Embracing Nostalgia with Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray (Interview)

Embracing Nostalgia with Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray (Interview)

Mark McGrath 2013

Back in 1997, there was simply no escaping Sugar Ray‘s breakout hit Fly. Its reggae rhythms, catchy hook and singer Mark McGrath‘s croon resulted in one of the biggest overnight success stories of the ’90s.

Nearly twenty years (and numerous other Top 10 hits) later, McGrath has become somewhat of a survivor: part actor, part TV host, part front man of a semi-active band that tours regularly on the strength of the power of nostalgia.

Rock Cellar Magazine caught up with McGrath about all of that, as well as Sugar Ray’s upcoming Under the Sun tour.

Rock Cellar Magazine: I wanted to talk about this year’s Under the Sun Tour, which will bring Sugar Ray on the road with Eve 6, Uncle Kracker and Better Than Ezra. What are your expectations for this particular tour, since Under the Sun has become somewhat of a yearly thing now?

under the sun 2015 tour banner

Mark McGrath: When I first thought of the Under the Sun Tour a couple of years ago, its original inclination began with me and Art (Alexakis) of Everclear. We got together and said “you know what? There isn’t really a tour that celebrates our decade yet. There are sixties tours, seventies, tours, eighties tours, quite a few from each decade – but not the 1990s.”

That’s kind of because the ’90s never ended, there’s an extreme hangover to it. I mean, I could tell you the date the ‘80s ended, but it’s hard to tell you when the ‘90s ended. If you look at Pollstar today, some of the Top 10 bands that are in there, in the Top 10 Touring Acts, most of the bands are from the ‘90s!

Dave Matthews Band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden. There are bands that just never went away, so it’s kind of a decade that never ended in that respect.

We wondered if it was the right time or not, but we said ‘it’s now or never, let’s put something together’ and it was initially called Summerland. We had a great run with that one but we had different objectives about what the tour could be. Art wanted to be more guitar-based and hard-rockin’, but I wanted to include ANY genre from the ‘90s – hip/hop, R&B, anybody that had a hit in the ‘90s was welcome to come.

Sugar Ray 2015So we had differences in what our tours could be, so we split off the next year to Under the Sun. 2015 will be our third year doing the tour, and it’s been going great. There’s so much great music from the ‘90s, it’s kind of the last decade where the record industry was really at the zenith of its powers.

Bands were going through the evolution of starting a band, making a demo tape, sending it to the record label A&R department, and so on…it was a really thriving industry back then.

So it was the last gasp, if you will, of the record industry, and the ‘90s certainly celebrated that. It’s funny – I look out in the audience at these shows, and they’re getting bigger and younger. The irony of the ‘90s is kicking in, and I think people are missing that organic rock-based music. The bands I’ve selected…right now, they’re my friends, in our fraternity of music, the Smash Mouths of the world, the Better Than Ezras of the world. It’s hard to put a tour like this together, so right now you’re reaching out to friends and bands that can and are interested in a tour like that.

There are bands that will do this and bands that don’t have to do this, which is another obstacle.

But if you can get Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, Gin Blossoms, bands like that – all together, you’re going to hear a lot of hits. This is a tour that…I don’t want to hear the band’s new stuff just like the audience doesn’t.

Let’s make the sets short, let’s play all the hits as you remember them, and have a fun night of music. What’s great about this is I’m not selling you anything new. If you don’t like #1 songs from the ‘90s, please do not come to Under the Sun.

Rock Cellar Magazine: There are some of those bands that still forge ahead with new music and new albums, so that’s definitely one way to go about it.

Mark McGrath: I totally understand that, there’s no problem with that. But if you’re putting together a Greatest Hits package, don’t hoodwink the audience and say ‘here’s five cuts from our new record’. You’re sitting there playing the Greek Theater, and you’re so excited to be there, bands can sometimes get off-track regarding why you’re playing to 4,000 fans instead of 400.

But I totally respect people’s right to write new stuff. I’m doing that. When you’re in a band, you do two things: play live and write new music. We’ve certainly been playing live a lot, it’s fun to write new stuff. I don’t care if anybody hears it. I write it for our own enjoyment and if you come to a Sugar Ray show by ourselves, you’re gonna hear new stuff. Just not at Under the Sun.

Rock Cellar Magazine: The name ‘Under the Sun’ references a Sugar Ray song with a lyrical focus on nostalgia, remembering things from the past.

Mark McGrath: It felt good and it sort of had the vibe of the tour, the shows start a bit early when the sun’s going down, because we’ve got about three hours of great music. I just see the smiles on people’s faces when like…if Eve 6 goes out there, or if Fastball goes out there, and you hear two songs you forgot they wrote. This tour is so great, obviously you’re going to get the hits you remember – like Fly and Every Morning, but people forget we did When It’s Over, Someday, Falls Apart. You forget Smash Mouth did When the Morning Comes, and I see people go ‘wow, I forgot about these songs!’

