Back in the late 1990s, Sugar Ray's breezy singles brought the California band into the mainstream, and helped shape the pop rock sound of the time.
Two decades later, frontman Mark McGrath might be the most stunned of all that Sugar Ray is back with new music.
"A band like us really trades in our nostalgia," McGrath said in an interview on NPR's All Things Considered. After all, the band started out playing cover songs.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously," said McGrath. "And we like to have fun. I mean, that was our edict when we joined the band."
Since Sugar Ray put out its last record in 2009, McGrath has spent his time playing old songs on tour and starring on reality shows and in the Sharknado franchise.
About a year and a half ago, McGrath was getting ready to film Celebrity Big Brother when the show's producers asked if he would shoot a staged jam session that they could play during the reality show's intro.
Sugar Ray guitarist Rodney Sheppard showed up to film the sizzle reel with McGrath. Sheppard had been toying with the beginnings of a new song that they kept building on throughout what turned out to be a real recording session.
McGrath spent weeks in the Big Brother house cut off from the outside world.
When he finally emerged, Sheppard brought the good news: The record company BMG had heard the song they recorded for Big Brother and wanted to offer Sugar Ray a deal.
"I'm like you've got to be kidding me," McGrath said. "What happened at the Big Brother house?"
"It was fun that this big giant major label is taking a chance again on a little band like Sugar Ray and so it was great to sort of just write a record for fun and that's what we did."
For their new album, the Newport Beach natives returned to their signature uplifting and airy rock sound.
"If there are people that are looking for new Sugar Ray record we're gonna give you what you want to hear," McGrath said.
In making the album, Sheppard and McGrath wanted to inject the sound that was responsible for the band's early success.
"It's the guitar riff, it's the multiple melodies, it's [Sheppard] and I singing that long, extended melody with a lilting chorus, with lyrics that are uplifting," McGrath said.
The title of the album, Little Yachty, is multi-layered, McGrath said, as is the actual record.
Perhaps more obviously, it's a play on the rapper Lil Yachty's name. When McGrath reached out to Lil Yachty, he says the rapper gave the thumbs-up. "He goes, 'Oh my god, that's the greatest title ever. You guys are legends, I'd love to jam some time.' "
It's also an ode to the band's strong ties to the commercially successful soft-rock genre of yacht rock. "We were kind of almost the yacht rock of the 90s," McGrath said. "We crossed over multiple genres, multiple platforms, we hit Triple A radio, we hit alternative radio, we hit the pop charts of course, and we almost were yacht rock — everybody kind of knows who we are."
To McGrath, the band's success reflects a timeless truth: "Whether it's 'Old Town Road' or 'Rock Around The Clock,' a good melody and a good lyric will always be popular."
"And luckily, with a little bit of divine intervention and a lot of help and a village, we were able to stumble upon a few hits."
Dustin DeSoto and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited this story for broadcast.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
And now for a little '90s nostalgia. We're not talking about fashion or even a TV reboot.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY")
SUGAR RAY: (Singing) All around the world, statues crumble for me. Who knows how long I've loved you?
MCCAMMON: That's "Fly" by the band Sugar Ray. As some of you may remember, their pop-influenced sound catapulted them to stardom in the late '90s and helped Sugar Ray shape the pop-rock sound of the time. And it's been 10 years since their last album, and Sugar Ray's back with a brand-new album titled "Little Yachty."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHEST TREE")
SUGAR RAY: (Singing) I'm sitting in the highest tree 'cause the view looks good to me. So let's sing a melody 'cause this is the place to be. I'm sitting in the...
MCCAMMON: And we're joined now by Mark McGrath, the frontman of Sugar Ray.
MARK MCGRATH: Ah, yes - off the charts but in our hearts. It's so nice to hear, like, the beginning of "Fly" again. It brings back such great memories, and it's the reason why I'm talking to you all these years later. So it's fun to get creative again and put out a new record.
