On The Line with Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray

On top of being one of my rock heroes, Mark McGrath is the high energy and fun-loving frontman for Sugar Ray, a band formed in the nineties, and still continue to tour to this day. I got a chance to speak to Mark about the 2014 Under The Sun tour, discuss bands like Snot and Sex Pistols, and dig deep into the band’s first album from 1995, Lemonade and Brownies.

Alex Obert: What was it like in high school when you were listening to bands like Sex Pistols and The Clash?

Mark McGrath: It was my whole life. Music was my escape in high school. I wasn’t a musician, I had no talent, some argue I still don’t! (laughs) The Sex Pistols and The Clash and bands like The Cult and all these bands, even bands like Duran Duran, Culture Club, and a lot of the new wave bands. They really spoke a lot to me. And I was the type of guy that got into a lot of genres of music. I was a very trendy guy, would be a rockabilly guy one day, and then a mod next, I was into hip hop and break dancing. I was just completely, completely in love with music. It was my escape. I remember drawing pictures of Ian Astbury from The Cult, speaking of great frontmen, on my folders in school. And I just dreamed of being in a band, I would stand in front of a mirror with a tennis racket and pretend I was playing to my classmates. It was such a huge escape for me and it just seemed so far away, so far removed, because I wasn’t in a band in high school. I actually followed the popular band around and it became the band I was in. It just meant everything to me. When the Sex Pistols came along, in particular, when I was turned onto the Pistols, I was a little younger when they had their heyday. I got into them around 81/82. Just the sheer fact that Johnny Rotten had the balls to go up on stage and say the things he did and cause the havoc he did, write the great songs they did. The Pistols, people forget, only had one record. And they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They did so much, they changed the world, they changed how we perceive music. They spawned the alternative generation, as I like to say. And gave people hope. And it wasn’t from a ton of talent, it was the balls and the will to go on stage. The Sex Pistols are the first band, and Johnny Rotten in particular, they’re the first band that led me to say, “Hey, maybe I can do that! Maybe if I just have the will and the strength to get on stage, I can do it.”

Alex Obert: You have a tattoo for Lynn Strait, the frontman for a band that was around during your time, what was it enjoyed about him and Snot?

Mark McGrath: Lynn and I became friends, just fast friends. I love the band, Snot, and the guys in the band. As a matter of fact, the first time we played in Santa Barbara during our first record cycle on 1995’s Lemonade and Brownies, Snot was up in Santa Barbara and they hadn’t gotten signed yet. And we hadn’t sold any records and our agent at the time said, “Listen, Snot’s very strong in Santa Barbara, why don’t you do a headliner show with them? They’ll draw some people and you’ll get to play to some fans at least.” We said, “Great!” So we got to the show, and it’s like a Monday night or something. We get to the venue and literally, there’s ten people there. And I remember at soundcheck, Snot played a song of ours called Ten Seconds Down. I don’t know if it was to fuck with us or not. In retrospect, I know their sense of humor, so it definitely was to fuck with us. But they played the song Ten Seconds Down, which was off our first record, and they played it better than we could ever hope to play it. So there were ten people there. I’m talking to Lynn and I go, “Dude, I thought you guys were gonna bring people here!” And he goes, “Dude I thought you guys were gonna bring people here! You’re the signed band on Atlantic Records!” And ever since then, we started laughing hysterically and the bands became great friends. I became really good friends with Lynn and we had a great personal connection. When Snot wound up getting signed to Geffen Records, we toured in 97 with them and with a band called The Urge. And it was the last tour we did before Fly broke, which was interesting. Snot had their record out and we hadn’t done much with Lemonade and Brownies. We were just about to release Fly. It was an incredible tour because it was the last one that no one came to, but it was really a lot of fun because we became really good friends with Snot. On the way to a show in 1998, I was all excited, we were playing our hometown, L.A. And I got the call on the way to the show, and Lynn was supposed to come to the show that night, that Lynn died in a car crash on the way to the show. It really put a damper on the evening to say the least. A lot of friends of ours, like guys in Korn and stuff, really knew Lynn very well. So it was a very bittersweet night that night. I still miss Lynn a lot. Snot got to release a record and they were on Ozzfest and they were just about to bubble under. They would have carried the torch when Pantera kinda dropped off. They were an incredible band. And Lynn, talk about a great frontman, he was one of a kind.

