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
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.
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" 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
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.
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 clichιs 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?
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)."
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.
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
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
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
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.