Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath never went away. In fact, he’ll be in Hinckley this Friday. Sugar Ray — along with Better than Ezra, Eve 6, and the ever-avuncular Uncle Kracker — play Grand Casino as part of the Under the Sun Tour, with tickets starting at $25.
But really, McGrath hasn’t left our periphery. As Sugar Ray has settled comfortably into the nostalgic casino circuit, the Ethan Hawke-esque singer has also stacked up TV credits, hosted Extra, and surfed down the White House stairs on paintings with Ann Coulter in Sharknado 3. But ever since Portlandia reminded us we’re living in a 1990s utopia, we began to realize a lot of the culture from the time of BK Knights, Lilith Fair, and the Clinton-Bush presidencies hasn’t gone away.
So I put the question to McGrath on a recent Saturday afternoon: Are things more or less fly than in the halcyon days of Tamagotchis? As the "Fly" hitmaker said about two minutes in, “I talk pretty fast, so I hope you can keep up.”
City Pages: Did they tell you what my editor wants us to do?
Mark McGrath: No, they just give me a phone number and hand it over.
CP: OK, my editor wants us to do a “more or less fly” version of the nineties?
MM: Oh my God.
CP: Is that cool?
MM: Yeah, let’s do it.
CP: Okay, so Hillary Clinton. More or less fly than the '90s-era Hillary?
MM: Oh way more fly today. She has such more power. We didn’t know she had political aspirations. Thought she was just some trophy wife, but she overcame a lot — the scandal, for example — and now she has way more power. Bill Clinton is less fly; Hillary is more fly.
CP: What about Jurassic Park?
MM: Haven’t seen the new one. My kids are obsessed with it, though. But the ’93 film was incredible.
CP: There’s a weird scene in the new one where they uncover the dusty old park inside the island?
MM: I mean that’s the thing about the '90s: They never really ended. There are clear demarcations. You knew when the '80s ended. The '80s were immediately uncool. It was when Nevermind came out by Nirvana. The '90s never really ended — the record industry did. They don’t make new rock bands anymore. Look at all the big touring acts — Soundgarden, Foo Fighters — the irony of the '90s has kicked in, but they never really ended.
CP: I read a website that said the choker thing is coming in.
MM: Exactly. I see kids wearing baggy pants now. Chicks are rocking the choker thing. It’s real.CP: What about Beck? He never left, either.
MM: Beck is timeless. Beck? Way more fly today. Beck did something that is very hard to do, and I can think of only two bands in the history of music: Beastie Boys and Beck. They overcame a novelty song to become very respected artists. There was a time when the Beastie Boys were the lamest thing walking the earth, but then they turned around to become this respected, artistic group. Beck’s “Loser” was such not a representation of him then. And I don’t even think of him with that song anymore. Now — after that Kanye thing, especially — he’s world renowned. He’s more fly.
CP: So when I think about Sugar Ray, I kind of consider you guys on the Hall & Oates path. Like you had this pop breakthrough and then years later there’s this kind of critical approbation ...
MM: What? You’re kind of breaking up there, guy.
CP: Oh shoot. OK, do you consider yourself a modern day, like, Hall & Oates?
MM: Let me put it like this. Sugar Ray is two years away from an Urban Outfitters’ T-shirt. Seriously. It’s very cyclical. I wouldn’t put us in the same pantheon as Hall & Oates. Their body of work was so sustained and amazing. No, I’d say, with lots of respect, we were always more like Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits ... the lead singer a little more popular than the rest of the band. But they had some great hits. Look, don’t let anyone tell you differently. As a band, all you want to do is become a one-hit wonder. Then once you do, you want to swing for the fences and become a legacy band, like the Eagles or Aerosmith. I’m happy to be in a camp with Herman’s Hermits or the Psychedelic Furs.
CP: OK, back to the list. Online chat rooms or sexting?
MM: Didn’t do much of the online thing. And now, well, I’m a married man, so sexting with my wife is super fly.
CP: What about kids stuff. Tamagotchis or iPads?
MM: What are Tamagotchis?
CP: They were like animals in a handheld keychain?
MM: Ahh. Well, by the '90s I was so focused on other things. Plus, iPads are way more fly. We’re like those terrible parents who let their kids spend too much time on the iPads. If we’re at a restaurant waiting for 20 or 30 minutes, the kids get those, and they’re out.
CP: OK, let’s go back to music. Today's bro country or '90s Travis Tritt country?
MM: It’s funny ... when people talk about country music they always ask, “How come there aren’t any more Johnny Cashes out there?” And it’s like, well, because it’s a sign of the times! How come there aren’t any Rolling Stones out there? It’s part of the era. Look, country stars are more rock stars than anyone else ... I don’t care what they say about their backgrounds. Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney — these guys will drink you under the table and then go out and rock you all night long. So I can’t say what’s more fly or less. Look, I grew up on all that country in the '70s and '80s like Ronnie Milsap. My mom made me listen to it.
CP: So when you look at today’s music landscape do you see any parallels to the much-maligned, '90s-era boy bands?
MM: One Direction. Of course! They’re the biggest boy band ever.
CP: But they aren’t maligned, are they? I mean, like cool people on Twitter will wear their shirts? And I don’t even know their music!
MM: It’s an interesting thing you brought up that I haven’t thought of 'til now. I can’t name any One Direction song. Teen hysteria is completely socially media driven today. I can’t name a ... well I know “Baby”... but I can’t name two Justin Bieber songs. One Direction has eclipsed the popularity of N’Sync, but there were a canon of N’Sync songs. I can’t name one One Direction song.
CP: Do you think — like you said earlier — music culture has become something different, like it’s no longer “about the music"?
MM: Look, I’m not a curmudgeon. Everything has its own cycle. Good news and bad news, right, with each era. But if you’re just starting out and have 10,000 fans on social media, great. But are you playing live? That’s why I got into music. It’s so easy to make music today. So many people do it. But do you want to play live?
CP: I sometimes roll my eyes at the “support local music” argument because it’s like, maybe I will, but maybe I won’t?
MM: Look, our first record tanked, OK? I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if that was the end of the story. But the artist development department at Atlantic truly helped us write songs. If there wasn’t this support system around us, I don’t know what would’ve happened. We were making music like the Chili Peppers, and I was singing falsetto. But David Kahne came along. See, he’d worked with Sublime back when they were writing 35-minute songs. And David Kahne helped them crack the code, so that now people are singing “What I Got” at karaoke bars. I remember when we brought him “Fly,” and he said, “I can sell 2 million records off of this one song.” That’s exactly what he did.