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Embracing Nostalgia with Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray (Interview)

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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: 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?

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.

So 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: 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: 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.

Rock Cellar: 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: 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.

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about 14:59. The album title itself references the fact that a lot of folks figured Sugar Ray would have their ‘15 minutes’ and then go away. But in reality, that album was a pretty big success too, not just with the hits but with some of its creativity on a few tracks.

Mark McGrath: I’ve always said no one makes fun of this band better than I do, and I’m insulted when people try. Look, this band was started for fun, and we maintained that position since Day 1. We’re not the best musicians, we’re not the best songwriters, but no one has had more fun than us.

So I’ve always found it interesting when people thought we were more serious than we were, or that there was ever anything fabricated about the band, or predestined, or anything like that.

I’m not smart enough to plan a destiny of this band.

After the success of Fly…I’m kind of a music historian, a three-time Rock n’ Roll Jeopardy champion, so I knew what was coming our way. I knew people were quick to be like ‘thanks for playing, one-hit wonders!’ and I understand! Fly was an anomaly on that record, and we were real candidates to be the Kajagoogoo of the ‘90s.

But we said ‘let’s see what happens’. I’ll tell you this: 95% of the critics before they heard the next record already had their first two paragraphs written. You know, ‘here they come again!’, their snarky two-paragraph things they had ready to go. But then they saw the title, 14:59, and they had to hit DELETE on their reviews and start over.

‘Cause you know why? You don’t tell anybody a joke if they already know the punchline. We knew what we were, we knew we were a longshot, and worse come to worse we sold two million records of Floored, we all bought houses, and I guess the joke was on us. But best case scenario, we have some hits on this record and sell three million copies. And that’s what happened.

I think people saw we were poking fun at ourselves, we understand how humbly fortunate we were to be in the position we were in but were going to try to make some more good songs, I think people appreciated that.

And others were like ‘shit, these guys are making fun of themselves AND they’re having #1 hits? What is going on? This is tweaking my melon’.

Rock Cellar: That Sugar Ray was as successful as it was while the critics and the industry didn’t seem to take them seriously kind of says things about the industry at the time, doesn’t it?

Mark McGrath: There was a backlash against the band, and again, I fully understood it – I’m a student of the business. That’s why we named it 14:59, fully respecting the backlash. But one thing you can’t deny, one thing that’s always been popular in sixty years of rock ‘n roll is this: a great melody and a great lyric will always shine.

In this day and age of this hardcore, electronic/EDM Calvin Harris/David Guetta world we’re living in, that song Rude by Magic! came out of nowhere last year because it’s a great song! And no matter what you think about Maroon 5, they write great songs and there will always be room on the pop charts for a great song, I don’t care what you call it or what genre it is.

That’s what 14:59 had, great pop songs. Luckily, people were open to hearing more from us. Stupidly, and this was my idea…back then, places like Tower Records had listening stations where you could preview the album before you bought it. I’m still in like super-prankster mode, going ‘wouldn’t it be funny if the first song on our song was a death metal song?’ so the first song you heard on 14:59 was New Direction, a joke at our expense AND possibly our pocketbook.

That’s how weird the spirit of the band was back then. Luckily people got what we were doing, but that was pretty risky back then because people literally went to those listening stations and if they didn’t like the first song they wouldn’t buy the record. But it was only 45 seconds and went right into Every Morning.

My apologies, still, to everybody for that.

Rock Cellar:  I remember being confused at first, like you said, hearing New Direction when the album started.

Mark McGrath: We also thought it’d be funny if you had one of those six-CD changers and just had it on shuffle and all of a sudden that came on (laughs).

But that’s who we were and we’ve never changed the course of who we were – or who we are. I love the Beach Boys, I love Willie Nelson and I love Slayer. If you come to my house right now and you hit my Sonos, you’ll hear all three back-to-back.

Rock Cellar: It’s been a while since Sugar Ray released any new music, but you said you’re working on stuff.

Mark McGrath: My new stuff wouldn’t be under the Sugar Ray name, it’d be under my name. There’s a legal situation we’re going through right now with two of the original members and I’m looking forward to getting that settled.

There will be no new Sugar Ray music on the horizon, though, but that doesn’t mean I can’t release music. The good thing is you and I could form a band right now and release an album tonight. That’s also the bad news (laughs).

We’ve got four or five songs together for a little E.P. we’re working on, I don’t want to get too precious but we’re exercising our artistic right. We’re going to throw it up, put it on iTunes and have the Mark McGrath catalog ready to go.

Look – my voice works in a certain small margin, okay? We write the songs that we write, it’s going to be very Sugar Ray-ish, if you know what I’m saying.

Rock Cellar: So no more falsetto?

Mark McGrath: I can’t do that anymore, I blew out my falsetto voice in the metal years (laughs).

Rock Cellar: What’s it like, looking back, on realizing that you went from being in a funk/metal band with two original songs to a guy who hosted Extra, starred in Sharknado and was the band playing at a beach party in the Scooby Doo movie with Sarah Michelle Gellar?

Mark McGrath: The fact that they all came as a result of the band is incredible! The fact that I’m still having these experiences is…I just shot Sharknado 3, I just shot Joe Dirt 2 with David Spade – I think you can see where my thespian skill set is. These opportunities are just so much fun, to do all these ancillary things kind of drives the music and drives the live show and it’s very important to do these things.

