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"It was like a dream come true for us," Rosas remembers. "We felt like we'd made it. We realized being on a major label and having a song on the radio can really do a lot for you, because before that, we'd toured and we were playing basements and pizza joints to, on some nights, one person or the bartender or the other band, but a lot of times the other band would leave and we'd be playing to nobody. To go from that to this was amazing. I was having the time of my life."
Smile stayed on the road for about a year and a half before taking time off to work on a new album. It was at this point that things started getting messy. Sonnenberg hadn't loved touring the way Rosas and Reeder did. It was clear he was going to quit. The band found an easy replacement in John Doe Thing bassist Bob Thompson. Meanwhile, recording in San Diego with Mark Trombino, the band began to feel what Rosas describes as "resistance" from Atlantic. To make a very long story short, Smile ultimately asked to leave the label; Atlantic obliged and even let them take their unfinished album with them. Eventually Girl Crushes Boy came out on Headhunter, to whom Smile were still contractually bound. Though Rosas was never entirely happy with Girl Crushes Boy, most listeners regard it as a masterpiece, and much more in keeping with the sound that Smile grew into—jangly, layered, Beatles-influenced '60s pop—than Maquee.
Interestingly enough, like a train passing itself in the night, the damn album took so long to come out that it had the opportunity to be about itself; the disputes with the label about the recording of the album served as inspiration for many of the lyrics on the album. To further add to the house-of-mirrors effect, Rosas imbued the album once more with a crippling self-awareness. Unlike on Maquee though, where Rosas basically jumped out and said, "Hey, I suck, and I know I suck," by the time Girl Crushes Boy was released, Rosas had learned to how to subtly thread the self-awareness into the narrative so it didn't override the songs. On "The Best Years," Rosas sings, "I spent the best years of my life/Trying to wiggle out of sight."
"It's about the idea of not being a part of life because you're afraid of being lame or getting caught up in something that's fake or swallowing bullshit," he told me at the time the album came out. "It's about having a complex, because not only are you fed tons of bullshit, but you're also fed tons of bullshit by people who believe they know what the bullshit is and they don't believe it, and so you're also weary of them and just weary of yourself and afraid that you might actually swallow some bullshit at one point and then you'll be bullshit so instead you just don't partake in anything and just observe and criticize because you're afraid of making a mistake or doing the wrong thing or doing something that's not cool or doing something that is cool because doing something that's cool might not be cool."
Rosas lightened the gravitas a bit on tracks like "Instant Brain Damage" ("We saw good movies, drank so much coffee, I swear I think my face is turning blue"), in which he detailed the banality of dating in such a clever way you hardly noticed how bleak the song really was.
At this point, about 1999, Smile, with the addition of Matt Fletcher on keyboards, began playing around again in OC and Los Angeles. They were rebuilding their fan base. Things seemed to be on an upswing when Reeder told Rosas he was quitting to join San Clemente hard rockers Fu Manchu. "I think he left because he wanted to be in a situation where he felt inspired again," Rosas recalls. "He knew I would understand and I totally did even though it was still sad."
Sad? Rosas was fairly devastated by the loss. Matt Fletcher brought up the idea of his brother James, who'd played in a number of Costa Mesa bands like Film Star and the Women. Smile tried him out. It worked. Once more, the machine swung into gear. A five-song demo was recorded and sold at shows; Smile was selling out Chain Reaction and doing well in LA. Which, oddly, brings us to the present.
If you feel there's something missing from the story, I feel the same way—the only real things we have to go on are Rosas' assertions that (1) someone was bound to leave the band soon; (2) if he didn't, someone else would have; and (3) it wasn't really about that anyway.
"I can't say I'm 100 percent confident in the decision to break up," Rosas admits. "But I have to stick with it now."Smile perform with the Pharmacist's Son at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Sat., 9 p.m. $6. 21+.