In 1988, a small, hard partying band named Sugar Ray formed in Newport Beach, CA. Catapulted to stardom by the single ‘Fly,’ Sugar Ray would release a barrage of hits that set the airways on fire between the years of 1997 and 2001. With the lackluster performance of their 2003 album, ‘In The Pursuit of Leisure,’ the band seemed to have disappeared into thin air. While many people assumed the band broke up, Sugar Ray continued to play thirty to forty shows a year and their lead singer, Mark McGrath, took a job on television as a co-host on ‘Extra’. With Mark’s departure from ‘Extra’ in 2008, the band went to work on their sixth studio album and first release on Pulse Recordings, aptly entitled ‘Music For Cougars.’ While it is hard to say what the future may hold for the band, there is one thing for certain, Sugar Ray is back on the scene and they are bringing the party to your town. Lead singer Mark McGrath recently took some time out from his band’s busy touring schedule to sit down with Steve Johnson of Icon Vs. Icon. In the interview the to talk about Sugar Ray’s past, the longevity of the band, the current state of the music industry, and of course their recently released album ‘Music For Cougars.’
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but I moved to southern California in 1975 or 1976. I feel I was raised in Newport Beach, California, but I was born officially in Hartford, Connecticut. There’s a little bit of east coast sensibilities in my west coast madness.
How did music first come into your life?
I am a fan first. Some people are put on this Earth to sing. Some people are born musicians and songwriters. I was put on this planet to be a fan. I just loved music so much that I kind of willed myself into a band. I remember two of the guys in my band were in the local band called the Tories., they were the high school band that played all of the dances and stuff. I knew I couldn’t be in the band, but I wanted to be around it and carry the equipment and stuff. I’m a huge fan of music and I loved the whole environment of being in a band and everything that came with it. One day their singer didn’t want to do Back in Black by AC/DC, so I jumped up on stage. I don’t know if I did a good job or not, but they were amused by my performance. That kind of lead to the beginnings of Sugar Ray about twenty five years ago.
What drove you to make music your career?
Yeah, probably my lack of talent to do anything else. [laughs] If you can even call me having any talent musically. I remember when I first started growing up I wanted to be the point guard for the L.A. Lakers. By eighth grade I figured out that probably wasn’t going to happen. While I was simultaneously thinking that wasn’t going to happen, I was watching MTV and I saw David Lee Roth jumping off of speakers in the ‘Panama’ video. I went, “Maybe that looks like a good look!” So I kind of just fell in backwards into the music scene, just simply by being a fan and loving to do it, and being in the right place at the right time and not hearing no. If being the most talented singer or songwriter and musician was a requirement for having success, then I never would have tried.
You mentioned David Lee Roth. Were there any other influences that have helped shape you, the musician, that we know today?
There have been many influences, some maybe not so apparent in the music. A band like the Sex Pistols influenced me radically. They showed me that if you have a little bit of attitude and a will to do it, you can do it. Getting on stage and doing it, it kind of broke down the old classic rock stereotypes of the 70’s. That kind of inspired me a lot. A lot of the L.A. punk rock, The Circle Jerks and Black Flag, had the same kind of d.i.y. thing. Just get on stage and do it. Obviously, I’m not going to say that my music was influenced by those guys, but it was huge. I have been a punk rock fan for a long time. Then bands like The Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers, who kind of had their nucleus in the punk rock origin. They figured out how to write songs and sing and stuff. Anthony Kiedis has been a huge inspiration of mine, as well as The Beastie Boys. Then stretching myself a little bit, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. He had a huge influence on the harmonies, melodies, and things like that, that I was attracted to.
What do you attribute the longevity of Sugar Ray?
