Sweet Surrender

Sugar Ray Has Been Pigeon-holed As A Lightweight Band, But Lead Singer Mark Mcgrath Is Ok With That

July 30, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

From the start, it's been hard to peg Sugar Ray.

When the SoCal five-piece formed in the early 1990s, audiences thought they were a straight-up hard-rock party band. Then they released the summery acoustic single "Fly," a smash hit that rocketed them to platinum status. Listeners and critics were quick to label Sugar Ray one-hit wonders. But the band's next album had two more hit singles, "Every Morning" and "Someday," and went triple-platinum.

Now, audiences look at 41-year-old lead singer Mark McGrath, with his six-pack abs and frost-tipped hair, and think he's an empty-headed frontman disillusioned by his band's success. That couldn't be further from the truth.

"People look at me and go, 'Oh, Sugar Ray - lightweight,' " McGrath said. "I've done some things that are pretty lightweight. But I respect and enjoy music. I'm not trying to be and the band isn't trying to be anything we're not."

That's loud and clear on the new album, Music for Cougars. Released July 21, it's Sugar Ray's first studio effort since 2003's In the Pursuit of Leisure. More or less, the album is another chapter in Sugar Ray's catalog of carefree, feel-good grooves with a slight rock edge. The band is touring in support of Music for Cougars and will come to Rams Head Live on Friday.

Most of Sugar Ray's albums have telling titles. Both the band and the public were, well, floored when the second album, Floored, went platinum (that was the one with "Fly"). They followed it with 14:59, their claim that their 15 minutes of fame hadn't quite run out. It hadn't - 14:59 (which had "Every Morning" and "Someday") was at least twice as successful as Floored. The new album is no exception.

One Sunday last summer, Sugar Ray was playing a gig at The Grove, an outdoor mall in Los Angeles, when McGrath had a mini-revelation.

"My buddy looks at me and goes, 'Dude, all your fans are cougars,' " he said. "I went, 'Bing! Music for Cougars - that will be the working title.' "

For the uninitiated, a "cougar" is a woman of a certain age on the prowl for a younger man. And apparently, a large number of cougars dig Sugar Ray. McGrath doesn't seem to mind.

"I think it's funny," he said. "I think cougars are cool. They're independent, strong women. The cougars that I've met? They're proud to be called cougars."

For someone who has led a multi-platinum band, opened for the Rolling Stones and hosted the entertainment news TV show Extra, McGrath is strikingly unpretentious and even self-deprecating. He knows people think of Sugar Ray as a '90s band whose heyday has long come and gone, and he's fine with that. He has never claimed to be an expert singer, either.

"God did not put me on the Earth to be a singer, but I just love music," McGrath said. "I'm such a student of music and a fan of music, and I was dumb enough to think I could do it, so I did it."

McGrath is also a huge music geek. When he was in high school, he was an avid reader of music magazines like Creem, Rolling Stone and Melody Maker. His head is filled with random rock trivia: He can name all the members of Duran Duran and glam-rock group Winger without batting an eye. This came in handy when, in 1998, he was a celebrity guest contestant on the TV game show Rock & Roll Jeopardy.

"I was sitting next to Graham Nash and Joe Walsh, and literally one of the questions was, 'Joe Walsh, who was your first wife?' " McGrath said. "Out of respect, I was like, 'All right, I'll let him answer that.' And I look over at him, and he's swatting flies. I'm like, 'All right, I'll buzz in.' They're two icons of rock who did the '70s right, if you know what I mean. They should have forgotten more than they learned."

These days, McGrath increasingly finds himself at odds with the younger generation of music lovers who don't have much respect for Sugar Ray.

"I know a lot of the cool, indie hipster guys, and that whole wave, they really dislike my band and they dislike everything we're about, and I understand that," McGrath said.

"We're almost like the REO Speedgwagon of the '80s when the '90s were coming in. That's fine, I get it. That's almost like your backstage pass, or your galvanizing calling card - to say you hate Sugar Ray, so you can go to American Apparel and get your headband and listen to the Decemberists. I get it. I really do. You're at a young age, and it defines your life and stuff. But I love music."

The backlash against Sugar Ray hasn't stopped McGrath from listening to a decent amount of indie music, he said. Recently, he caught Death Cab For Cutie, the New Pornographers and Tegan and Sara at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Concertgoers were shocked - even appalled, McGrath said - to see him there.

"I could see people looking around at me going, 'What the hell are you doing here?'," he said. "I was bumming their whole night out just because I was there."

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