The Tragic, Untold Truth Of Smash Mouth

It's safe to say that Smash Mouth is one of a handful of groups that played a huge role in shaping the distinctive sound of the late '90s and early '00s, and although that's in large part due to the enduring popularity of "Shrek," any of the band members will quickly point out that their fame started well before that.

Regardless of how anyone feels about their biggest songs, it's still important to give credit where credit is due: After the success of "Walkin' on the Sun," the band's resident songwriter, Greg Camp, was literally told to go away and write a hit song ... so, that's exactly what he did. Record exec Tom Whalley — then of Interscope Records — told The Ringer, "It's not something that's easy to do. [Hit songs are] very rarely done on demand."

And there's seriously something to be said for that. Even though life — and popularity — hasn't always been kind to them, that's something no one will ever take away, along with the fact that they worked really, really hard to get where they wanted to be. Lead singer Steve Harwell told CNN, "We never do anything traditional. We never go through the front door. It's always the back door, or an open window or something, to get our stuff played." That might make for a difficult path ... but the path of an All Star, nonetheless.

L on the forehead: When they hit it big, they had absolutely nothing

Plenty of bands were struggling to make ends meet before they made it big, and Smash Mouth was one of them. In an interview with Rolling Stone, their manager, Robert Hayes, revealed, "I would go meet with them at their apartment and I would watch them scrape peanut butter out of the bottom of the jar and put it on a piece of bread just so they could eat."

Lead singer Steve Harwell has talked about those dismal days, too, and in an interview with Vice, he revealed that he went from a comfortable, middle-class upbringing to "running extension cords over the roof to steal power off my neighbor's house because we couldn't pay our f*****g bills." He added that it took a few years of making connections, living off Taco Bell, and even stealing pot plants to sell for some much-needed cash to get where they wanted to be.

Without those struggles, though, it's entirely possible that the world wouldn't have gotten one of their biggest lyrics. According to Camp, "The whole 'L on the forehead' thing is actually a true story." He was in a relationship at the time, and while his significant other held down a regular job, he played gigs when he could get them, slept, and partied. "So there was a lot of jealousy happening, and it sort of came in the form of, 'You're a loser, dude,'" Camp added.

They made it a point to respond to a certain kind of fan letter

"Walkin' on the Sun" sent Smash Mouth into the stratosphere, and the massive hit actually added to the pressure. When Greg Camp was tasked with writing the next big hit, he said that he needed to find inspiration somewhere — and that ended up being the fans themselves.

Camp told Rolling Stone that touring for their first album was hardly a glamorous affair, and he and Paul De Lisle were the ones tasked with finding the local laundromats. While they were washing their clothes, they'd sit and read fan mail, and as Camp related, "... we noticed that there was a common thread in all of these letters: kids thanking us for being their band. They were sort of outcasts. They were kind of nerdy and picked on and stuff like that. ... Paul and I sort of verbally set out to write an anthem for them. That's how it started."

"It" became "All Star," which blossomed when Camp added ideas like a funky, stand-out beat and his own tried-and-true, favorite footwear: Converse All Stars. And even though the song became an anthem for sports teams everywhere, it wasn't sports fans that Camp had in mind at all. According to what Camp told WBUR, they weren't content just to write an anthem, and would always try to write back to those kids who sent them letters saying that their music helped them get through the pain of being bullied.

Yes, that fan theory is actually true

Fan theories tend to run from plausible to so far out into left field that the ball is never going to be seen again, and surprisingly, there's a Smash Mouth fan theory that songwriter Greg Camp has confirmed is actually pretty accurate. The theory says that "All Star" — with lines like: "The ice we skate is getting pretty thin, The water's getting warm so you might as well swim, My world's on fire. How about yours?" — is actually about the state of the planet, global warming, and climate change.

Smash Mouth might seem like the last of the '90s/early-aughts party bands to be making a political statement about climate change, but when Vice spoke with Camp, he said that yes, the news about climate change, the ozone layer, and changing emissions standards had been on his mind while he was writing, and ended up in the song. "It's not completely about climate change but it has elements, or a few lines in the lyrics, addressing a 'hole' in the ozone layer and global warming," he confirmed.

