Anyone near an MTV playlist at the turn of the Willennium knows Mark McGrath’s curriculum vitae: four frothy alterna-pop megahits with Sugar Ray, a constant presence in the tabloids, a hosting gig on Extra, and a stint as the unofficial ambassador of frosted tips. But the whole time, deep inside that sleeveless bohunk flexing on the cover of Spin beat the heart of a true nerd.
“Hey, can I access the old editions of CREEM?” interjects McGrath, completely unprompted, around a half hour into our conversation. “I can’t imagine. [Doing] a deep dive from, like, ’72 to ’84? You’d never see me again.”
In the days before major-label fame and Scooby-Doo cameos, McGrath was slicing his stomach on stage like Iggy Stooge. Sugar Ray would sample the Germs and cover Black Flag. McGrath dominated VH1’s Rock & Roll Jeopardy! on three separate occasions. His band’s latest album, Little Yachty, might have a version of “(Escape) The Pina Colada Song” on the inside, but there’s a visual tribute to the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry on the outside.
“I’m never gonna say Sugar Ray isn’t what they are. Everybody’s spot-on,” says McGrath, as animated, enthusiastic, and self-effacing as ever at 55. “But sometimes we don’t get enough credit for what fans we are of music.”
In short, Mark McGrath is one of us—probably more so than anyone else who’s smelled the inside of a Masked Singer costume. Let those statues of assumption crumble for you as CREEM talks Boredoms, Germs, Yoko, Pistols, Hüskers, and Throbbing Gristle with beach-rock’s trivia king.
At what age did you start becoming a music obsessive?
My mom always had a million 45s. She loved singles of any band, she loved hits. And I would listen to them incessantly but just for fun. In seventh, eighth grade, [I was like] “I just listen to the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Clash. It’s all I listen to. This is who I am.” So I think that’s when I started really retaining the information. And I was into many, many trends, too. I was a break-dancer. I was a mod. I was a punker. I was a rockabilly for, like, three months.
So I accumulated all these records, and I didn’t throw them away when I went on to the next genre. I would buy a RIP magazine, I would buy Rolling Stone, and all the guys in Winger would stay in my head, but I couldn’t remember my algebra.
As a kid, would you read things like the Joel Whitburn Billboard books?
Oh yeah, definitely. I still read Pollstar religiously. The Billboard Hot 100, Casey Kasem—even Solid Gold back in the day had their own little chart. I was always just curious and fascinated by chart positioning.
Was there ever a time when you were a loser?
Oh, I’m a loser now, man.
Well, the people who are sitting at home writing down Casey Kasem chart positions usually don’t look like you.
We moved around quite a bit when I was younger. So when you’re moving in, like, fifth, sixth, seventh grade, that’s traumatizing. My mom would never buy me cool clothes ever, ever, ever. My Adidas always had four stripes on them. I’d have bootleg Polo shirts, like a donkey carrying a mallet. And so that meant everything back then. It was a bunch of surfers growing up in Newport Beach, and they were really clowning me.
I wasn’t really a surfer. I wasn’t really a cool kid. I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I could always play basketball. So once basketball season came around, that would ingratiate me to the athletes a little bit. I was a late bloomer. I was, like, 5' 2" when I graduated from high school. I didn’t grow to be six feet tall until USC. And of course I had the zits and acne. I had gnarly cystic acne, like hardcore—the bane of my existence. I was super insecure about it.
So this “sex symbol” thing, or this little cup of coffee I had as someone that was considered, like, People’s “Sexiest Rocker” in ’98...assimilating to being a “hot guy” was so brand-new and totally awkward to me. And I probably did really stupid things to counteract my insecurities, by acting out, doing dumb things. It never came natural to me, never felt comfortable.
You have met an incredible number of famous people. Who else is a secret obsessive? Who could go toe-to-toe with you on some of this stuff?
Jimmy Pop from Bloodhound Gang. I wouldn’t sleep on his knowledge at all. He’ll go super deep. There’s some managers in the business and agents that I would never even look at. There was a guy named Gerry Harrington who used to manage Nicolas Cage back in the day. He’s no longer with us, God rest his soul. But he had a 1977 punk rock room in his Beverly Hills mansion. He invited me over one day, and I go into the kitchen, and there’s Joe Strummer. I go, “Hey, uh, hey, hey, Joe. Um. Hey, hey, Joe. I-I’m Mark, I-I’m in a band called Sugar Ray, I just wanna say hello.” And he goes, “I know who you are, mate, my daughters love Sugar Ray. You got some good pop songs.” I just went [makes explosion gesture].
I read a 2013 interview in Rolling Stone where you name-checked Boredoms. I texted my friend and he replied, “I would never have guessed that dude knows who Boredoms are.”
