Paul De Lisle of Smash Mouth: The Interview

Paul De Lisle of Smash Mouth Interview

Feature Photo: Paul De Lisle courtesy of Northstar Artists

If you grew up in the ’90s, indeed, you recall Smash Mouth’s classic hits “Walkin’ on the Sun,” “All Star,” and “Then the Morning Comes.”

Combing the easy, breezy flow of hip-hop with elements of surf rock and more, Smash Mouth set the world alight during the now classic era of alternative and indie rock. Looking back, many bands came and went, but few seem to have stood the test of time. To that end, despite numerous lineup changes, challenges, and a few commercial missteps, Smash Mouth, amongst the chaos, has endured.

These days, Smash Mouth is still at it, although bassist Paul De Lisle is now the group’s sole remaining original member. But that doesn’t mean Smash Mouth can’t still bring the heat, as the group’s faithful fanbase, which has stuck with them, is treated to heaping doses of nostalgia night after night.

With rumblings of new music on the way and a reinvigorated lineup, Paul De Lisle beamed in with to recount his origins in music, the formation of Smash Mouth, the band’s current endeavors, and the potential for a ’90s rock resurgence, and beyond.

What first inspired you to pick up the bass guitar?

I started playing ukulele when I was six. Everyone thought it was cute because I was good, and I could sing. But when I was twelve, I wanted to rock. I wanted to play in a rock band. By that time, I was stuck playing French horn in the Blach Junior High School concert band. But Blach also had an after-school jazz band. Complete with drums, electric guitar… and a Fender Precision electric bass guitar plugged into an amp!

The Fender Precision electric bass guitar was, by far, the coolest-looking instrument I’d ever seen in my twelve-year-old life. My attraction to the instrument was as much aesthetic as it was musical. Plus, most budding young rockers wanted to play either electric guitar or drums. The bass is somehow deemed second-class. I wanted to be different. And the Fender Precision electric bass guitar was as different from the French horn as you could get.

What sort of scene were you exposed to?

I moved to Mountain View, California, at the end of 1968 when I was halfway through kindergarten. I’ve lived in northern California ever since. But it kinda seemed like I half grew up in Canada because my father was a United Airlines pilot. So, we were able to fly back and forth to Ottawa/St. Catherine’s all the time.

At least twice a year. I had a handful of super-cool cousins my own age on both parents’ sides. All of them were elite athletes, scholars, or both. But one thing they all 100% had in common… they were all rockers to their core. But then they were swept up in that very Canadian, traveling-hockey-kid-billeting scene. So, they could never start rock bands.

One of my cousins was on the Junior Canadian National Hockey team at age thirteen. Another was the starting halfback on McGill University’s football team. Another cousin is head of the political science department at Queens University in Kingston, as well as a virtuoso rock guitarist. My cousins were, and remain, heroes to me. Vastly influential.

When did rock music enter the picture for you?

Rock music hit me like a ton of bricks at age eleven. And here’s how old I am: when I was eleven… there was no such thing as hip-hop. It was at least four or five years away.

Prior to Smash Mouth, you were a member of Lackadaddy. What are your memories?

Lackadaddy was the inevitable result of me and Greg Camp’s burgeoning friendship. When Lackadaddy formed in 1993, Greg and I were, separately, members of the top two (highest-paid) cover bands in the South Bay. His band was called The Gents. Mine was called Skeleton Crew.

So, we ran into each other all the time. Early on, I had a strong feeling Greg, and I were the only two members of this very elite and exclusive South Bay cover band scene with any realistic view of escaping the cover band trap. Greg was a songwriter. So was I. We both liked all the cool, underground music most cover band musicians hate.

Most importantly, we were the only two guys on the entire scene who loved skateboarding and surfing as much as music. And then, once we actually started playing music together… we knew it was beyond special. It was instant magic. Over and over again. Such a thrill. Everything we tried totally worked.

Take me through the formation of Smash Mouth.

