Rock band Sugar Ray back in the ring as indie act

Sun Jun 7, 2009 10:56pm EDT
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By David J. Prince

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Mark McGrath, the lead singer of Sugar Ray and former host of the celebrity news show "Extra," has often employed an old political tactic for his career: Set expectations low so success seems all the sweeter.

The self-deprecating attitude served him and his band well. He has joked about his looks, voice, penis and fleeting fame -- one album was called "14:59," just short of the 15 minutes Andy Warhol famously described -- while the band's steady stream of reggae-tinged mid-'90s radio hits sold more than 5 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and made McGrath a star.

So when the band announced in April that it regrouped in a Los Angeles recording studio, made a new album ("Music for Cougars") and was ready to head back out on the road for another turn in the spotlight, McGrath was quick to acknowledge that many would wonder why. "I know people aren't sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for a Sugar Ray record," he says. "But that wasn't the point."

Contrary to popular perception, Sugar Ray never broke up. The band's original lineup of childhood friends from Newport Beach, California, moved from rap-punk to power-pop and from broke unknowns to wealthy platinum-sellers over the course of five albums on Atlantic.

But by 2003, the writing was on the wall for bands like Sugar Ray, and that year the group's "In the Pursuit of Leisure" album -- an attempted reinvention that included several songs produced by the Neptunes -- flopped. McGrath took the TV job, and the rest of the guys went back to the beach. They would reconvene every year for a few corporate gigs, state-fair-type concerts and an occasional soundtrack song, but Sugar Ray was on the back burner. Atlantic dropped the act in 2006.

When McGrath's contract with "Extra" was about to expire, he, the band and longtime manager Chip Quigley quietly began plotting Sugar Ray's return. Jason Bernard, a music producer and longtime friend of the band's whose Pulse Studios encompasses a recording studio, publishing company and record label with a distribution deal through Fontana, was eager to cut a deal.

"We realized there are bands out there in the world that major labels were turning their heads on," says Bernard, who last year brought alternative rock band Filter out of retirement. "We can make world-class records for pennies on the dollar with our sweat equity."

The resulting "Cougars" marks a return to the tried-and-true formula that made 1997's "Fly" a radio staple. The first single, "Boardwalk," is a straight-down-the-center, sunny, unmistakably Sugar Ray song. Other cuts on the album include the uptempo dance track "She's Got The ... (Woo-Hoo)," the midtempo romancer "Love Is the Answer" and the reggae-influenced remake of Eddie Hodges' "(Girls Girls Girls Are) Made to Love" featuring Collie Buddz.

"We were part of a business where you had a hit single and you sold 3 million records, but it's different now," Quigley says. "The real core of our business is the live arena, and for that you need songs on the radio. So we're really going to try and get the song on radio and go out there touring this summer and show folks we're still a great live band."

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

<p>Sugar Ray's lead singer Mark McGrath, performs on NBC television's "Today Show" in New York on May 16, 2003. REUTERS/REUTERS/Peter Morgan</p>