I just love music. There’s 12 notes and how you [use] ’em.
Does Mark McGrath listen to Boredoms for fun?
I’m not gonna sit here and try to be cool in front of you and say I do. I caught them once at Lollapalooza. I think ’94? I went there, I’m like, “No one live is gonna blow me away. I’ve seen everything.” It deconstructed music and what a live experience was for me. I don’t necessarily sit there and stan out on their records, but as a performance and live entity, I’m a huge fan. Especially then, dude, because that noise genre had been not interesting to watch. It was sort of like guys with dark hair, Steve Albini, just bummer, just assaultive. And there was almost a joy in the Boredoms performing. They certainly had an impact on [me] in terms of a visual and that performance entity.
What about Einstürzende Neubauten?
No, but I always wondered how to pronounce that name. [Laughs] We used to go to these punk rock shops in the early ’80s, [these places] that would sell creepers. And they would have that on, and they would tell me the name, and I’d go [meekly] “Yeah, I like them.” Just a 12-year-old kid scared to be in the store. But yeah, it’s a little atonal for me. I’ve always been intrigued by [them], and I always wanted to pronounce the name, and I’m glad you did that for me. I never got deeper into the goth world than, like, the Mission or Fields of the Nephilim or Balaam and the Angel. You had to have a little bit of rock stardom. I’m actually revealing my true self.
No, please do.
Songs have to be, like, three minutes for me. You lose my interest a little bit [after that]. And there was just such a darkness of some of their things. And I’m from Newport Beach, California, you know? I need a little lightness, and Wayne Hussey is about as deep as I went down the rabbit hole of goth. A little Specimen. But then I tapped out.
Do you listen to Throbbing Gristle?
No, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I remember Throbbing Gristle being scary to me. We used to go a record store called Music Market back in Costa Mesa. I would start in A in the LPs and look at every record in the entire row. I went from A to Z. So Throbbing Gristle was one of those records. I’ve had it in my hand, but I just got too scared and put it back.
What’s your opinion of Metal Machine Music?
The unlistenable Lou Reed record?
I mean, some people think it’s unlistenable.
Well, I’ve heard it once—got halfway through the first side and I never put it on again. You know, I don’t think I have sophisticated enough taste to enjoy that record. It’s probably the first noise record ever—do you think?
Well, there was the Red Krayola, Sperm, the Nihilist Spasm Band. The John Lennon/Yoko Ono records were pretty noise.
You know what I discovered the other day, and I’m so mad at myself? I didn’t know in [the B-52s’] “Rock Lobster,” she was, like [ululates]. Yoko actually did that [first]. I thought that was just sort of their quirky punk rock Athens charm. How the fuck did that escape me? And if they asked me that on Rock & Roll Jeopardy! you would have thought I was the dumbest guy who’s ever lived. “Yeah, this guy really does have frosted tips still.”
When you lost to Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf on the Stern show, it looked like you actually felt pretty bad.
I felt terrible. I was crestfallen. I was brokenhearted because I was just coming out of the victories I had on TV. I won three times on Rock & Roll Jeopardy! After that, every kooky Morning Zoo team, when I would show up for an interview in your city at five in the morning, would attack me: “All right, dude, who was the roadie for Spooky Tooth in ’68?” So people were constantly trying to get me, and I was surviving, and I was pulling it off. I didn’t wanna do trivia on Howard Stern. I was totally bummed. I was more bummed than I should have been about that. That’s why I’m so defensive about it now. [Laughs]
The Cure tribute on the cover of the Little Yachty album is really sneaky.
The KROQ phenomenon always plays a part in my story, and the Cure, to us, were as big as the Who in our heads back in the ’80s. They were a gigantic band. I remember Boys Don’t Cry, the cover of the record, it just made me feel like the beach; it made me feel like I was home in Newport Beach. Which is so strange ’cause this, like, post-punk quasi-goth band was writing these little pop nuggets of darkness coming out of the U.K. But somehow it really spoke to me in Newport Beach, California. That dichotomy always, always attracts me. Maybe three or four people got that it was a Cure [reference], but that was three more than I needed.
You sampled the Germs on the first Sugar Ray record...
Ever since I saw The Decline of Western Civilization, like everybody, I was just blown away by Darby [Crash] and the whole thing. Darby was the biggest fan of David Bowie of all time. They wanted to be a glam band. They wanted to be Queen. They wanted to be David Bowie. They weren’t talented enough. And punk rock came along just in time for them to do their thing. Darby’s a very smart guy. Listen to his lyrics, they’re very cerebral. There’s a lot more to him than just the surface of Darby Crash, this burnout punk rock legend.
