Mark McGrath is smart and smart-lookin’, qualities that have enabled him to win bundles on Rock & Roll Jeopardy and appear in a steamy Candie’s commercial. He’s also Sugar Ray’s singer. The correct question to the “The other guys in Sugar Ray” Jeopardy answer is “Who are Stan Frazier [drums], Rodney Sheppard [guitar], Murphy Karges [bass] and DJ Homicide [DJ]?”
The band began in the late Eighties as an Orange County, California, punk party band, and then a decade later sizable radio hits like “Fly” and “Every Morning” took them from playing keggers to opening for the Rolling Stones. Despite their tasty singles, however, Sugar Ray’s first three album were hit-and-miss affairs.
For their fourth album, the mercifully self-titled Sugar Ray (more on that later), the guys brought in heavy rock-minded producer Don Gilmore (Lit, Linkin Park, Eve 6), and the result is a harder, more streamlined and more consistent Sugar Ray. Tracks like the guitar-fueled “Answer the Phone” and the downright Stones-y “Disasterpiece” are brash and punchy, while the acoustic-y “When It’s Over” will hearten fans of gentler past ditties.
McGrath exudes enthusiasm about the new album, but, more than anything else, he’s just enjoying being one of the guys.
How is Sugar Ray a step forward for Sugar Ray?
Every song has meaning to it, for once. It’s kinda strange, but every song is about relationships. For the first time, there was no need to write a song about, you know, “Hey, uh, let’s slam a six-pack!” There’s a little more depth to the tunes. It wasn’t something that we tried to do — it’s just something that came out of us at the time. I think it has to do with — I hate to say this — we’re getting a little bit older [laughs]. In the past the band has hid behind feelings and things like that by writing sex, drugs and rock & roll-type songs. But the songs that people have reacted to — the general public — are songs that had some lyrical depth. But — I don’t want to say there’s no sense of humor to the record — these are still definitely Sugar Ray songs.
What song has particular meaning for you?
Well, the first song we wrote, which happens to be the single, sort of set the tone for the record: “When It’s Over.” And, basically, I came up with the line [half-sings], “When it’s over, that’s the time I fall in love again.” I’ve been going out with a girl for quite awhile now and it just seems like we’ve had our ups and downs, and it’s just one of those things — you just can’t get that person out of your system. When you think it’s over, you go, “Oh God, I really miss that person.” There’s a song called “Waiting,” as well, which is about how sometimes you go off on your own and maybe you fucked up and stayed out too late and you come home and deal with someone who you live with, you know? And that also has a lot of meaning for me as well. But the whole record — Stan just got engaged, and Rodney, our guitar player, just had a baby, so there’s a lot of just dealing with male/female relationships. And the chromosome that we have and they have and how we just can’t see eye to eye in that eternal struggle that ensues.
Are these things you ever thought you’d be writing about when you first started out?
Absolutely not! [laughs] The scary thing is that this band was founded in 1988, and back then it was Guns N’ Roses, L.A. Guns, kegs of beer, and, like, what chick am I gonna be with tonight — it was that mentality, you know, around a keg. So, it’s been a really interesting process to grow into a band and go through these life experiences and then have the fortunate situation to be able to write about them and have people react to them. It’s an amazing thing. Literally, we went from doing Zodiac Mindwarp and Damned covers at a party to playing our own songs, say, on David Letterman. It’s been an incredible ride!
Talk about the band’s songwriting process. How do the songs come together?
It’s a very dysfunctional process, being that a song can come from anywhere, within the five of us. Craig might have a drum loop, or Stan might have a chorus, or I might have a part, or Rodney, our guitar player, might have a bass part, so it’s not like people come in, say, like [Goo Goo Dolls’ singer/songwriter] Johnny Rzeznick with, like, ten songs done and ready to go. I envy that sometimes because it cuts out all the bullshit ’cause there is a lot in our band. It gets whittled away in so many different ways and somehow the songs just get done. A terrifying thing we do is we go into the studio with, half the songs done, and we just punch the clock and go, “Let’s go.” Lots of times things are sort of left up in the atmosphere there and you got to sort of pull them back down and make them concrete, and that’s certainly what Don did for us. He helped us shape and mold. It’s healthy to have an outside opinion.
With so many songwriters, does the producer have to bang the stick and say, “OK, it’s gonna be this way”?
It truly is like that. We sort of need that taskmaster, because there are so many people involved. Everybody in the band contributes in some way, and it’s hard to have someone in the band be sort of the dictator. You do need someone else to go, “Look, this is good. This is bad.” And, you know, our band is kind of passive aggressive toward each other. Even though people probably think I’m sitting there with a stick and leading everybody, that’s not true. Stan, on this record, was the principal songwriter. He wrote the most, but we all collaborated. So we do need that entity to just come in and go, “OK, listen, kids, finish these motherfuckers” [laughs].
