Penthouse Retrospective

by Jon Wiederhorn Originally Published: September, 2001

Sugar Ray

Front man Mark McGrath admits he’s the weakest musical link the powerhouse alt-rock outfit Sugar Ray. So why does he get all the media attention? Could it be his talent for “eating pussy like a lesbian?” or is it just his small dick?

Penthouse Magazine - September 2001Right Hooks

Jones Cafe is a cozy, unobtrusive brown-brick Hollywood diner on Santa Monica Boulevard across the street from the old Warner Brothers Studios. A half block away is the legendary Formosa Cafe, where acting giants like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall once downed shots between shoots. In the seven years since it opened, Jones hasn’t acquired quite as legendary a clientele, but its waitstaff has served a slew of celebs including Cher, Robert Downey Jr., Marilyn Manson, and Sheryl Crow. And the joint was one of the first Hollywood hangs for the members of Sugar Ray, who back in 1994 were as recognizable as Tom Green’s barber.

“We had just moved from Orange County to L.A., and we didn’t know anyone,” remembers lead singer and bane mouthpiece Mark McGrath as he and his mates order food and drinks at one of Jones’s tables. “Murphy [Karges], our bass player, had a cousin who was in charge of the kitchen, and he would let us in. We’d stumble in with about $10 between us and somehow everyone would leave full and wasted.”

At the time, all five members — McGrath, Karges, guitarist Rodney Sheppard, turntablist Craig “DJ Homicide” Bullock, and drummer Stan Frazier — shared a five-room house in nearby Hancock Park. On nights when they weren’t practicing, they could usually be found at Jones, imbibing brews and feeding the restaurant’s rather eclectic jukebox. In later years the diner would serve as a meeting ground for the group to talk business with various producers and label executives.

“It’s one of the places where I feel most comfortable,” says McGrath. “It becomes like our home away from home.”

It’s easy to see why. Like Sugar Ray. Jones Cafe is unassuming but extremely successful. The staff Is cordial, the service speedy (at least for rock stars), and the red-checkered tablecloths and hearty American food are a welcome respite from Los Angeles’s more exclusive and unbearably pretentious eating establishments. Also like Sugar Ray, the restaurant has its mischievous, seedier side, as revealed by a quick Jaunt to the restroom.

At first glance the john is unremarkable: green-tiled walls, marble sink, and three-by-five photos of drunken patrons. But look closely at the pictures and you’ll see scenes that look like stills from Girls Gone Wild! One shot depicts two ladies French-kissing. In another, a chick lifts her gray-and-white sweater as a long-haired blonde leans over to lick her girlfriend’s pierced nipples. Then there’s a close-up of a babe squeezing together her ample breasts. and another of a vixen with stringy hair standing on the urinal to pee.

“I’ve had some good times here,” says McGrath. “Fellatio in the men’s room once or twice — who’s counting? It’s funny because it’s such an upstanding and popular establishment, but when no one’s looking, things get a little wild.

The same can be said for the members of Sugar Ray, thirty-somethings who look like virtuous role models one moment and unscrupulous deviants the next. Since its emergence on the alternative-rock scene. the group has scored two multi-platinum albums — Floored in 1997 and 14:59 in 1999 — won a Billboard Music Award for best alternative band in 1998. and was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award in 1999 for the song “Every Morning.” Sugar Ray has performed on Letterman, Rosie O’Donnell, and Howard Stern, and in 1997 appeared in the film Father’s Day. The group’s new self-named disc is its most infectious and cohesive to date. blending ebullient new-wave rhythms. bracing rock riffs. and swaying reggae passages with sultry hip-hop beats and summery pop vocals. As engaging as is its music, Sugar Ray’s near-ubiquity stems in part from McGrath’s celebrity status. He was a presenter at the Billboard MUSIC Awards and the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1999. served as host of the World Music Awards (with Elle McPherson) and the Radio Music Awards In 2000. appeared on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and won VH1’s Rock ‘n Roll Jeopardy. (He also acted in an episode of ER, but his scene was cut.)

