Living the Dream
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s not hard for a rock star to let fame go to their head, so it’s always rather charming to find a singer who really doesn’t take the whole thing too seriously. Take Mark McGrath, the handsome, fun-loving lead singer of 90s hitmakers Sugar Ray, who was the voice behind such huge singles as “Fly,” “Every Morning,” “Someday,” “Falls Apart” and “When It’s Over.”
His albums may have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but McGrath still looks at himself as some kid from Cali that just got lucky. He openly acknowledges that he isn’t the greatest singer ever, he can sometimes be a little goofy and even he is a little shocked by his band’s popularity.
After spending the last few years as the host of the infotainment TV series Extra, McGrath and his band mates decided to act on their urge to record a new, low-key CD – their first record in six years. That disk is Music for Cougars, a savvy blend of classic Sugar Ray pop songcraft.
Right after Music for Cougars was released; McGrath sat down with me to discuss his band, his legacy, his side projects, the new album and his surprising longtime respect for 70s pop singer Gilbert O’Sullivan.
How did the band originally get together?
We’re all from Newport Beach, California. About 21 years ago, we said “Hey man, you want to start a band?” Robbie our guitar player and Stan our drummer were in the local cover band that everybody followed around, all the girls loved… I just wanted to carry their equipment around, because that was where all the action was. So one day, their singer didn’t want to do “Back in Black,” so I just on a whim went up there on stage and sang “Back in Black” with them. I didn’t do it very well, but they were amused enough to say, “Hey man, there’s something there.” When their band kind of broke up a little bit, we got together to make some music again. They wanted to go in a little harder direction and write some of their own songs. And that’s where we are. 21 years later, it’s still the same dudes.
Some of the earlier songs on the first album – stuff like “Mean Machine” – was a little harder and more punk based. Why do you think the band switched over into a more melodic pop/funk style?
I think that A) it had to do with the fact that we learned to play our instruments. We lied to the label and said we have fifteen songs. When we first got signed we had like two songs. One was called “Caboose” and the other was called “Lick Me.” (laughs) To say that we were learning as we were going along is an understatement. And we’re such fans of all kinds of music. I love Slayer, I love the Beach Boys and everything in between. When you have five guys who write in the band – like we all do – you’re going to get a lot of influences. We have a DJ in our band, so obviously we are big hip hop fans. So that element comes in. There are a lot of elements and we have a very democratic way of writing songs. But certainly back then when we started – our first record in 1995 – we were like kids in a candy store. We were just throwing things against the wall. We were huge Beastie Boy fans. Still are. They were doing hardcore stuff. They were doing mellow stuff. I think the common misconception with that first record is that it was really hard. Half the songs were some of the mellowest stuff we ever wrote – R&B songs with falsetto vocals. But the singles we released, ‘Mean Machine’ and ‘10 Seconds Down’ were of course harder edged. We were touring with bands like The Deftones and Monster Magnet and KoRn, so we did certainly get lumped in that thrash arena. I love that music. The second record Floored was actually harder than the first record – the anomaly being “Fly” in that record. It was funny; people would buy the record Floored expecting fifteen “Fly”s and they got the hardest record we ever made. I never said we were smart, we were just certainly exercising artistic license and having fun. If you limit yourself to genres, you’re not a true music fan in my book.
When “Fly” just became a huge hit, suddenly you’re all over the radio and TV. How surreal was that experience – for a bunch of guys from Ocean County to suddenly explode like that?
I can’t even quantify what it meant. It’s still surreal. When I hear songs on the radio, it’s still phenomenal to me. Because “Fly” had so many firsts for us. We were on MTV. They got a platinum record out of it. We were touring the world. It was just phenomenal. It was surreal. I would look at these guys like, “Can you believe how this is happened?” Because it wasn’t premeditated. We have five guys who started to play music because drawn to music. I’ve never claimed to be the best singer in the world. I never claimed to be the best band musicians in the world. But I’ll be damned if we can’t craft a pop song every now and then. People really responded to “Fly.” Actually, we said, “You know what? People are digging this. Let’s see if we can do some more of these.” Like I said earlier, we’d been experimenting with more mellow sounds and harmonies and things. We really explored it on the follow-up record, 14:59. We were able to have another number one song with “Every Morning.” “Someday” was a top five song. It’s phenomenal when I look back in retrospect. I always appreciate the career at the time. When I look back, I just think, “Man…” I’ll be the first guy to rip down the band. I’m very self-effacing about myself and the band, but we did something that I’m very proud of. I think that also is a really galvanizing factor in the fact that we’re still playing today – because we’re not playing in front of arenas. There are not millions of people to shows. There’s not millions of dollars to be made. It’s certainly the same ethic and passion why we started 21 years ago. I get to play music live and to write music. I’m very fortunate to still have the vehicle to do that.
