Mark McGrath gears up for Summerland Tour
It’s been almost a decade since Sugar Ray has embarked on a full-blown tour – and lead vocalist and guitarist Mark McGrath can’t wait to hit the road.
As we chatted in his publicist’s office in Studio City earlier this month, the singer’s face lit up while explaining how the inaugural Summerland Tour, kicking off next week, culled together McGrath’s enduring band as well as Everclear, Gin Blossoms, Marcy Playground and another O.C. favorite, Lit. He started talking really fast and his hands fidgeted at his sides.
This guy is really excited.
Turns out that after much talk about staging a ’90s-based rock tour, McGrath and Everclear’s Art Alexakis were finally in a position to pull off a 33-date trek, arriving June 29 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
“The time never seemed right to do this tour,” the former Extra host says. After Alexakis moved to L.A. from his home in Portland, he contacted McGrath and the two concluded that now is the perfect time for a nostalgic tour – “but with a foot in the present, looking towards the future,” he adds.
“This tour is not reinventing the wheel. There’s not been a defining ’90s tour, and we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s not a quick cash grab, let’s-pay-the-mortgage (thing). Some of these bands are still very vital and putting out new records, and hopefully that will be something we (Sugar Ray) do, too, in the future.
“The thinking was: Let’s play the big venues again. Let’s celebrate these great, iconic songs of the ’90s that people still love. You’re going to hear giant hit songs throughout the whole tour. And that was one prerequisite: you can’t come on Summerland unless you have a giant hit song – or a few giant songs.”
McGrath says he’d like to see Summerland become an annual tradition that spotlights a variety of genres from that decade. But he admits Alexakis doesn’t quite see him eye-to-eye on that idea.
“Right now it’s sort of KROQ- (and) mid-’90s-centric, but I think it could be anything,” he says. “You could have MC Hammer or House of Pain or En Vogue. I’d like to see it evolve into that, so I think it’s endless. If you’re from the ’90s, even the late ’80s or early on in the (current) millennium, you’re welcome to be on Summerland.”
Apart from the occasional Jack FM bonanza in Irvine, these coming gigs will be some of the biggest audiences Sugar Ray has played to in almost a dozen years. McGrath fully acknowledges that his band headlines significantly smaller shows these days, typically corporate gigs, one-off casino stops and county fairs. “I like to say: If you smell funnel cake, Sugar Ray’s playing,” he says with a laugh.
“We’ve been very blessed to play still, and some people might laugh at that but I embrace that. We go out there and there are 5,000 people, we play for an hour and we go home.”
Hitting the stage at the Greek is something he has looked forward to for a long, long time: “I’m beside myself because I thought we’d never get to do it on this level again. I’m happy of the career that we’ve carved out, and I feel so fortunate to have ever had a hit in my life.”
A Different Taste of Sugar
Granted, over the past few years there have been some big changes within Sugar Ray. Various members have left, come back, then left again. At this point the only original members are McGrath and guitarist Rodney Sheppard, both 44, who recruited percussionist Al Keith, plus bassist Justin Bivona and drummer Jesse Bivona, twin musicians who have worked with Sugar Ray in the past. They’ve stepped in for bassist Murphy Karges and drummer Stan Frazier.
“We’ve been a band for 24 years,” McGrath points out, “and this will really be the first time that we’re not all together. I’ve gone off and done different things; Rodney, who is still with me, has as well. So I couldn’t blame (the other) guys. Sugar Ray is less of a full-time job now, and Stan and Murphy decided to expand their horizons. And I said: ‘Go do it, guys, you have my full blessing.’ What happens in the future, I don’t know.”
McGrath says there’s no bad blood among his former band mates and insists the door is open for all of them to come back and create more music. He also says the enthusiasm of the new members has rejuvenated him – lately he’s picked up the guitar and worked on song ideas. It’s unclear which will come first: another Sugar Ray album, the first since 2009’s unfortunately titled Music for Cougars, or McGrath’s solo debut.
“Would it be that much different than a Sugar Ray record?” he wonders about a solo release. “Let’s be honest: my voice works in a very small margin and it wants me to stay in there. I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with key my whole life, so I want to stay in my little margin. I don’t believe a solo record from Mark McGrath is going to sound that much different than a Sugar Ray record.”