Camp, however, went on to say that he ultimately wasn't sure just how much of an impact the human race was having on the natural cycle of the planet, but added that in the end, it didn't really matter: "Well like most people, I'm concerned. And my family and I do our part to try to lessen the size of the footprint we leave."

They turned down Shrek ... a lot

Hindsight, the saying goes, is twenty-twenty, and today, it seems pretty obvious that getting involved in the soundtrack of "Shrek" would be a bit of a no-brainer. But that wasn't always the case, and when Smash Mouth sat down to talk to Rolling Stone in 2019, they revealed that when they were initially approached by DreamWorks, they had absolutely no interest in signing on to have one of their biggest songs featured in a children's movie.

Greg Camp explained, "When DreamWorks came to us, some of us were a little apprehensive, because once you get your song into like a family movie, you merge into this Disney zone. ... It's totally different now. But back then, you're shooting yourself in the foot for offering your song to a commercial or television. That wasn't very cool to do back then."

"Shrek" wasn't even the first film they'd been approached about getting involved with, and due to the fact that other proposed movies they'd declined had ended up being flops, they were firmly of the belief they'd done the right thing by saying no. DreamWorks wasn't giving up, though, and kept chasing them ... and Smash Mouth kept turning them down, over and over again. Minds started to change when DreamWorks met with them to screen the movie, and once they realized that it was going to be a massive hit, well, the rest is, as they say, history.

Steve Harwell lost his 6-month-old son to leukemia

Devastating personal tragedies don't care about fame, and they can be waiting right around the corner. Take Steve Harwell: Smash Mouth was at the height of their popularity in 2001, and it's also when they announced (via Billboard) that they were canceling a handful of shows after the death of Harwell's 6-month-old son, Presley.

He later spoke to the Morning Call about what happened, and it's a parent's worst nightmare. "We thought he was teething. We had no idea he was sick," Harwell said. "It all happened so quickly. I got a call in Minnesota that he had leukemia. Within a day and a half, he was gone. It was so shocking. I thought I was invincible until that happened to me. It happened to Steve Harwell, lead singer of Smash Mouth, the rock star. All the money in the world couldn't save him."

Everyone grieves in different ways, and for Harwell, that meant going out, getting back on tour, and also setting up the Presley Scott Research Foundation for Leukemia. "I needed to do something positive," he said, especially considering that in the wake of his own personal tragedy, there came the national tragedy of 9/11. In an interview with MTV, he talked about how tragedy inspired him to make the music that reminded people it can't be all terrible all the time: "[I feel like] the ones that are gone are okay, and everything's gonna be all right," he said. "It just makes you think a little bit."

Steve Harwell's career highlight

By 2014, Smash Mouth had seen and done it all, with a career that's enough to make any aspiring musician more than a little jealous. So, when Steve Harwell sat down to talk to Vice about that career, there were a lot of highlights he had to choose from. The best?

For starters, he loved seeing the wide age range that their shows invariably attracted: From their middle-aged original fans to those who had grown up with "Shrek," to the children of those fans, he said it was always a high point to hear from people who had literally grown up with their music. Harwell said that he absolutely never got bored of playing the hits, and said that the mere suggestion that he might be sick of his songs "kind of p****s me off sometimes."

And as far as career highlights, he went not with "Shrek," but with another movie: "Rat Race." The incredibly bizarre movie about teams racing across the country — which included a who's who cast of comedians — ended at Smash Mouth concert, because of course it did. "That's probably one of the highlights of my career," Harwell said. "Getting to meet Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Lovitz and Cuba Gooding and Seth Green and those guys. ... what a great, great time with that cast."

What, exactly, was the fallout from that controversial Sturgis concert?

Fast forward to 2020, and Smash Mouth was in the headlines for a very divisive reason. It's no secret that opinions over COVID protocols divided the country, so when Smash Mouth took the stage at Sturgis and proclaimed, "We're all here together tonight! F**k that COVID s**t!" it's safe to say that people either loved the sentiment or hated it. Those who hated it, really hated it: Fan mail turned to hate mail. 