I remember when 14:59 came out; everyone was saying you were just going to be a one-hit wonder for “Fly.” How important was it for you to prove the band had a lot more staying power?
More than you ever know. But far be it from me to guarantee that. I was hoping we could do that. “Fly” was an anomaly on the record. I felt we had the talent to do it, but yet the music industry is so fickle and it is tough to do. And there was certainly sort of this wave of anti-Sugar Ray after Floored. The band unfortunately gets lumped into my own douchiness sometimes. It’s a galvanizing force amongst your cool friends to say “Oh, Sugar Ray is this…, Sugar Ray is that…” so you can just listen to your Kings of Leon records in peace. It’s a common ground. But people are no more critical of us that we are. We’re guys just having fun. We’ve been lucky enough to hit a few songs. People take it more seriously than we do. All of our self-preservation was in place releasing 14:59. We named the record fourteen minutes and 59 seconds as an ode to the fact that – yeah, we get it guys. We had one hit. We may never do that again. I prayed to God a few times. I said, “Listen, dude, if you could let us sneak in” and like, not even get a giant hit like “Every Morning” was. If we could just sneak back in there with another hit that people would recognize – not be a one-hit wonder – I’ll be golden. Oh my God, if he didn’t supply us with three or four more songs and a career that has gone twenty years longer than I ever thought it would. It was very important for us to get off that one-hit wonder cruise ship like Kajagoogoo [the band who recorded the 1983 hit “Too Shy”]. We were lucky to do it.
14:59 was a reference to the old Andy Warhol line about everyone being famous for fifteen minutes in their life. Could you have imagined that all these years later you’d still be out there and recording?
Never in a million years did I think that. I truly didn’t. I didn’t even know if I wanted to do it. Like I said, I was younger when we started. It sounded like a fun thing to do. I wanted to be the point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. In the seventh grade I figured out maybe that won’t happen. Simultaneously I was watching the TV and there was David Lee Roth doing a scissor kick off the drums to “Panama.” I’m like, huh, that looks like a good job if you can find it. So it’s always been this sort of dream job. As I mentioned, it’s not like you’re dealing with virtuosos here. I’ve got my range and people have responded to it, but it ain’t Pavarotti singing here. We’re just very blessed. I never thought I’d be here talking to you, on a tour again. It’s phenomenal how the cards have panned out. But it’s a testament to the band. We stuck together through a lot of stuff. Sometimes we just had each other. All the clichés and new-ageisms that apply to that sort of group dynamic have applied to us. We’re still here doing it. I think that’s the most rewarding aspect of the whole thing. We’re still here after all we’ve been through.
How crazy did things get when you guys suddenly started having hit after hit after hit?
I think with anything, everybody starts valuing your own participation in it. When you start writing music and start taking big checks coming in, you’re like wow, maybe I won’t be so nice next time and give the drummer more than he deserves. So you have to make these adjustments and you move on the fly. Money can ruin a lot of things, ruin a lot of people. The partying can. All these elements – people traded the Sugar Ray dynamic, but we are able to adjust and move on the fly. We’re still adjusting. It’s not perfect still, but we’ve learned how to deal with each others’ idiosyncrasies and be able to still be here and make music – which is the primary goal, why we started 21 years ago. Having some money is great. It’s fantastic, but doing it now, no one is getting rich. No one is quitting their day jobs. We are very fortunate to be able to play music and get back to it. But our Behind the Music would be very interesting, to say the least.
I think one of the great things about the band is like you said; you do respect lots of different types of music. You’re willing to go in any direction. This is not an important point, but I always just wondered about this. In “Fly,” why did you paraphrase a line from “Alone Again (Naturally)?” [“Twenty five years old, my mother, God rest her soul.”]
You are the only person in the world who has ever even acknowledged that. That’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s one of those dead – it’s like a suicide hit of the 70s. I was in many dentist chairs in the 70s and that song would come on (laughs) and it had such an emotional quality to it. I always thought it was sort of a dreamy lullaby, but when we were writing “Fly” I was listening to the lyrics of that song and I’m like this song is about death. It’s about suicide. It’s the most depressing lyric ever. [Yet] It’s the most melodic song you’ll ever hear in your life. That’s what I kind of wanted to convey in “Fly.” That was sort of the jumping off point, you know? “Fly” is kind of bouncy and light, but there is this stark imagery in there. There loss in it. There is loss of a mother, obviously. I thought it was a good way to juxtapose the lyrics with the melody on that, similar to what Gilbert O’Sullivan did on “Alone Again (Naturally).” It’s just like a shout out to him. Much like the Beastie Boys, though certainly not in the clever level, we like to sort of acknowledge and give shout outs to things that really affected us through our lives. Whether it be “Purple Rain,” be it the punk rock band the Germs, all of these influences have made it to our records. In a moment like this where you acknowledge something – that I thought was extremely obvious, that no one really has before – that really makes it all worthwhile.