Alex Obert: Along with Snot, who did you listen to in the mid-nineties while you were writing and recording Lemonade and Brownies?

Mark McGrath: For me, I’d always go back and access the old stuff along with the new stuff. I love The Beach Boys and The Beatles, but I also love Slayer and Cannibal Corpse. And everything inbetween. I remember in the mid-nineties, the band Sublime really cracked the code for us. We played gigs with Sublime in the early nineties growing up in Southern California, we weren’t really friends with them. But if you were a band back then and playing on the Southern California club circuit with No Doubt, Offspring, The Vandals, Sublime, ourselves, it was impossible not to run into each other. And I remember seeing Sublime and I thought they were a good band, they were sloppy, they were definitely sloppy. Brad, those guys, they all like to have fun and a good time and they brought that on stage with them. So I never thought, “Wow! What an incredible band!”, but they had good songs and I thought Brad had a great voice. But I never thought, “Wow, these guys are gonna change the direction of music!” And then when they released What I Got, to me, they cracked the code of how to elegantly and articulately combine and make it a perfect tribrid, if you will, of hip hop, reggae, punk rock, rock n’ roll, they broke the code! You know when a comedian cracks the code on an impression? Jay Mohr cracked the code on how to do Christopher Walken, and all of a sudden, everybody can do it. “Ah! That’s how you do it!” Sublime did it with David Kahne and produced What I Got. And we heard that and went, “Oh my God! Maybe we can do that!” We hadn’t lit up the world with our first record, Lemonade and Brownies, but Atlantic Records, by the grace of God, was gonna give us a second chance. They said, “Listen, we want you to use a big name producer on this one.” And we said, “Great, great! We want David Kahne. He did Sublime, and they were starting to run hot, and the record was starting to take off.” And they said, “Great! That makes a lot of sense for us at Atlantic! Let’s get David Kahne in here!” And David Kahne, God bless him, judges my voice on our first record, I was all over the place. I was throwing my voice high, I was singing in falsetto, I was screaming and yelling. And aesthetically, that record was a little bit of everything. We were like kids in a candy store. And David Kahne, basically, taught me how to sing. He said, “Listen, the bad news is you can’t really sing that well. The good news is when you stay in a certain range, I think people are gonna wanna hear your voice.”

So it was a combination of really listening to Sublime and the genius of David Kahne that really helped us with our record, Floored, which had Fly on it. It sold two million copies. I think the band, Sublime, had a bigger influence on us and it’s even obvious to people.

Alex Obert: Before you established hits such as Fly and Every Morning, what did you take out of recording Lemonade and Brownies and then releasing that album?

Mark McGrath: The recording process of Lemonade and Brownies was phenomenal because when we got signed with Atlantic Records, we lied to them. We said we had forty songs like every band does. We had two songs. One was called Caboose, that we made a video for and we got signed off of. And the other was called Lick Me. We had two available songs, they both sucked. Caboose ended up making the record just because we didn’t have that many songs and we’re sitting there going, “Oh my God, we’ve got a record deal! We’re gonna write a record now!” And not only did we not know how to write songs, we didn’t even know what kind of style band we were. We loved the Beastie Boys, we loved Sublime, and we had one foot in metal and hair metal, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing! And that made it kind of fun. We produced it with DJ Lethal from House of Pain because we really loved the House of Pain records. We loved in particular what House of Pain did with Helmet and Butch Vig when they did Shamrocks and Shenanigans. A real sort of heavy guitar beat to it with rap lyrics. And I thought maybe that was the kind of direction we were going. And mind you, this is before rap rock, there was no rap rock in 94. None. There was only Rage Against the Machine and they weren’t considered rap rock, they were just considered revolutionary.