MCCAMMON: It's been a little bit since that. I mean, I think I was driving around in my parents' car in high school when that was on the radio. And it's also been, you know, a decade since your last album. But you've been busy. You co-hosted "Extra." You did a lot of reality TV. What made you want to get back into doing music?
MCGRATH: Yeah, I don't want to brag, but after my work in the classic "Sharknado" 2, 3 and 6...
MCGRATH: I thought it was time to get back to the music. But, you know, Sugar Ray's always been playing. We've been a band for 30 years, believe it or not, last summer. And we've always been playing live. But to get a chance to be creative is something we don't get to do as much anymore because, let's be honest, the record business has essentially gone away. It's become a streaming business. And writing a new record wasn't really on the table for us. You know, a band like us really trades on our nostalgia.
But luckily, I was on a show called "Celebrity Big Brother" about a year and a half ago, and they wanted to do a little bit of an intro piece to me, Mark McGrath, what I was about. So they said, let's put you in a studio, and we'll do what you normally do during a day. And I go, well, during the day, I'm usually driving my kids to school or to soccer practice. But we can...
MCCAMMON: The glamorous rock star life, right?
MCGRATH: There you go - picking up the dog poop in the backyard, you know, just like everybody else does. But my guitar player was kind enough to be part of the intro package, and so was my drummer. And he came up with a little - a cool little lick he had, a little song, and was about a third done. And we started writing the song as "Big Brother" was filming this intro package.
And when I came out of the house, my guitar player called me and said, dude, remember that song we filmed for your intro package to "Big Brother"? I go, yeah. He goes, well, the producer, Michael Lloyd, sent it to BMG, and they want to do a record deal. I'm, like, you've got to be kidding me. In this day and age, in 2018, which was - that's what it was back then - a major label wants to offer Sugar Ray a record deal. What happened when I went into the "Big Brother" house? So it was funded. This big, giant, major label is taking a chance again on a little band like Sugar Ray. And so it was great to sort of just write a record for fun, and that's what we did.
MCCAMMON: Yeah. And I want to talk about the name of the album, OK? "Little Yachty" - can you tell me how you landed on that?
MCGRATH: You know, it's funny, kind of - it's very garrulous and verbose, like most of the things I say. But when I was thinking about the band, the '90s and bands like ourselves - Smash Mouth, Everclear, Third Eye Blind - we were kind of almost the yacht rock of the '90s when you think about it, you know? We crossed over multiple genres, multiple platforms. And we almost were that yacht rock. Everybody kind of knows who we are. So when we were playing our live sets, we included some fun yacht rock classics like, for instance, the "Escape" song - the pina colada song, people know it best. You know (singing) if you like pina coladas...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESCAPE (THE PINA COLADA SONG)")
SUGAR RAY: (Singing) ...If you're not into yoga, if you have half a brain. If you like making love at midnight...
MCGRATH: And we just made a really fun record. And as I saw it take shape, I go, my God, we're making a yacht rock record. And we have the pina colada song on there. How about "Little Yachty" as a title? It was fun to do. And yes, I did reach out to the rapper Lil Yachty, which was also inspired by - it's obviously a play on his name. And he goes, oh, my God. That's the greatest title ever. You guys are legends. I'd love to jam sometime. So there was multi-layers to the title, as is commonplace for the Sugar Ray record.
MCCAMMON: So I want to hear a little bit of one of your new songs - "Make It Easy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE IT EASY")
SUGAR RAY: (Singing) If we could dance the night away and never worry 'bout the bills we gotta pay, it's such a hassle when your life gets in the way, but we should know better.
MCCAMMON: This one reminded me so much of Sugar Ray from the '90s. It made me think a little bit of the riffs in "Every Morning," for example. How did you think about how much you wanted to borrow from the past versus how much to sort of develop and evolve with your sound?
