The Southern California-based band’s last album “MUSIC FOR COUGARS,” an exuberant reiteration of the band’s signature sound, with particular focus on songcraft and sonic invention. As ever, musical styles –from dancehall to disco, punk to pure pop – are mixed and matched, resulting in a celebratory, swaggering collection that is distinctively and delightfully Sugar Ray. Songs like the buoyant first single, “Boardwalk,” or the Rivers Cuomo-penned “Love Is the Answer” are fit to burst with the wit and energy that once saw the band rule over the Top 10. “MUSIC FOR COUGARS” sees this band of brothers operating at the very peak of its powers, with the skills, strengths, and smarts that only two decades together can provide.
“I’m not going to say we made the best record of our career,” beams singer Mark McGrath. “That’s just so clichéd. But we did!”
Since their 1995 “LEMONADE AND BROWNIES” debut, Sugar Ray became stuck in a biennial cycle of touring and recording, touring and recording. 1997’s RIAA double platinum-certified sophomore effort, “FLOORED,” and its smash follow-up, 1999’s triple platinum “14:59” were trailed by 2001’s self-titled collection and 2003’s “IN THE PURSUIT OF LEISURE.” By the time of 2005’s “THE BEST OF SUGAR RAY,” the band had well and truly earned a break.
Since their 1986 inception as The Shrinky Dinks, McGrath took the time to explore new creative terrain – staying in the spotlight as co-host of the nationally syndicated entertainment news program, Extra as well as hosting Don’t Forget the Lyrics, while guitarist Rodney Sheppard teaches music to neighborhood kids. Perhaps more importantly, Sheppard, started a family, in their hometown of Newport Beach.
“It was just the natural course to sort of lay back for a while,” Sheppard says, “We had a good run up to that time and we’d gotten to the point where we welcomed a break. It just ended up being a bit longer than we thought.”
Sugar Ray was in fact quite active during their hiatus, busting out the hits at private corporate events, county fairs, and countless summer festivals. By 2008, the band was itching to get back into the studio. In July, McGrath left Extra in order to devote more of his time to Sugar Ray. At the same time, the band’s longtime friend, producer Josh Abraham (Velvet Revolver, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park), invited them to cut a new album for his just-launched label, Pulse Recordings.
“All the stars lined up for us,” Sheppard says. “We always said we would never force ourselves back on the public, but everything just fell together nicely. It was an opportunity for us to make some new music again so we grabbed it.”
With Abraham at the helm, the band immediately set to work at the producer’s Pulse Recording in Los Angeles. The producer pushed the band to reach down deep and refine their songwriting, penned, as ever, in various combinations of band members. Perhaps more importantly, Abraham hooked Sugar Ray up with Pulse in-house producer/songwriter Luke Walker (The Deftones, Alkaline Trio, Filter, Elliot Yamin, From First to Last), whom the band enthusiastically credits for helping to both energize and focus the album.
“The guy’s a genius,” McGrath enthuses. “He’s an amazing songwriter and he really infused a new attitude, a new creativity, a new way to get songs done and get ‘em done quickly. Luke is the MVP of the whole project.”
“We really clicked with Luke,” Sheppard says, “separately and together. A lot of time in the past, the band would come up with a song and get it three-quarters of the way there. With Luke, we were able to realize all our ideas. He was an important ingredient in the songcrafting.”
From the start, the project proved to be the most artistically free of the band’s career. The sessions spanned close to a year, a leisurely process that enabled Sugar Ray to take their time crafting both songs and sonics.
“Being the underdog again really frees up your creativity,” McGrath explains. “We had so much fun making the record. There was no pressure. It was purely about the love of songwriting and getting into the studio.”
From the get-go, Sugar Ray has gleefully traversed all musical boundaries, for no other reason than it tickled their artistic fancy. As ever, “MUSIC FOR COUGARS” sees the band ping-ponging though pop’s innumerable permutations. “Love 101” is classic El Lay harmony pop a la Ricky Nelson, while “She’s Got The…” recalls the days when rock giants like Kiss and the Kinks dared to dip a toe into disco’s forbidden waters. And while one hesitates to use the word ‘maturity’ when discussing the consummately ebullient Sugar Ray, songs like “Closer” and “Morning Sun” display an intelligence and emotional depth that today’s pipsqueak pop combos have yet to attain.