We were just trying experiments with hip hop with me rapping and not really rapping, just trying to figure out how to do this. We still had one foot in punk rock and I remember we used to do a lot of things against the norm and just write songs and we were experimenting with loops and DJ Lethal brought us beats and stuff. We had to learn to write songs off of one beat, didn’t change keys or change chord patterns. All of the stuff was a great training ground for what became Floored, what became 14:59, but we didn’t know it then. We had to go through a penmanship of Lemonade and Brownies to learn how to write songs. We didn’t know how to write songs and none of us still know how to write songs by ourselves. When put together, somehow, in the triad of me, Rodney, and Stan, that wrote the majority of the songs. Individually, none of us can write a song.

Alex Obert: I’d like to go over a few songs off of Lemonade and Brownies, feel free to share with me anything you’d like about them, any influences, inspiration, anything that’s significant to you about them.

Mark McGrath: Okay!

Alex Obert: Mean Machine.

Mark McGrath: Well what’s so great about Mean Machine is that’s the one that was a single and it got us a on Beavis and Butthead, it got us on MTV. We got a little bit of a taste of what it was like to, I guess say make it. We were on The Jon Stewart Show because of Mean Machine and that was on MTV, believe it or not, back then. So it was a little taste and it also brought us to Europe. I think we did one real tour of the United States during the Lemonade and Brownies campaign. And I think we went to Europe no less than eight times. So it really established itself over there. There was kind of this Adidas rock thing that was happening in Europe with Korn and Deftones. And they kind of lumped us into that whole group. And Downset and bands like that. So Mean Machine, I thought was gonna be the precursor with the sound that Sugar Ray was gonna be. That harder-edge rockin’ band, and that was the single we hung our hats on. When Fly hit, a lot of people said, “Oh, you guys sold out, blah blah blah…” And I’m like, “Yeah, I guess you never heard our first record.” The first record, Lemonade and Brownies, has the most mellow songs we’ve ever written, for Christ sake, on it. But it was also one that released singles like Mean Machine and Ten Seconds Down that were certainly harder-edge.

Alex Obert: Dance Party U.S.A.

Mark McGrath: (laughs) Dance Party U.S.A.’s kinda funny, what I remember about that is McG Nichol who went on to direct all our videos and a lot of videos of the nineties that anybody saw. Santeria by Sublime, The Offspring’s Pretty Fly For A White Guy, Walkin’ on the Sun by Smash Mouth. He really dominated the late nineties with MTV and VH1 aesthetic. He sent me the chorus to Dance Party U.S.A. and I remember him recording it and we couldn’t figure it out. We didn’t know how to do it. He went in there and pulled his pants down and just started singing the chorus. We’re all laughing so hard, he kind of broke the ice. And he sang it with such conviction and it was so funny, we were all laughing so hard. We left his voice in on that one. So that’s what I remember most. And he went on the direct many big movies, Charlie’s Angels series and Terminator: Salvation and This Means War and he’s got a new one coming out. So God bless him, he did pretty well for himself.

Alex Obert: Caboose.

Mark McGrath: Caboose, what I remember most about that is it pretty much went unchanged from the demo version that got us a record deal. That was the one that we made a video to and send it to Atlantic Records. And that was the one where they said, “Listen, we don’t know if the song’s any good, but we love the visual element of the band. We love what you guys are doing.” And when we got signed, bands were staring at their shoes, it was the grunge era. And I remember Doug Morris, who was the CEO, the president of Atlantic Records at the time, he said, “I don’t know if this song’s any good, but you guys are the reason why I got into music, to have fun. So I wanna see what you guys can do and come up with.” So Caboose, I have good memories about that.

Alex Obert: Ten Seconds Down.

Mark McGrath: Ten Seconds Down was probably my favorite song on that record. I think it’s the best rock song we wrote. I remember what we were really trying to do was swing for the fences on that and do our version of a Rage Against the Machine song. And if you notice the outro, which kind of has a one riff outro, we build and build on it. That was obviously ripped off of Rage Against the Machine, who we loved back then and continue to love to this day.

