Poolside, Hollywood. What better setting to encounter Mark McGrath, the frontman who seems to have stolen Ethan Hawke’s DNA and whose band, Sugar Ray, has gone from being high school pals in posh Newport Beach, California, to being a cut-rate speed-metal group to reinventing itself, with 1997’s hit “Fly,” to sound like the house band at a high-tone Caribbean resort? In conversation, McGrath projects none of his clownish stage demeanor. Instead, he seems more the thoughtful USC graduate that he is. He’s bright, friendly, forthcoming and, above all, self-deprecating. If you plan to slap Sugar Ray with the tag of lightweight, McGrath is bound to beat you to the punch: “I feel like we’re the Make-a-Wish Foundation band. Like someone’s behind a curtain somewhere going, ‘I paid for all this.'” Playing off the idea that its fifteen minutes of fame are almost up, the band even calls its new record 14:59.
What do people misjudge about Sugar Ray?
I think people are pretty accurate. The past comments have been “juvenile,” “not great musicians,” “not starting a revolution.” But we’re not trying to be anybody’s lifestyle; we’re just supplementing people’s lifestyle. I believe there’s a niche for bands like us, bands that have a good time and are just happy to be here.
The story is that you hated the song “Fly” when it was written.
Absolutely true. When I first heard “Fly,” it was a lushy vibe track. We were playing hard stuff, and I said, “I quit.” But I didn’t realize what was happening. These guys were learning how to play better, heaven forbid. And I just wanted to scream and yell because I was scared to be onstage in the first place.
On the new album, “Every Morning,” “Ode to the Lonely Hearted,” “Someday” and “Even Though” are all built off “Fly.”
I don’t want to sound premeditated, but “Fly” is the blueprint now for experimentation. A lot of it we owe to David Kahne, who produced those records. He said, “Let’s build songs around your voice,” and I said, “That’s insane. We’re here to sell records.”
Do you think the band would have caught on like this if you were ugly?
The song really blew up before the band did. As far as staying in the limelight, it’s been a good thing…. You know, you sound like an asshole if you answer the question.
Are there things you won’t do on the tour bus?
[Smiles] We sort of come from the Seventies ideology of road work. I think, in some instances, we’ve had what Van Halen had on the Women and Children First tour. But I don’t want to incriminate myself.
You incriminate yourself for a living.
But these are really incriminating.
Do you want to eventually have a wife and kids?
I’m an idealist — so much so that I don’t think it can ever happen, especially in this town. The first time I fell in love, I had blinders, and then it just fucking killed me. Since then I’ve had the most pessimistic outlook. It’s unfair to anybody I meet.
Does the woman who broke your heart know where you are now?
You know what’s the worst part? She wouldn’t even give a fuck about this. She’d see me on MTV and say, “Of course he’s on MTV; he’s a jerkoff.” And that makes me insane. She’s really a granola, Colorado Springs, cabin type. There’s nothing I could do to impress her except turn into Dan Haggerty.
What does a USC communications degree prepare you for?
You can walk, talk and recite the last ten Rose Bowl MVPs. But my experience at SC was great. When I went there, I couldn’t even grow a mustache. When I left, I could grow a little Prince one. I matured.
Speaking of which, is it a good idea to keep telling the national press that you’re not well endowed? Is that a national disclaimer?
It is. I can apologize for my inadequacies. What are you going to do? God made me as God made me. I didn’t say it was broken, just small.
Do you think a lot about life after Sugar Ray?
Yeah, I do. I’m really interested in the other side of the music industry. I’m enamored of making eighty-six cents on the dollar instead of fourteen. Not that it’s all about money. There have also been some options about looking into acting, but I’m not a very good actor, man. I went on a Party of Five audition and ran out of there grabbing my boobs, I was so scared.
What was the role?
This guy wearing a hat who worked in the cafeteria with Neve Campbell at Stanford. I was mumbling through the lines and pretty much passed out and started crying. It was so embarrassing. It seems like there are much better ways to make yourself feel like a loser.