“Some…” You already know what is about to happen. Subconsciously, your brain can feel beautiful disaster rolling all over it already – though your conscious brain might not be onto it yet. In the next half second your whole self will understand what’s happening. “BODY!” That word punches out from a distant radio mouth and now the bass and guitar are chiming in with super simple, bobbing rhythms. “Once told me the world’s gonna roll me…” The bass sounds like a sweet simpleton and the guitar seems like this small muppet creature that meeps out high pitched orders from on top of the simpleton bass’s arched back. Sweet God yes and oh hell no, it is Smash Mouth again. It is fucking Smash Mouth again.
Smash Mouth is pervasive in a way a lot of bands like it aren’t and surprising in the way that they complete an aesthetic of West Coast surfer buttrock that is at its core surprising for being not at all glorious and actually pretty sincere. Hearing “All Star” come on the radio, you may lump it in with something like Three Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” or even a random one-hit wonder but Smash Mouth has at least a little bit more commercial power than that. Smash Mouth fit for a long time into a niche of movie music that made numerous songs of theirs into odd Hollywood hits. “All Star” was once such a go-to hype up track that I earnestly believe some screenplays were chosen by studios based on how good a vessel they were for the great and terrible dark lord of the late 90’s and early 00’s that we call “All Star.” Smash Mouth is the lord of cinema for the childhoods of many people blooming into adulthood right now.
Like a lot of pop products that you are mandated to absorb into your sinful body, this is one that people either reject or accept on a kneejerk. Every time I interact with Smash Mouth my knees jerk in different reactions. ‘Mixed feelings’ doesn’t quite cover it. God I love Smash Mouth. Oh boy I want to destroy them. Smash Mouth makes me feel like I am either in a sweet nightmare or an ugly dream. In this way, Smash Mouth is like one of these God awful memes that keep happening around me. The meme is my brother and I am happy for it, but the more I stare at it the more it frustrates me. I laugh and I clap but my insides are roiling and my mind is screaming furiously that I am disgusting; every inch of my pleasure is disgusting. Smash Mouth feels like that – like a meme or a b-movie, but an actual, real band with actual, real people. I am not original in this reaction to Smash Mouth. Tremendous meme-god and general humorist Neil Cicierega (also known as Lemon Demon, creator of Brodyquest, Ultimate Showdown, or some other meme that you decadently love) devoted a good chunk of a remix album to them. John Hendren, an internet funny man from the terrible meme-hive called SomethingAwful.com, started a large internet crusade to get the lead singer of Smash Mouth to eat 24 eggs. “All Star” is also fodder for Tumblr photo caption memes and endless humorous remixes.
Who is Smash Mouth? You didn’t ask that question because you are pretty sure the answer is unimportant, but the answer matters because it is more sincere than you might think. You hopefully still hold the beautiful idea that Smash Mouth is a giant gaping maw that is always screaming. You may even believe that Smash Mouth is actually just one man-thing that breaths sweet ska-pop-rock out of very large pores. Smash Mouth at its core was actually four whole people that all have a seemingly normal amount of flesh with average sized pores: lead singer Steve Harwell, Kevin Coleman on drums, Greg Camp on the mondo surf guitar, and Paul De Lisle on the sweet simpleton bass. This is the lineup that produced the spirit of Smash Mouth – their first two albums, loaded with hits like “Walkin On The Sun,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” and of course, “All Star.” The lineup starts to shift and stir some as Smash Mouth advances forward – seemingly perpetually – as guitarist Greg Camp moves on to some other projects while occasionally making returns to Smash Mouth. If there is a quiet genius to this band, it is Greg Camp. His tenure outside of Smash Mouth is not groundbreaking, but it shows where the band gets its cinematic magic from as Greg Camp has done a lot of solid soundtrack work and wrote most of the band’s bigger hits. Some readers are already sneering because Greg Camp is neither Radiohead nor FKA Twigs, so he’s hardly even a real musician but Greg has most likely wrenched an emotional reaction out of you at least once while you were off guard, watching some movie. Greg has at least once ripped you from your media ivory tower and thrown you down to squirm in the cultural dirt of the layman. Give Greg that credit.
Outside of Greg, the most rotating band member is the drummer. If your dream is to be in Smash Mouth, just pick up those sticks and lay down some crunchy West Coast surfer bro rhythms and bucko you might just make it. The two consistent factors are the bassist Paul and singer Steve, who have been with Smash Mouth for the vast majority of its life. Steve is the man many call Smash Mouth and as much as he is the face of the band, so the band is the face of him. Steve is the man you expect him to be to a terrifying degree. He is a middle aged man who still just really seems to like to play his pretty alright music and lives endlessly in a pocket of 90’s fashion – from clothes to music. This is part of what makes Smash Mouth such a strange and sublime force: Smash Mouth is sincere.