I think because we started organically. There was no sort of, “Here’s the design for success and we’re going to do this…” We literally started twenty one years ago. When we first started, all five of us together, it was, “Let’s play music around a keg. Let’s turn our Marshall’s up to eleven. Let’s play tougher songs and get drunk.” We really didn’t have a plan, we were just some guys who loved to play music and play it loud. We kind of did each step. Our friends would say, “Listen dudes, you guys were great. Why don’t you guys write some of your own stuff?” We’re like, “alright!” So we started writing some of our own stuff and people reacted to that. We made a video. We kind of fell backwards into our record deal. We really didn’t have a plan, but our intent was right. It was to play music. We were friends first, so I think that was a huge part of us staying together for so long. Right now, being together in the band, this isn’t for financial reasons. No one is making millions of dollars in a reunion tour and we’re certainly not selling records. It’s purely just because we love to do it. That’s why we are still doing it twenty one years later.
Being in the music industry as long as you have, are there still surprises?
[laughs] I think there are surprises every day. I’m sure I surprise people every day with things I do. I think the saddest thing to me is that the industry I was a part of, and loved so much, and signed to Atlantic Records on, and sold all of these millions of records, and had number ones, is gone. It’s kind of sad. It’s akin to the steel mills in Pittsburgh and all of those industries just going away. You see these monolithic buildings that used to harbor this once thriving industry and now there’s just ruins all around it. In a surreal sort of abstract way, that’s what the music industry is today. It surprises me how quickly it died and went away. There’s music going on right now, but there’s no recording industry. It’s kind of sad when you see new bands coming up. Katy Perry is a giant success story and as big as it gets today. She sold about a million and half records. Ten years ago that would have been ten million records. It’s kind of strange and surprising to me that the whole industry just disappeared and went away. I guess it’s sort of the Robin Hood effect, where people felt that maybe they were getting ripped off by the record companies for years and took it away. I understand that. Revolution is always good too, but it’s kind of sad that this industry that I was so proud to be a part of and thrived in is just not here anymore.
Has the digital revolution of music been a positive or negative thing for someone like yourself and your band?
It’s been both for me. It tore down the old model I was a part of, which might have been a difficult model for people to get in. The music industry was like the NBA. It should be easy in the NBA. It was tough. A lot of people got lucky. We certainly were benefactors of a lot of luck and certainly not just pure skill. There was something natural about it. Then like a Trojan horse, the masses came in the back door and tore it down and said, “Fuck it! We’re not putting up with this anymore!” The digital age to us, was something we were never concerned with. I signed a record deal in 1994. There were no digital considerations. They didn’t exist. The very thing that tore down the industry that I was a part of, none of us could see coming. At first the digital age was the enemy. Napster and all of that. Now at this point we’re like, “Oh, ok, I see where it is.” Now it’s our friend. There are Sugar Ray fans that could start a thriving community online, where people want to hear our music. This is how it is. You’re never going back there. You have to sort of… I don’t want to say join the enemy. If you want to have a career, you better be technologically savvy and have all of your internet sites up and running, and have daily content and be productive, otherwise you don’t stand a chance out here. Ironically, the very thing that killed the industry I was a part of is the very thing today that saves us and lets us go out and tour and things like that. I feel fortunate that we have four or five giant hit songs we’ll always be able to tour on the back of, and be able to have the internet community supporting those songs, and getting out in the cities and playing music. I feel fortunate in that sense. So it’s helped us and hurt us at the same time. Right now it’s helping us.
What do you consider the defining moment of your career so far?
There’s been so many dude. I would love to just give you one, but there have just been so many. Signing a record deal in 1994 to Atlantic Records in our local pizza shop in Newport Beach was pretty special. I’m looking at this contract from Atlantic Records where bands like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, all of these incredible artists had signed to and I’m about to put my initial into the heritage of Atlantic Records. That was pretty incredible. Every moment man. The first time you hear your song on the radio. Getting a gold record from Atlantic Records in the hallways of Atlantic was amazing. Getting to play with Willie Nelson was unbelievable. Opening for The Rolling Stones for a week was a thrill. Looking at the side of the stage and seeing Mick Jagger shaking his head, it doesn’t get much better than that. Ultimately, I would say the greatest moment for me is we’re still living it and the fact that all five of us are still together after twenty one years. We started out with four in 1988, we picked up our DJ in 1994, and we’re still all together. We’ve gone through all of the tenets of behind the music that destroy a band. The money issues, the problems, the women, the drugs, the booze. We’re still here. That to me is the greatest testament and the greatest achievement of the band for sure.