In 2001 in the aftermath of tragedy at the World Trade Center, rock and roll went into a much more serious and dark direction, making it sort of hard for more good-time party bands like yourself and Smashmouth and Barenaked Ladies to sell. Why do you think that the world is ready for more lighthearted music again?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think that might be your viewpoint of 2001. I had a different one. In 2001, people were going to see a Sugar Ray show for escape. No one is ever coming to us for political commentary, anyway. That’s why Sugar Ray shows during that period were about escape. It always is anyway. For an hour and a half you come to the show, have a couple of beers and take your mind off things for a little while. That’s all we wanted to be anyway. Especially when a tragedy like 9/11 happened, we were certainly a relief for some people. [I know that] simply because people told me that who were coming to the shows at that point. They were like, “Oh your songs…” One of the happiest moments I ever had in my life was I was taking a plane once and this girl tapped me on my shoulder and she gave me a letter. I’m like all right. Then she went away. I was reading the letter and long story short; she had lost her husband in the Twin Towers. The letter had gone on to say she had been afraid to fly for months – this is about a year after 9/11. She was saying she loved Sugar Ray, she loved me, she loved the band. She was very terrified to fly. She had this moment where she lost her husband and she thought it was a sign from the angels that I was on the plane with her to make her feel comfortable on her first time flying. You get moments like that, bro, and it transcends music or what you’re doing. That was one of the most powerful things that ever happened in my life. Still is to this day. So, I know what you’re saying like that – it did take a dark turn for some people, but I’d always felt great for Sugar Ray to be different. Some people as a vehicle for release, like let’s just take our mind off what’s going on for a second, you know?
In recent years, you had been the host of the TV show Extra. How did that come about and when did you decide it was time to get back to the music?
You know what? Basically, my life has been a happy accident. After 2003 and The Pursuit of Leisure – it didn’t light the charts on fire. People were kind of on the wall for bands in my fraternity – the SmashMouths, the Third Eye Blinds, the Everclears, the Barenaked Ladies – we were falling out of favor, certainly on alternative radio and definitely on pop radio. The Ushers and Lil’ Jons were moving in and I’m like, you know what, man? You’ve had a great run this first wave; let’s see what else is going on. The band kind of collectively went, “Yeah, I just had a baby born.” “My daughter is two.” “I want to sit down and smell the flowers for a little bit.” I got a few phone calls – they had called to see what’s going on. Literally, there is this girl at Extra that had been calling a couple of years. I thought let me put a call in and see what she wants. I went in there on a Friday and two weeks later I’m hosting Extra. It literally went that fast. I thought I might be there six months to a year. I ended up being there about four years. The common misconception was that Sugar Ray broke up in the time when I was at Extra, but in terms of the live end, we were still doing 30-40 shows a year. We just weren’t in the process of writing a record and touring. A year ago, a friend of mine got a record deal through Fontana/Universal. He said, “Hey man, you guys are still together. You want us to make a low-budget punk record? No pressure, no commercial considerations…. Just put it out there to have some fun?” I go; you know what, that sounds great. What a band does – if they are lucky enough – is to perform and write music. So we had a perfect way to do that. Subsequently I left Extra because they wanted to increase my role there. The entertainment news genre, that sort of male host thing is kind of circling the drain because of the internet – similar to what it did to the recording industry. They said, “Listen, Mark, we need you to work 24/7, on weekends. We need you to do live shots on Larry King to talk about Paul Newman’s cancer.” I was like, guys, I’m out. It’s just too much and A) I don’t feel qualified to do it and B) it’s not what I signed up for. So my contract naturally expired and I handed the reigns to Mario [Lopez] and said let me get fulltime with the record and get out with the band again. I wasn’t expecting to tour. I didn’t think I’d have the time. Fortunately through events, here I am.
It’s been six years since the last Sugar Ray album. What’s it like to finally get some new music out there?
It feels great, because like I said, it wasn’t premeditated. I didn’t know if we were going to do it. Actually, I didn’t know if we were going to make another record again. We knew there wasn’t this giant demand for a Sugar Ray record. That wasn’t the point. It was you write music when you’re in a band, you know? If you have all your parts together, hopefully you write some music. We have the internet presence and there are still some very fervent Sugar Ray fans out there. It’s so great to write new material and have new material in the set. Just get back in that mode of “I’m a songwriter” every day. I’m in a band every day. I’m doing interviews. I’m putting together the tour. It’s great to get back to my passion, you know? If you are lucky enough to do what you love for a job, then God bless you.
I love the title of the CD, Music for Cougars. However, is that a way of saying you are going for your old fans but do you think you’ll get a younger audience as well?
