Alternative pop band
Sugar Ray grew out of the irreverent Southern California, Orange County-centered music scene that spawned such alternative successes as No Doubt and Sublime—bands who, like Sugar Ray, have helped infuse a spirited reworking of both the neo-punk and reggae genres into modern rock. Fronted by vocalist Mark McGrath, Sugar Ray hit it huge with their 1997 release Floored and its extremely successful single, “Fly.” The reggae-esque song, wrote Michael Saunders of the Boston Globe, featured “pillowy bass lines and summer-camp-sloppy harmonies” Saunders deemed it “a track as simple as a virus and every bit as infectious.” McGrath summed up “Fly”’s widespread success by pointing out to USA Today’s Cathy Hainer that the song has a basic appeal—“my grandma loves it, and my hard-core punk friends love it.”
All members of Sugar Ray, with the exception of latecomer Craig “DJ Homicide” Bullock, grew up in the affluent Orange County enclave of Newport Beach. McGrath, a graduate of the University of Southern California, confessed to acquiring a love of punk rock music at an early age, while bandmate Rodney Shep-pard admitted to learning to play guitar by copying Cheap Trick riffs. Sugar Ray’s rhythm section is made up of Murphy Karges on bass and drummer Stan Frazier. Originally, they began as a cover band called the Shrinky Dinks that played rap and heavy-metal tunes at parties. “We were bad enough players that it all sounded like one wall of noise,” McGrath told Rolling Stone’s David Wild, “but people were so amused by our antics, no one picked up on it.” Later they were forced to find a new name when the toy company who manufactured a product called Shrinky Dinks objected and threatened to sue. The “Sugar Ray” tag came out of McGrath’s love of sports and pays homage to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Eventually Sugar Ray began writing their own material—from metal to punk to hip-hop. They also attracted a devoted fan base in their Orange County area with raucous live shows centered on McGrath’s showmanship and penchant for near nudity at times. The labels soon came calling, and in 1994, when “anyone who played electric guitar was the next Nirvana,” as McGrath told Wild in Rolling Stone, they were offered a deal with Lava Records. Success simply offered more opportunity for pranks. Their 1995 debut album, Lemonade and Brownies was delivered, true to irreverent Sugar Ray form, to the label offices by the band themselves clad only in jockstraps. Furthermore, it received far more attention for the provocative pose of Baywatch actress Nicole Eggert on the cover than the music. Inside, wrote Jerry Lee Williams of Seconds, it offered “a compendium of basic suburban AlternMetal Funk Hop movers.”
Members include Craig “DJ Homicide” Bullock , turntables (joined band, c. 1996); Stan Frazier , drums; Murphy Karges , bass; Mark McGrath , vocals; and Rodney Sheppard , guitar. Education: McGrath graduated from the University of Southern California
Band formed as the Shrinky Dinks; signed to Atlantic Records, 1994; released first LP, Lemonade and Brownies, 1995; Floored, 1997.
Tracks on Lemonade and Brown/es like “Danzig Needs a Hug” displayed the band’s smart aleck side even further. Its first single, “Mean Machine,” received some airplay, but it was a career-making appearance on Howard Stern’s syndicated radio show that would fuel sales. Stern had once written a painfully bad, though somewhat precocious batch of songs as a teenager in the1960s, and once played them on his show. Sugar Ray learned to play one, “Psychedelic Bee,” and included it on Lemonade and Brownies. Stern was so touched that he invited them on his show, and the subsequent televised version of the session, which aired on the cable-television channel E !, helped earn the band greater exposure and new fans.
Even on Lemonade and Brownies, Sugar Ray was displaying a talent for being able to cross over into a myriad of musical genres, from punk to ska to alterna-pop. “There are five guys in this band, and when we collaborate everyone contributes their different styles,” drummer Stan Frazier explained to Doug Reece in Billboard. Their sound took on an added and fresh dimension when they added Craig “DJ Homicide” Bullock to spin turntables and give their songs a whole new live, quasi-Beastie Boys kind of mood with scratching, sampling, and heavy remixing of their own instruments. “Homicide is like a second guitar,” bassist Murphy Karges told Guitar World.
Before their 1995 debut, Sugar Ray had never actually toured, though they were certainly veterans of performing live. They paid their dues over the next two years, however, playing extensively through 1996 and even opening for the revived Sex Pistols that summer of 1996. The band then headed into the studio to record their second album with renowned producer Dave Kahne. It was not an easy time for the band personally, but out of the tension came Floored. Within one week of its release in mid-1997, Floored’s sales eclipsed that of Lemonade and Brownies.