You just released ‘Music For Cougars’ on July 21, 2009. What can you tell us about the new album?
We didn’t know we were going to make a record. We had a buddy who got a label deal, his name is Josh Abraham. He’s kind of a rock and roll producer, he produced Velvet Revolver, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Staind. He’s a good friend of mine. He said, “Listen you guys. I know you guys are still together. I got a little record deal. You guys want to make a record? We’ll throw a little bit of money together and have some fun and get creative.” We said, “Sure! Let’s do it!” One thing we wanted to do when we made this record, we certainly were not thinking about selling millions of copies, was making a Sugar Ray sounding record. We got a little out of our lane with the last record. We were trying to change with the times and evolve, which was the right move at the time, but it just wasn’t necessarily successful for us. We worked with The Neptunes and Pharrell and we really tried to get out of our lane. With this one we said, “Lets make a Sugar Ray record with the melodies and the harmonies. Let’s feel like we are on the beach again.” That’s what I think we achieved on this one.
What was it like working with producer Josh Abraham and producer/songwriter Luke Walker?
Josh is great man. I’ve known Josh… He was working with DJ Lethal from House of Pain, who produced our first record from ’94. I knew Josh back then. He’s become a great friend through the years. He’s just real mellow. He’s one of those producers who kind of let’s you go and figure things out yourself. He’s one of the greatest guitar players that never plays guitar. It’s funny. He’s so musically inclined and technologically proficient that it really helped us out a lot. Luke was the other part that really helped us shape the songs. I didn’t know what to expect over there at Pulse. They have all of these up and coming writers and producers that are just super creative. We were kind of reaching an impasse with the record last December. We were kind of writing the same old formulaic stuff. We’re lucky that we had a guy like Luke, who kind of can see outside and know what Sugar Ray was about, but add his own new young and energetic spin to it. He really was the catalyst for kick starting the songwriting again. Thank God for Luke or we wouldn’t have gotten the record finished. When Josh wasn’t there, Luke was instrumental in getting sounds and laying tape down. It is a real solid, competent family over there at Pulse.
This is the first album of new material since 2003’s ‘In The Pursuit of Leisure’. What have you been up to for all of those years? Did the band break up?
I think that was the common misconception. I got a lot just walking around town. People were like, “It’s too bad Sugar Ray broke up!” I understand because I did take the job at Extra. I was working there on an entertainment news show for about four years. We never made an announcement that we were breaking up or anything. In fact we were still signed to Atlantic until three or four years into my Extra tenure. We just hadn’t written any new material. We were still doing about thirty or forty shows a year and playing live a lot because we certainly love to play live. We did a song for the soundtrack for ‘Surf’s Up’ in 2007 called “Into Yesterday.” Josh of our new label heard that and said, “It’s killer! You guys want to make some more of these? Let’s keep ’em moving?” We said, “Sure, let’s do it!” So that’s kind of how that whole thing came about. The rest of the guys kind of wanted to take a break too. We had been consistently touring around the world and recording for about eleven years at that point. We took a break in 2004. They had little babies and they wanted to raise them. We said, “Let’s take a break.” We were fortunate to have that luxury, to be able to play live and just figure out where phase two of Sugar Ray fits in.
How did you come up with the title of the new album?
