them with me when they were kids, and now they are 20 years old. That’s the cool part about music. The special part for me is to be able to build that interaction with our fans over the years and see how much it effects people’s lives.
Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 13, 2012.