08/16/2009 11:01 PM | By Sam Sessa, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post
There might be a perception that Sugar Ray's heyday is over, but the cougars are still his fans.
From the start, it's been hard to peg Sugar Ray.
When the Southern California five-piece formed in the early 1990s, audiences thought they were a straight-up hard-rock party band. Then they released the summery acoustic single Fly, a smash hit that rocketed them to platinum status. Listeners and critics were quick to label Sugar Ray one-hit wonders. But the band's next album had two more hit singles, Every Morning and Someday, and went triple-platinum.
Now, audiences look at 41-year-old lead singer Mark McGrath, with his six-pack abs and frost-tipped hair, and think he's an empty-headed frontman disillusioned by his band's success. That couldn't be further from the truth.
"People look at me and go, 'Oh, Sugar Ray - lightweight,'" McGrath said. "I've done some things that are pretty lightweight. But I respect and enjoy music. I'm not trying to be and the band isn't trying to be anything we're not."
That's loud and clear on the new album, Music for Cougars. More or less, the album is another chapter in Sugar Ray's catalogue of carefree, feel-good grooves with a slight rock edge.
Most of Sugar Ray's albums have telling titles. The band and the public were floored when the second album, Floored. They followed it with 14:59, their claim that their 15 minutes of fame hadn't quite run out. It hadn't - 14:59 was at least twice as successful. The new album is no exception.
Last summer, Sugar Ray was playing a gig at an outdoor mall in Los Angeles, when McGrath had a mini-revelation. "My buddy looks at me and goes, 'Dude, all your fans are cougars,'" he said. "I went, 'Bing! Music for Cougars - that will be the working title.'"
Apparently, a large number of cougars dig Sugar Ray. "I think it's funny. I think cougars are cool. They're independent, strong women. The cougars that I've met? They're proud to be called cougars."
For someone who has led a multi-platinum band, opened for the Rolling Stones and hosted the entertainment news TV show Extra, McGrath is strikingly unpretentious. He knows people think of Sugar Ray as a '90s band whose heyday has long come and gone, and he's fine with that. He has never claimed to be an expert singer, either. "God did not put me on the Earth to be a singer, but I just love music," McGrath said. "I'm such a student of music and a fan of music, and I was dumb enough to think I could do it, so I did it."
These days, McGrath increasingly finds himself at odds with the younger generation of music lovers who don't have much respect for Sugar Ray. "I know a lot of the cool, indie hipster guys, and that whole wave, they really dislike my band and they dislike everything we're about, and I understand that.
"We're almost like the REO Speedwagon of the '80s when the '90s were coming in. That's fine, I get it. That's almost like your backstage pass, or your galvanising calling card - to say you hate Sugar Ray, so you can go to American Apparel and get your headband and listen to the Decemberists. I get it. I really do. You're at a young age, and it defines your life and stuff."
The backlash against Sugar Ray hasn't stopped McGrath from listening to a decent amount of indie music, he said. Recently, he caught Death Cab for Cutie, the New Pornographers and Tegan and Sara at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Concert goers were shocked - McGrath said - to see him there.
Still, McGrath doesn't seem to mind. He likes what he likes and doesn't care what other people think. Regardless of how many copies they sell of Music for Cougars, McGrath is happy with the music Sugar Ray has made and the role the band has played in listeners' lives. One fan said he watched his child take his first step to Every Morning. That's all the affirmation McGrath needs.