It's tougher than ever to lower the common denominator in pop music, but Sugar Ray is doing the job with gusto.
The quintet may be best known for the swooning summertime groove of "Fly," the hit single from its second album, "Floored." The single remains near the top of the charts and has sparked the album to sales of 850,000. But the easygoing, reggae-tinged tune belies Sugar Ray's true nature, which is far better captured in the knuckleheaded banality of such numbers as "Cash" and "High Anxiety."
Critics have been coming down hard on the band since its 1995 Atlantic Records debut, "Lemonade and Brownies," which featured a cover photo of a naked blond on all fours and such alternately amusing and appalling material as "Danzig Needs a Hug" and "Iron Mic"--an apparent defense of Mike Tyson.
So the men of Sugar Ray stand accused of an assortment of crimes: They're sexist. Their lyrics are puerile. They're obsessed with partying. Their blend of punk, metal and hip-hop is derivative of more innovative acts such as Sublime and Rage Against the Machine.
Perhaps worst of all, the band will cop to every sour note.
"A lot of the criticism that's slanted toward Sugar Ray are things that we'll readily admit," says frontman Mark McGrath with a shrug, settling into a chair in the rented Hancock Park home the band shares.
Following a living-room photo session, most of the members have scattered to grab dinner or watch TV, while McGrath and guitarist Rodney Sheppard sit down for an interview. Their voices reverberate in the nearly empty space, an oasis surrounded by rooms crammed with instruments, record albums, clothes and equipment.
Sheppard's sharkskin suit and black fedora are more striking than McGrath's casual attire, but the tousle-haired singer is a fountain of energy and verbiage. The poor guitarist barely gets a word in edgewise.
"We aren't the best songwriters in the world," McGrath continues. "I'm certainly not the best singer. We're not trying to revolutionize music. We're just trying to be a little spice in the big stew."
And if "a little spice" means propagating soft-core porn, insulting people from the stage, stealing musical hooks and bragging about chemical excesses, well, hey--isn't that what rock 'n' roll is all about?
And it's true that much of the depravity is tongue-in-cheek; Sugar Ray (which appears with 311 at the Santa Barbara County Bowl on Thursday) is really just a cuter and more accessible version of such veteran "stoopid" punk acts as the Dickies and the Vandals, whose raison d'e^tre is to cheerfully moon the world at large.
"We look at it as escapism," says McGrath. "We're well aware of the problems--we pass by CNN on the way to the Playboy Channel. We don't choose to bring [the world's problems] on stage. We choose to crack a beer and go, 'For the next hour and a half, we're gonna have some fun.' "
Choices have made all the difference for this band. Like in 1989, when longtime pals McGrath, Sheppard, bassist Murphy Karges and drummer Stan Frazier, then a Newport Beach cover band, decided to start writing songs. Or when they opted to add Pasadena mixmaster Craig "D.J. Homicide" Bullock while they were finishing up "Lemonade and Brownies." His scratches and grooves turned out to be the group's most innovative elements--and McGrath even admits to that. "Craig creates an environment, he's a rhythm guitar player, he's a vocalist--he does so much. He is the unique thing that makes Sugar Ray tick."
With Bullock, the band was better armed to face the expectations and pressures of recording "Floored." McGrath credits producer David Kahne (Sublime, Soul Coughing) with helping them through the turmoil; he co-wrote, engineered, mixed and provided psychotherapy as needed. Kahne clearly finessed the album to a fare-thee-well, although the band's playing has improved, and Bullock's stylings do add more personality.
At McGrath's suggestion, the producer recruited Jamaican dance-hall star Super Cat for the vocal "toasting" on "Fly." The tune is a marked departure from Sugar Ray's usual boisterous crunch, but McGrath points out that the group has always dabbled in slower tempos, while readily admitting that it was inspired by Sublime. Yeah, and so what?
"We're influenced by things every day," he says. "We're music fans. We're not in a cocoon like Pearl Jam is up there, just going, 'Oh, I'm gonna do some more of the dirge, man.' We're like, 'What's new?' We're always changing. There's no defined Sugar Ray sound. And we like it like that."
Atlantic was pleased with "Fly," but marketing concerns led it to include two versions on the album. The one with Super Cat's freestyle vocalizing soon topped the alternative charts and has reached No. 2 on the Top 40. But McGrath says the sunny pop tune's real crucible was the hard-core-loving audience of last summer's Warped Tour.
"Kids were receptive," he says. "I can't tell you how gratifying it was the first couple of days, to see guys with neck tattoos singing 'Fly.' "