In the years leading up to the late 1990s popularity of its radio hits Walkin' on the Sun and All Star, Smash Mouth could have been any kind of band it chose to be. That's because the California troupe had already given a test drive to nearly every pop sound under the sun it was soon to be walking on.
"The original lineup really was four very different personalities," says bassist and co-founder Paul De Lisle. "Everyone played the way that they played and it worked. You can't predict chemistry, I guess.
"Steve (Harwell, Smash Mouth's vocalist and frontman), he listens to country music. But when he was in high school, he listened to modern rock. But he's kind of an alternative rocker, too. He's a real serious music fan. He just likes what he likes. Same with me, too. Now, dealing with the different influences does come into play. You put a band together and go, 'Okay, I've got three of the hottest musicians out there.' But then one of them is a jerk. Then another isn't working out in a different situation.' You never know. But for the four of us at the very beginning, it just clicked. None of us were that great by ourselves. But together, it just worked. There was that intangible thing going on, you know?"
Of course, it could also be said the time was right for an unapologetically fun performance pack like Smash Mouth when its double platinum debut album Fush Yu Mang was released during the summer of 1997.
"The '90s was such a wide open time," De Lisle says. "Nirvana kind of opened the floodgates. That wasn't just for punk rock bands, either, because grunge bands were essentially like pop-punk bands. But that was the case for alternative music, in general. There was the whole ska-punk thing going on, too. It was like anything was alternative.
"That whole era was great for us because it was also a song oriented time for radio. That was our thing. For us, it all came down to songs. There were always labels — alternative this, grunge that. But the reason Nirvana was great wasn't because they were a grunge band. It's that their songs were better than everyone else's. It was the songs. Period.
"Our whole goal was to remain song oriented. We were trying to write hit songs that were pop songs. That was the craft we're trying for, but it was a hard thing to do. We were trying to write songs people would like but that we also liked. Our record collections growing up were filled with punk rock, but it was more the pop-punk stuff. We always liked bands like the Buzzcocks more than, say, the Sex Pistols. We were just always song oriented. We didn't want to jam. We just wanted to write good songs."
Roughly a dozen musicians, most of them guitarists and drummers, have entered and exited the Smash Mouth ranks since the band formed in 1994. While keyboardist and 17-year member Michael Klooster along with two comparatively recent recruits — guitarist Sean Hurwitz and drummer Jason Sutter — round out the band's current lineup, Harwell and De Lisle have been with Smash Mouth for its entire 20 year history.
"Steve and I are like brothers," De Lisle says. "The other day we were in this restaurant. I can't even remember what we were talking about. But the waitress came up and said, 'You guys are either brothers or have known each other a long time.'
"We talk like an old married couple. We bicker at each other. There are times I just want to wring his neck, but I love the dude. We're really good friends. Always have been."