On the racier side, McGrath starred in an ad for Candies shoes in which he drops the soap in the shower and a glistening-wet Jodi Lyn O’ Keefe stands up to hand him the bar. “I told her I was probably gonna get a boner” he says unashamedly. “If you’re in that situation and you don’t get wood, youre fucking comatose.”) He regularly frequents L.A.‘s finer strip clubs. and was interviewed about his sexual past for the porno series Backstage Sluts.

“Monogamy and being in a band are like oil and water. They just don’t mix. When you’re on the road a long time, things just happen.”

“Hey. I was shanghaied into that one!” he exclaims. a shit-eating grin creasing his chiseled face. “I was sitting there with Jay [Gordon] from Orgy, and the director goes, “Tell us about some of your rock-n-roll exploits.” Then this girl comes in and she sits about a foot behind me and Jay. So I’m saying [in a slurred. drunken voice]. ‘I was In Toronto once and I hooked up with these two chicks and I had a two-on-one. And I look behind me and the chick has her clothes off. I was like. ‘Help. Mommy!’ because I’d already signed away my rights. They advertise the tape as ‘Backstage Sluts featuring Mark McGrath,’ so everybody thinks I’ve been filmed in a station wagon with cucumbers shoved up my ass.’”

Even though the members of Sugar Ray usually insist on being interviewed together, conversations still come across like the Mark McGrath Variety Hour. Now and then Frazier or Bullock will comment, and sometimes Karges or Sheppard will slip something In, but McGrath is the spikey-haired Cali dude with the gift for gab. He speaks quickly and enthusiastically, rarely expelling fewer than ten sentences between questions. And even when his comments follow someone else’s. they”re usually more insightful. clever, or humorous. Maybe that’s why none of his musical comrades are asked to pose naked in the shower with curvy actresses

“I was actually recognized in an elevator the other day,” blurts Frazier excitedly. “It was so weird. This lady turns to me and goes, ‘Are you the drummer of Sugar Ray?’ and I didn·t know what to say. I looked at her like. ‘Are you talking to me?’”

“I like being able to go to the mall and kick it without being recognized,” counters Bullock, between bites of a steak taco. “Let Mark be the star. Earlier today I had a guy working in my driveway. He pulled up and the first thing he said was. ‘Hey, where’s Mark?’”

Karges has a blanket snappy answer to that stupid question: “I always say, ‘Oh. he’s in the trunk of my car, wanna see?’”

Ironically, McGrath Is the weakest musical link In Sugar Ray. His singing voice does not come close to matching his charisma. He admits that his melodies pale in comparison to the rest of the fellas’: his lyrics are co-written with Frazier

“I know I would not be sitting here talking to you if it wasn’t for these guys.” says McGrath, putting a hand on Karges’s shoulder. “I’ve always felt more like a fan than a musician. I don’t have a lot of talent. God didn’t put me on the earth to sing music but I wanted it so badly. It was just a classic case of ‘If there’s a will there’s a way.’”

It’s easy to envy McGrath, but it’s hard to hate him. He bubbles with Hollywood energy and loves to talk about himself, yet he’s not arrogant or self-centered. He’s a master of pre-interview repartee, and genuinely seems to care what his interrogators say and think. Though he’s a quote machine, he never sounds contrived, and his demeanor rarely seems artificial. He’s surprisingly self-deprecating, often taking pot shots at himself before anyone else has the chance to.

“I’ve always been really insecure,” he says, scratching his chin. “I’m always doubting myself because I’m not a gifted musician, and I kind of feel like a big fraud. So there’s this weird dichotomy within me. I’m out there acting like. ‘Hey, I’m the coolest guy in the world,’ but all the time my insides are turning. Right now I’m really unsure about this new record. I don’t know if anyone’s gonna like it and react to it.”

McGrath needs to worry about that about as much as he has to fret over whether babes still dig him. The Sugar Ray album is poppy, powerful, and cohesive. With its balance of pumping anthems and radio-ready ballads, it should easily match the success of 14:59. And Sugar Ray is ready for the revelry that will follow.

