Pop til you drop


November 23, 2001



From time to time, when an aggrieved reader wants to end a complaint with a zinger, he'll sign off with something like, "You clearly don't understand rock at all; why don't you just stick to writing about pop?" Or vice versa.

The distinctions between "pop" and "rock" could fill a book. In short, the way I trace the divide, a lot of rock can become pop (as in "massively popular" or appealing to a mass audience--e.g., Elvis, the Beatles, Nirvana), but not all pop can rock (witness Britney Spears' pathetic covers of "Satisfaction" and "I Love Rock 'n' Roll").

Smash Mouth and Hootie and the Blowfish are notable examples of "real" rock bands that crossed over into the surreal realm of pop superstardom. And both are still trying to recover from the experience.

Formed in San Jose, Calif., in 1994 and named for a famous Ditkaism (Da Coach used to refer to "smash-mouth football"), the former labored in indie obscurity until the lounge/surf/ska confection "Walkin' On the Sun" became a surprise hit propelling the infectious debut "Fush Yu Mang" to the top of the charts. The 1999 follow-up "Astro Lounge" was even stronger, and it scored again with the single "All Star" (though my own favorite was a cover of ? and the Mysterians' "Can't Get Enough of You Baby").

Suddenly, vocalist Steve Harwell was rubbing elbows with the likes of Britney and Madonna at tony affairs like the MTV Video Music Awards. But he always looked as if he'd just gotten off work down at the garage.

"Thank you; I take that as a compliment," Harwell says, laughing. "We started out as a punk-rock band, and we really didn't intend for all of this to happen."

Now, after a two-year layoff, Smash Mouth is returning with a third album, "Pacific Coast Party," which continues the giddy genre-hopping and gleeful hookiness. It's as relentlessly upbeat as ever (the band's version of "I'm A Believer" made the feel-good ending of the animated hit film "Shrek"), despite the fact that Harwell has gone through some very tough times, suffering the loss of his young son.

"When you want catharsis, you don't have to have crappy, death-filled, I-hate-my-life-type music," he says. "I don't listen to that stuff; I like listening to happy music. We had this tragedy with the World Trade Center, but I'm hoping people really want to have a smile on their face and maybe jump around a bit because of all the [crap] we've been through."

Yet whether it's because of darker times or the shifting sands of pop fancies, radio and MTV are turning a deaf ear toward "Pacific Coast Party," and Harwell vacillates between professing not to care and caring quite a bit.

"You wanna know how crazy it is right now?" the singer asks. "I'll be straight up with you: We are trying so hard to get on 'TRL' [MTV's 'Total Request Live']. That's just the name of the game right now. Alternative radio has changed to the point where the music has gotten so hard, they can't even play us. Pop radio is what sells records. You look at a band like Foo Fighters, they're an alternative band; they don't sell a butt-load of records, but once they cross over to pop radio, their numbers double. I've got bills to pay just like everybody else, and I want to sell as many records as Smash Mouth can sell."

This, of course, is a most un-punk attitude, but at least Harwell is being honest.

"I want to be on MTV because that's where the bar is--that's how they're measuring success these days," he says. "But if MTV wasn't around, I would still be out there busting my [butt] trying to make as many fans as we can. You come see us and you come tell me if we suck. Please just give us the opportunity; I'll loan you the money and buy your ticket myself!"

Indeed, Smash Mouth remains a great band onstage, and I'm looking forward to its appearance at Metro at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 (tickets are $15; call 773-549-4140). But I think Harwell and his mates would be a heck of a lot happier if they shrugged off any illusions of further pop success, invested the income from the last two albums wisely, and went back to being a plain ol' rock band. That's certainly what Hootie has done.

In 1994, the humble South Carolina bar band entered a rarefiedstrata of super-popularity when its Atlantic debut (and fourth album overall) "Cracked Rear View" racked up sales of some 18 million worldwide. Relatively speaking, the follow-ups have tanked, selling a mere two or three million, and where Hootie once played stadiums, now it regularly visits Chicago's House of Blues.

Singer Darius Rucker insists that's by choice (H.O.B. is, of course, a friendlier and better-sounding venue), and he's fairly convincing when he maintains that Hootie couldn't care less about duplicating its initial success.

"The thing about that record was that it hit that niche where everybody wanted it," Rucker says, calling from a golf course. "It was unbelievable. You don't expect it to ever happen again, but the [rotten] thing about it as a band is that for the rest of our career we have to be compared to ourselves. We sell four million records and it's a flop, but that's something that we just have to sit back and laugh at. We're always just gonna be a bar band from South Carolina who got lucky."

Sure enough, and no one can say Hootie hasn't enjoyed its good fortune. The band members mostly play golf these days, and once in a while, they get together to write, record or perform. They also do charity work: After the club tour that brings them to a sold-out House of Blues at 9 p.m. Sunday, they're doing a tour with the USO. They won't be heading overseas, but Rucker says he'd gladly play in Pakistan if he was asked. "I'm not that afraid of death; I've had a lot of fun and lived a good life," he says.

The club jaunt is intended to road-test new material before recording Hootie's next album in February. Also set for release in early 2002 is Rucker's solo debut, which he describes as a more hip-hop and R&B-flavored outing--"the stuff I was listening to while growing up, before I discovered Kiss. So many guys make solo records that sound just like their band. When I made mine, I definitely wanted to do something the band could never have done."

Not that Rucker expects Hootie to fade from the scene any time soon. "We've got the money, and we can make records for the rest of our lives. The thing for us is just making ourselves happy, and hopefully that will make other people happy, too."

And where does he see Hootie fitting into the pop spectrum?

"With bands like Train and Tom Petty. There's always rock 'n' roll bands; people just want to talk about the pop stuff now. But really, who gives a [hoot] about Britney Spears? Anybody who can't go sing the national anthem, I don't give a [hoot] about them as a singer. All that stuff is manufactured, and they're making tons of money, and more power to them. But five or 10 years from now, we're gonna be talking about Train, we're not going to be talking about Britney Spears."