Sugar Ray Fights Back!

Never mind that Sugar Ray has sold more than 2.5 million copies of Floored, the band's 1997 release. Ignore the fact that the album is still on the Billboard 200. Forget the band's last U.S. tour, during which it sold out almost every venue. And the band's fashion spreads in Rolling Stone and Details? Yawn. It turns out that familiarity really does breed contempt when it comes to Newport Beach-based Sugar Ray. The band may be huge everywhere else, but serious music fans in OC see Sugar Ray as the musical equivalent of the Spice Boys. “Everyone told me how much they sucked. Then I heard 'Fly,' which was kind of catchy, so I went and caught them at Doheny Days last year,” a friend told me. “I couldn't believe how much they blew.” It's a problem the band acknowledges and on which women are especially voluble. When I asked a rock journalist if there was a Southern California media blackout on Sugar Ray, she said she hoped so-that she couldn't get paid enough to write about a band she described as “fucking dicks” who “treat women like shit.”Lead singer Mark McGrath didn't help matters when he recently told Cosmopolitan: “I think it's okay if I cheat. I've never been faithful in a relationship.” Male scenesters aren't likely to be much more charitable. One music-industry executive told me of a party in South County at which he allegedly encountered an allegedly drunk band member (he refused to say which one). “The guy was just totally fucked-up and annoying,” he said. “He kept asking my friend for a ride and saying: 'Don't you know who I am? I'm in Sugar Ray!'” Some past local gigs have been disasters. For a 1997 show at Fullerton's Club 369, the band took the stage hours late, and McGrath appeared to be more than half in the bag. When things went badly and the audience grew restive, McGrath attacked them. “All you guys out there are jealous of me 'cause your girlfriends would rather fuck me than you,” he said. It's the kind of thing that might have seemed true for a moment-the guy has model good looks, and hey, he's a rock star-until McGrath fell offstage and crawled to the wings, leaving bassist Murphy Karges and guitarist Rodney Sheppard to fill in on vocals. “I need beers to perform,” McGrath once told Rolling Stone. “It's not a crutch. I just need them.”The band acknowledges it may never be asked into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Strangely, they don't seem to mind. What do they mind? The lack of hometown press. No one at the Weekly wants to write about the guys, and Los Angeles Times critic Mike Boehm called their 1997 hit “Fly” “as irresistible as it is lightweight.” The band, he said, has graduated “from idiocy to banality.”Ouch.At a tattered LA recording studio where Sugar Ray are three-quarters of the way through their third album (working title: Raised by Wolves), I meet three members of the band- pretty reserved guys in their mid-20s who look like they are beginning to feel the pressure of following up on multiplatinum success. “We know the critics are waiting for this one,” McGrath says. “They're praying this one fails. . . . What do you want to drink?” Tubs of free Budweiser? Frosty pyramids of complimentary Coke? Instead, we're limited to the studio's vending machine. McGrath generously digs into the pockets of his Dickies for loose change.The conversation turns quickly from the merits of writing in the studio to the evolution of their hit single “Fly,” about which there was some controversy.Murphy Karges: We weren't sure of our material at that time [during the Floored sessions]. We were wondering if people were going to hate us and laugh at us because of “Fly.” Mark McGrath: We obviously knew “Fly” could've been a hit last time-we just didn't realize how big it was going to get. It had the mechanics of possibly going big, but there wasn't anything else [mainstream] on that record. OC Weekly: But I've read that the band thought “Fly” sucked and that it got to the point where you guys were even thinking about breaking up during those sessions. McGrath: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I hated the fuckin' song. The origin of that song was real lushy and was sort of monotonous. I wasn't really feeling it, you know? And at that time, I was more into a Slayer and Korn direction. I still love those bands, but we all experimented and found a little niche and . . . It's weird: “Fly” seemed like the type of song that was consciously written, but it was five people coming together and throwing their 2 cents in, and then having [producer] Dave Kahne come in, and then getting [reggae-dancehall singer] Super Cat to come in. . . . I mean, how premeditated is a song when you have