Alex Obert: Big Black Woman.

Mark McGrath: Big Black Woman! That’s in the punk rock days of the Shrinky Dinx before we changed the name to Sugar Ray. We were kind of making a little name for ourselves up here on the Sunset Strip and this wasn’t during the metal years. We weren’t good enough to be a metal band, we couldn’t really play our instruments that well. No one was gonna confused Rodney with a GIT Paul Gilbert Mr. Big axe ripper. We found it easier to write punk songs, sort of like Hanoi Rocks, trashy, Faster Pussycat songs, as opposed to really Guns N’ Roses Sweet Child O’ Mine songs, which most bands find difficult. So we really wrote these punkier songs and Big Black Woman was one of those punk rock songs from the day. And it is written about a transvestite named Liberty that was trying to pick me up at a club we played. It showed how naive I was, I didn’t even know she was a transvestite back in the day and thank God I didn’t go home with her! But man, she was beautiful! (laughs)

Alex Obert: How was the Sugar Ray song title, Danzig Needs A Hug, developed?

Mark McGrath: To me, that was the funniest title in the history of the world of songs. We were gonna have the song title on the record called Danzig Needs A Hug no matter what! I literally say that title to people and they break out laughing. I go, “I don’t care what we have to do, a song on this record is gonna be titled Danzig Needs A Hug!” And of course, we take the lightest, airiest, breeziest song that’s like, “Ha Ha! Touch the sky!” It’s really mellow, it sounds like a song that would play in a loop while you’re watching The Price Is Right. We said, “That’s gonna be the title! That’s the song, Danzig Needs A Hug right there!” And it just kind of shows you the irreverency we had back then from making a record. We were having fun, we were like kids in a candy store. We did kind of come from this Beastie Boys type of place without the intelligence, we had the humor in tact though.

Alex Obert: In terms of a live show, what do you feel it takes to be a frontman?

Mark McGrath: What it takes most to be a frontman, I think is conviction. I think that you have to never ever act like you don’t know what’s going on, even though you don’t half the time. You always have to act like you meant to do everything you meant you did. Even if you kicked the monitor, you forget a lyric, you sing off key for a second. And you also have to act like the place you are is the best place you can ever be. If you exude that kind of confidence and exude that kind of fun, it’ll translate to the audience hopefully. That’s always been my interpretation of a great frontman. The David Lee Roths of the world. Every time you see David Lee Roth, you’re like, “My God, isn’t he having the most fun in the world? And isn’t any place David Lee Roth is is the best place to be?” And I took it from that. Even Bret Michaels had a lot of that and still does. And then other great frontmen like Zack de la Rocha who had such a conviction to what they’re doing. The Johnny Rottens of the world. Michael Monroe, originally in Hanoi Rocks, he’s solo now. They just have this big conviction in the music and it’s a lifestyle. And then there’s Ian Astburys who kind of transcend you to another dimension. And those have always been my favorite kind of frontmen. And I’m not saying I’m any of those, but there is a spirit inside of me that takes a little bit of all of that and hopefully adds my own little sprinkle to it and makes it the Mark McGrath frontman experience.

Alex Obert: Getting into Under The Sun, with Summerland and Under The Sun, what influenced the decision to MC show the show as opposed to traditionally building anticipation for the band to come out?