People take the title so seriously. I keep going, “Guys, it’s a Sugar Ray record!” We always have fun and people don’t see the irony in the title. I’m like, “Jesus! Really?” We named it ‘Music For Cougars’ because A., it’s funny and B., I’m forty one, so no cougar is checkin’ for me anymore. Cougars like the twenty year old guys. The other irony is that our fans are getting a little older too and aging gracefully with us hopefully. Our buddy Josh Abraham was actually at a gig we played at an outdoor mall in Hollywood and he looked around and said, “Dude, all of your fans are cougars.” I thought that was funny. I went, “Bing! ‘Music For Cougars’ will be the title!” It was a working title. We picked it out like a year ago. Of course we thought of nothing better and we got used to the title and kept it. I underestimated people’s reactions to it. People are very passionate about what they think a cougar is and if they are a cougar. All day long people come up to me and tell me their definition and want to know if they qualify. It’s like a hot button topic for people. It’s also been a great way to get the word out that we have a record out. The title has really gone hand and hand with the enthusiasm for the record. One thing people do know for sure, is that there is a Sugar Ray record out. That’s half the battle these days.
Were there any challenges while making the album?
Like I said earlier, we kind of got in a little formula of writing where we kind of were writing standard things and getting a little formulaic. It was great to be able to work with outside sources there. That was one of the problems. Another problem, well not a problem, but another consideration was that when we started making this record, I was working at Extra still. I’m like, “We’re not going to be able to tour for this record. We’ll be able to do some spot dates here and there.” When I left in September, we were really able to pick up the pace and I thought, “Wait a minute, we can tour for this record now.” We kind of overcame both of those things. It was a nice thing to go out and tour for the record we were writing because I didn’t think we were going to be able to for a second.
Rivers Cuomo wrote the track “Love is the Answer,” How did he become involved with the album?
I ask myself every day. [laughs] From what I hear through the grapevine, there are two theories. One is not my theory. One is the theory that Rivers has been a fan of the band for a while, which I have heard, and he likes the songwriting we have done. Josh, the head of Pulse, knew his manager very well and Rivers had found out that we were taking submissions for our record if anybody had any songs and wanted to collaborate. Rivers sent us a few songs. ‘Love is the Answer’ was one of them. I think the song is so great. I am such a huge fan of Weezer and Rivers in general. On the ‘Scream 2’ soundtrack we have a song called ‘Rivers’ on there. It’s an ode to Rivers. That’s how much we love him. He sent us the song. I loved it. We recorded it. We kept his guitar solo on it because it was so great. He is actually singing on the breakdown on it as well. That’s one theory. My theory is that Sugar Ray is so uncool, that we’re cool to him. He’s so ahead of the irony curve. He is wearing a cowboy hat and a mustache on the cover of his new record. He’s so ahead of the cool game, that he’s already ahead of the nineties irony train coming through. I think we might be recipients of his cool factor. That’s my philosophy. You can go with either one you want. I don’t give a shit how it got there, all I know is we have a song written by Rivers on our record.
You are currently on tour in support of the album. What has that experience been like for the band?
It’s been great. We have been humbled by the honor of being on the road, being in a band, playing places, driving across this beautiful country of ours, and being able to play live music for a living. It’s pretty special stuff. We’ve always known that, but back in the heyday and stuff, you’re younger, you’re dumber, and you take things for granted. We would have like five buses on the road, with two trucks, and all of that. Now we have one bus and a trailer. Ten guys in one bus. We haven’t done that since like ’97. It’s been great. We’ve really prepared ourselves. Knowing each other for so long and having gone through so many trials and tribulations in this band, we really are prepared for each others idiosyncrasies on the road and are really able to deal with it. The pressure is gone in the business. We’re doing this because we want to have fun and if it’s not fun, we’re not going to do it. Pulling into town and being on stage with these guys for an hour and a half each night and pulling into the next town like a bunch of pirates. Going into Flying J truck stops at three in the morning and getting grilled cheeses. It’s the little things like that that make it so great. Then you look out and you see the fans out there singing along to the songs, loving the new stuff, talking about their life experiences to some your songs. Like, “Hey I met my girlfriend when ‘Fly’ was on the radio. I married her and we’ve been together for twelve years.” Stuff like that. It’s more intimate now and that’s fine. That’s pretty special stuff. If you can’t adjust and recalibrate your expectations of why you are doing this, then you should not be doing this.
