Mark McGrath: 'I Understand Why People Don't Like Me'

A frank talk with the Sugar Ray frontman about life on the 1990s nostalgia circuit

Mark McGrath
Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray performs with Camp Freddy at the 2013 Green Inaugural Ball.
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Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath knows exactly what most people think about him. They think he's washed up. They think he's something sort of 1990s leftover that refuses to go away. They probably think he's a big douche. The funny thing is, he doesn't disagree with any of that. "I've done a lot of douchey things," he tells Rolling Stone. "I understand why people don't particularly like me."

One label he does dispute is One Hit Wonder. The group had four genuine hits between 1997 and 2001: "Fly," "Every Morning," "Someday" and "When It's Over." He spent last summer on the Summerland tour playing those songs alongside Everclear, Gin Blossoms, Marcy Playground and Lit. It was one of the first 1990s nostalgia tours, and McGrath says he plans on sticking with it for the rest of his life. He's about to perform on a 1990s cruise and he's gearing up for the first annual Under the Sun tour with Gin Blossoms, Vertical Horizon, Smash Mouth and Fastball.

Mark McGrath on the Ugly Truth About Sugar Ray

Rolling Stone sat down with McGrath for a frank talk about his new life on the 1990s nostalgia circuit. "All these 1960s bands like Herman's Hermits are still out there doing it," he says. "I'm not comparing my level of talent to Peter Noone, but people often compare us. He's 70 years old and still out there doing it.  I'm sort of the Peter Noone of the 1990s. If I'm still out there singing 'Fly' in 30 years, I've had a great fucking life." 

You toured last summer with all these other Nineties bands. How did that go?
It was great. The Nineties nostalgia factor is kinda coming into play now. It's great to be at the point where we're at the receiving end of it. The idea was to go out and play a show that was top-to-bottom hits. I mean, literally, in the first five minutes of sitting in your seat, Marcy Playground are playing "Sex and Candy." That's arguably one of the most psychotic hits of the era. It was great, and it proved to me there's a market for this kind of thing. We weren't reinventing the wheel. Every decade has their tours. There's the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties. . . But nobody had done the Nineties yet, so Art Alexakis [of Everclear] and I kinda got together and did it. I'm looking forward to doing it again.

Unfortunately, Art and I have different ideas about what the tour is about. He's doing his own thing now, and I put together a tour called Under the Sun. It carries out a similar vibe. If you had a hit in the Nineties, you are welcome to play it. I can see Naughty by Nature playing as well as En Vogue and the Gin Blossoms. The Nineties were sort of the Lollapalooza age where people just threw aside genres of music. People went, "I like the Rollins Band, Nine Inch Nails and the Boredoms." Pop had a similar effect. Sugar Ray is obviously more pop-leaning, so that's how I see the Under the Sun tour. En Vogue is welcome to play. Smash Mouth, too. If you had a hit, come on it.

The nostalgia timing makes sense. I mean, the Beach Boys couldn't get arrested in 1970 and suddenly, by 1974, they're back in arenas.
Absolutely. The Beach Boys certainly had the wealth of material on their own to substantiate their own tour. We had some hits and, God bless, some big hits. But we didn't have the hysteria that Britney Spears or a boy band had. We couldn't do a big tour on our own, but there's strength in numbers. The Gin Blossoms aren't going to go play Madison Square Garden or Jones Beach tonight, but all of us together collectively playing our hits, we can do it. 

I'm going to have to dance around this because I don't want to name any names, but it's hard for people to realize they aren't a relevant recording act anymore - but they do have these giant hits that people respond to. When you're a band, you create and you play live. I still love to create music, but I want to go on the road and have a good time and make some money. 

It's very hard for a lot of bands to accept the fact they are now simply creatures from the past.
Absolutely. It's something you have to deal with. We all think we're rock stars. I think right now, I could write a song that will light up the world and I can't understand why 5,000 people don't come to see Sugar Ray every night. I mean, I do understand. (laughs) But you still have that dream. It's what put you onstage in the first place. I love to perform. So it's like, how can I maximize my love for performance and also make a decent living? We all kind of found each other in that sense. And God bless, maybe one of us can write another hit that people will respond to. Uncle Kracker had another hit a few years ago. Train are back. But it's tough to do that because you are so stigmatized by people, and I definitely understand that. 

I love Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins, but if anyone says he's a 1990s performer, he tends to get a little upset.
It's almost like he has disdain for his material from the Nineties. Oceania was a great record, but it ain't no Siamese Dream. He defined an era. His legacy is in place, so why would he be running from that?  Brian Wilson will always be talking about Pet Sounds and goddammit, I wish I could talk about Pet Sounds for the rest of my life. 

