Mark McGrath on the Ugly Truth About Sugar Ray (And Why Their New Album Still Rocks)
Mark McGrath knows what you’re thinking. The singer never called Sugar Ray the world’s greatest rock & roll band, but they had some fun during their peak years in the ’90s with bouncy radio hits like “Fly” and “Every Morning.” They toured the world, sold millions of records and landed on the cover of Rolling Stone in March 1999. “That’s when they were really giving it away for free,” McGrath jokes in a typically self-deprecating rasp.
Sugar Ray never broke up, and have continued to tour even during the increasingly lean years that followed their ’90s boom. McGrath also recently finished a four-year run as TV host of the entertainment news show Extra, helping keep score on Nick and Jessica and Brad and Angelina. And today, Sugar Ray release their first new album since 2003, Music For Cougars, and begin a national tour with Fastball on July 24th.
It’s an unexpected new chapter for the original Orange County lineup of McGrath, guitarist Rodney Sheppard, drummer Stan Frazier, bassist Murphy Karges and DJ Homicide (a.k.a. Craig Bullock), now recording for Pulse/Universal/Fontana. The new album features guest appearances by Rivers Cuomo, Donovan Frankenreiter and others, and was produced by Josh Abraham and Luke Walker.
As a grinning, unshaven McGrath sits in the studio at Pulse Recording in Los Angeles, a tall cup of Pepsi from 7-Eleven at his feet, he sounds happy to be back full time with the band. “We’ve been through all the things of Behind the Music — the drugs, the chicks, having money, having no money, and I think the biggest reward of this band is that we’re still together after all these years,” says McGrath, now 41. “Getting onstage together is like the first time we ever jammed. The joy of playing with these guys still exists.”
How did this record come together?
Obviously, there is not this huge demand to make a Sugar Ray record from the public. It was, hey, we still got all our parts together, we still like each other, we’re still a band after 21 years, and we haven’t been creative in about six. We had no new material, and we said, sure, let’s try it. In September, I left Extra, and it became a full-time thing.
You had been doing all that TV. Was it different coming back to it like this?
It was great to get back to what your passion is. I don’t think anybody looks at me as a songwriter musician guy. Probably just the opposite. But I love it so much. I started as a fan first, and willed my way into being in a band and figuring out how to write songs. It was great to scratch that itch of writing again. This is where I came to work everyday, not Extra. I got to wear my clothes. I got to be me again.
You guys never broke up?
There was a misconception because I was at Extra. We played about 30-40 shows a year. If you were at Shrimp Fest or the county fair and you smelled funnel cake, Sugar Ray was playing. That Spinal Tap/puppet show thing was happening to us. We did a best-of in 2005, and we had a single on the Surf’s Up soundtrack in 2007.
Was that a weird period for the band?
In 2003, the writing was on the wall for bands like Smashmouth, Third Eye Blind, Everclear, Barenaked Ladies — bands in our fraternal mid-’90s modern-rock universe. Radio was changing. In 2003, we hired the Neptunes to be a little R&B and funk, and that didn’t really work for us. We sold 135,000 copies, coming off a platinum-selling record in 2001. We thought, maybe we should stop and smell the flowers and see what else is out there for us.
I’m dumb enough to host these music and awards shows, and some chick at Extra saw it and said, “You kind of suck at hosting, but there’s something there.” Two weeks later, I’m hosting Extra. The other guys had new little babies and stuff. It was actually a good time to do it.
Your later tours already had a showbiz flavor. At one, you even had a spinning carnival wheel onstage.
I wasn’t the guy sitting in the garage writing Built to Spill songs. I enjoyed the entertainment aspect. I never claimed not to be a douche. We know what we’re doing. It’s guys from the beach who grew up and got lucky, snuck in the back door of the record industry and sold some records. At the end of the day, we wrote some good songs. We’re certainly not the most talented guys, and I can barely sing, but how about two thumbs up for just having fun?
With this record, were you aiming to recapture the original Sugar Ray vibe?
Definitely. If we’re making a record, let’s make a record that people want to hear. I think the first single, “Boardwalk,” sounds like something you might have heard 10 years ago. We didn’t want to reinvent ourselves.
Where did the album title come from?
We were playing at the Grove [mall] here in Hollywood, a funny gig on a Sunday, people walking by with strollers. And a friend of ours goes, “All your fans are cougars.” That’s fucking brilliant. To me “cougars” is an empowering word. It’s like role reversal. Cougars are proud, they take care of themselves and they know what they want. If you’re offended by Music for Cougars on a Sugar Ray record, you’ve got to take a big look inward.
A lot of people might be surprised to hear that the Sex Pistols are your favorite band.
The Sex Pistols let me think anybody could do it. If you had the balls to go up there, you could do it. The Sex Pistols tore down the archaic, dinosaur vision of Rick Wakeman/wizardry/keyboard setups. In ’83-’84, that really spoke to me. Back then, I just wanted to be in a band and play Sex Pistols, Judas Priest, Blondie covers around a keg. The Pistols gave me the inspiration to do that. It’s amazing how young those guys were. Think about what you were doing at 19 or 20.
Are you still doing TV?
I’ve got a few irons in the fire, but going back to hosting an entertainment news program? I don’t think I would do that. It was fun, but it’s just not my passion. We’ll see what happens. There’s a bunch possibilities. Probably The Surreal Life 8 or something.