Sugar Ray’s debut has a lot of unique samples—the Germs, Commander Cody, Whodini, Michael Henderson. Are all the samples cleared on that record?
Yes. [But] a lot of things didn’t make it on Lemonade and Brownies because of sampling issues. No one’s gonna clear a $100,000 sample for a baby band. We won some, we lost some, is the answer to that.
Do you remember one of the ones you lost?
Yeah, we lost the Pink Floyd sample. [Laughs] [We tried to] sample something off the biggest record of all time.... We thought putting “Us and Them” was a good idea [on] “Danzig Needs a Hug” or something—which, by the way, is still the greatest title of all time. Someone asked Danzig once about this in the mid-’90s.... He goes, “Yeah, I heard about that. And Sugar Ray can suck my dick.”
You named your son Lydon after John Lydon. Now that he’s 13, how does he feel about this?
He’s kind of nonchalant about it. It’s always been his name. In ’83, I said to myself, “I’m naming my son Lydon.” You don’t hear a lot of Sex Pistols influence in the music of Sugar Ray. But what the Sex Pistols did for me is kind of break down all the barriers in the world. It really hammered down that if you could just get up there—didn’t have to be the best player—had three chords and the truth, you could get on stage. And so that really inspired me to have the balls to get on stage. That was the reason I named my son Lydon. Sounded better than Rotten anyway.
We couldn’t resist the opportunity to test Mark McGrath’s trivia acumen, so we put the three-time Rock & Roll Jeopardy! champ up against Zachary Lipez, CREEM editor-at-large, who didn’t realize he had the lipstick filter on when he Zoomed in.
(1) What Lou Reed song is name-checked in Def Leppard’s “Rocket”?
McGrath: [Mumbles through chorus] Um...“Rock & Roll?” Don’t say “Walk on the Wild Side.”
CREEM: “Walk on the Wild Side”? That was the closest one I was gonna get. That was my Icarus moment, and now everything else is gonna suck.
CORRECT ANSWER: “Satellite of Love”
POINTS: McGrath: 0; CREEM: 0
(2) What iconic music video had the four members of the band cross-dressing as characters from the British soap opera Coronation Street?
McGrath: That would be Queen. The song is “I Want to Break Free.”
CREEM: I’m assuming it’s an English band. I wanna say either Genesis or Madness just ’cause they’re so fun. What am I gonna do here?
CORRECT ANSWER: Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”
POINTS: McGrath: 1; CREEM: 0
(3) In 1981, the Funky 4 + 1 became the first rap group to perform on national television when they were invited to Saturday Night Live by what guest host
McGrath: Did they play “It’s the Joint”? Aw, man. I’ma say Billy Dee Williams. I love that band, too. I love the girl in that band, she’s amazing.
CREEM: Probably would have been a New York person. I’m going through every essay on Lucy Sante’s last book of essays, because she actually mentions them four or five times, just as part of a pivotal thing that hepcats in New York were getting into. But I think Saturday Night Live is a little too above 14th Street for her. Um. Debbie Harry?
CORRECT ANSWER: Deborah Harry
POINTS: McGrath: 0; CREEM: 1
(4) The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime was the second punk rock double LP released by SST in 1984. In the liner notes, Mike Watt scribbled what message of acknowledgement to their labelmates?
McGrath: I can’t even hazard a guess. It was Hüsker Dü, I know they had a double record. And the message was...“Good luck, guys”? [Laughs] I got half of that, do I get a [point]? I should know. That’s punk rock lore, forgive me. D. Boon, rest in peace.
CREEM: I don’t know. I have no idea. I assume it’s Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade.
CORRECT ANSWER: “Take that, Hüskers!”
POINTS: McGrath ½, CREEM: ½
(5) Two-point question: GTR was the supergroup of what two famous prog-rock Steves?
McGrath: GTR would be Steve Vai, right? Steve Howe? Ah, fuck, man. I’m so mad at myself. I know that.
CREEM: Oh, I don’t fuckin’ know. I’m a solo Phil Collins guy.
CORRECT ANSWER: Steve Howe and Steve Hackett.
POINTS: McGrath 0, CREEM: 0
And Musician magazine notoriously gave their lone album, GTR, a one-word review. What was the word?
McGrath: Now, that is a gnarly question to ask. I wouldn’t know. I can’t make up a guess of something I never saw. Don’t be sad, Chris. [Laughs]
CREEM: I don’t care about prog rock to such an extent. I’m assuming it’s something like “shit.” I don’t know. Don’t [count that]. Part of trivia is having the boldness to commit. Mark McGrath is nothing if not bold.
CORRECT ANSWER: “SHT”
POINTS: McGrath: .5; CREEM: 0