It was the extremely catchy second first single called “Fly” that launched Sugar Ray into alternative chart history. The non-radio version of the song featured a Jamaican dance-hall-reggae singer named Super Cat. Just a few days after the idea of adding a live “toaster” to the reggae-influenced track, Super Cat was in New York with them. Sugar Ray was, appropriately, floored “to see this guy put down a track with four white guys from Newport Beach—it was just a lucky act of fate,” McGrath told Spin’s Jonathan Gold.
“What came out of those sessions with Super Cat,” wrote Details’ Pat Blashill, was “a sweet, slightly drunken song, wobbly with reggae flavor and a ridiculously sunny vibe.” “Fly” stayed at the number one spot on Billboards Modern Rock charts through the summer and fall of 1997, and it made Sugar Ray one of the top alternative acts of the year. Ironically, the blithe song was actually borne out of some band friction during the New York recording sessions: McGrath didn’t like the new songs that they wrote, was thinking about quitting, and disappeared for a few days. Meanwhile, Frazier was also depressed, but came up with “Fly”’s melody and the line “I just wanna fly!” Six months later, they received a gold record for the song.
Floored also contained more teen-angst nostalgia with a cover of the Adam & the Ants classic “Stand and Deliver,” as well as several original tracks that again ran the gamut from punk to hip-hop. Sugar Ray were now full-fledged rock stars, having appeared in the 1997 Ivan Reitman film Father’s Day, starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal,. The band spent most of the summer of 1997 on the Warped tour, the nexus for the skate-punk, surf-punk, Southern California area punk bands, before achieving more mainstream success. Afterward, they played some dates in Europe and then headlined an American tour, where they found that being rock stars had some unexpected drawbacks—they were startled to realize they needed aliases when checking into.
Even with a number one hit and a movie credit under their belts, Sugar Ray was not fazed by success. As McGrath explained to Gold in Spin. A video on MTV or a gold record do not necessarily equal wealth. Instead, “you see that you owe the bank of Atlantic records lots of dough.” McGrath said he had to borrow money from his father just to pay his pager bill.
Neither touring nor the constant barrage of media encounters seem to bother them, and they profess that they had slogged so long as relative unknowns that they are thrilled with the idea of being rock stars. “In music, you work within a framework,” McGrath told Blashill in Details. “You have to get in there, rob as much as you can, then get out.”
Lemonade and Brownies, Lava/Atlantic, 1995.
Floored, Lava/Atlantic, 1997.
Alternative Press, October 1997, p. 33.
BAM, June 27, 1997.
Billboard, September 20, 1997, pp. 11, 81.
Boston Globe, July 11, 1997.
Details, September 1997; October 1997, p. 56.
Guitar World, October 1997.
Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1997, p. 38.
Maximum Guitar, November 1997, p. 49.
New York Daily News, July 21, 1997, p. 30.
Rolling Stone, November 21, 1997; February 5, 1998.
Seconds, August 1997.
Spin, November 1997.
USA Today, August 8, 1997.
Additional information was provided by Atlantic Records.
Formed: 1992, Newport Beach, California
Members: Craig "DJ Homicide" Bullock, DJ (born 17 December 1972); Stan Frazier, drums (born 23 April 1969); Murphy Karges, bass (born 20 June 1968); Mark McGrath, vocals (born Hartford, Connecticut, 15 March 1970); Rodney Sheppard, guitar (born 25 November 1967).
Genre: Rock, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: 14:59 (1999)
Hit songs since 1990: "Fly," "Every Morning"
Some musicians have so much confidence and ego that they seem destined from birth to be rock stars. The members of Sugar Ray have spent their entire career gaping in wonder at the repeat success of such breezy California pop hit singles as "Fly," "Every Morning," and "When It's Over." After abandoning their ill-conceived hard rock proclivities, the five-man band spent the 1990s surfing the wave of their success with good cheer, a healthy streak of self-deprecation, and a desire to write simple, cheerful pop rock songs.
If you listen to Sugar Ray's major label debut, Lemonade and Brownies (1995), you would be hard pressed to find the band that would return two years later with one of the most indelible pop hits of the late 1990s. Sugar Ray began life in 1992 as a Newport Beach, California, cover band called the Shrinky Dinx, whose specialty was songs by 1980s heavy metal/hard rock bands such as Judas Priest and Loverboy. The group's members bonded over the same love of reggae, ska, and 1980s new wave as such fellow Southern California up-and-comers as No Doubt and Sublime.