“They advertise the tape as Backstage Sluts…, so everybody thinks I’ve been filmed in a station wagon with cucumbers shoved up my ass.”

“I’m planning on taking the partying to another level entirely this year,” gloats Bullock. “I can’t wait to get back out there and drink and piehole chicks every night.”

Frazier proudly points out that Sugar Ray’s rider consists of twice the alcohol most acts demand nightly: four cases of beer; a bottle each of Absolut, tequila, rum, Malibu, and triple sec; and two bottles of red wine. “Some bands get out there and they exercise and go to sleep early,” he scoffs. “Not us. We’re like a rolling bar on wheels. And we have a bar onstage too.”

Like most party rockers, the Sugar Ray guys are fun-loving drinkers, which has earned them a reputation for being the most juvenile act this side of Blink-182. “If I was drunk right now, I wouldn’t think twice about streaking through this restaurant,” says Frazier, who has a long history of public nudity, including an episode when Sugar Ray was opening for Weezer, and Frazier dropped his pants and casually strolled across the stage during the headliner’s set. Maybe it stems from spending so much time at L.A. nudie bars, but stripping has been a Sugar Ray specialty ever since the 1995 publicity shoot for Lemonade and Brownies, which the band decided to do in the buff. But the group’s party tricks haven’t always ended with the removal of clothing; sometimes the evening has climaxed in bouts of destruction. After a 1999 show in George, Washington, McGrath tossed Bullock’s BMX bike through a window and the band trashed its trailer.

“Sometimes it’s really frustrating to be on the road for so long, and you just go crazy,” says Frazier. “You’re in the middle of Kansas or something, and you’re thinking, Fuck, I’m not going home for six months. I’m just gonna get drunk and break stuff.”

McGrath reaches across the table for a slice of Karges’s pizza and adds, “Basically, we’re all in a relationship with five guys with no sex involved. And it’s hard to make up when you can’t bang.”

Eager to close the door on Sugar Ray’s least cherished moments, Bullock says, “We’re like brothers, man. You come home and fight with your brother and you get really angry, but you know he’s gonna be there tomorrow. Sometimes I get in my weird moods and shit, and I’m like off somewhere in the bushes.”

“I can’t even count how many times you’ve ran off into the bushes and started masturbating,” interjects Frazier.

McGrath glances quizzically at Bullock and says, “Dude, I was totally with you until the bushes thing.”

For Sugar Ray, the party began at Corona Del Mar High School in Newport Beach, California, where the unpopular McGrath, Sheppard, Frazier, and Karges could have won the Least Likely to Become International Superstars award. Soft-spoken Sheppard was motivated to rock after watching some of his classmates performing in the school cafeteria. “It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” he recalls. “They sounded powerful and had long hair and were jumping around. I decided that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

He convinced Frazier to join him, and the two formed the Tories, which fumbled through hard-rock and new-wave covers at local parties. At one gig they invited McGrath onstage, and the singer grabbed the mike, screamed, and did a flip into the pool. When the Tories split up in 1988, Sheppard and Frazier recruited bassist Karges, who was dating Frazier’s sister, and formed the Shrinky Dinx. Realizing they needed a colorful front man, they invited McGrath into the fold.

In 1993 Shrinky Dinx was threatened with a lawsuit by the manufacturers of the magically shriveling plastic toy, so the name of the band was changed to Sugar Ray after boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. McGrath continued fronting the outfit through his college years at the University of Southern California; when he graduated in 1991 he quit for a year to find himself. His bandmates continued in his absence with a new singer, but when they saw Mark at a party, they convinced him to rejoin. Stronger than ever, the group soon developed a loyal local following, in part because of Sugar’s volatile and impulsive performances . McGrath often heckled the audience, whipped full beer cans across the venue, and climbed atop the band’s amps to swing from the rafters. Sugar Ray’s leap toward the big leagues came when McGrath’s childhood pal McG (ne Joseph McGinty Nichols) financed and directed a video for the band’s song “Caboose.” (McG later directed Korn’s “Got the Life” Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” and the feature film Charlie’s Angels). The clip impressed Atlantic Records, which quickly snatched up the juvenile outfit.

