“Allow me to humblebrag for a moment,” says the one and only Mark McGrath, and well he might.
After all, the Southern California-native practically invented the oh-so-contemporary art of wry, self-deprecating modesty, backed up of course by a lengthy resume of popular success and artistic accomplishment. As lead singer/songwriter for Sugar Ray, McGrath can lay claim to a stunning string of top 10 hits, multiple multi-platinum albums (including the RIAA 3x platinum certified “14:59”), and countless sold out tours. Where that would be enough for most artists, McGrath has also proven an effervescent and ever-present pop culture personality, with a host of TV, film, and other extracurricular endeavors.
More than two decades since first stepping into the spotlight, the multi-talented frontman is busier than ever before. Leading the charge is his much anticipated solo debut as well as his role as co-host and founder of “Under The Sun,” the annual summer festival tour showcasing the biggest and brightest stars of the halcyon Nineties. Now blissfully married and father to twins, McGrath’s admirably debauched rock star lifestyle has given way to a laser beam focus on his own past, present, and future.
“I’m more lucid now,” he says. “I’m clearer. I’m not this maniac, going from city to city drinking twelve-packs of beer. I’m a father now, my craziness is behind me. The fog has cleared and I’m like, look what we did! It’s awesome!”
Indeed it is. Sugar Ray was groundbreaking from the get-go, including among their ranks a real live DJ – incredibly, unheard of in a rock band at that time. Kicking off with 1995’s “LEMONADE AND BROWNIES,” the Newport Beach quintet unleashed a series of albums that McGrath describes as “love letters to the music we loved, with no irony just pure enthusiasm.” 1997’s “FLOORED” saw the band refine its multi-faceted sound with the assistance of GRAMMY® Award-winning producer David Kahane (Sublime, Paul McCartney, The Strokes). The album proved Sugar Ray’s popular breakthrough, earning 2x platinum certification from the RIAA, fueled in part by the #1 hit single, “Fly.”
The track – which featured guest toasting from dancehall reggae pioneer, Super Cat – along with its candy-colored companion video (directed by McGrath’s childhood friend and longtime collaborator, McG), locked into place Sugar Ray’s trademark all-consuming vision. Melding hair metal and hardcore punk with sampledelic hip-hop, New Wave, disco, and dub, Sugar Ray made music “like kids in a candy store,” crafting an idiosyncratic and utterly distinctive groove as inventive and forward-thinking as any critics’ darling of the era.
The puckishly titled “14:59” – a middle finger to those who declared Sugar Ray to be no more than a passing fad – made it clear McGrath and the band had the songwriting chops to go along with its vibrant sonic approach. The 1999 album was a triple platinum sensation, yielding a sun-kissed string of unforgettable pop classics including “Someday,” “Falls Apart,” and still another #1 smash in “Every Morning.” The hits kept coming, with 2001’s platinum-certified “SUGAR RAY” making a top 10 debut on the Billboard 200, propelled by yet another hit single/video, “When It’s Over.”
“We stand on our merits.” McGrath says. “No matter how much I try to be self-effacing, when you have a #1 song you have been validated. As much as I try to bash what we did as a band, you can never disown that. Four top 10 Songs, 10 million records – there’s nothing I can do to self-efface that. And the older I get, the more proud I get of what we did.”
Sugar Ray stood astride the pop world, with all the mainstream multimedia mania that entails. The band made innumerable live appearances, including NBC’s TODAY, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien; CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman, and The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson; ABC’s LIVE! with Regis & Kelly; MTV’s 120 Minutes, The Grind, and The Jon Stewart Show; the nationally syndicated Rosie O’Donnell Show, Wendy Williams Show, and Ellen DeGeneres Show; and regular, memorable visits to Howard Stern’s many media outings). The charismatic combo appeared in films and TV shows like Fox’s American Dad, ABC’s The Drew Carey Show, Ivan Reitman’s Father’s Day (starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal), and 2002’s live-action Scooby-Doo, with McGrath’s smiling face starring by his own self on the covers of such national publications as Spin and Rolling Stone.
