Why Smash Mouth?


“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 BrodyquestUltimate 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.

steve-and-guy

~Austin R Ryan

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Malka


Malka is Hebrew for queen – some people know that. What most don’t know is that Malka is the best name for fat tabby cats. This is not just because most fat tabby cats look like they have fine black crowns on the top of their heads. In the mind of a fat tabby cat, she is and has always been a great grey queen with a domain of human subjects grateful to witness her royal mouse hunts; so that fat tabby cat is as much a queen as Elizabeth, Victoria, and Golda (Meir, of course).

This is the story of two fat tabby queens and the kitty kingdoms they had. Malka the first, Malka 1, just plain Malka did not accept many of the subjects that came and went through her country. The original empress, she ruled over a small domain – an apartment in Chicago not far from the lake – with just two old folks named Carol and Sheldon as true subjects. During many Hanukkahs and many Passovers all sorts of other big, furless cats would come and go but she did not know or trust them. They would get no dead mice and no affectionate purrs from her. Many of them truly did not deserve it; young and greedy, they grabbed at her with hungry palms that pulled and tugged; she – a proper Malka – deserved nothing less than the best and softest pets and she would come claim them at her own leisure!

Though Malka I was not always a kind queen, she sometimes showed a softer side. Yes, she scratched and she bit and all the vagabonds and trespassers knew to fear her claws; yes, she hissed and howled at clumsy but friendly hands too; but when a child cried on her couches and bedsides she would retract her razors and paw them condolences. Malka I was a strong and mean ruler but she was soft and kind especially to her closest subjects. When she went she was mourned deeply and she left her subjects with a fat tabby cat shaped hole in their hearts.

However a proper queen always has a lineage. Not so long later, another tabby cat – young and without a kingdom – was busy stepping across a dark road. Many other nights she had darted across street and field, deftly dodging coyotes and cars, hawks and Hondas, but this night was different. Small and agile, a natural hunter, she leaped and bounded across that dark road again, but got struck by a passing car and dropped one life of nine. Left along on the road she mewed and cried until some strange set of hands carried her off to a vet before the other eight could slip away. The vet labored on this tabby – hardly even a cat yet – until by the end of the night it was stitched up and saved. However, it was still homeless. The fine folk that saved her could not keep her and instead of a kingdom she found a cage.

Shaved and small, set in a kennel full of bigger cats, she was a queen with no kingdom, an empress in exile. Little did she know, Malka I had come as a spirit to find another tabby cat to grow fat and continue her line. Malka I found the little tabby and told her to keep her shaved side hidden against the kennel wall and mew sweetly for the next old lady that came in. Sure enough, the next visitor to her cage was an old woman named Carol, who had a fat tabby cat shaped hole in her heart.

When the handlers took the kitten to Carol, the kitten she was skeptical at first. Who was this human? Could she be trusted? She shied away but Carol, even seeing her shaved side with all its scars, knew another Malka when she saw one. Carol sat for a while and talked with the little tabby.

“You look so pretty!” She said to give the queen compliment.

“It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.” She said, and kept her distance to give the queen respect.

“We’ll feed you and you’ll have a great big place where you can chase birds and mice.” She said to give the queen a true kingdom.

This little tabby kitten decided to step over and let Carol carefully lift her up and cradle her in palanquin arms. At that moment they both knew she was not just a Malka, but Malka II, Malka the second, Malka two. Carol brought the cat back to Sheldon, who smiled and said,
“Gee well, couldn’t you have got a healthy one?”

All the same they came to love the new Malka. Her fur grew in again, just as lush and beautiful as before she was hurt and before long she was a cat with a kingdom of wetlands out in the country, complete with birdbaths to stalk and gardens to weave through. Malka II had surpassed her predecessor; she had more not just in land, but in kind subjects too. By now the once young subjects had grown and learned how to keep their fingers from tugging and their palms from pulling so Malka II was generous with her affection and let many who came into her kingdom pet her. Perhaps Malka II became kind through being grateful. Her fortunes had turned sharply as she went overnight from losing a life to gaining a kingdom. Whatever the cause was, Malka II became even more beloved and bequeathed than her namesake and in no time at all she had filled fat tabby cat shaped holes in hearts that didn’t even know they had one.