Every band has their run in the spotlight. I mean, the Who are clearly one of the biggest and best bands of all time. They had a little over a decade.
Sure. We can't all be U2. They're the anomaly. The Stones, we still love them, but let's be honest: we're there for the nostalgia. Same for the Who and all those bands. U2 has broken the mold. They've been a big band for 30 years. I don't think that's ever happened before.

Even U2 aren't doing what they're supposed to do. We're living in this crazy world where Train have a much easier time scoring radio hits than U2.
You're right. If U2 releases a new song, there's no more, "Shut down Hollywood Boulevard for the premiere of the new U2 song by KROQ." You're right. But they did it for a long time. . . It's almost like rock stars are athletes. They're so afraid to retire because once the light is out, you're there by yourself. Are you able to live with yourself when the light's not shining anymore? It's a terrifying proposition for athletes and musicians.

My success came late in life. "Fly" hit when I was 29. I've always known how fragile the business was. I'm a historian. I study music. All I ever wanted to be was a one-hit wonder. Luckily, that one hit got eclipsed by other hits. The fact I'm still able to play music live in 2013 means that my dreams have been met. 

Herman's Hermits can still draw a crowd. When you have a few hits you're sort of set up for life.
That's right. People always want to revive memories. "I met my wife and 'Every Morning' was on," or "'Fly' was the first song my kid ever sang." You can't take that memory away. Call it nostalgia. Call it whatever you want. I'm calling it the Under the Sun tour. 

Have you confirmed any acts for the tour this summer?
It's being put together as we speak. We have Gin Blossoms, Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, Vertical Horizon and my old friends Fastball will be opening the show.

Again, we all have a ton of hits. You're going to hear them from top to bottom, quick changeovers. We proved last time this will work. I'm ready to do this for the rest of my life.

Tell me about the cruise you're doing with some of these bands.
The cruise people called us. They've had great success doing these heavy metal tours. They saw what we did with Summerland and they said, "What do you think about putting this together for the high seas?" I said, "Sounds great." Everyone was interested. It's a three-day commitment. It's not the rest of your life. 

Fans are going to have an interactive experience. Everyone has breakfast with the fans. You're playing shuffleboard with Smash Mouth. Rob from the Gin Blossoms might pick up an acoustic guitar and play some cover songs. There will be karaoke and all the cheesy fun that makes a cruise so great.

You're obviously very comfortable with your new role as a nostalgia merchant. Why do you think so many of your peers refuse to realize they're on that same level?
I think they refuse to listen to negativity. It's something I wish I did, too. When people on Twitter are screaming, "You guys suck!" maybe you do suck a little. People are like, "No one's waiting for a new record from you, asshole." Well, maybe no one is! For me, I listen to the good and it gets me through the days. But the bad is there for a reason. 

You lost some members of the band recently.
Yeah. They both left. Listen, in 2011, we didn't have the highest-grossing year for Sugar Ray. One guy quit the band because he didn't want to tour anymore. I understand that. The other guy took a job with Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback who started a Christian rock label. We had a great run for 24 years. If it's not for you, then God bless you. They had our blessing, but when it started interrupting our business, that's when the blessing stopped. I can't see myself ever being onstage with those guys again.

I get called Sugar Ray all day long. We worked hard on that name. I'm Sugar Ray no matter what happens. It's something I'm proud of, so I'm fighting hard to keep the name. I think it's something that I'm entitled to. I came up with the name. I'm the voice, the face. It's something we're working on and I think we'll come up with a good resolution.

Do you see the day where you get sick of singing those hits?
No chance. "Fly" came on the radio the other day and it felt like the first time. All I ever wanted and all I ever dreamed was having a song on the radio and having people respond to it. People are still responding to those songs, though not on the same level. I mean, people have tried to kick us out and say, "No, we don't want any more Sugar Ray." But I don't give a shit. We're still gonna play and I love doing it. 

I've seen the Smashing Pumpkins do long shows where they skip almost every hit.
I couldn't imagine. I can't imagine a better gratification than playing a song like "Today." How can he not play that when he knows it'll just slay his audience? I gotta admire the artist in him to not do that. We all want instant gratification, and to hold that back? Well, he's a bigger person than I am. That's for sure.

We never once skip the four hits from Sugar Ray, and we play them in their original capacity. No jazz exploration on "Fly" like Sting or something. Never.

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