Stardom followed, but not right away. Their maiden album, Lemonade and Brownies, an unfocused combination of Red Hot Chili Peppers-style funk and thrash metal, was largely ignored. When Sugar Ray reconvened in New York City in 1996 to write material for a new album, McGrath went AWOL.

“I ran around the streets of New York for two weeks and didn’t come to rehearsals,” he recalls. “That was the one time we really almost broke up for good. I was in this really weird space. I just didn’t know if we were good enough to ever be a band that anybody would give a shit about.”

Not only was McGrath insecure, he was pissed off at the new, poppy direction his bandmates wanted to pursue. “I was in my Korn, Deftones, Snot phase,” he says. “I thought the one thing we did that might stick was the screaming and yelling stuff with aggressive tones. I didn’t want to hear anything else.”

It was McG who talked Mark down and convinced him to persevere with Sugar Ray. The foursome then hired Pasadena native Bullock, and hooked up with producer David Kahne (Sublime, Fishbone, Tony Bennett), who imbued the group’s more commercial sound with a breezy ocean groove. The 1997 album that followed, Floored, turned the five-some into rock stars, thanks to the success of the reggae-inflected “Fly.”

The band’s next album, 1999’s 14:59, rode the “Fly” wave through the stratosphere. Capitalizing on the success of its Caribbean groove thang, Sugar Ray recorded five spin-offs (including the hits “Every Morning” and “Someday”). The rest of the disc was playful and somewhat schizophrenic, opening with a death-metal spoof and then forking off into disparate directions.

On Sugar Ray, the band pulls the full-on Sublime card only on the first single, “When It’s Over.” Elsewhere, reggae touches surface on “Ours” and “Be a Doctor,” but these numbers are integrated more fully within the band’s infectious sonic framework.

While its perpetrators still love beer and fart jokes, Sugar Ray has matured lyrically. Instead of writing lightweight love songs and party anthems, McGrath and Frazier are penning semi-poignant ditties about dysfunctional relationships. “This is the first album that doesn’t have one jerk-off song on there, in terms of subject matter,” says McGrath. “We’re all in our thirties and Rodney has had a kid and the rest of us are getting more serious with our girlfriends. I don’t want to say we’re mature, because that word is like the plague to us. But once you hit a certain age you start experiencing a lot of new things.”

The initial realization that they could be quasi-serious without losing their appeal came in 1998 when they dedicated 14:59 to Frazier’s mom, Betty, who died from cancer while they were making the record. The deed triggered a flood of unexpected positive feedback from fans who had also lost loved ones. “That was a bit of a wake-up call,” says McGrath. “The only thing we used to be about was getting wasted, pulling our dicks out, and going, ‘Hey, aren’t we funny?!’ But then when somebody says, ‘Hey man, that thing about your mom really meant a lot to me, ‘ you sort of put your dick back in your pants.”

“But only temporarily,” interrupts Karges. “When they leave, it comes right back out again.”

“Yeah, and it’s hard,” Bullock says with a laugh.

Actually, McGrath’s inability to keep his dick in his pants has caused him a lot of trouble over the years, forcing him and his girlfriend to repeatedly reevaluate their seven-year relationship.

“Monogamy and being in a band is like oil and water,” he says with a sigh. “They just don’t mix. When you’re on the road a long time, things just happen.” Making light of the situation, McGrath grins and says, “It’s all a matter of hospitality. When you pull into people’s towns, you want to be friendly. You want to have good conversations with them and drink the beer they offer you and be nice to their women.”