What do you hope that people come away with after listening to your music or seeing your live performance?
As far as just listening to the music, one thing we like to do is have a universality in the lyrics and things. “Fly,” “Every Morning,” even a song like “Boardwalk,” they mean so many different things to so many different people. People actually want to ask me what they mean. I don’t like to tell them because my experience in the past is that it kind of bums them out. They think they got what it means. They can get some kind of meaning from our songs. Whatever it is. Personally or whatever. Some songs obviously aren’t that deep, but some have been written from our personal experiences. I might write a chorus and Stan, our drummer, might write a verse. We’re thinking of two different things and we’re not telling each other what we’re thinking about. In the very sort of conflict comes the universality of the song that makes it work. It’s an interesting process to say the least because we all kind of write. To hear what people think the song means or how it affects them is pretty special stuff. In terms of the live show. Dude, look this ain’t Pink Floyd, it ain’t the White Stripes, we ain’t the greatest musicians in the world. I’m certainly not the best singer. We go on stage and have a lot of fun. We’ve always been a band sort of about escapism. If we go out there and have some fun, hoist a beer, and shake some hands and go home, that’s enough for me. I’m not claiming I am here to change the world at all. The band has never wanted to do that either. If we can brighten up some one’s day through three minutes listening to a song or an hour and a half a night when you come see us live, then we have done our job. That’s all we ever wanted to do.
Ever had a “Spinal Tap Moment” wile you were on stage?
We’ve had so many “Spinal Tap” moments. Everything in that movie has happened to us. We’ve played the air force bases. We’ve had the wrong writers. We’ve had the wrong buildings. We were in North Dakota about five years ago., it literally said ‘The world’s fourth largest cow and Sugar Ray’. We went to our tour manager and said, “Is that a joke? Did you make them do that? If we told them once, we told them a thousand times. It’s Sugar Ray and the world’s fourth largest cow!” That was straight out of Spinal Tap. I think Steven Tyler said it the best when he watched that movie he said, “I didn’t laugh once.” They go, “Why?” He goes, “What was funny about it?” Obviously he was being ironic, but he was saying everything in this movie happens to you. Whether it is the rider considerations, the equipment considerations, not finding the stage. Every theater has a stage theater type situation, where it has all of this weird underground plumbing and hallways and things. When they used to put up big productions, they’d have all of these dressing rooms and hallways. You cannot find the stage. Everything was so appropriate in that movie it was scary. Rob Reiner and those guys obviously were real musicians and somebody had toured before because they got every nuance, everything that makes road life insane down to a tee.
After this tour, what’s next for the band?
That’s a good question. We wrap up in September. There’s been talk of us going to South America. We got an offer to go to Brazil in October. It’s the one place we’ve never gone, that I would really like to go to. We have two gold records down there in South America, in Brazil, and some other countries down there. For some reason it’s always been the end of our touring cycle. After being on the road for a year and a half we always say, “Fuck it, let’s just go home. We’re too tired.” So this time, I hope we can do that. We’ll see where it takes us from there. Seeing and judging the sales and all that, I’d love to do some more music, write some more music. I also jam with a band called Camp Freddy back in Los Angeles. It’s made up of guys like Dave Navarro, Slash, Billy Morrison, Scott Weiland, and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols. We do a bunch of cover songs and stuff. They’re talking about going on tour as well. I’ll always be playing music live in some format. We’ll have to see. I think this is kind of a telling thing. After we do the tour with the guys, if it’s worth it to them or not. Will there be a commitment? We’ll see. The future is uncertain. I didn’t think we’d be out here touring this year. A year ago I was working for Extra, I’m open to all doors. It would be hard to predict, we’ll have to see what happens.
Is there anything else you want to add or let your fans know?
I think it’s pretty comprehensive Steve. You’re good at what you do brother!
Thanks for your time, Mark! We wish you guys all the best out there on the road.
I appreciate that. Thanks for your time man!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.