(“Home” off of Smash Mouth’s Astro Lounge album, is an example of a deep track that’s surprising both for not sounding like “All Star” or “Walkin’ The Sun” while also tackling the band’s growing fame in a very sincere way.)
This is a crucial point. Unlike a one-hit wonder or a cash-in band built to ride a wave that crashes into money, Smash Mouth is a project that its band members love enough to actually become. Like how At The Drive In and The Mars Volta absolutely breath through Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s experiences with heroin and Ouija boards, Smash Mouth exists on Steve and Paul and Greg’s San Diego stoner musician lifestyle and their desire to get laid and play music. Where that sincerity makes The Mars Volta and At The Drive In forceful and wildly creative standouts in their genre it also allows Smash Mouth to become great even just through thoroughly alright surfer rock. This sincerity is what makes Smash Mouth enticing, and at times even a genuinely good band. It is what gives the band a sound at once distinct and recognizable enough to become at least big enough to be fodder for endless internet comedians and Hollywood execs.
From the get go, it is hard to take Smash Mouth as a sincere product. This is the band whose half-baked stoner thought lyrics have been burned into the grey of everyone’s brain matter by movies; this is the band whose “Lowrider” inspired beats have been made more memorable to you than your significant other’s first name by radio. There are few other bands in the world as associated to products as Smash Mouth, but if you really listen to their albums – especially the early ones – you can hear how it all came from some San Diego stoners who had stumbled into a perfect poppy distillation of several odd West Coast influences. I all came from an actual band. Even their first album’s name Fush Yu Mang, is just a sincere, personal affect – an inside joke between band mates who loved watching Scarface – and a silly way to say, “Fuck you, man.” The songs within are varied and loaded with both the explosive goofiness of youth on tracks like “Let’s Rock” and the shallowness of it too in “Beer Goggles” (predictably about screwing while drunk). Their other deep tracks surprise by experimenting and incorporating genre and style tweaks – little signs of genuinely curious musicians figuring out which way to grow. “Fallen Horses” uses much smoother and softer guitar more fitting a lounge sound that centers around questioning death. Listening to it, genuine surprise ran through my awful, cynical head when Steve Harwell sang, “would you help me / if I wanted to die.” I was similarly surprised to find they released a song this year – “Love Is A Soldier” – that is a pretty clubby EDM song. Whether what they are deriving is derivative will always be subjective, but listen to even their first two albums and it will be clear that if they are derivative, they are sincerely derivative.
“Walkin’ On The Sun.” is Smash Mouth’s quintessence and their first big hit. It is fit for radio and is an honestly good pop song, but at the same time it is obviously a sincere result born from Smash Mouth’s funky surf influences and experimentation. It sounds like War making a poppy rock jingle and it makes my mouth froth up with rabid rage, but it is also so bouncy and easy to listen to and genuinely very well put together that I cannot stop myself from loving it. Their lead singer always sings in a way that is punchy and overly aggressive such that he is impossible to ignore, yet he is simultaneously fluid and smooth. The lyrics are half-formed statements about drug culture that’s hard to parse but in such a catchy way that they can’t be anything but fake deep – this sets my synapses on fire and makes me so excited and so mad. Their songs are like fake rebellions set to Austin Powers soundtracks but they are so unabashedly that, that I respect them for it. They are like the Guy Fieri of bands but instead of fight that part of Smash Mouth their lead singer literally met and befriended Guy Fieri. They are the band that I absolutely want to see eat around 30 eggs because I love them and I hate them and I respect them. I need to see Steve Harwell’s soft, middle-aged, San Diego stoner body ingest so many eggs and much of the internet wordlessly understands why. I need to see him have a terrifyingly awkward, sexually charged interview afterward where a ropy man with sunglasses plays peanut gallery in the background literally the entire time and the camera man interrupts the interview to ask Steve Harwell if it is okay to zoom in on his mouth. God yes, Smash Mouth! God yes! I am already so on board and I haven’t even touched when Steve Harwell launch into a tirade of profanity at a bread throwing heckler while the intro chords to “All Star” plod away in the background, desperately pleading against the sky itself that this not be Smash Mouth’s cosmic destiny.
Smash Mouth fills my body with shimmering love and burning hate at the same time. On the one hand, “All Star” approaches me with violent staccato vocals that literally never settle down or get even slightly less punchy at any point in the song, but on the other hand, yes! I am an all-star! What’s more, when I really dig deep down into these masterful disaster artists, there are real gems, real kernels of solidly composed ska and funk and surf experimentation that beat the crap out of the cynical asshole in me who just wants to laugh at these kings of surf-buttrock when I am not even duke of Shit Mountain. The sweet and often varied rhythms of this strange surf-buttrock gurgling up endlessly from the vestiges of 1990’s San Diego bleeds a whole West Coast aesthetic that smells like, Shrek, my childhood and also a fire – and that’s great. Smash Mouth is dead. Long live Smash Mouth.
~Austin R Ryan