MCGRATH: Yeah. I think you evolve as human beings in terms of experiences. You know, I have two kids now, I'm married, so I'm not going to be singing about beers and cars as much as I used to, you know? But we did have a Sugar Ray sound, and that's why we're still playing today. And if there are people that are looking for new Sugar Ray record, we're going to give you what you want to hear, hopefully - at least, that's the fences we're aiming for. And our guitar player, Rodney - it's funny, you bring up "Every Morning" - Rodney Sheppard has wrote some of the most iconic guitar riffs of the '90s - the riff for "Fly" - did-a-lit-did-a-lit-did-a-lit-did-a-leer (ph) - I mean, it's such a classic riff. "Every Morning..."
(SOUNDBITE OF SUGAR RAY SONG, "EVERY MORNING")
(SOUNDBITE OF SUGAR RAY SONG, "SOMEDAY")
MCGRATH: These are classic guitar riffs from the '90s that Rodney Sheppard came up with. And he goes, when I'm coming up with a riff, I want to go back to what got us where we are. What was responsible for our success? It's the guitar riff. It's the multiple melodies. It's him and I singing that, like, maybe long, extended melody with some - like, a lilting chorus with lyrics that are uplifting. And I think this song really hit the bull's eye on that. And that's why it was the first single. I wanted to let people know, if you're going to listen to this new record, steal it, download it, whatever you do, just know you're going to get that Sugar Ray sound for sure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE IT EASY")
SUGAR RAY: (Singing) Can you see the light in front of us? All those miles and miles in front of us? Just another way, just another day - goodbye.
MCCAMMON: And Sugar Ray was one of the defining sounds of the - certainly the late '90s. What do you think accounted for your success then?
MCGRATH: Well, I think one thing that was pretty obvious with us is that we don't take ourselves too seriously, and we like to have fun. I mean, that was our edict when we joined the band. We started as a cover band. And then we got a little bit better, and we started writing original songs, and they kind of were just fun, light, airy - more rocking songs because we didn't really know how to play back then. But if you turn your Marshalls up to 11, and you have a Les Paul guitar, everybody was getting signed in the early '90s because they're Nirvana.
But a lot of these bands were very sort of - they were angry. There was a lot of angst in there. And we came from the opposite end of that. We were raised on the beaches of Southern California. We love reggae. We love the Beach Boys. You know, we love all the dark stuff, too, but it wasn't really organic to who we were. I think America was ready to have fun again.
And I've always known this about the record industry and the music business - a good melody, whether it's "Old Town Road" or "Rock Around The Clock" - you know, a good melody and a good lyric will always be popular, and luckily, we - a little bit of divine intervention and a lot of help and a village, we were able to stumble upon a few hits.
MCCAMMON: Is there a particular song from this album that you would like to go out on?
MCGRATH: You know, I think there's a really cool song - there's a song called "Trouble" on here that I think if it was written by anybody else but Sugar Ray or performed by anybody else but Sugar Ray would be a hit, especially in the country market.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE")
SUGAR RAY: (Singing) I've been thinking about you. Where would I be without you? Just as close as back to your heart.
MCGRATH: I love this song. You know, I hope people find it on their own because I truly love this. And I want to play it live. I think it'd be testing their patience a little bit if we threw it upon them now. But I hope people organically find it because I'd love to play this one live.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE")
SUGAR RAY: (Singing) I know if trouble ever finds me, who cares? You remind me you'll be right there beside me over and over and over and over again.
MCCAMMON: That was Mark McGrath with the band Sugar Ray. Their album "Little Yachty" is out now.
Thanks so much.
MCGRATH: Thank you so much for taking the time. It's an honor to be on NPR. I listen to you guys, and I'm, like, do they know it's me that's coming? So I'm really honored. Thank you guys for taking the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE")
SUGAR RAY: (Singing) But the love we have between us is happening, and I never want to lose it, so we'd better start to use it or the trouble's going to take it away, my friend. Fell asleep in the morning - hell of a way to start your day. But the nights are long with the rain and thunder, and I curse myself - what spell I'm under. And are you going to take a train to see me? Maybe I should ride the bus to meet you. Maybe we could find a place to hide if the timing is right. I know if trouble ever finds me, who cares... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.