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Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath, a '90s curator, accidentally finds success two decades later

by jmaloni
Fri, Jun 28th 2019 03:35 pm
Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray (Photo: Ravinia, courtesy of Artpark & Company)
Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray (Photo: Ravinia, courtesy of Artpark & Company)

Headlines July 9 ‘Tuesdays in the Park’ concert at Artpark

By Joshua Maloni

Managing Editor

Mark McGrath would be the last person to give credit to Mark McGrath.

Fans know McGrath as an actor, reality TV star, SiriusXM host, and frontman for Sugar Ray. Those who like him also know it was charm, charisma and ability that made McGrath a star. … Everyone – even those who don’t like McGrath – would at least have to concede it takes a modicum of talent – a smidge of ability – to find the career success he’s had since bursting onto the scene in the 1990s.

Everyone, that is, except McGrath. If you talk to him, McGrath will do his best to downplay his achievements or push credit elsewhere.

Now, it’s not that he disregards his resume, or even that he’s being humble. McGrath is just too busy loving life, enjoying work and relishing his family time to get caught up in who did what when, or why it matters.

Perhaps it's for that reason McGrath is in demand as an actor, host and musician some 22 years after dropping the ska-punk, pop-rock hit “Fly” on the masses?

McGrath will readily admit there are legions of people who think Sugar Ray sucks. In fact, he’s often poking fun at his own band with them. But that didn’t stop him from making new music – music that, in 2018, very much didn't suck. In fact, it landed Sugar Ray a recording contract with BMG.

Besides, for all the people who dislike Sugar Ray, there’s even more who show up to McGrath’s ’90s-themed concerts and are entertained. In fact, these folks realize they (really) like the band’s hit songs “Someday,” “Every Morning” and “When It’s Over.”

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, McGrath mentioned he has grand plans for future ’90s-inspired shows. He sees an opportunity to tap into society’s fascination with the last decade of the past century.

That tour will likely be wildly popular. ...

And McGrath will, no doubt, find new reasons to badmouth himself in the process.

NFP recently chatted with McGrath, who will headline a July 9 “Tuesdays in the Park” concert with Sugar Ray. An edited Q&A follows.

Q: So, you are coming up to a place called Artpark in Lewiston on July 9. You're going to be here with Better Than Ezra and Emerson Hart.

Mark McGrath: Yeah, you know, it's a fun package, man. And I've known these guys for a long time. And to kind of play these songs all together on one stage, you kind of forget how many songs these bands had. Obviously, you remember all the hits – you know, the “Flys” of the world, “If You Could Only See,” “Good” – but you forget all the other songs, because, when these bands were popular, a lot of their catalog was getting played on the radio, as well.

So, all three of these bands together are a perfect example of a band to go, “Oh my god, they sang this song, too!” And, “Oh, and that song, too!” It's almost like a greatest hits tour. …

Obviously, our sets are truncated a bit, because we got to get everybody up there playing. (But) the sets are packed with songs you're gonna be familiar with.

It’s a fun show, and we all really, genuinely, like each other. We’re at point of our age now where we don't really do things if we don't want to, which is kind of a beautiful place to be at.

There is a genuine love for all three of these bands and you'll see it on stage. I'm sure it will involve some sort of jamming at the end.

Q: I really am excited about this show. I've seen Better Than Ezra and Emerson a couple of times, and they've been great. This will be my first time seeing you, and I'm excited about that. This is a great venue – and it's an award-winning venue. But one thing that this venue hasn't done a lot of, necessarily, is book acts from the ’90s. I love music from the ’90s – I grew up in the ’90s. And you have become sort of an expert on the ’90s with your tours and the things you've been doing. What is it that is so great about the ’90s?

Mark McGrath: Well, that’s an interesting sort of sentiment and perception to have. I'm not really familiar with the venue. I have performed there before, and it is definitely beautiful. Maybe it's too professional and sophisticated for the bands. (Laughs) We're not worthy of its presence. So, they stick to the Bob Dylan’s and the legendary heritage acts, if you will.

I’m kidding, of course!

I'm not sure what it is. I do know this, though: The ’90s – the nostalgia of the ’90s – are full-blown right now. I mean, I like to think of it like this: You know, the ‘stink’ of the ’90s has gone away. You know, we tend to look back on the decades with a lot more affinity and a lot more nostalgia then when we were actually there. Even hair metal today is looked back on (fondly) – and I love hair metal.

But if you look back at that, it’s like, “Oh, wow, I really pine for those days, and hair metal.” Well, I was there during the grunge days. And we all decided, overnight, we couldn't stand hair metal, you know? So, I think, looking back, it's a lot easier. You kind of look into rose-tinted glasses when looking at how great the ’90s were.