Mark McGrath: I think it makes it more of an experience, and I still do. I will continue to do it. It certainly works for us on stage and the crowd. I just instinctively thought it would be a good idea to be sort of the Bob Barker guy going, “Hey guys! Welcome to the show!” And I think people like to be introduced to what you’re gonna see. And you’re gonna see the headliners introducing bands off the top. I always like to see the interaction amongst fans. I wanna think all four or five bands backstage are having a party together, they’re hangin’ out, and they’re having the best times ever. Even if it’s not happening. But I certainly want to bring that and I mean that. If it’s fooled and fake, we can do that, but if it’s organically happening, then it’s organically happening as well. It’s just a great way to introduce the bands coming up, it’s a great way to thank the audience for coming. I think that’s always a good thing and it shows people that you care! I want people to have a good time. And I hope they are and if you’ve seen the show, I believe you can see I’m having a good time. One of the great and best comments I see, when I read the comments section on the website or people tweet to me, is that it was really great for me to come on stage and introduce the bands, walking off and high fiving the guys. To me, it’s a very cool thing. It shows that you’re having fun because that’s always been the basis for Summerland and now Under The Sun. I don’t want bands that are just doing it to cash in a paycheck and not interact, I want the band to have fun. Look, this is a band that’s selling hits, there’s no attitudes and no ego here. Any of these bands could interchange the headliner for the most part. Really, this year, they can. So that’s just the attitude, I want it to be a good party.

Alex Obert: Can you drop any hints about the upcoming lineup?

Mark McGrath: Dude, I am a day or two away from announcing it. And hopefully, I’ll announce it tomorrow. I’m going on Extra. I will tell you this, Smash Mouth will again be on it this year. We had Gin Blossoms two years in a row and it’s great. I’d have those guys every year if I could, it’s just we have to mix it up a little bit. What makes it tough for me, Alex, is there’s only so many multi-platinum bands at that level in the nineties because they don’t make ’em anymore. Ones that can fill certain spots. And to be honest, some bands can still do it by themselves. The Goo Goo Dolls of the world, The Barenaked Ladies of the world. There are only so many bands that I could pick. We want to mix it up as much as we can. It was our first year with Smash Mouth last year. I think people really enjoyed them, we’re bringing them back. What I will say is that there will be four bands this year and any one of them could headline. And in fact, in certain territories, some bands will headline. In the past two years, it’s been the same lineup throughout the entire tour. This year, for the first time, all bands will be switching to headliner status. All bands will open the show one time, which will be a little interesting anecdote, and there’s only four bands. And I will tell you this, the people who I’ve talked to and the promoters think it’s the strongest lineup by far, and it certainly is, just by records sold and what these bands can draw. So I’m really looking forward to it. I really wish I could tell you, Alex, so close, but I’m very excited about it.

Alex Obert: What was your reaction when you found out that these particular bands will be on the bill?

Mark McGrath: Right now, I’m extremely excited. I’m very happy to have Smash Mouth back. Our careers have really paralleled each other. There’s an irony in it, it’s eerie how similar our careers have been. And people really get us mixed up, they say we sing Walkin’ on the Sun, they say Smash Mouth sings Fly, so to have them back really warms my heart. And they really did a great job last year. But the other two bands, and I’ll tell you this, the two bands you would never think would be on Under The Sun, which really makes me happy. One is almost country leaning and one is let’s say more in the world of a jam band. I’m probably giving it away! But it’ll be great just to see this thing come to fruition.

Alex Obert: Something else in music you’re involved with, how did you become apart of Camp Freddy?

Mark McGrath: I was asked to do Camp Freddy about ten years ago. A buddy of mine named Donovan Leitch, whose in the band, and he said, “Hey man, do you wanna come up here and sing some songs? We’ll do some Pistols songs with Steve Jones of The Pistols.” He explained to me Matt Sorum’s on drums and Dave Navarro’s on guitar and some of these guys are my heroes. Matt Sorum was in The Cult, one of my favorite all-time favorite bands, Guns N’ Roses. Dave Navarro is a guitar god, he’s in Jane’s Addiction for Christ sake. And then the people they get to play. You get Billie Joe Armstrong, they had Steven Tyler, Ozzy Osbourne. I’m a fan and I get a ticket to be on stage. And you didn’t have to ask me twice, I was like, “Oh my God, where do I sign up?” And so I did an event for them in 2004 and I think they were amused by me. Ever since then, they’ve asked me to do every Camp Freddy. And I’ve had some of the greatest musical experiences of my life in Camp Freddy. I got to play a Sex Pistols song with all three remaining Sex Pistols. Steve Jones on guitar, Paul Cook on drums, and the original bass player before Sid, Glen Matlock on bass. And we did EMI. Basically, I was Johnny Rotten for a night. And that was something I would have paid a million dollars to do. I got to do it through Camp Freddy. I’ve got to jam with Slash, and I’ve got to play Rage Against the Machine songs, and this is an incredible fun thing to do. It’s just been a great way to carry out some rock n’ roll fantasies, I thought mine were all through, but to still be able to go on stage with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, with Billy Idol, you name it. It’s a really fun thing to do. And again, like Under The Sun, it’s just guys up there havin’ fun. Playin’ cover songs, no one gettin’ rich off it. And you really see that the fans know they’re seeing something special because with Camp Freddy, you never know whose gonna walk around that corner. You never know. It could be Ozzy, could be Steven Tyler, it could be Lou Reed! Not anymore, but it was. It’s an incredible experience and a lot of fun. And most importantly, it’s fun for the fans.