Yeah. The title is just supposed to be ironic. You can’t take it seriously. I think it’s funny, people are like… I mean, dude, I’m 41 years old. If you don’t see the irony…. Cougars don’t want me. The cougars I think have a ceiling age of like 30 on dudes. I just thought it was a funny title. We were playing an outdoor show at a mall in Hollywood and my buddy looked over and goes, “Dude, all your fans are cougars.” It was kind of funny. We named the record Music for Cougars as a working title, fully knowing that we were going to change it. Of course we never did. We never came up with anything better and it stayed that way. But it’s sort of a shout out – we’re all getting older. I’m getting older. It’s certainly not to be taken literally. It’s no kind of take on the demographics of our fan base today. Of course, everybody is welcome. Some people are like offended by it. I’m like, really man? You’re offended by a Sugar Ray record title? Boy do you need to take a big look inward.
One thing that is kind of cool about the record is that so many writers get into the sad relationship songs. On this album, all of the songs seem to be really in a positive place. Like “Rainbow” which was the closest I remember to a sad song was even about how you have to go through the hard times to get to the good ones. As a songwriter, do you find happier relationships more interesting than troubled ones or is that just a reflection of where you are in life?
It probably could be both. I’ve been very optimistic in my songwriting in the past for sure, but if you listen to a song like “Every Morning” they deal with infidelity and stuff. Again, it’s sort of like Gilbert O’Sullivan where you have these bouncy melodies over these sort of dark lyrics. We shared a lot of the lyrical songwriting duties so say my drummer Stan comes up with a chorus and I’ll interpret his chorus. He’ll tell me what it means, and I’ll add my darkness to it. I’m a little darker lyrically than Stan is. In some ways when we get together it adds this universality to the song. Again, there is nothing premeditated in our world. We didn’t set out like “Let’s make this optimistic Sugar Ray record.” It just fits the pieces. I would say, in terms of everybody’s status right now, everything is pretty good. Three guys are married. I’ve had a long-term girlfriend for about fifteen years. It’s been off and on – obviously it was on during the songwriting process. It tends to infiltrate our songwriting, the positivity. We were raised in Newport Beach, California. We’ve had some hard things happen to us, but we’ve been pretty blessed and lucky. Relationships are difficult no matter who you are, no matter how you wrap them. It’s easier to celebrate the good, certainly I think more appropriate in our songwriting.
I really like the song “She’s Got the (Woo-Hoo)” but the song says, “She’s got the woo-hoo, do you know what I mean?” Okay, so what do you mean?
Well, really you can’t be so literal. If you make it so obvious there’s no song. Whatever floats your boat. Whatever woo-hoo you need. I mean, it could be about your dog, you know?
A lot of your songs are about the important things in life – women, booze, the beach…
All the important things. (laughs)
Is that something that is an important part of a Sugar Ray songs? Have you ever had the urge to write a song about the winter, perhaps?
It’s interesting; I really just don’t think that much like that. We’ve written some dark songs. “Falls Apart” was kind of a big hit for us which is about alienation and being disenfranchised and all that, so that one kind of hit that note. But, no, man, I’m a pretty positive person in general and my lyrics tend to be that way. And look, I’ve been so blessed in my life – I’ve been able to sneak in the back door of the music industry – so, I don’t know, I don’t think people want to hear me whining. I think it kind of makes its way into the lyrical content. I’d love to say there was some big premeditated theme; I was thinking this then… Like I said, there’s a bunch of songwriters involved. Three or four people might be involved in a song and have a different lyrical take in the bridge and the verse, which is what I think has made us successful. There is no Noel Gallagher (Oasis) or Johnny Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls) in this band that writes all the songs. There’s a bunch of different viewpoints. Like you said, with “She’s Got the (Woo-Hoo)” – obviously that’s an elementary example, but it just leaves it open for interpretation. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me what “Fly” means. That’s when you are succeeding as a songwriter, when it’s left open to interpretation. People – they don’t even care. They know what it means. You couldn’t even tell them what it means, and you don’t. You let them go with it. Because your songs become part of the soundtracks of people’s lives – when they are getting married or it’s their first kiss or whatever. It’s fun when it gets out into the ether of the world and people just interpret it and live their lives around the song or have a moment around it.
Looking back, how would you like for people to see Sugar Ray’s music?
Just as guys who came in there and wrote some great pop songs – almost like a Herman’s Hermits of the 90s. Came in, had a good time, knew what they were about, weren’t trying to kid anybody. Weren’t the most talented guys in the world, but were able to craft a pop song that people were able to relate to. I still hear the old songs all the time in the malls or walking down the street, so just those guys. We came, we saw, we wrote a couple of number ones and we went home.
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 14, 2009.
Photo Credits:#1 © 2009. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Fontana/Universal Records.#2 © 2009. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Fontana/Universal Records.#3 © 2009 Mark Seliger. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Fontana/Universal Records.#4 © 2009 Mark Seliger. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Fontana/Universal Records.