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Smash Mouth lead singer discusses 20 years with the band

Smash Mouth performed at Old Duke Friday. The concert is organized annually by the Joe College committee.
Smash Mouth performed at Old Duke Friday. The concert is organized annually by the Joe College committee.

Classic ’90s band Smash Mouth performed Friday at Keohane Amphitheater for the Duke University Union Joe College committee’s annual Old Duke event. Smash Mouth, originally formed in 1994, rose to stardom with their hit song “All-Star” and cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” both of which were featured in the original “Shrek” soundtrack. The Chronicle talked to lead singer Steve Harwell before the show about the band’s evolution, how they have stayed together for nearly 20 years and what he really thinks about Justin Bieber.

The Chronicle: How has the music scene changed since the ’90s?

Steve Harwell: I think it changed for the worse, to be honest with you. I am not a big fan of what’s been coming out in the past 10 years. More recently there’s been some good stuff and kids today are going out and wearing Led Zepplin shirts and listening to classic rock and it’s making a full change. And the ’90s scene is making a full change too. It’s on its way back. We just put together a big summer tour—with us, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms, Vertical Horizon—a 40-date U.S. tour starting on July 4.

TC: You said the music scene is going downhill, but are there any current artists you are a fan of?

SH: I’m a huge Justin Bieber fan. I touch myself every day [listening].

TC: Really?

SH: No, just kidding... [but] I have respect for all artists. I’m a big Kings of Leon fan... the Fray, I like the Fray.

But because this is what we do everyday for a living, you don’t want to hear music. I hate concerts. I used to love them, and now we do it all the time. Why do I want to watch what I do for a living? It’s not really my thing.... I have to come in and catch up once in a while on what’s really going on. That’s probably one of my downsides. Everybody else in my band, they go home and it’s music. They wake up, it’s music. For me, I get off stage, and I get back to see the world. I don’t bring my work home with me. If I’m in a studio making a record, I’m working on my projects, producing music. But I’m totally not that guy and I get s--t for it sometimes. I just want to go lay on the couch, with no underwear.

TC: Why are you called Smash Mouth?

SH: When we started we were a local [ska punk] band. I’m a huge sports fanatic, and there was a football coach and he came up with the name “smashmouth football.” I was just watching TV one day and we were making our first record and we had a list on the wall at the studio of [band] names and... I was like “F--k that’s it, we’re Smash Mouth.” He never trademarked [the name] so we got away with it. Even today, when you’re watching SportsCenter, you’ll see smashmouth football.

TC: What is your secret to success for staying together so long?

SH: My original band, we got together as a garage band and separated after high school. Then I got into the hip-hop scene... [but] I wanted to be in a rock band. I scouted a couple guys locally, cover bands in bars.... We turned out and did our thing and we were successful.

Being around each other every damn day, it’s like a marriage. Some day you’re going to get divorced and maybe get back together. That’s what happened with us. You have to say, ‘I’m not breaking up, I’m not stopping.’ Throughout [everything]... people are getting married, people are having kids, people are getting divorced. What really kept us together is keeping our spouses out.... Friends, wives, girlfriends, they make you crazy, and you start buying into certain things. [Then] when you’re on the road, you start dissing each other.

At the end of the day, I think the biggest thing about a band being together is [to not] let it become about the money. That’s the biggest thing. It’s the money.

Our original guitar player, his ex-wife, she absolutely tried to ruin my relationship with him. She wanted him to be the star. She had her own aspirations, and that’s where it all went to s--t. We’ve gotten into lawsuits, and now we hate each other. I could name 100 bands where once it became that, it’s not fun anymore.

It’s not easy. Marriage isn’t easy. Boyfriend and girlfriend isn’t easy.

TC: What’s the biggest challenge about life on tour?

SH: Being in a band together, you’ve got to figure it out when you’re on a tour bus together. Tour buses, they look really big, but they get really small really quick. You need the space. You’ll be on the bus and everybody’s up front so I’ll go in the back. Then they go to the back and I go to the middle. I’m like, ‘I don’t want to see anybody right now.’ The way Smash Mouth feels right now is the way it felt back in 1997. It feels young and fresh, and we get along to the point that it feels like the fame’s not there, that the money is not there. It still feels like we are so hungry to go get it. It feels like all that stuff is not in the way, and knowing that changes the attitude.

At this point in my career I can pick and choose when I want to go on the road. I’m kind of back in a relationship and it’s already hard.... You’re gone for six months at a time—I’m getting text messages like, ‘What the f--k are you doing, when are you coming home.’ Relationships are the hardest part—there’s got to be a trust level and there’s got to be a communication level too. That’s a really hard part of this band. When you don’t have communication with each other, that’s when it all goes to s--t.... The worst thing you can say to someone is ‘I’m turning my phone off.’ That’s the worst f—ing thing.

TC: Do you ever get tired of playing “All Star”?

SH: Never. I never get sick of playing any of those songs. You go to each show and this is what people want to hear and I love doing it. I love a cool crowd. If I didn’t play it, you’d be f—ing pissed.

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