After obligatory chuckles and a long, awkward pause, he feels the need to elaborate, so he orders a drink and proceeds to explain his take on relationships. “Love to me exists in a vacuum, and it’s about two to three weeks long,” he says, as if explaining long division to a child. “That butterfly-in-your-stomach, just-wanna-be-with-you thing is only temporary; then you hopefully become friends. At that point you’re a couple and you have sex occasionally and maintain the hearth and home. But you’re sitting there, and every time a hot chick walks by you’re like, ‘God, I’d like to fuck that!’ ”

Not only does McGrath now have to wrestle with the guilt of being unfaithful on the road, he must accept the fact that while he’s gone his current girlfriend isn’t just knitting in a rocking chair, waiting for her man to return from battle. “She’s out partying when we leave,” he says matter-of-factly. “I don’t kid myself. The mariachis come out and the tequila starts flowing. It’s not fun knowing that maybe she’s out with another guy. It’s happened and it probably will happen. But I can’t blame her. It’s almost unspoken. When you go on the road for six weeks, you do what you do. And she does what she’s gonna do.”

During the making of the Sugar Ray album the storm became too tempestuous to weather, and McGrath and his girlfriend broke up for more than two weeks. Much of his subsequent uncertainty, remorse, and anger are expressed in songs like “Answer the Phone,” “Sorry Now,” and “Waiting.”

“After she left, I was happier than a pig in shit for the first couple of nights,” McGrath says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, all the things she does that annoy me are gone!’ Then after four days I went, ‘Wait, all the things I love about her are gone too.’

“To me, this whole album is about questions like, if you’re leaving, are you coming back? and When it’s over, is it really over?”

Which leads us to a matter that’s been baffling man since he first walked the earth: What do women want?

“If you think you’re smart enough to answer that, you’re a fucking idiot,” says McGrath, who then attempts to lay out the in dubious original truth: “Men and women fundamentally want two different things. Guys are very immediate and physical. They want a quick load off. And chicks want this whole package with all the wrappings. They want the hugs and the romance. So when you have the unbridled sex bashing up against the romance, it creates an impossible situation.”

Sensing an opening, Bullock sheds some light on why he’s called DJ Homicide: “Chicks want a guy who can be nice, and then they want him to come home and be a total asshole. You gotta treat them like a queen but you gotta shit on them sometimes too.”

“Dude, that’s gonna come out brutal,” cackles McGrath. “You’re gonna have a lot of explaining to do.”

Thrilled that the debate has veered away from his own private life, McGrath considers why women are often unhappy in bed, and concludes that once men get their rocks off, they’re no longer aroused. “Guys kid themselves all the time,” he explains. “They think they’re fucking their chick right, but all they do is the power-missionary for a couple minutes, and then fall and fart and watch SportsCenter. Their chick’s sitting there going, ‘Where’s my magic wand?’”

Not that McGrath claims to be as adept as Ron Jeremy at making women moan. Like Howard Stern, he’s verbose on the subject of his small member, and, when challenged, offers to show you. “There are two reactions to having a small penis,” he says. “You can either shy away the rest of your life and be embarrassed, or you can go, ‘Hi, my name’s Mark. I have a small dick.’ Of course, I also blow a load too quickly. Then again, I never claimed to be good in bed. I’m like Woody Allen. While I’m having sex, I’m usually coming up with a list of apologies for later. But I will say I eat pussy like a lesbian. At least that’s something.”

And with that, an uneasy-looking publicist who swooped in five minutes ago — just in time to catch the band’s most graphic comments — gleefully informs us that our time is up. Frazier, Bullock, Karges, and Sheppard head down Formosa Street and out of sight, and McGrath crosses the road to his designer monster truck, a shiny black Cadillac Escalade SUV. He opens the door, slides behind the wheel, and slips on a pair of expensive sunglasses to avoid being recognized by a small group of kids standing by the car. As he fits his key into the ignition, he tightens his mouth uncomfortably and grumbles, “I get recognized all the time. It would be nice sometimes to be able to walk around in public.” Then he laughs and switches gears. “Talk to me in five years, when we’re playing some remember-the-nineties tour with Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind, and I’ll be saying, ‘Hey, remember me?’”

He smiles warmly, shifts the car into drive, and heads into the night with, “I know how lucky I am.”

Oddly enough, if you go to the URL SugarRay.com you will find information about the band. For their sake, we hope the boxer does not decide to challenge them to a fight over ownership of that.