Sugar Ray savors its sweet success

Band: A little serendipity never hurt anyone, and it sure seems to have helped this group make its hit songs.

August 23, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Sometimes, hits just happen.

Consider the case of "Fly," Sugar Ray's 1997 breakthrough single. As drummer Stan Frazier tells it, the song came completely out of the blue, without the band even being in songwriting mode.

It was 1996, and Sugar Ray was working on its second album, "Floored." Things were not going well. "We were about to get dropped," recalls Frazier. "We were in New York, and it was really depressing."

So one night, the five of them were sitting in a rehearsal studio, totally down in the dumps, when Craig "DJ Homicide" Bullock decided to put on one of the drum loops -- a repeating beat concocted with drum machines and samplers -- he'd composed. Before long, bassist Murphy Karges joined in, fleshing out the groove with a loping, easy-going bass line.

Feeling the spirit move him, Frazier stepped up to the microphone. "I just sang the first thing that came to my head," he says. "Which was, `I just want to fly.' Like `I want to leave my current situation and get the [heck] out of here.' And that ended up becoming the hook of the song."

More than that, the song became the band's salvation. "Fly" not only convinced Atlantic to keep Sugar Ray on the roster but got the band onto MTV and into the hit parade. Suddenly, Sugar Ray was a major success. (Sugar Ray performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion tomorrow with the Goo Goo Dolls.)

Not that anyone in the band seriously expected the success to last. Indeed, the band mocked its celebrity status with the title of its current album, "14: 59."

"It's sort of a sarcastic thing on Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame," says guitarist Rodney Sheppard, referring to Warhol's suggestion that "In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes."

Needless to say, nobody in the band expected that fame to last. "Even though we'd been a band already for eight or nine years, we got thrown in the limelight so quick," says Sheppard. "Suddenly, the whole world knew us for that one song, and it wasn't necessarily typical of what we were doing."

True enough. Between its soaring, hopeful chorus and sly, Caribbean pulse, "Fly" stood in stark contrast against the raucous, rough-edged sound of the band's thrash-oriented early material. Still, the guys in Sugar Ray had no qualms about exploiting the band's unexpectedly high profile. As Sheppard puts it, "We knew that whatever we did, whether it was good or [bad], it was going to get a fair listening."

It doesn't hurt, either, that "14: 59" has a more pronounced pop content than the group's first two albums, thanks to tuneful, acoustic-inflected material, such as "Every Morning" and "Someday." But according to Frazier, the band didn't go into the studio in hopes of creating another "Fly."

"A lot of people would probably think, `OK, they're smartening up, and they want the payoff,' " he says. "But `Fly' was a complete mistake. I mean, we were making that record by our chinstraps, you know what I mean?"

Instead, Sheppard credits the shift in the band's sound to its growing maturity. "We went into this album going, Hey, we're all in our 30s now," he says. "We want to get a little more musical here."

Still, "14: 59" had its share of serendipity, as well. Take "Every Morning," for example.

As with "Fly," "Every Morning" began with one of Bullock's drum loops. "He's been a DJ for years," says Sheppard. "All he does on his own time is make up drum beats and stuff like that. One morning, we came into the studio, and he played me a couple of them. One sort of stood out -- it kind of made your head kind of bob. So we laid down about five minutes of it, and we built the song to that."

Sheppard added a strummy, three-chord rhythm guitar part, then came up with a two-string instrumental hook that lent the groove a slight Caribbean flavor. But "Every Morning" wasn't quite a song until Frazier put his two-cents in.

As with "Fly," Frazier came up with the song's chorus. And once again, he was inspired more by personal frustration than any thoughts of the Top 10.

"I was kind of in a spat with my girlfriend," he says. "So I was thinking about my girlfriend, and how there are all these terrible things that go on, like when bands are on the road or even when they're home. I was thinking about infidelities, and just all of a sudden, just the hook came out of nowhere, from left field, with the lyrics: `Every morning there's a halo ' "

Frazier was alone in the studio at the time, so he just recorded the chorus and went home. The next day, he returned to find his bandmates raving about what he'd done. "Everyone was freaking out, jumping up and down, saying that's the best thing they ever heard. I thought it was just a throw-away."

Singer Mark McGrath spun a few verses off of Frazier's chorus, with the rest of the band tossing in ideas as they went along. "We all kind of chipped in for the rest of the song," says Frazier, who adds that the band generally writes in a collaborative fashion.

"I don't recommend it for everybody," he says of the band's songwriting strategy. "But it works for us."

Pub Date: 8/23/99

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