It all goes back to the chance that Extra took with me. Back in 2003, the record business was coming to screeching halt. Bands of my fraternity – the Smash Mouths, the Everclears, the Third Eye Blinds – were falling out of favor at radio, not selling records. Some of the guys in the band wanted to stop touring because they were having kids, so I said ‘all right, let me see what else is out there’.

That Extra thing was a meeting I took on a Friday with no expectations – I didn’t even know what they wanted to talk about – and two weeks later I’m hosting a nationally syndicated entertainment news program. I had no idea what I was getting into and in retrospect if I had, there would have been no way I’d have done it. I literally had to learn how to host a show.

But now I have these TV skills as a result, and it’s nice to have them when something like Don’t Forget the Lyrics calls, and I can host things like Grammy shows for AXS TV and all these things.

The name of the game is letting people know you’re still out there, that you’re still alive so people can go ‘oh, that’s the guy from Sugar Ray! I’ll check them out again’.

It all kind of feeds the beast, and the beast is Sugar Ray.

Rock Cellar: But some of them might think ‘wait, didn’t he die?’ on account of that hoax thing that happened a while back.

Mark McGrath: That was unfortunate, I had a great time doing the show. I had a walk-on cameo in a twelve-minute thing that’s part of Adult Swim, which is on at night on Cartoon Network, on a show that wasn’t mine. Next thing I know there’s this giant death hoax surrounding me because I get shot on the show. I guess whoever did it thought it’d be a good idea to put out a press release saying ‘Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray died’, you know? So all of a sudden I see it and I think ‘no big deal, whatever, nobody will give a shit about this’ and then national services start picking it up and then people are starting to get concerned.

Lo and behold there are still people that care if I live or die, and people were sweetly and kindly concerned, hitting me up on Twitter, calling me, so I said ‘sorry, I’m not dead, I apologize’ and people started thinking I was behind it. So for a one-second cameo on a show that’s not mine that nobody saw I’m going to do a death threat hoax that’s going to kill my career? Yeah right.

Now the show is backing off it, Adult Swim is backing off it, because they saw how bad the fallout was. Finally we got to the bottom of it – someone had hired an independent PR company or whatever – and put out a full release exonerating me and my team, that we had nothing to do with it. Unfortunately I guess some people think I’m douche-y enough to do something like that, which broke my heart.

The death threat, whatever, I thought it’d go away in five seconds, but that people actually cared warmed my heart a bit. But twisting it into that I was behind it – THAT’s sort of breaking my heart a little bit. They put out a retraction later that day but of course nobody gives a shit about the truth, so that was never printed.

Overall, it was a bummer – but when they say ‘no press is bad press’, I’m here to tell you that’s not true.

Rock Cellar: Sugar Ray songs are still on the radio all the time. I personally probably hear Someday ten to fifteen times a week just driving around town to the supermarket and what-not. How’s that feel?

Mark McGrath: It feels like the first time, every time. People ask me what it’s like, and I remember when I used to ask other people what it’s like. You can’t really articulate what it’s like. It’s like asking what ‘celebrity’ is like.

I can tell you what a bee sting feels like but I can’t tell you what it feels like to hear something that surreal. I’m so thankful. Like you said, I’ll be walking through the mall or Gelson’s and I’ll hear Every Morning or Fly and someone will look at me and go ‘hey, it’s your song!’ and it’s awkward and weird but in the greatest way. I never thought in a million years that our songs would have any legs and people would still be talking about them. Never in a million years. Thanks to our producer David Kahne, who not only made them hits but made them classics, really.

We’re not the greatest band, I mentioned that earlier, but we wrote some pretty fuckin’ damn good songs that I’m very proud of and always will be.

Rock Cellar: That Weezer tribute song Rivers is pretty cool. You’re friends with Rivers and Nick Hexum from 311, since you recorded some songs involving them over the years, right?

Mark McGrath: Ironically, I’ve never even met Rivers Cuomo to this day. I’m just a gigantic fan. We were all transfixed by that first Weezer record. We got asked to do a song for the Scream 2 soundtrack after Fly blew up. We had this song, it didn’t make Floored for whatever reason, and it was our tribute to Rivers. It sort of felt like a Weezer song without the genius, so we named it Rivers and got a lot of love for that.

And later when we were making our record Music for Cougars he was submitting songs around, and Love is the Answer was one of them. We were looking for new songs and we liked that one, so we did. He never came to the studio, it was fully formed and written so he never came by. He’s still someone I’ve never met. He’s kind of elusive, Rivers.

Nick Hexum and 311 are a band …. he’s been a huge influence. They took us on our first real tour, our first arena tour in 1997. It was 311, Sugar Ray and Incubus, believe it or not, and we played these great arenas for the first time. All our rock star dreams came true, we had our first bus that we deserved since we were going platinum, it was such a great memory. So we became friends, obviously, and had such great memories.

When we were making our record we had “Stay On,” and 311 was in the studio next door at NRG in North Hollywood and Nick graciously came by and wrote his part right there, he made the song so much better and I wish we had released it as a single.

Rock Cellar: Final question, and it’s a silly 1990’s one: if you had to put together a Mount Rushmore of 1990s musicians, who’d you pick?

Mark McGrath: You have to have Kurt Cobain on there, right? You’d have to put Chris Cornell on there, and Anthony Kiedis for a little vibe … because Rage Against the Machine ushered in such a genre of music I’ll put Zack De la Rocha’s face there too.

Rock Cellar: You can’t go wrong there. Thanks for the chat! 

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