Posted July 9, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Mark McGrath: One thing lead to another

Mark McGrath (courtesy of PledgeMusic)
Mark McGrath (courtesy of PledgeMusic)

A few years ago, Sugar Ray singer Mark 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. McGrath recently phoned from Los Angeles to talk about this year’s installment.

When you first started playing in Sugar Ray in the ’90s, did you ever think the band would be on a nostalgia tour some 20 years later?
Ha, ha, ha. Can you tell by my laughter? When we got signed to a record label, we actually cleaned up our act. You should have seen the early shows. 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 found 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 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.

Talk about the early days. Your first album wasn’t a hit. How did you not get dropped?
Isn’t it funny? They did a thing called A&R. It’s called Artist and Development. Believe it or not, record labels used to give bands chances. 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. We had two originals: “Lick Me” and “Caboose.” 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. 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. It had some success in Europe and the rap rock thing was starting. We were touring with Deftones and Korn. In America, we sold no records and were stalling.

So what did you do?
We covered a Howard Stern song called “Psychedelic Bee.” It was a day off and we had nothing to do. We sent it off to Baba Booey. We thought we would never hear from him again. Two days later, we get to the venue and we get a message to call our manager immediately. He said to leave our gear and get on the first plane to New York and we had to go on the show. It was our first national experience. 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. They put us with a real producer, David Kahne for the second record. The rest is history. The album sold two million copies.

Things turned around quickly when Floored came out. What was that like?
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. 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.

You become a TV celebrity of sorts. How were you able to make that transition?
I wish I would say it was some kind of skill or some predestined plan I had in motion. If you could chew the gum and read the monitor at the same time and you were in a band, they would put you on a TV show as a host or presenter. Because of some of those things I did, executives saw me and thought there was something there. After our 2003 record, In the Pursuit of Leisure, didn’t meet everyone’s expectations and the writing was on the wall for the bands of our fraternity – the Smashmouths and the Third Eye Blinds and the Everclears. The Interpols and Strokes were coming in. Music was recycling itself as it is wont to do. I wanted to take a few phone calls.  Two weeks later, I’m hosting a nationally syndicated entertainment news program and I had no idea what I was doing.

Did you enjoy hosting Extra?
It was terrifying at first. It was something new. I was learning in front of America. How many times do you go a new job and everyone gets to see you learn? When you’re on the stage, you’re exaggerating your moves and trying to hit the last row of the audience. I’m kind of a spaz as you can tell from this interview but on TV everything is very subtle. It’s regimented. I had to adapt to that. I had a dude rock speak that I had to hone in a little bit. To their credit, they wanted me to be a little more rocking and edgy. But they only wanted it so much. It was a great place to learn. I made a lot of great friends. I thought I would be there six months to a year. I was there for four years. I have some great friends and they come out and support me. They’re good friends to have and it’s led to other jobs like Don’t Forget the Lyrics! and Killer Karaoke.

What about the Celebrity Apprentice?
The hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done a lot of reality shows and they’re BS and they’re fabricated. Celebrity Apprentice is designed to break you down, baby. They break you down to Chinatown. We did 16-hour days and we had to do these massive tasks. It’s mentally exhausting and physically exhausting. When Gary Busey is on your team, you think you’re going insane. I love him to death. It’s like my kids. I love them but at the certain point you can’t take any more. Gary is like that. He made Meatloaf, who is the most docile and nicest creature in the world, lose his mind on the show. There’s a big misperception that you’re coddled but you work your ass off on that show. My nightmare is calling people and asking them for money. That was my nightmare. That was my kryptonite in that thing. If you can’t do that, you won’t go that far. I got caught up in the Gary Busey reality hurricane. I have to say he’s a lot more interesting to watch on TV than I am. I didn’t stand a chance. Even a nun stops to look at a car accident. He’s fascinating to watch. I have the distinction of telling my friends that I lost to Gary Busey in a battle of wits in a board room. My whole team was saying they wouldn’t work with Gary if he was brought back. They wanted to work with me. Though they said all the right things in being my bros and trying to save me, I knew they were putting the nail in my coffin because I know TV a little better than they do. You could see the people at home going, “Don’t bring Mark back. We don’t want them playing nicely. We want Busey.” Gary came back and came back for the All-stars. I don’t think he’s made a dollar for his charity still.

I should qualify that by saying I love Gary Busey. But put yourself in a room with him for eight hours and see if you don’t feel like I do.

Talk about Summerland and why you split off to do Under the Sun two years ago.
The genesis of this tour was a few years ago when Art from Everclear and I got together and came up with the idea of Summerland. It’s nothing new. You take bands from a certain generation that had hits and you put them together for one night and play all hits. 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. It was the last years they still made rock ‘n’ roll music, with all due respect to the new bands.  It was the last decade that the old machinery, i.e. the record industry, was in play. We put a tour together and it was us, Everclear, Gin Blossoms, Lit and Fastball. We had a great time. We sold out the Greek Theatre in L.A. I thought it was a great tour. We had some fun. We were circling the wagons and talking about the next tour and Art wanted it to be more specialized. He wanted it be more hard rocking and more punk rock. I wanted to go broader and include R&B and hip-hop. It was an impasse. We didn’t have our same vision. He’s doing Summerland and I’m doing Under the Sun. There’s enough great music and I think there will be. Art is still going strong. He has a great lineup and we’re happy with our lineup as well.

I think you have a solo album in the works. Is that the case?
When you’re in a band, you perform live and write new music. We’ve been performing live and it keeps the lights on in this house and I’m fortunate to be able to do that. I haven’t written anything in a while. We didn’t have a label and I didn’t think there was a need. No one is waiting for a Sugar Ray or a Mark McGrath. The good news is that everyone can make a record. That’s the good news and the bad news. But why should I let everyone else have the fun? We had to recalibrate our thinking. I’m not going to get half a million dollars to make a record. That’s the bloated rock star thought I come from. I had to go in my own pocket and make this EP. It was the most fun I ever had. We put five songs on a record. We’ve been playing some of them live. We came up with this EP in about a week and mixed and mastered it. We’re doing the PledgeMusic thing. We’re not getting precious. We’re just going to release an EP every six months. If you want it, great. If you don’t want it, that’s fine too. It’s just fun to do.  I want to do something with no pressure. We have zero expectations. If I make my money back, that’s great. I’ll probably do a tour with the Mark McGrath band after the summer tour is over.



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected]