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Empire Of The Sun: Smash Mouth Stop Skanking and Become “All-Stars”

Tim Kenneally’s profile of Smash Mouth originally ran in the August 1999 issue of Spin. We are republishing it now, as we revisit the Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997 that includes the band’s “Walkin’ on the Sun” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”

Strange things happen when a band comes out of nowhere to score a No. 1 hit. For one, they make friends in some unlikely places. “The Christians think we’re a Christian band,” says guitarist/songwriter Greg Camp, clearly still baffled by the response to Smash Mouth’s 1997 left-field chart topper, “Walkin’ on the Sun.” “It’s amazing. They think we’re prophets for writing such a strong spiritual message about the Lord.” But the closest thing to a spiritual declaration on Fush Yu Mang, the band’s debut, was singer Steve Harwell screaming “Fuck it, let’s rock!” Smash Mouth for Jesus? It’s just another example of how sudden mainstream success imposed its own definitions on the San Jose, California, quartet.

Like Sugar Ray, whose song “Fly” competed with Smash Mouth’s breezy soul kitschin’ single “Walkin'” for the top pop slot two years ago, Smash Mouth made the transition from “Who?” to “The Band That Plays That Song” (Ska-Punk Division). With their new album, Astro Lounge, however, they hope to bust out of the skank-and-mosh pit and prove pop lightning can strike twice. Actually, five bolts would be nice. “With this record, we were like, ‘We want five singles,'” Harwell admits. “When we talked about writing it, I’m like, ‘Dude, we’ve gotta make the whole thing radio-playable–like, every song.'”

Mercenary? Perhaps. But then the learning curve has been steep for Smash Mouth. First came the realization that no further singles would be forthcoming from Fush Yu Mang. “[Radio] slammed the door on us and said, ‘Nope, doesn’t sound anything like [“Walkin'”]. We’re not playing it,'” says Harwell. Then Interscope President Tom Whalley informed the band that the completed tracks from Astro Lounge weren’t there yet. “We thought we were done, but Tom was right,” Harwell says. “We didn’t have the two final jams that secured it.” Says drummer Kevin Coleman: “Once you get to the Top 40, they don’t want you to be alternative.”

Mission accomplished: Astro Lounge is pop pay dirt. “Diggin’ Your Scene” fuses Farfisa-laden go-go with comical observations about a dysfunctional “Springer-bound” relationship. “Who’s There” muses about alien life over a power-pop lilt. The first single, “All Star,”gushes with hooray-for-everybody optimism. Lounge nuances reprised from “Walkin'” abound, but only a few tracks come within skanking distance of the ska-punk territory they mined on the remainder of Fush Yu Mang.

Which isn’t likely to endear Smash Mouth to less successful members of the Bay Area music scene, who’ve continually slagged them off as careerists. “There’s this one guy whom every time I see him, he hisses at me,” says Camp. Harwell will unapologetically admit to handpicking the band’s lineup for optimal success. And he and Coleman weren’t averse to funding their early projects through outright thievery. Literally. “There were some felonies involved,” recalls Coleman.

“They stole my wife’s brother’s bike,” Camp says. “They just ‘fessed up to that recently.”

If only the Christians knew.