Were the’ 90s better than any other decade? No. You just grew up in them. You have some special times that you remember personally about the ’90s. And, fortunately for me, my band, and the bands on this bill, a lot of us have songs that were the soundtrack to some of those experiences – whether you were remembering the first girlfriend you had in summer, and “Fly” was on in the background. Or you remember hanging out with your friends and riding bikes to the pool. I mean, those little special memories that I had in the ’70s, which I hold so dear to my heart, you had in the ’90s. And that's nostalgia, man.

A lot of people think that's a bad word and run away from it. But if you look up nostalgia in the dictionary, it is nothing but positive words and phrases. And it’s interesting: We don't sort of treat our musicians – let's say our nostalgic musicians – the same like they do in sports. You know, we look back nostalgically at some of our athletes. It's all, “Oh, gosh, I love those guys.” And they’re heroic. For some reason, the nostalgia in music is not applied the same way. It's almost a bad word in some cases.

And it's interesting. But I think the reason why that is, is because you get to see us grow old and play. Now, if you got to watch Michael Jordan grow old and play basketball, it might not be so pretty. You know what I mean? But you get to watch us grow old, get beer bellies and lose our hair and still perform. That's the joys of the music business, and I guess the pitfalls of being nostalgic. You know, it's happening right in front of your face.

But, look it, we still get to play music for a living, and this is a dream job come true. I’m never going to take it away for me. And I promise you, if Michael Jordan could still be playing basketball in the NBA, he would be today.

I think it’s coming. A lot of the heritage bands are aging out – the Rolling Stones of the world. I mean, they're still rocking. I can't believe how! I just saw some of the footage from Chicago. But, a lot of these bands are on their last cycle of touring, maybe admittedly so. The Who has been on their last tour since 1982. But a lot of these bands are sort of aging out. So, there’s got to be a new generation of bands coming through.

And obviously the ’90s was kind of the last decade that produced legacy bands. There's going to be a whole new wave since the internet kind of took over. But the ’90s was the last decade. So, I'm sure Artpark will start doing more in the future.

And a lot of those bands from the ’90s are still touring on their own. You know, these sort of nostalgia packages – these little rock packages like we’re doing – are kind of unique. The Goo Goo Dolls, Train, these bands like that are still capable of playing Artpark on their own. So, I'm sure they're doing so.

But I think what's interesting about that is, it’s my life. So, I'm thinking about the ’90s. I live the ’90s. They were special to me. I have great memories of the ’90s. I’m sort of a curator of all things ’90s – by default. You know, I lucked out. My dreams came true in the ’90s. I'm still basically, you know, I still get paid because of the ’90s. You know, there isn't a song you remember since the ’90s that Sugar Ray has released that anybody cares about – and that's fine. So, if people want to hear about it, I'm your guy. I'm your one-stop-shop for all things ’90s. And I'm happy to be there.

I do tell stories of the times I've had when I'm on my radio show on SiriusXM. “Mark McGrath’s 120.” And, you know, I've been fortunate enough to meet so many bands of that era. I've toured with them all. I've been able to tour with rock bands, but also the R&B and hip-hop bands on the “I Love The 90s Tour.” I toured with Naughty by Nature, Salt-N-Pepa, All For One, Coolio, Biz Markie, Young MCs. So, I’ve really been able to connect with so many artists from that generation, and have access to them all, as well.

I think it's a love for the ‘90s that I just genuinely, organically have. And also, because that's where my dreams were made, man. My dreams came true in the ’90s, and I'm happy to carry the flag of all things ’90s.

Q: I would love to talk to you about the ’90s for hours on end, but I appreciate that you have a schedule. So, let me ask you this: You talk about this show coming up at Artpark. Obviously there's going to be a ton of great hits, and that's fantastic. But you also have some new music; you have a new album. What you tell me about that?

Mark McGrath: Yeah, you know, ironically, a couple years ago – because of my ’90s participation – you know, I garnered a little bit of fame. I was on the cover of Rolling Stone. It was kind of a fun time to be alive. Well, it still is today – let’s just say there aren’t people waiting outside for me now, for my autograph. But, you know, my two little kids give me more excitement and joy than I ever had.

But you know, I can do some of these shows – the “Celebrity Big Brothers” and shows like that. And so, for “Celebrity Big Brother,” they were going to make a sizzle reel. And, basically, what that is, is like your introductory package.

On “Big Brother,” everybody lives in a house, and the first show they do a little piece on what everybody does. Metta World Peace is from basketball; Chuck Liddell is a fighter. And they wanted me in the studio, like sort of doing what I do every day – even though I hadn't been in a studio for five years at that point.

So, I said, “Sure, why not? I know what you guys are going for.”