Alex Obert: One of the musicians that has jammed with Camp Freddy, he actually just moved out to California to pursue a solo career, how did you develop a friendship with Paulie Z?

Mark McGrath: How can you not? If you know him at all, he’s the nicest, most amicable, joyful son of rock n’ roll you can possibly meet. The second you meet him, you’re his friend for life. He just makes you feel like you’ve known him forever. He’s just an incredible singer as well and he’s a huge personality. He’s a pleasure to have out there, one hell of a voice. I’m looking forward to hearing his solo stuff.

Alex Obert: And I understand you were potentially going to be on Z Rock.

Mark McGrath: Yeah, I think I was gonna be on it and there was a scheduling conflict of some sort. So unfortunately, it never happened. I hadn’t seen much of the show, I know my buddy Dave Navarro was on it, and he told me about the great time he had. I was looking forward to it and unfortunately in Hollywood, there’s a lot of great ideas that get locked away and unfortunately, Z Rock was one of them for me.

Alex Obert: In closing, if it all ended today, how do you want Sugar Ray to be remembered?

Mark McGrath: If it all ended today, I’d like Sugar Ray to be remembered as a band that wrote some pretty damn good songs. There was a point in the nineties where there was a little bit of hysteria surrounding the band and surrounding me and there was the sexy thing and there was the cover of Rolling Stone. As frontmen, you know, Journey of a Frontman, the frontmen tend to be sort of centered out. I went through that sort of whole phase in the early nineties, early 2000s. But that is not something one can hang a career on or legacy on. The highway is littered with failed popstars, rockstars. But with great songs that endure, that’s a rarity. The reason why Sugar Ray is still performing today is not because I’m forty six and my hairline’s receding. It’s because we have four great songs that people still wanna hear that mean the world to them. Fly, Every Morning, Someday, and When It’s Over. And for me as a performer, that is a blessing from God. And it’s something that I will never take for granted and I will always respect. You’ll have to take me out to Denny’s here in LA during the early bird special when I’m seventy five and I’ll sing Fly four times in a row, performing in front of nobody, cause I love it. I’ve been graced with this opportunity to perform these songs. And to be a band that just wrote a couple great songs and meant something to people and endure, that’s a legacy I want Sugar Ray to be known for. That’s one I will help perpetuate and protect for the rest of my life, that’s for sure.

Alex Obert: Do you have any websites to plug at the moment?

Mark McGrath: You can always go on MarkMcGrath.com and get the latest and the greatest. I try to do little blog entries as many times as I can, but I’m lazy and I can’t type. And I’m pretty active on my Twitter, @Mark_McGrath. And I’m happy to answer any questions or any inquiries, positive or negative. I’m happy to hear from the people.

Alex Obert: When do you think Under The Sun will start touring?

Mark McGrath: I think we have a date July 4th already locked in. So I would say it’s gonna start in late June and then end mid-August. It depends how many shows we get, start a little earlier or end a little later. And like I said, Alex, we’re gonna be announcing this thing in the next forty eight hours.

Alex Obert: Thank you so much for the great interview!

Mark McGrath: I appreciate your time, man!

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