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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Michael Sun and Ben Beaumont-Thomas

Smash Mouth lead singer Steve Harwell dies aged 56

Steve Harwell performing in 2016.
Steve Harwell performing in 2016. Photograph: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Steve Harwell, the former lead singer of US pop-rock band Smash Mouth, has died aged 56.

His death was announced by his manager Robert Hayes, who said in a statement to Rolling Stone that Harwell “passed peacefully and comfortably” with family and friends by his side. “Steve’s iconic voice is one of the most recognisable voices from his generation,” Hayes added. “He loved the fans and loved to perform … Steve lived a 100 percent full-throttle life. Burning brightly across the universe before burning out.”

Hayes did not specify the cause of death, but he told TMZ earlier this week that the singer had been suffering from liver failure. Harwell had faced numerous other health issues in recent years, since a 2013 diagnosis of the heart disease cardiomyopathy and the neurological disorder, acute Wernicke encephalopathy, which affected his speech and memory. He also suffered from alcoholism.

Born in California in 1967, Harwell formed Smash Mouth in 1994 when his manager and longtime friend Kevin Coleman introduced him to two other musicians in San Jose. In 1996 the four men experienced a minor breakout when their song Nervous in the Alley was played by a local radio station while the band was still unsigned.

Record labels soon showed interest and the group signed with Interscope before releasing their debut album Fush Yu Mang in 1997. With a distinctive sound that blended ska, lounge music, psych-pop and more, topped with Harwell’s hip-hop influenced vocals, the single Walkin’ on the Sun became their first major hit, reaching No 1 on the Billboard modern rock charts and the UK Top 20.

Their second album, 1999’s Astro Lounge, contained Smash Mouth’s biggest single All Star, which became a huge hit internationally and remains the group’s only appearance in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100.

“When Astro Lounge came, we had enough time under our belt touring, getting better,” Harwell told Rolling Stone in 2019. “I was becoming a better singer and our sound started developing.”

Smash Mouth, Steve Harwell (r.), ca. 1990sHD3DA2 Smash Mouth, Steve Harwell (r.), ca. 1990s
Steve Harwell (right) with the rest of Smash Mouth in the 1990s. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

In 2001, All Star featured in the opening credits of Shrek – a usage that continued to spawn memes and parodies throughout the following two decades, making the band an internet mainstay. The song now has close to a billion streams on Spotify.

“At first it was weird and we were a bit guarded and resistant,” Harwell said about All Star’s virality in a 2017 Polygon interview. “But as we dove into it more … we started ‘getting it’.”

The band also closed out the hit animated movie with a cover of the Monkees’ I’m a Believer, which reached the US Top 30 – one of a number of successful covers Smash Mouth recorded during their career, including a take on War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends? and ? and the Mysterians’ Can’t Get Enough of You Baby.

Harwell suffered tragedy at the height of the band’s fame in 2001, when his son Presley died from leukemia aged six months, and he postponed the release of their third, self-titled album. The band released four further albums, most recently Magic in 2012.

In 2006, Harwell appeared on the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life, where he lived and performed challenges alongside a group of other celebrities.

Later in his career, he became a more controversial figure. In 2015, Harwell made headlines for yelling profanities at a crowd in Colorado; he later apologised for the incident. In August 2020, the band was widely criticised for playing a packed gig in South Dakota during the pandemic, during which Harwell was reported as saying: “Fuck that Covid shit!” The concert was later described as a super-spreader event.

In 2021 Harwell announced his retirement days after a concert in upstate New York during which he appeared to threaten audience members and perform a Nazi salute.

At the time, a source close to the band revealed that Harwell had been dealing with multiple health conditions. “I’ve tried so hard to power through my physical and mental health issues, and to play in front of you one last time,” Harwell wrote in a statement in 2021, “but I just wasn’t able to.”

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