Super Cat-a Kingston killer-fly in from Jamaica to cut a track with four white guys from Newport Beach? Rodney Sheppard: And one black guy from Pasadena. Is Atlantic [their record company] in here every day demanding another “Fly”? McGrath: Since day one, they have always said they'd be hands-off, and we can do whatever we want. This will be our third record. We've been in the studio collectively [throughout those recordings] for about eight months, and the label has come by three times total. You always beat your critics to the punch. You acknowledge you're in essence a three-chord punk band. Is that your defense against criticism? Sheppard: We're more than that: we know four chords now. McGrath: Yeah, we know what we're doing. We'll pull out our [underground cult heroes] Sebadoh records if you want us to. We'll talk “indie,” but it doesn't interest us. Music has supplemented our lives as opposed to making us cool. We've always done things we liked. But I'm sorry; I like pretending I'm [Judas Priest's] Rob Halford singing “Head out to the Highway.” I think it's funny. I'm not trying to be cool; I just like that. We're from the beach; it's where we grew up. It's a Baywatch atmosphere. We like to have a good time. We say dumb things. We drink too much. We're not trying to be anything but what we are, and that has been perceived as brainless and stupid-and I agree with a lot of that criticism. Karges: It's funny: once we played a show at the Coach House, and we got a really bad review from Mike Boehm. He destroyed us-called our music something like “brainless three-chord frat rock.” And I figured everyone read it, and I just remember someone saying, “But isn't that the stuff that usually gets signed and goes big?” McGrath: We've never been the critical darlings, and we've never set out to be. We've never been in any kind of scene. We've always made fun of ourselves. We're not kidding ourselves in terms of our limits as players or singers anymore. Karges: We'll always do the lame thing. Sheppard: On purpose, though. Karges: We're boneheads. But there are a lot of music critics in Orange County who refuse to give Sugar Ray any ink nowadays because of those bonehead attitudes. Karges: Here's the thing: I bought a house in Newport Beach, and I read the local papers. But it's funny that we're shunned from OC. We've sold 2 million records. Aren't [those writers] the slightest bit interested? McGrath: [his voice louder with each word] We know what we're doing: we found out what works for us, and that's it. You know, we could be at Club Mesa, still playing the first slot on a Thursday night, or at some coffeehouse. But that doesn't serve my aspirations anymore. I just think [music critics are] responsible for reporting that. I can understand if it's not cool for a journalist trying to make their way to Spin through, say, the OC Weekly to like Sugar Ray. But I also think it's negligent to not acknowledge a band that's sold 2 million fuckin' records in their own back yard. I'm not saying music journalists have to like this band, but if we were Dwight Yoakam, I'd assume those writers would say, “Hey, this guy lives just down the street; let's interview him.” I'm not asking for press, but I just think there's a story here, and [writers] are irresponsible if they don't report it. But I understand completely why those people don't [write about us]. This band is admittedly juvenile. We're trying to improve our songwriting; we're trying to get better. But what other local band goes out and gets Super Cat on their record? I dare someone to do that! I'm not trying to ask for any indie credibility-because we have none, and we never wanted any. And I'm not bitter. Anything Boehm has said in an article [about us] is totally true, but it's slanted as a negative. Sheppard: So, anyway, Mike Boehm sucks. But let's move on. Hmm, well, it's probably too late to change critics' minds. I mean, I've told a lot of people in the music industry that I got this interview, and almost all of them have told me to rip you guys new assholes. Sheppard: Jesus, we're just a bunch of guys from Newport. McGrath: I think it's funny that people even think about us. That's all I've ever wanted, though. Love us or hate us, but just think about us. Karges: It cracks me up to know that people hate us with such a passion. McGrath: To me, it's been worthwhile because I'd hate to just be in a band to make a record. For example: the band Water from Orange County. They got signed to MCA, their record came out, and they just went away. They never did anything wrong, but no one remembers, and no one cares. To me, we've made fuckin' history, no matter if you fuckin' hate us-whether you think we're