Sugar Ray Singer Capitalizes on Nostalgia for the '90s

Concert Preview

Sugar Ray might’ve seemed like an overnight sensation when “Fly,” a snappy Sublime-like tune that featured breezy vocals and deft turntable scratches, became a hit back in 1997. But that certainly wasn’t the case. Band members had played together since the late ‘80s before making their debut in 1995 with Lemonade and Brownies. In fact, that album was a bomb and the band should have probably been dropped in the wake of its release.

“Believe it or not, record labels used to give bands chances,” says singer Mark McGrath via phone from his Los Angeles home. “If it didn’t set the world on fire, they’d give you another chance. I know this sounds insane but it was a different time. I don’t think Fleetwood Mac was successful until their fourth or fifth record. It was a different time when labels had departments to develop acts. Bruce Springsteen wasn’t immediately successful.”

A few years ago, McGrath and Everclear singer Art Alexakis launched Summerland, a tour that paid tribute to bands from the ’90s. Alexakis wanted that tour to get a bit heavier and McGrath wanted the tour to broaden the horizons. As a result, McGrath launched his own tour, Under the Sun. Now in its third year, Under the Sun features Sugar Ray, Better Than Ezra, Uncle Kracker and Eve 6. It comes to Hard Rock Live next week.

McGrath says that before the bands signed with Atlantic Records, it had two original tunes. The titles — “Lick Me” and “Caboose” — suggest the band’s maturity level.

“We lied to the label and said we had 40 songs and we said were from San Diego and we were the coolest band there,” says McGrath. “Next thing we knew we had a million-dollar record deal and we had to write an album. Be careful what you ask for. If you listen to that first album, we’re like kids in a candy store. We have DJ Lethal from House of Pain and I’m singing in falsetto. There are punk bands and cheesy bad metal and R&B songs. We were the Beastie Boys-meets-the Red Hot Chili Peppers with zero talent. But we made this record and it had some charm to it.”

The record had some success in Europe where the band toured with Deftones and Korn. In the States, the group had “no success” until it covered a Howard Stern song and the shock jock put him on his syndicated radio show. They sent the song to Stern’s assistant Baba Booey, who made sure Stern had a chance to hear it.

“It was our first national experience,” says McGrath. “Howard Stern was my idol then and now. We played ‘Psychedelic Bee’ and started selling some records. Atlantic said the record was done but they’d let us make another record. We were on Beavis & Butt-head and getting some momentum.”

For the band’s follow-up album, 1997's Floored, David Kahne (Sublime, 311) worked with the band and twisted its sound into something more palatable for commercial radio. The album sold two million copies. McGrath says the success was surreal.

“If you were in your garage when you were eight and you had your Jimmy Connors wooden tennis racket and you had your bun huggers and were playing along to Ace Frehley and Kiss Alive!—it’s like that moment,” he says. “I went from being able to walk down any street on that Friday to everyone knowing me across America that Monday. MTV exploded and radio exploded. We toured around the world. They were putting our posters on the sides of buildings in New York City. All our rock ‘n’ roll dreams came true overnight. After a three month run, they handed us a gold record at the Atlantic Records building in Manhattan. I almost have to appreciate it now to look back at it even though then I knew how precious it was. We were older and I’d seen the metal and some of the rap bands come rolling down the hill after a year. We took some time to party and enjoy it because we didn’t know how long it would last.”

Even if the band no longer gets radio airplay, McGrath has become a celebrity. He co-starred in last summers indie hit Sharknado 2 and has a role in this summer's sequel Sharknado 3. In addition to his role in Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser, he has served as the co-host of Extra and hosted Don't Forget the Lyrics as well as TV show Killer Karaoke. He recently launched a PledgeMusic campaign to fund the recording of his debut solo record.

When he talks about the genesis of the aforementioned Summerland, which, like Under the Sun, is designed to showcase alt-rock bands from the ’90s, he says the concept was "nothing new."  

“You take bands from a certain generation that had hits and you put them together for one night and play all hits," he says. "The Turtles have been doing it for years with their Happy Together tour. There were similar tours and the ’80s has a zillion of them. There hadn’t been one yet for the ’90s. I think that’s because there was such a hangover from the ’90s. It never ended. If you look at the top 10 in Pollstar, bands like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Red Hot Chili Peppers are still there. Dave Matthews and Phish are there. They’re still dominated by these bands.”

But when he first started playing in Sugar Ray, which was known for its outlandish on-stage antics, in the ’90s, did he ever think the band would be on a nostalgia tour some 20 years later?

“You should have seen the early shows,” he says. “We were almost a performance art band when we started. We didn’t know how to play. We just went up there and made some noise and I made an ass of myself to see what happens. Not a lot has changed since then. We had a couple of hits and learned to play a little bit. That’s led to the nostalgia part. It’s been a wild ride, but I’m honored to be part of nostalgia. Some people look at it as a bad thing. I looked it up in the dictionary to see why people are so afraid of nostalgia. It means something you want to take with you forever. It’s a moment you want to remember forever. I’m looking for the negative connotation. I don’t find it. To be part of people’s memories and life landscapes is an honor. I have had people say ‘Fly’ is the first song their son sang. Being the parent of five-year-old twins, I know how important that is.I absolutely did not think I’d be on a nostalgia tour, but I’m honored to be on one.”

Under the Sun Tour with Sugar Ray, Better Than Ezra, Uncle Kracker and Eve 6, 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $35-$55,
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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