Smash Mouth happened immediately after Lackadaddy dissolved. In hindsight, Lackadaddy was a wonderful one-trick pony but not built to last. But Greg and I had already agreed to be musical partners. Wherever I went, he went. And vice versa. This is also where Robert Hayes’ massive influence kicks in.

Robert managed Lackadaddy. He also managed a crazy-spirited, insanely charismatic quasi-rapper/motorcycle mechanic named Steve Harwell. By some absolute miracle, Steve’s first-ever try at rapping had resulted in the minor Bay Area hit “Big Black Boots” on Scottie Brothers Records. Greg and I were shockingly impressed. Not one single ego-muso-dickhead in our entire cover band scene had ever even come close to a record deal.

Yet this ridiculous Harwell character immediately scored. But then, just as soon as “Big Black Boots” fizzled, Steve wanted to try singing in an actual rock band. Greg and I were at loose ends after Lackaddy, so Robert shoved me, Greg, and Steve together to see what would happen. What happened was ten million records sold worldwide.

Many Smash Mouth’s members were hip-hop supporters in the early ’90s. How did that influence the early direction of the band?

Groove and flow. Hip-hop influenced our groove and flow. From Lackaddy to “Big Black Boots” to Smash Mouth.

Can you recall Smash Mouth’s first gig? How did Interscope Records enter the picture?

Our first gig was either Carson Daly’s 21st birthday party in the backyard of his and “Two Cigs” Jim’s house in Campbell or in the back parking lot of this long-forgotten skateboard shop in Redwood City. And I was in Big Sur when we got signed to Interscope! So, I don’t even know! [Laughs].

What are your greatest memories of the recording of Fush Yu Mang?

My greatest memory of recording Fush Yu Mang was “bass day.” I distinctly remember it being a Saturday. because at around 10:30 pm, Greg and my girlfriend at the time came blasting into the studio all hammered after attending the wedding reception of one of our friends.

My workday had begun at noon and would finish at midnight. It was just me and Eric Valentine all day. No engineers or assistants. We had no money for that. Remember, we weren’t signed yet. Eric had rented some special old Ampeg SVT amp for one day only. That’s all we could afford.

So, I had to get all twelve bass tracks perfect in twelve hours. One song per hour. And it was super fucking fun because I was super fucking prepared. Little did I know this would turn out to be one of the most important and significant days of my life. It was crazy, though; we never searched for a sound. The sound found us.

Astro Lounge showed a shift in direction. Was that intentional?

Yes, it was. But there was no directive from Interscope Records or anything; they didn’t bother us. The intent was all ours. We had a clause in our contract that gave us complete creative control. So, they had no say in what we did.

Walk me through the writing and recording of “All-Star,” which remains Smash Mouth’s signature song. Can you also recount “Then the Morning Comes?

Both “All-Star” and “Then the Morning Comes” were sort of rush-written by Greg at the tail end of the Astro Lounge sessions. We thought the record was finished. But although we did have creative control, Interscope president Tom Whalley strongly suggested we try to come up with two more “hit” songs. Greg accepted the challenge and hit them both out of the park. The rest is history.

While the album was certified platinum, there are several overlooked tracks on the record. What are some of your favorites?

“Digging Your Scene” is a favorite because it rocks hard in that ’60s kind of way. “I Just Wanna See” because I co-wrote it. “Satellite” for its unique, bachelor-pad style arrangement. And “Radio” because it reminds me of San Jose, which is our home.

Was the band prepared for the tidal wave of exposure that came in the wake of Astro Lounge?

Our tidal wave of exposure came with Fush Yu Mang. It’s funny how people sometimes forget what a massively huge hit “Walking on The Sun” was. We were already world-famous by the time Astro Lounge came out. We’d already faced the challenges.

Do you feel Smash Mouth’s next record, Get the Picture, received its due?