Nazis during World War II or fuckin' Gandhi. So what should music critics do if they don't think you're Gandhi?McGrath: Somebody's own personal diatribe is: maybe some kid wants to read about Sugar Ray, you know. A group of people sitting in an office, determining who gets to hear about a story in their own back yard, is . . . Sheppard: It's totally irresponsible. McGrath: If you don't just get us-tongue in cheek-then grab a beer, go and sit down, and relax. But if you go away afterward and our band affects your life, you have other problems, man. You said earlier that you've made history. Where do you think you're going to be in something like the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll in 20 years? Karges: Well, I don't know about that.McGrath: No, no. We've made history because once you've charted a record-I mean we have a platinum record-that's historical. For the rest of your life, you can look up our record anywhere-the Rock & Roll Encyclopedia or whatever-and we'll be there. I mean, I've always judged a band being historically significant by having a marked certified record. Some critics point out that you attract a mostly teen and even preteen crowd. McGrath: It's really weird, you know? We get the teens, which is great, but the last time [we toured], it was kind of awkward. For a lot of them, it was their first concert, so a lot of the girls were, like, 9 or 10. There's definitely that demographic, but I have a lot of older people-the 20s crowd got eliminated-but, like, the Merrill Lynch guy digs it. I'm telling you: if you're living on that indie edge, reading Flipside everyday, you are not going to like this band. So, how much criticism are you getting for being on the cover of last month's Cosmopolitan? McGrath: It's funny how that evolved because originally, it was supposed to be a little quarter-page [feature] in a cheesy “All About Men” issue. It was supposed to be really small, and I even did the interview first. Then we did the photo shoot, and I guess they liked those pictures, so we did more and more pictures, and then they said, “You know, we think we might want you for the cover.” What am I gonna say? No? Karges: The interview got him in a lot of trouble because he didn't take it like it was a big deal. McGrath: It's because I was trying to bark and rant and rave so someone would notice me, and I sorta said anything just to stick out somewhere. But if I knew I was going to be on the front cover, I would have really toned down the interview. I wouldn't have been so caustic 'cause it's not really my personality. I was a little macho, bragging, and I wasn't happy with [the end result] at all. My mom was even bummed. She called me, crying-which was the most devastating thing that ever happened to me involving music, if you call [the Cosmo cover] music-related. I definitely would have toned down the interview a little bit more if I knew I was gonna be on the cover. This is no spin-doctor quality control. It's just what happened. So when you found out you were going to be on the cover, did you go back to the band and have them get ready for the repercussions? McGrath: They didn't give a shit. Karges: Like I said: we never had credibility anyway, so who gives a shit? So you just accept the bad reviews and press now? McGrath: We expect it now. Karges: This band has always gotten fastballs thrown at our heads. People have always wanted to see us go down, so we're fairly used to it. It does get frustrating. You'd love to see maybe an article anywhere. I mean, I'm glad you guys are finally doing something on us-a band from Newport Beach-'cause now I'll get to go to Wahoo's, pick up an OC Weekly, eat fish tacos and finally read about us. McGrath: We never really have interviews like this, where we talk about why people do or don't like us. But since this is a local interview, it's nice to be able to give our opinions back. Here's a story about a band that came from Newport Beach that has sold over 2 fuckin' million records, and it's being ignored. And that's my only criticism.The band must be filthy rich by now. Would you exchange it all to be respected musicians rather than the critics' whipping boys? McGrath: No. I was the guy who used to dye my hair blond. I was a break dancer. I like the Backstreet Boys; they make me happy. It's who I am. I like Tom Cruise in a movie. I'm very lame; I'll admit that. But I'll also jam with Zeke during the Warped Tour and know what the hell is going on musically. But if everyone liked us, we'd be doing something wrong. Critical darlings? That would be great, but I think we would be doing something wrong if everybody liked us.

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