Were you guys at all nervous about working with a new producer?
Absolutely. It was like cutting the umbilical cord with [previous producer] David Kahne. He was really instrumental in any success we had. He basically led me to water, in terms of where my voice wants to be. But Don, he’s been incredible to work with. We got back to sort of an organic sound — guitar, bass, drums — and explored that a little bit. There’s sort of a little formula we’ve developed — sort of acoustic guitars and drum loops — that’s worked well for us, and there’s definitely that element too. But I think Don definitely brought out sort of an organic rock element that we’ve never had before. He’s really cerebral, a very intelligent guy. He brought out certainly the best in the playing in the band. I think this record really defines the group Sugar Ray as a band, you know. I think sometimes people see us maybe as one person, but I think in the studio we came together as a band.
Will the rock element make these songs more fun to play live?
Oh, I can’t wait to play these songs on the road, especially because I can play a little more guitar [laughs]. We’re turning into, like, Soundgarden — well, I mean, they were an amazing band. I don’t want to compare us to Soundgarden. Anyway, it is going to be a lot of fun. I love playing guitar, even though I suck at playing [laughs]. I’m gonna lay my guitar playing on the audience this tour ’cause there’s a lot of guitar parts, so I’m gonna have to fill in a little bit more — much to the band’s and the fans’ dismay, I’m sure, but much to my delight.
Did you feel pressure to develop your vocal style to sing these more meaningful songs with, well, meaning?
Well, I’ve said this before, but the last thing God put me on Earth to do is sing. I just willed it, ’cause I just wanted to do it so badly. I certainly don’t have the best voice in the world, and it’s something that I’ve had to work at. David Kahne, and Don as well, has really helped me find my voice. And when you start writing songs with lyrical depth, you wanna deliver them in the manner in which they were written — especially if you didn’t write the lyrics yourself. So I have had to work on that a lot more. And our guitar player, Rodney, and our drummer, Stan, they’ve got amazing voices, both of them, and they’ve sort of shown me the road. I’ve developed a sing-in-your-speaking-voice sort of thing, and there’s a raspiness in my voice that people react to, which is fantastic, but when I go to karaoke, I’m still the worst guy there. People expect me to get up there and do our songs and I’m like, “Wait a minute. Where’s the ProTools?” [laughs]. That’s why I don’t do much karaoking anymore.
Why is the album self-titled?
You know, with last title, man, careful what you ask for because then you have to live up to it. I mean, 14:59 from just the way people reacted to it, it was a perfect title for that record. We were making the new record and everybody’s like, “The first question everybody’s gonna ask is what’s the title gonna be.” We set the bar pretty high for ourselves with that last record, and so we came up with a lot of things. And, I mean, we were scraping the bottom. The whole cloning thing was happening, you know, and we came up with “A Clone Again, Naturally” [laughs]. One day I looked up on this board and it said, “A Clone Again, Naturally,” and I said, “You know what, guys? We have to stop. We are so not clever! We used our one title. That was it.” We came down to the end of the recording process and we had “A Clone Again Naturally,” “Chicken Lips,” “Just to Be Nominated” and it was just like, “Wow. We are horrible. We are so not clever!” So the record just ended up naming itself. But we did try to name it. I want people to know that. We tried to, just nothing worked, man. [laughs]
How is the band dynamic these days? Do the guys rib you a lot when you show up in Candies commercials?
Yeah, they laugh. They’re amused by it, but they’ve been really cool about the whole thing. The interesting thing about the dynamic of me getting all the attention is, you know, it’s certainly nothing we ever perpetuated. It’s happened through the media, you know, and then it’s funny to have the media ask me questions about why I’m sort of in all the pictures and stuff. It’s kind of an interesting thing. Say I go to a party in Los Angeles and I get a picture taken and it’ll be in a magazine and they’ll go, “Well, why were you in there?” And I say, “Well, you took the picture!” [laughs] But I think the band has always understood the dynamic of the frontman always getting the most attention. Being a little older when this kind of happened to us — you know, we’ve been a group for thirteen years, and we’ve been successful for four of those, and the down years really sucked — so I think any attention the band gets at all is for the good of the band, and I think everybody understands that. But, it’s never been healthier as a band dynamic than right now. I mean, we go through our ups and downs. At this point, we’re like brothers. There’s nothing that can really break up the band ’cause we’ve been through it all already. Success can breed happiness. Talk to me in two years if this record fails and we’ll be all at Betty Ford. But now things are good in the Sugar Ray camp. I complain, but no one’s listening.