With his innate wit, easy charm, and encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, McGrath was also a natural TV personality. Among his countless credits are stints as co-host of the entertainment news program, Extra, and as host of a parade of programs, including The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, NBC’s Radio Music Awards, MTV’s Rock N’ Jock, the annual World Music Awards, two seasons of The CW’s The Pussycat Dolls Present, and the nationally syndicated Don’t Forget The Lyrics! A three-time champion on VH1’s Rock & Roll Jeopardy, McGrath has also appeared on such hugely successful series as Fox’s American Idol, NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice (Season 4), NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NBC’s FCU: Fact Checkers Unit, ABC’s Celebrity Wife Swap, and the penultimate episode of NBC’s The Office.
Next up on the hard-working McGrath’s to-do list is his long awaited return to the studio. The singer is now hard at work on his debut solo recording – his first new collection of songs since 2009.
“When you’re in a band you do two things,” he says. “You write music and you play live. I’ve been doing a lot of one and not a lot of the other, so I feel the need to get out again creatively. I’m very aware there’s no giant commercial business left for Mark McGrath but that’s the good news too – there’s no pressure!”
The self-titled EP – which will be available at “Under The Sun 2013” as well as via www.markmcgrath.com – features a fistful of all-new favorites, including TK. The project has proved liberating for McGrath, allowing him full creative control for the first time in his lengthy career. Which isn’t to say he’s gone out and made his very own Jazz Odyssey.
“A Mark McGrath record is going to sound a lot like a Sugar Ray record and I’ll tell you why,” he says. “What I love is pop melodies, I love reggae, I love the Beach Boys. I always tried to steer the band in one direction but it was a democracy. Everybody had their own record collections, everybody had their own lifestyles and we had to make sense out of that. This record is going to be the Sugar Ray record everybody wanted to hear without some of the jambalaya that we threw in there.”
As with most bands that survive for 25 years plus, Sugar Ray’s membership has seen some flux over their extended and illustrious career. Though McGrath is adamant there will never be another Sugar Ray record unless it features the original members, that’s not to say the band is no more – far from it. McGrath and founding guitarist Rodney Sheppard are currently leading a new Sugar Ray line-up that they feel finally fulfills the band’s onstage potential.
“We have the best 30 minute set in the business,” McGrath says. “We have a drummer now that’s a monster – it’s a joy, really. It’s all about the songs now. No one’s coming out to see my beer belly and receding hairline, they just want to hear the songs.”
Sugar Ray’s glorious tunes can be heard in all their splendor as the band co-headline the inaugural “Under The Sun” tour, co-created by McGrath to celebrate the alternative pop explosion that was the Nineties. The trek – which follows 2012’s Summerland tour, co-created by McGrath and featuring Sugar Ray, Marcy Playground, and Lit, among others – will feature an array of artists performing the music that dominated the international airwaves for a decade.
“These songs mean a lot to people,” McGrath says. “I look into the crowds and I’ll see moms losing their shit out there, remembering where they were ten or fifteen years ago. I see 20-year-olds who call it ‘classic rock,’ you get people in their sixties and seventies enjoying the music, you get the whole gamut.”
Always one to gleefully traverse musical boundaries, McGrath sees “Under The Sun” as more than just a summer roadshow for traditional rock ‘n’ roll combos like Sugar Ray and fellow 2013 headliners Smash Mouth and Gin Blossoms. Rather, he envisions the annual tour as the ideal vehicle for capturing the genre-hopping spirit of the era.
“I don’t want to be linear as far as what Under The Sun can be,” McGrath says. “It doesn’t have to be just rock guitars. There are only so many bands from the Nineties that can sustain that kind of tour. I want to see R&B on this tour, I want to see hip-hop. I want it to be all things Nineties.”
No one knows better than McGrath how Nineties nostalgia still inspires ironic yuks among the Generation X slackers that lived through it. Nonetheless, the frontman is confident that an aesthetic reappraisal is inevitable.
“Remember how ridiculous the Eighties were, looking back from ’96 or ’97,” McGrath says. “You need to put a little more distance between it. It’s going to take a new generation to rediscover the Nineties. A generation that wasn’t there, that doesn’t know how lame my highlights were.”
Further plans include an all-star Nineties act a la Dave Navarro and Billy Morrison’s superstar jam session, Camp Freddy (of which McGrath has long been a member in good standing). From Sugar Ray to “Under The Sun” and beyond, McGrath’s myriad efforts are bound now and forever by the man’s sheer wit, pop cultural smarts, songwriting sensibility, and unstoppable, infectious enthusiasm. Joke though he might – and almost certainly will – but Mark McGrath remains as full-on as ever before.
“You’ve gottta love it,” Mark McGrath says. “And I’ll always love it.”