Since his time as a contestant on the fourth season of Celebrity Apprentice – alongside country star John Rich, who ultimately won that year – McGrath says he hopes he can collaborate on some tracks with the latter half of Big & Rich. He also has reached out to Kid Rock and hopes that Summerland might lead to future collaborations.
Back in 2003, when the songs stopped charting, the shows got smaller and MTV dropped music videos from its daily fare, McGrath says he saw the writing on the wall and wanted to see what else was out there. He arranged a slew of celebrity TV appearances and landed a co-hosting gig at Extra.
It was there McGrath discovered that being the interviewer instead of the interviewee isn’t as easy as it seems.
“It’s safer on the other side,” he says. “The interviewer has such a more difficult job because you’re dealing with personalities. For me … it’s an honor, and I was always very giving in terms of interviews and would answer questions the best I could, and would never sort of condescend to a question. But on the other side of that, it’s like pulling teeth with people. Needless to say, I have a new-found respect for the interviewer.”
Though he claims to be up for anything and open to everything, there was one challenge from which McGrath walked away: Dancing with the Stars. Two years ago he was offered a spot on ABC’s hit show but pulled out at the last second after suffering from extreme anxiety over the fact that he absolutely cannot dance. He does believe, however, that his time in the spotlight isn’t over yet.
“I have this really insane belief that my ‘Hollywood career’ isn’t done and that I can still write a song that can go on the charts. Call me crazy, but they did call me insane 25 years ago, and I think that’s what drives me. That’s why I try to do so many things. I’m game for anything and I’m honored to still have a uniform in Hollywood.”
The Party’s Over
Back in the ’90s McGrath earned a healthy reputation for partying hard, but these days he isn’t really interested in reliving that part of his past – although he’s sure to be tempted during this new tour.
“The Popoff brothers (Jeremy and A.Jay of Lit) scare me,” he says. “I saw a picture of them backstage at a show recently and the Jäger bottles are still there. That scares me as a father of two. I don’t drink like I used to. I can’t do it anymore. Don’t tell anybody, but I drink two wine spritzers and I’m laid out.”
He’s often asked about touring now vs. then. But he can hardly remember outings in the ’90s.
“We had a lot of fun. But it’s different this time, not just because I’m a dad, but because I’ve grown out of it. My body can’t take it anymore, I can’t take it and I have different interests. I go to bed early, and a hangover sucks when you have children.”
McGrath currently lives in Los Angeles but will always consider Orange County his home, especially the Newport Beach area where his mother and sister still reside. He gets down to O.C. often, to spend time with family and hang out at the beach pad of his best friend, director McG.
Growing up he initially wanted to be a point guard for the Lakers, but by seventh grade he realized it wasn’t going to happen. He recalls being obsessed with music magazines, raiding newsstands and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, NME and Spin from cover to cover. He couldn’t remember simple math in school, but he knew every guy in Duran Duran.
“I looked at MTV and David Lee Roth was jumping off of a drum riser, and I was like, ‘That looks pretty rad.'”
His parents encouraged him to graduate from college, which he did, earning his degree from USC in 1990. Days later, however, he was in a garage performing with the Shrinky Dinx, which would become Sugar Ray after the group signed to Atlantic Records in 1994. What McGrath remembers most about the local music scene back then … was that there wasn’t one.
“It was so decentralized,” he says. “No Doubt didn’t know Sugar Ray, who didn’t know the Offspring, who didn’t know Rage Against the Machine. Everyone was in their own little pocket back then. There were individual bands from individual cities doing their own thing and trying to make it happen, and in retrospect you’re like, ‘Wow, what a scene – look at all of these bands from Orange County!’ But they didn’t know each other.”
Still, he’s proud of the path the band has chosen, even though a quarter-century ago he was unsure of himself. Initially he couldn’t play an instrument or sing, but he had to give it a try – he knew his dreams of purple-and-gold basketball glory were crushed.
“In the back of my head I was like, ‘Could I?'” he says of ultimately choosing music over any other career. “I just kept showing up, every day, and it happened.”