Elsewhere, the band displays their mastery of cross-pollinated island rhythms and raps with the delightful “Girls Were Made To Love.” The track – built upon a sample from the 1962 hit, “(Girls, Girls, Girls) Made To Love,” written by Phil Everly and performed by child star Eddie Hodges – was an instant favorite among the bandmates, though they all sensed it needed something more to push it into classic status. McGrath suggested reaching out to Bermuda-based dancehall star Collie Buddz. The band sent the unfinished track to their friend Native Wayne, host of Indie 103.1’s “Native Wayne’s Reggae Smoke-In,” and within days, Buddz had promised to record his parts at the next earliest convenience. True to his word, Collie spent an April afternoon at Pulse, laying down his rapidfire ragamuffin rhymes.
“It’s amazing that when you reach out to people they sometimes actually say yes,” Sheppard says, “To have him on the record, it’s an honor. I think it’s the best song on the record now. The guy just came through bigtime.”
“It’s something people would expect to hear from us,” McGrath says of the track, “but updated. I know there are people who are gonna say, ‘Oh great, Sugar Ray is doing dancehall again. Whatever.’ But to me, you can never have enough songs that sound like ‘Fly.’”
Sugar Ray has always reveled in teaming with fellow artists spanning a wide swath of genres, counting hip-hop heroes like Run DMC and KRS-One, reggae/dancehall superstars Shaggy and Super Cat, alterna-rocker Nick Hexum from 311, and pop royalty The Wilson Sisters. Along with the aforementioned Collie Buddz, “MUSIC FOR COUGARS” features a number of new alliances, including “Going Nowhere,” co-written with Tim Pagnotta of Sugarcult, and “Dance Like No One’s Watchin’,” a collabo with surfing singer/songwriter Donavon Frankenreiter – an old friend of the band’s and Sheppard’s cousin by marriage.
Perhaps the album’s most striking partnership is “Love Is The Answer,” an original song gifted to the band by Weezer honcho Rivers Cuomo. For their part, Sugar Ray consider themselves blessed to have the support of someone they see as “a huge hero,” according to Sheppard. “We even wrote a song kind of in homage to Weezer, called ‘Rivers’ – it was on the Scream 2 soundtrack – and now here we get to do a song with him.”
“It’s like we’re the Oklahoma City Thunder and LeBron James just got traded to our team,” McGrath laughs. “I think it’s him fucking with everybody, going, ‘What’s the one band no one would ever think I’d give a song to?’”
All comedy aside, Sugar Ray can claim credit for some of the most indelible pop hits of the previous decade, including the unforgettable #1 smashes, “Fly” and “Every Morning”. McGrath – who regularly wields ironic humility like a sawed-off shotgun – is justifiably proud of the band’s body of work.
“I’ll be self-deprecating about myself and about the band,” he says, “but we wrote some fucking amazing songs. We wrote songs that people fell in love to, that people got married to, that people had sex to for the first time. The songs became bigger than the band. They’re the world’s property now and we need to be humbled by that.”
Sugar Ray are now getting set to take their classic songs – both new and old – on the road for their first full-scale tour in many a moon. Its myriad artistic successes aside, “MUSIC FOR COUGARS” allows the band to live up to its mission statement from the very beginning – to hang out together and make high-energy rock ‘n’ roll.
“I definitely miss it,” Sheppard says of the road. “Whether the album is successful or not, at least we’re getting back out there again. That’s what I’m excited about.”
“We have no misconceptions about what this record may do,” McGrath says. “It was strictly about making another record because we had great new material and the fact that we still enjoy playing together.
“This is my life’s work,” he notes. “People say, ‘You’re still in the band?’ This is what I do! I’m gonna be in Sugar Ray till I die! I’ve been lucky enough to fit a uniform, I’m gonna wear it till the wheels fall off!”