~Austin R Ryan

So Fashion!


Let me tell you I was gonna post up my usual kind of god damned high art imitation BS blog post about the black mold in my home and some of the hard times I’ve been having here in China but that’s not the piping hot helping I want in my bowl right now. No sir, I’ll tell you what I really wanna talk about is fashion! I don’t wanna talk about American fashion and you can run and tell that to every single young adult male wearing salmon tone boating shorts. When it comes to fashion, the cargo shorts, the slacks, even the best bought band shirts of the USA have nothing on the glee that Chinese style brings to me. To say that Chinese fashion is off the rails doesn’t even do it justice because there are no rails in Chinese fashion at all and everyone indulges recklessly in free-form fashion every day with not a single fashion task force out to get them.

For example, once I found a man wearing a baby blue sports coat over a baby blue plaid pattern shirt over baby blue khakis just sitting in a chair in the middle of the wide sidewalk outside of a large commercial center. It was like a color of the rainbow came down to Earth. Before I came to China, I didn’t know that I wanted to see men douse their bodies in clothes of one single primary color and now not only do I know that I want that but that I’ll probably get it. Sometimes I don’t even look and when I pull on my red jacket while I have my red slacks on I’ve found I’ve become the red guy. I am happy to be the red guy; I embrace this role; I embrace representing this primary color at the clothes congress. Where in America this man may receive verbal beating from abusive fashionistas, here he is safe to shine in beautiful baby blue glory.

American fashion is boring, cowed cowardice compared to Chinese fashion. In America a woman likely fears leaving the home looking like a witch. In China many women leave home looking like terrible witches with faces as pale as the moon and long, flowing coats and dusters as black as the awful magic they use to reap vengeance on those that dare jock their soup. It is a wonderful thing to me to see a young woman enter the KFC with a black massively brimmed hat that’s round and cutting as lumber mill buzz-saws over a long flowing black coat that flicks in the wind behind her. Her dark-as-night boots and pants round out a sci-fi FBI agent image she punches into the world like a typewriter punches ink onto a page. This woman has no fear of her look both because it is semi-regular (there are many witches here) and because few others have judgment of it.

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When I go to America no doubt hair dyes and beards and flannels and everything else will feel like a warm blanket of a much missed home. Yet if you asked me would I miss the witches, I would almost indignantly tell you that of course I would miss the witches; I would miss them maybe more than I would be happy to see face piercings again. If you asked me if I would like for everyone to be witches I would say – definitely indignantly – that no, I do not want that; that clearly goes too far. But 50% witches is agreeable to me, though I would say 30% is ideal as I have a healthy fear of the dark arts.

Furthermore, the witches are just one great and terrible dark cavern on the strange fantasy-scape that is Chinese fashion. The women just one accessory away from wearing an actual princess outfit must be admired too for all their frills. There is nothing ironic about literal frills in China. So many blouses have frills like you wouldn’t believe – flagrant frills layered on pinkest of pink patterns . I have a coworker who regularly comes in with what I speculate are literal Lisa Frank patterns printed (and often bedazzled) on giant pink and purple shirts that reach to her knees. I have seen her wear unicorns, I have seen her wear bedazzled pink sports jerseys, but I have never seen anyone bat an eye. If you think that sounds anything less than victorious than my friend you just have to shatter that American judgment calling you to plain protestant styles.

Besides, the plain and sleek styles have their representatives too. Most people go for subtle and regular patterns of button-up shirts and jeans (though khakis and slacks are much more common). Some people have simple dresses and once I even saw a woman in a pants suit come out of a Pizza Hut (this was a vividly joyous moment for me). Muted earth tones do exist here and people do wear them. However, many normal ensembles incorporate an item of clothing – shirts, jackets, the seat of the pants, the legs of the pants, the entire pants – that say something that is absolutely absurd English or just pure alphabet soup gibberish. My personal favorite is a jacket that says, “This ain’t no real bustard” on it. I have seen these “this ain’t no real bustard” jackets several times and I have so many questions. Did they mean to write bustard – which is a type of bird – at all? Were they going for bastard or for mustard? In either case why is the authenticity of the bastard/mustard on display? I am bad with multiple negatives, so I also NEED someone to tell me if this is or isn’t the real bustard. And is this is a meme? Is this what memes look like in China? Do people wear memes here? I don’t know about how all celestial forces feel, but I am 80% sure the Abrahamic God considers wearing memes a sin and will flood-genocide (drownicide) us again if we start to wear memes en masse, so I hope it’s not a meme.