As a band on this tour, you’re gonna open with a hit song and close with a hit song, and the audience will hear a bunch in three hours. That means the most to me, if you come here, you know what you’re gonna get and you’re going to have a great night.

sugar ray floored artworkRock Cellar Magazine: As someone whose first cassette tape was Sugar Ray’s Floored, I was hoping back around the early 2000s that a ‘90s tour like this would happen someday.

Mark McGrath: Look, Summerland is a great show! This year Art’s got Toadies, American Hi-Fi, Fuel and of course Everclear. Luckily there’s enough great music out there to support a couple tours of this nature. Smash Mouth is going out this year with Toad the Wet Sprocket, so the demand is there for this kind of great rock n’ roll based music, the nostalgia for an era we all long for.

What gets to me is when people start thinking nostalgia is a “bad word”. To be part of someone’s history? People come up to me and say ‘hey, Fly was the first song my kid ever learned.’ Being a father, I know how important that is, and it’s a humbling place to be.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Let’s talk about the album Floored. It’s a unique record in that it’s somewhat of a garage-punk record with an Adam Ant cover, angry rock and then…Fly. How did that song wind up around all the others on the same album? The album before it, Lemonade & Brownies, was basically a metal album too, so where’d Fly come from?

Mark McGrath: Yeah Fly is certainly the anomaly on that record. We were a band learning as we went along. When we got signed to Atlantic Records in 1994 we had two originals of our own. Of course, we lied to Atlantic and said we had forty, we were ready to go make an album tonight, and so on, but we lied. We were salesmen! We were hustlin’.

So the first record, Lemonade & Brownies, is kids in a candy store, going ‘oh shit! Be careful what you ask for.’ We got ourselves a million dollar record deal, now we’ve got to make a record! And our two original songs were called Lick Me and Caboose, to kind of give you an idea of where we were coming from. We were kind of a jokey/metal/rock/punk/funk/thrash…we were the Chili Peppers with zero talent.

We loved what we were doing, though, and I think if you hear the first record it was all over the place. Yes, people look back on it as a ‘metal record’ and the first few singles we released were Mean Machine and 10 Seconds Down and we were touring with bands like Korn and Monster Magnet and Deftones and all these incredible rock bands. But if you listen to that record, there are R&B songs, soul, I’m singing falsetto on a song. If you hear the record you’re hearing a band in its cocoon stage, going ‘who are we?’

Out of  necessity we kind of became known as a metal band, a little pre nu-metal type rap/rock thing before there was rap/rock. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, but we became a band during Lemonade & Brownies. We toured the world and the record was actually successful in Europe. Because of that and because of being on the Howard Stern Show, they let us make four. The record didn’t sell well in the States, but now it’s up to 100,000 because of the success of Sugar Ray and people checking out our catalog, but we were really in that limbo area there.

And for some reason, Sugar Ray could never write a song that meant anything to anybody. So setting up the next record we said ‘listen, we have a bit of a foothold in the metal world, let’s concentrate on that, make some heavier stuff’, but at the same time we were getting better as songwriters.

Fly kind of came out of nowhere. Our drummer had this sort of ethereal version of Fly that when I first heard it – just the chorus, the (sings in different register) ‘I just want to fly’ – I almost quit the band when I first heard it. It was the worst thing I had ever heard. But then a friend of mine, McG, who directs all our music videos and is now a big player in the Hollywood world, he heard the song too. I told him I hated it, but he told me ‘just go back and give it another listen, see if you can structure it, make chords out of it or put verses to it’.

So I went back and wrote some verses and the song started taking shape. We had producers coming down and one in particular was David Kahne. He had come off the success of Sublime, he produced What I Got, Garden Grove and those songs.

Sublime was…we knew Sublime. If you ever saw a Sublime show, it was great, but in retrospect…they were a sloppy punk/rock band that played ska, would show up half the time and they played forty minute dub jams…it was hard to see the genius through the cloud. And we thought ‘wow, look what David Kahne did with Sublime, maybe he could do that with us’.

So we brought him to our studio and played him Fly, and when I got to the part where I say ‘my mother, god rest her soul’ he stopped the practice and said ‘do that again’.

I did it over and over, and he said ‘I can sell two million records based on that note right there’. We were skeptical, but he said ‘trust me, the song’s a hit, I can make it a hit’. And the rest was history.

And after the success of Floored and Fly in particular, we thought ‘let’s keep writing these things’. I love the Beatles and Beach Boys, I love Slayer and Metallica. I never thought we could write a song that meant anything to anybody and it kind of took the whole group effort to make that happen with Fly and luckily we came back with Every Morning, Someday, When It’s Over and by then we had carved ourselves a little niche with these acoustic songs with hip-hop backbeats.

We had more success than I could ever imagine, and that’s kind of the long story of how Fly made it on Floored.

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