The Man, The Music, The Tour
By Tricia Despres
No one should be this wide awake on a Monday. Yet Sugar Ray frontman and “Under the Sun 2015” cofounder Mark McGrath is, sporting a childlike enthusiasm for the brand-new week lying ahead. Or maybe he is simply a grown adult who drank one too many coffees on this particular morning. Whatever it is, we’ll have what he’s having.
At the age of 47, McGrath has established a career on the belief that saying no is not nearly as cool as saying yes. Besides saying yes to the idea of forming a band called the Shrinky Dinx back in 1988 that would eventually turn into the platinum-recordmaking alternative pop/rock band Sugar Ray, McGrath has given the thumbs-up on everything through the years from serving as a host on music/entertainment shows such as Extra and Don’t Forget the Lyrics to an active participant on everything from VH1’s Rock & Roll Jeopardy to NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.
Yet what might become one of his most long-lasting career decisions was spearheading the creation of the annual “Under the Sun” tour, which this year brings Sugar Ray together with other iconic ’90s groups, including Better than Ezra, Uncle Cracker, and Eve 6. And via this third annual “Under the Sun” tour, McGath also gets the chance to return to Ravinia on August 18, a venue that he refers to as both beautiful and interesting.
“You can’t really see three-fourths of the audience because it goes back on the side and down the hill, so it’s a weird sort of disconnect, but in the most glorious of ways,” says McGrath. “People go to Ravinia to have a great time and celebrate the chance to just go out for an evening. Chicago can be hit with some pretty hard winters, so I can imagine people want to maximize their summer nights.”
That might be the understatement of the summer from the native Southern Californian, but he continues. “I can’t think of a more beautiful venue,” McGrath gushes. “We are honored to be back there again.”
One of the main reasons that McGrath finds himself back at Ravinia is the popularity that his ‘little band that could’ still attracts from a loyal legion of fans that can’t get enough of such Sugar Ray hits as “Someday,” “When It’s Over,” and the twin number-one classics “Fly” and “Every Morning.” That longevity is quite impressive considering that more than two decades have gone by since those songs came out and since the music industry as a whole has been turned on its head.
“I look back on the fact that [Sugar Ray] had four top-10 songs, and I am so humbled by it,” says McGrath. “I’m the first guy to make fun of myself and the first guy to make fun of the band, but I’m really proud of the songs I wrote.” And it’s those songs that McGrath says continue to make the decade of the ’90s cooler with each passing day.
“The ’90s got a bad rap for a while there,” says McGrath, whose band has nonetheless sold over 10 million records through the years. “The record industry sort of died in the ’90s. They didn’t really make new records and new bands. I mean, name the last rock star? Was it Kid Rock?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “They just don’t make rock stars anymore—they make DJs,” he continues, his voice building with each and every word. “It’s a new culture. But still, look at the top 10 touring acts. Nineties bands still find their way on that list, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and Dave Matthews Band. In many ways, it feels like the ’90s never really ended.”
It’s this belief that McGrath and some of his generational comrades in music have been taking to the bank in recent years via the success of the “Under the Sun” tour.
“Once you put a little distance between the ’90s and what is being done right now, those times start becoming cool again,” claims McGrath, who believes that Sugar Ray might have another hit in their future. “I always say that Sugar Ray is just a year or two away from being at Urban Outfitters. [Laughs] I think we hit that idea perfectly with ‘Under the Sun.’ The crowds are get- ting bigger and getting younger, which I wasn’t particularly anticipating.”
And with age, McGrath says he has an even better idea of what people truly want to hear. “On this tour, we are doing the hits the way you want to hear them and in short sets,” McGrath emphasizes. “I don’t want to hear these bands’ new stuff just like the crowd doesn’t. [Laughs] Hearing these bands say the words Here’s a new one is like Kryptonite to these fans. They want us to stick to the hits and that’s what we do. Twenty-five hits in a three hour period. I like to say, ‘Bring [an empty bottle] because you won’t want to miss a thing.’”
But he can’t stop the endless march of time. “In the ’90s [the after-show experience] was strippers and booze— and today it’s mothers and formula,” laughs the doting husband and father. “At this age, we have learned how to tour. I mean, our bodies are older and the excitement of [youth] just isn’t there like it was. We are all parents now, which changes things radically. I appreciate everything a lot more now.”
And for the first time on this particular morning, McGrath sighs. “Here’s the deal. I still love to perform. I still love the excitement. And at the end of the day, the fact that we get to spend our summer with our friends playing music makes us pretty lucky people.”
Chicago Sun-Times, Country Weekly and Advertising Age. Follow her on Twitter at @CHIwriter.