I love that record, but I’m not sure. It wasn’t as big of a hit, but people dug it. I can say that Get the Picture is my dad’s favorite Smash Mouth record. Honestly, that record was an absolute joy to make. We were young, rich rock stars by then and happy as proverbial clams.

Summer Girl served as an homage to surf rock in many ways. As an avid surfer yourself, how integral has surf rock been to the overall sound and aesthetic of Smash Mouth?

First of all, Summer Girl is arguably the best Smash Mouth record ever. Maybe my personal favorite. Every song is an absolute winner. And yes, surf music was obviously a huge influence on Greg and me. From Dick Dale to Agent Orange to The Mermen, all of that meant a lot and definitely became a huge part of our music.

I wanted to touch on 2012’s Magic, which featured a very different approach. Did being free from commercial restrictions lend itself to that?

I hate that record. To me, Magic doesn’t exist. It “magically” disappeared. Never once in our entire existence have I ever felt boxed in or repressed by commercial restrictions. We were trying to write hit songs from day one. That was the goal. That was our hobby. That was the fun of it.

Have you found that challenging and painful with many of your original bandmates leaving over the years?

Obviously, I miss Greg. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But Sean E. River is fucking kick-ass, and I fucking love him. Both as a player and a person. We’ve had a revolving door of drummers, and I’ve been blessed to play with all of them. But if Hippy ever quit… I would be devastated. So, he can never quit!

Steve Harwell departed in 2021. Was there ever a thought that Smash Mouth might not continue?

Have you seen that video of Steve at Woodstock on October 9, 2021? It was on SNL’s Weekend Update, if you haven’t. Not only was there never a thought of not continuing, but we were also all just waiting for time to pass and things to take their natural course so we could be good again. Steve… and only Steve sealed his own fate.

Zach Goode is aboard as Smash Mouth’s new singer. What makes Zach the perfect replacement for Steve Harwell?

He submitted a video. Simple as that. I knew immediately he was the guy. I mean, have you heard Zach sing? He’s the best fucking singer in the world. So powerful. Pitch perfect. His range has no ceiling. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he bears a passing physical resemblance to Steve. But most importantly, I really love the big teddy bear. We all do. He’s funny as fuck. Zach is a great person with a great heart. And did I mention he’s the best fucking singer in the world?

What are the origins of the recent Rick Astley cover, as well as “4th of July?”

The origins of both songs stem from Ron X, who works on our management team. He suggested we do a Smash Mouth treatment of NGGYU way back in 2020. Randy and Hippy came up with a killer new treatment/arrangement of the song, and then Sean and I did our parts. Then we just had to wait for a year-and-a-half until Zach nailed the shit out of the lead vocal. “Fourth of July” was a song I had written years ago, and we finally recorded it properly. There are tons of Christmas songs. Not enough Fourth of July songs.

Having not released a full-length record in nearly ten years, with Zach aboard, does the band feel reinvigorated enough to jump back into the studio?

We are recording new songs as fast as we can. We have tons of them on deck. The machine is now back up and running. Because of his health issues, Steve could not record any usable vocals for several years. Period.

Do you find it challenging to create new music, knowing it will forever be compared to older material?

We love performing all our hits every night, and we love how the crowd reacts to those hits. When creating new music today, we aren’t trying to beat or top those hits in any way. We are just creating what we love, and hopefully, others will love it too.

Do you sense a resurgence in ’90s-era rock bands on the horizon, like ’80s hair metal has surged in recent years?

Fuck yes, I sense a resurgence in ’90s music on the horizon. You wanna know why? The songs! Most ’80s hair metal songs were absolute shit. You had KISS telling you to “Lick It Up,” Quite Riot repeatedly insisting that you “Bang your head,” and Winger celebrating statutory rape with “She’s Only 17.” All I can say is, “REALLY???” The music we made didn’t have any of that bullshit, and for those reasons and many more, it’ll stand the test of time. There’s no garbage filler or shitty messages. Just fun music for people to enjoy.

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