15 Years Later, Here's What It's Like to Be in Smash Mouth
Fifteen years ago, it was nearly impossible to be out and about in America without hearing Smash Mouth's "All Star." Where most pop songs annoy, though, "All Star" was a masterpiece. It offered the perfect balance of sobering realism ("You're bundled up now, but wait 'til you get older") and inspirational kick in the ass ("Hey, now, you're a rock star, get the show on, get paid"). It got the people going — and somehow it's still popular. The years start coming and they don't stop coming — "All Star" still lives and works. So do the members of Smash Mouth.
"I just walked into the grocery store last night and 'All Star' was playing," Paul DeLisle, Smash Mouth's bassist, recently told Mic. "This is gonna sound so dorky, but when I hear it, I just kind of smile. It's a good song. And you know what, dude? Check it out: I'm the dude playing the bass! And another thing: That's me whistling. I'm the best whistler in Smash Mouth."
Twenty years into his career, DeLisle is still psyched about being a rock star. His enthusiasm is infectious. He and lead singer Steve Harwell — whom DeLisle refers to as "Shrek" at several points in the interview — are the only two original members still with the band. And they're still firing on all cylinders. The two work 9 to 5 at Smash Mouth's offices and still live a half-mile from one another. Being in Smash Mouth is a full-time job.
At this point, Smash Mouth is equal parts fun and business. They spend their office hours "bean-counting," as DeLisle describes it. They work licensing their music, publishing, booking shows, recording and writing the occasional new single. But they're gearing up to make some big moves this year. They have a live album ready to go, a band biography in the works and a tour scheduled this summer with the Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprocket.
"We sound better than ever," DeLisle said. "We can play a wide range of shows, because our music is clean. 'Kid-tested, mother-approved.' And we're gonna keep doing it as long as there's an audience for it."
They have a lot of hits that fit that description. Before "All Star," the band made it big with "Walking on the Sun." They had another hit in a cover of the Monkees song "I'm a Believer," which blew up when it appeared in Shrek in 2001. Those are the engines that keep Smash Mouth going to this day.
Proud sell-outs: A skeptical, light-hearted willingness to milk the band for all its worth has marked the band's career since the beginning. When they started, Smash Mouth was simply a bunch of broke, scrappy dudes cobbled together from various cover bands.
"The very first time we played with Steve, Kevin [the band's original guitarist and lead songwriter] asked me, 'What do you think of Steve?' I'm like, 'Well, he ain't nice to look at. He's kind of big and scary; I think I saw a gun; can't sing very well — but he's great!' We saw something in Steve," DeLisle said, "He's got it — whatever 'it' is. The singing will come later ... and he developed. He became a great singer."
The band pushed hard to get their deal, sending off tapes to anyone who would listen, playing any venue to build a local following. It took two and half years before they got their first hit with "Walking on the Sun" and the rest is history.
"I used to say to my manager, 'You see this face? Put it on lunch pails. I don't care. Sell it.' I was never into that whole 'Don't sell out' BS, so that's exactly what he did," Harwell told CNET, "He licensed our music like crazy, and it got to the point to where President Clinton is talking about it in TV commercials. Then we were on SNL, and then MadTV was clowning us for the oversaturation of Smash Mouth, which we thought was hilarious."
That point of saturation has long since passed, and the business of being in Smash Mouth has taken a slow burning turn. As recently as 2012, Smash Mouth got themselves a fair share of buzz on the Internet for a song called "Justin Bieber," which takes a side-eyed look at wildfire pop culture trends. At the same time, it shows exactly where the band is now.
"That song was about our own successes over time, where one minute you're sitting at a restaurant taking a bite of food, and you can't eat because there are lines of people wanting an autograph from you, and now here we are 15 years later, and people approach gingerly and ask, 'Aren't you that guy from Smash Mouth?'" Harwell told CNET last June, "But when you're on top of the charts and in the press every day, it's such a frenzy. So the song asks, Where is Justin Bieber gonna be in 10 years?"
Chances are he'll lose his crown, just as Smash Mouth did. But it's hard to imagine him figuring out how to hang on in quite the same way.