And our guitar player, Rodney Sheppard, had this little bit of a song that we started working with, while they were filming our little sizzle piece. And we kept working on the song, and it just kind of organically started taking shape. And the lyrics came easy. The song came easy. And we were recording and filming at the same time. Next thing we noticed, the “Big Brother” people had left, and we’re finishing this song. I go, “Wow, it's pretty cool. Got a new song. That's always fun.” And that was it.

The next day, I went in the “Big Brother” house for 36 days. I was just mediocre enough to make it to the finale. And I come out of the house, and look at my guitar player, Rodney; he goes, “Dude, you're not gonna believe this. But our producer, the guy here in the studio, Michael Lloyd, sent the song to BMG, and they want to offer us a record deal.”

I go, “What happened when I was living in the ‘Big Brother’ house, man? What happened?!?” Is there still a world out there?” I was still reacclimating to coming outside the house after being off – literally off the grid – for 36 days. And here I am being offered a major label record deal for the first time in 25 years. So, it was crazy how it came out.

And the way they did it is kind of how they’re doing it today. They kind of figured out the business model. They don't throw a lot of money at you. You know, they throw you a minimal amount of money. You better have the infrastructure to make your own record, because you're not going to be able to afford it with what they give you. But they give you your own time and space; and then they put it out in the streaming world, and that's it. So, there's a minimal investment on their part. And there's minimal expectations on our part. It kind of works hand-in-hand. It was fun to be creative again.

So, we made a record. It’s very much Sugar Ray sounding. We’ve played a lot of the songs live. And they seem to integrate and fit nicely with the other songs, as well. So, making this record, we said, “Let's make a Sugar Ray record.” We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. You know, “If there are a few Sugar Ray fans out there, let's make a record for them.” And that's what we did.

It’s called “Little Yachty.” It’s basically a play on, of course, Lil Yachty, the rapper – who I reached out to on social media, and he said, “That's great. I love it. You guys are legends.” So, I'm like, “Yes; mission accomplished.”

Q: You did a really good interview recently with Rolling Stone. And one of the things that you said was that, you know, when people come to see Sugar Ray, you're singing hits with vigor and joy and happiness. And I'm wondering if that's sort of how you approach your career in general – whether it's making a Sugar Ray album, or doing reality TV, or being in “Sharknado” – which I thought was awesome, by the way. Are you looking for things that will give you vigor and joy and happiness? Is that the strategy when you take on these projects?

Mark McGrath: You know, when you're a guy with a minimal amount of talent, and kind of snuck in the back door of show business, and you've hung around for 25 years – and I don't want to say you're still relevant, but you’re still vital, and you're still out there, and you're still making a living at it – you have to look at it with joy and happiness and wonderment, and know there's divine intervention involved. And you gotta pinch yourself every moment and opportunity.

That's my case; that's not for everybody. I've always been fascinated by the world of show business, whether it's movies, TV; music, obviously, is my first love. And the fact that we ever had (hits) – I co-wrote two No. 1 songs. And you know, I'm the first guy to make fun of myself, as we know. I started the narration of making fun of Sugar Ray years ago. I'm the guy that started it – the guy in the band. We know I don't take myself seriously. But I am so proud of the songs we wrote. And, you know, they were validated by the American public – they went to No. 1. I had nothing to do with that. I co-wrote them, but chart positioning and all that was because of the reception of the American public. I am very, very proud of that.

But I do tend to look at things that I do with a smile, with a joy, not so seriously. And it's led me to some great opportunities. I figured, if you have some manners, you remember some names, and have some general common courtesy, it’s a commodity here in Hollywood. You know, I’ve gotten jobs I didn't deserve; but the people will say, “Listen, you remembered the second cameraman's name, so the crew wants to work with you. You weren’t our first choice, but we want to offer you the job.”

I think there is a little bit of a being grateful, a little bit of gratuity, and putting a smile on your face, and being happy you get to do this thing.

You know, it’s the entertainment world. It's all smoke and mirrors. It’s all fake. And once you get in there … I'm not giving my uniform back. I'm not retiring – to the chagrin of many people! You're going to have to pry the microphone out of my hand after the three sets I do at Denny’s in Barstow when I’m 76 years old. Out of my cold, dead hand, because I love doing this so much.

It’s just a general joy I felt for the entertainment business – for the music business, in particular. So as long as I can croak out some words – which I'm kind of doing now anyway – and I can stand up on stage, I'm going to be doing it; and I'm going to be grateful that I’m here.

Sugar Ray, Better Than Ezra and Emerson Hart of Tonic perform Tuesday, July 9, at Artpark. For more information, or for tickets, visit www.artpark.net or stop by the box office at 450 S. Fourth St., Lewiston.

Find McGrath online at http://markmcgrath.com/.

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