Singer Mark McGrath was a former truck driver, bassist Murphy Karges was a pizza chef, drummer Stan Frazier a paralegal, and guitarist Rodney Sheppard a telemarketer. Sheppard and Frazier had been in a local 1960s rock band called the Tories, which transformed into Sugar Ray when McGrath joined in 1992.
Forced to change their name to Sugar Ray—for boxer Sugar Ray Leonard—after Milton Bradley threatened a lawsuit over the Shrinky Dinx name, the band quickly developed a devoted fan base in Southern California and signed with Atlantic Records in 1994. In a nod to what the band members insist was dumb luck, the group scored the record deal when Atlantic Records president Doug Morris viewed a videotape of their song "Caboose," signing them without even hearing a full demo recording of their songs. With such sophomoric songs as "Like Me" and "Goldigger" in their repertoire, Sugar Ray set about recording their debut, Lemonade and Brownies (1995).
An Inauspicious Start
The album is a hackneyed mix of Red Hot Chili Peppers funk, heavy metal guitar anthems ("Mean Machine"), and nasal rapping. The group spent most of 1995 and 1996 touring in support of the album alongside rappers Cypress Hill and up-and-coming hard rockers Korn.
Though their second album, Floored (1997), features a similar mix of jokey hard rock, Beastie Boys–inspired nasal rapping, and sophomoric lyrics, it also contains a number of significant additions that would change the band's fortunes. Craig "DJ Homicide" Bullock joined the group prior to the album's recording, adding heft to their sound with his scratching and sampling and David Kahne signed on as their producer, beginning a creative collaboration that would bring the band unexpected fame and fortune.
With the help of Los Angeles rock station KROQ—the leading alternative rock station in the country—the song "Fly" began to gain attention for its light-hearted mix of Jamaican reggae, smooth California rock, and McGrath's scratchy, alluring croon. The song, with a guest rap from reggae star Super Cat, became a smash hit, pushing Floored to sales of more than 2 million and securing the group a more permanent place on the rock and roll pecking order.
Prior to the song's explosion, the group played on the third stage of the punk and skateboarding Warped Tour in the summer of 1997; by that fall they were headlining their first major American tour.
McGrath Becomes a Pin-up Star
At the same time, McGrath, with his movie star pout, perfectly coifed, spiked hair, and chiseled body, became a sex symbol, appearing on a string of teen magazine covers and being named one of America's sexiest men by People magazine in 1998.
Again banking on their low expectations, Sugar Ray's third album, 14:59 (1999), bore a title that alludes to Andy Warhol's famous maxim that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes; Sugar Ray believed they were about to use theirs up. With expert production from Kahne, the album proved that "Fly" was not a fluke, as it contained a string of gloriously easy-to-digest pop ditties and homages to 1980s new wave that made Sugar Ray even bigger stars.
Sheppard's guitar work takes on a more nimble, approachable tone on the album and critics noticed that McGrath finally gives up his more forceful, hard-edged vocals for tuneful, harmonious singing. Songs such as "Someday" and "Falls Apart" abandon the sophomoric humor and irony of the past for more adult concerns about relationships and romantic yearning. Flamenco pop song "Every Morning" combines a surfy guitar line, Beach Boys harmonies, turntable scratching, and McGrath's sincere vocals for a surefire hit that displays the band's maturity and growth. "Couldn't understand how to work it out / Once again as predicted left my broken heart open / And you ripped it out," McGrath sings. The album sold more than 3 million copies.
Sugar Ray performed at the ill-fated Woodstock '99 concert during the summer and McGrath made a guest appearance on the popular NBC drama E.R. in the spring of 2000. A follow-up album, Sugar Ray (2001), though hailed as another creative leap forward in maturity and songcraft, failed to connect with fans with songs such as "Answer the Phone" and "When It's Over."
A period of dormancy followed, with the group beginning work on a new album in late 2002 with the help of Kahne and ultra-hot hip-hop production team the Neptunes. The album was due in mid-2003.
Over the course of a decade, Sugar Ray grew from an amateurish funk-metal band to a veteran pop group with a facility for crafting breezily infectious, slightly funky pop songs. Despite fears of being a one-hit wonder band, Sugar Ray persevered and matured with good humor and songs that provided the soundtracks to countless lazy summer days.
Lemonade and Brownies (Lava/Atlantic, 1995); Floored (Lava/Atlantic, 1997); 14:59 (Lava/Atlantic, 1999); Sugar Ray (Lava/Atlantic, 2001).