Smash Mouth manager Robert Hayes reached out to Billboard amid the widespread condemnation of photos that showed a tightly packed and largely mask-free crowd, saying that what the photos didn't show were all the precautions taken backstage. Hayes said that, in spite of the way the photos looked, "The Smash Mouth organization is taking this pandemic very seriously and has taken measures to keep our band, crew, and fans as safe as possible during this time."

Did it work? A few months later, the consequences of Sturgis as a whole were published by the Southern Economic Journal in an article terrifyingly titled "The Contagion externality of a superspreading event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19." The paper — which quoted Steve Harwell's oft-repeated statement on COVID — found that outside of South Dakota, the counties that had the largest number of attendees had seen a spike in COVID cases of between 6.4% and 12.5%. They described Sturgis as a hotbed of "'worst case scenarios,' for superspreading," which wasn't great.

Were they really as bitter as they seemed?

Anyone who even semi-regularly stopped by the internet since the late 2000s has likely seen the approximately million-and-one remixes, spoofs, parodies, and other sorts of videos featuring "All Star" performed in increasingly bizarre ways. It'd be easy to get annoyed at what might be perceived as ridicule, and one glance at Smash Mouth's media presence might make it seem like they're incredibly bitter about ... well, everything. But are they?

Inverse found that they're refreshingly unique in that the band's social media is run by the actual band, not someone hired to be a behind-the-scenes media presence. Paul De Lisle said that when the whole thing started, they didn't even know what a meme was, adding, "But we have never taken ourselves that seriously. We like the attention ..." — and yes, that extended to Harwell ... eventually.

When all the memes and remix videos started trending, he told Polygon, "At first it was weird, and we were a bit guarded and resistant. But as we dove into it more and focused on it we started 'getting it.' Plus, to be honest, it has really spiked sales." And he also noted that just because they weren't participating, that wasn't a sign that they didn't approve: "We feel it's best for others to do it," Harwell said. "We've had requests, but none of them has felt right. We feel if other people do it, it adds to the beauty, but if we did it, we feel it would cheapen it."

Steve Hartwell retired amid devastating health problems

In 2021, Steve Harwell and Smash Mouth were back in the headlines for a bizarre reason. Video taken at a concert in Bethel, New York, seemed to show Harwell threatening the crowd, acting erratically, and appearing to give a Nazi salute. That concert was quickly followed by an announcement that explained that he had been struggling with some serious health issues for the previous eight years, and would be retiring. Harwell issued a statement (via People) saying, "Ever since I was a kid, I dream of being a Rockstar performing in front of sold-out arenas and have been so fortunate to live out that dream. ... I've tried so hard to power through my physical and mental health issues, and to play in front of you one last time, but I just wasn't able to."

Harwell was diagnosed with multiple conditions, including cardiomyopathy. The Mayo Clinic defines that as a condition that impacts the way that the heart pumps blood, and can result in things like fatigue, chest pain, dizziness, bloating, rapid heartbeat, and difficulties with breathing.

He was also diagnosed with Wernicke's Encephalopathy, which falls under the umbrella of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and represents the acute phase of the neurological disorder. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, it's a degenerative brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1, and it's characterized by confusion, low blood pressure, a loss of coordination, a loss of memory, and the inability to retain new information and memories.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Steve Harwell's tragic death

It wasn't too long after officially retiring and stepping down as the lead singer of the band he'd formed that frontman Steve Harwell passed away. His death was prefaced by a 2023 announcement, in which Smash Mouth representatives confirmed that Harwell had entered into hospice care. His death was announced the following day, on September 4. The official cause of death was liver failure, and a statement by the band said (via CBS News): "He was surrounded by family and friends and passed peacefully and comfortably."

Acute liver failure, says Johns Hopkins, is rare: They note that, unlike chronic liver failure, this version happens quickly and suddenly, and in some cases, it's unclear just what the underlying cause is.

Smash Mouth, it seemed, would go on. Among those who paid tribute to Harwell was Smash Mouth's new lead singer, Zach Goode. Goode took over when Harwell retired, and said (via The New York Times), "I love singing these songs every night and carrying on the spirit of rock n roll in front of the best fans in the world. I will continue to try, in my own way, to honor what Steve and the band have created."