Steve Harwell, the founding singer of Smash Mouth died at his home in Boise, Idaho, The New York Times reports. The musician was 56 years old.
Harwell dealt with alcoholism and numerous health issues in the years preceding his death. In 2013, he was diagnosed with a heart condition (cardiomyopathy) and a neurological condition (acute Wernicke encephalopathy). He collapsed onstage during a concert a few years later, and, in 2021, he retired from performing following a difficult show in New York. “Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of being a Rockstar performing in front of sold-out arenas and have been so fortunate to live out that dream,” Harwell said at the time. “To my bandmates, it’s been an honor performing with you all these years and I can’t think of anyone else I would have rather gone on this wild journey with.”
On Instagram, Smash Mouth wrote today, “Steve Harwell was a true American Original. A larger than life character who shot up into the sky like a Roman candle. Steve should be remembered for his unwavering focus and impassioned determination to reach the heights of pop stardom.” Find the band’s full statement below.
Before launching Smash Mouth in 1994, Steve Harwell released a single with the rap group F.O.S. (Freedom of Speech) through Scotti Bros. Records. “You know, we were just really into Chuck D and that shit at the time and I just thought, ‘I want to be a rapper,’” Harwell told Stereogum of “Big Black Boots.” As it turned out, hip-hop was not for Harwell, who recognized that he might not make it big in the genre.
“Around the time we were about to put out our single, this kid Snoop Dogg came out and changed everything,” Harwell recalled in 2017. “I was at a radio convention in Las Vegas watching MC Hammer of all people, and I just looked at my manager, ‘I’m tired of all this hip-hop shit, I want to start an alternative rock band.’ He said, ‘You’re crazy, it was hard enough getting this.’ But he followed me down the path and here we are.”
Harwell formed Smash Mouth his manager (drummer Kevin Coleman), guitarist Greg Camp, and bassist Paul De Lisle, the latter of whom still tours with the band. Smash Mouth released their debut studio album, Fush Yu Mang, in July 1997 via Interscope. The album featured a cover of War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and the group’s first big single, “Walkin’ on the Sun.”
After Fush Yu Mang came Smash Mouth’s most popular album, 1999’s Astro Lounge, featuring the massive hit “All Star,” which spent 30 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 4. The single also earned Smash Mouth their only Grammy nomination—Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Following the LP’s release, a Rolling Stone reporter asked Harwell, “Does this album make you happy?” The singer replied:
Smash Mouth grew more popular when “All Star” and their cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” were featured in the 2001 DreamWorks film Shrek. The band, apparently, was initially resistant to covering the Monkees for the film, writing in 2018, “Actually we said no and Michael Austin from Dreamworks kept calling. That went on for over a month.”
Along with appearing on the Shrek soundtrack, “I’m a Believer” featured on Smash Mouth’s 2001 self-titled album. The band went on to release four more studio albums with Harwell: 2003’s Get the Picture?; 2005’s The Gift of Rock; 2006’s Summer Girl; and 2012’s Magic.
While a major figure in mainstream rock and pop, Harwell was a champion of independent acts like Parquet Courts and Car Seat Headrest. He once described the former band as “Ramones meets Joe Jackson,” and he famously covered the latter act’s “Something Soon” after declaring his love for “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.”
In 2014, Harwell was asked about “All Star” as the song reached its 15th anniversary. “It feels like it came out yesterday,” he told Vice. “It’s weird, people ask me, ‘Do you get bored of playing these songs?’ I’m like, ‘Why would I get bored of playing them? This is what puts bread and butter on my table.’ You know, there’s always somebody in the crowd who hasn’t heard it. Or hasn’t seen it live. When I go out onstage, I look at it that way. Once that classic song starts, people just go bananas. Has ‘Free Bird’ ever got old?”
Harwell added: “It kind of pisses me off sometimes when people ask me that question because I’m like, ‘Really? Why would I get bored of singing these songs? These are probably some of the best-written songs ever.’”