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There are of course many other ridiculous things written on shirts but sometimes the message is not so much ridiculous as surprising. I have a bag – where I store my many soup cans – that says, “seven days away, I think I thought I heard you say.” The odd quote is indicative of an outright genre of clothes and accessories that say something correct but still kind of baffling. Clothing in the US tends to carry a pretty light message and words on clothes often just share some easy laugh factory material. Chinese t-shirts aren’t usually chuckle buckets, opting to spread weirdly serious messages instead. I once waited in line for soup behind a little boy in a jean jacket that read “ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE WHO ELSE BUT ME.” On the topic of children, every trend here applies to them because their parents dress them like tiny adults. This is as absolutely adorable, strange, and fantastic as you are imagining it to be.

Anyways, I have started to accumulate shirts with wonky words, but some are oddly expensive. I had my eye on a shirt that just said “sample text” but it cost over 100 RMB (15-ish USD), which can pay for 3-5 meals out and much soup. I have managed to find some cheap items such as a shirt with the beloved Nintendo character Yoshi over a plain red background with a word bubble that says “Happy!” underneath giant black letters that say “I love family,” a shirt with a picture of a hat just above a random paragraph attempting to describe the idea of fashion, and a hat that says “If.”

People here also borrow from other countries – particularly Korea. Many people wear Korean hats with a lot of extra space at the top where one could hide a trinket or a can of soup. It is not often but occasionally I see pretty boys wearing long jackets with weird words or patterns, some sweet ass kicks, a colorful hairdo that must have taken a lot of hair spray to maintain, and impossibly tight jeans that must take a lot of work to squeeze into.

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On pants, nothing makes me think quite as deeply as the difference between the pants of American and Chinese men. In China men rarely wear baggy or ill-fitting pants and on it easily looks much better than the frequent style young American men adopt, where the pants are wide enough around the legs to contain a terrible and endlessly discontent void. Yet, there is a drawback as many Chinese men must have a man bag to make these tight jeans work practically, or even to make well fitting pants look good. Tight pants effectively have no storage and well-fitting pants look as chunky as a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag when their pockets hold a wallet, a phone, spare change, an mp3 player, and a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag. Many man bags look pretty good but some don’t quite hit the mark, which makes man bag selection another clothing piece to pour soup worry into. Furthermore, I can’t help but think that in the US the assault on masculinity the murse can resemble might cause a frothy broth of rage to boil up in more traditional men and also men who believe your soup belongs in a sandwich bag in your pocket. Indeed, it took me a while to come to terms with the man bag and accept that, yes all men are still carrying soup even if I cannot see the vague shape of the sweet nutrient juice bulging against the edges of jean pockets.

With this topic I could go on endlessly, but ultimately what I love of Chinese fashion is simply the lack of concern it has for a single standard. With so much influx of global products and styles, fashion here is a saloon in the Wild West where there are no rules and you wear what you want so long as you can shoot from the hip and store a steaming can of chunky dinner-cereal emptied into a sandwich bag somewhere on your person. You can do literally anything and there are literally no rules about clothes in China! [Correction: After the time of publication I was informed by my editor that there are in fact “laws” about “clothes” and “public indecency” in China and I was apparently “lucky” not to be “arrested” when I went to the store in the buff.] Here in China even the word fashion is as free flowing and unrestrained as soup and often used as an adjective. “It’s so fashion,” is in my mind not so much Chinglish as it is a modification our language needs. When I leave China I’ll miss the bold and wild fashion it has; I will miss the colors; I will miss the witches; I will miss the serious and confusing gibberish; I will miss inhaling the rich stew of intermingling global trends.

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~Austin R Ryan