Time has come today for the one-and-only Sugar Ray. "14:59" -- the SoCal quintet's third Lava/Atlantic album -- follows the success of their 1997 RIAA double platinum "FLOORED" and its irresistible, unavoidable smash hit, "Fly." The new collection beats Andy Warhol's celebrity clock as the band takes a giant step forward in both its inventive musical stylings and its heartfelt lyrical approach, while always delivering the patented Sugar Ray energy and humor. Gloriously beat-crazy pop confections like "Every Morning" and "Falls Apart" virtually guarantee that the band's fifteen minutes aren't even close to over.
"No one makes more fun of this band than ourselves," says singer Mark McGrath of the record's puckish moniker, "so we thought that we'd beat everybody to the punch. Everybody's put us on that one-hit-wonder cruise ship, so we just said, 'Fuck it, it was a great run with 'Fly,' let's name the record '14:59.' If the album fails miserably, it's genius, and if it succeeds, it's still genius."
"We just wanted everybody to know we weren't taking ourselves too seriously, and we were well aware it could all be over tomorrow," notes bassist Murphy Karges.
"14:59" essentially began on March 7th, 1998, when the band followed the last official show of the "FLOORED" tour -- a sold out homecoming gig at the Hollywood Palladium on -- with some well-earned time off. The success of "Fly" allowed them to finally move out of the house they'd shared since their humble beginnings and find separate new digs. After a couple of months' break, they reunited at Hollywood's Studio 56, which they vibed up by decorating it with colored lights, Bruce Lee posters and, of course, the ever-present black-and-silver Sugar Ray banner. Each member brought a little something to these informal sessions, including riffs, ideas, and a number of groovy loops courtesy of DJ Homicide.
"It was a great situation," Karges recalls. "We had a room to jam in and a recording booth to put those jams on tape. So a lot of the stuff from the early practice sessions made it to the record, like the guitar lick for 'Every Morning.' It just started taking on this organic, acoustic-guitar-and-loops vibe very early on, and we just went with it."
"It's a totally collaborative effort," McGrath explains. "Someone will write a verse, someone will write a chorus. It's amazing because we each take our influences, what we were raised on, and then we throw it in the mix and it just seems to come together."
"It's got everybody's trademarked stuff going around," Murphy points out. "You know, Rodney's guitar licks, Craig's drum loops, and these killer little David Kahne parts all over the place. It's certainly the Sugar Ray sound... whatever that is."
After the Studio 56 sessions, Sugar Ray moved into the famed Sunset Sound Studios, smack dab on the Sunset Strip. The band found themselves in thrall to the place's vibe, not to mention the musical ghosts of the Doors and the Rolling Stones. It was there, in the midst of a September heat wave, that "14:59" began to come together. As they cut the majority of the album's basic tracks, the band recaptured their old togetherness -- shooting hoops, drinking beers and generally just screwing around like they always had.
"At the end of the day, what we wanted to get back into the music was melody," Mark says. "Not to say that anything we've done even resembles the brilliance of 'PET SOUNDS,' but the Beach Boys and those harmonies were in my head the whole time we were making the record, and I think that's reflected in the music."
The band proudly credit their musical growth to their collaborative relationship with "FLOORED" producer David Kahne. The renowned studio whiz cooks up a surprisingly sunny sonic shindig of densely ribboned harmonies and playful programming, highlighted by the interplay between Sheppard's ingenious guitar work, DJ Homicide's riotous barrage of sounds, and the delirious rhythmic power of Karges and drummer Stan Frazier.
"David's become our George Martin, if you will," says Murphy. "He really knows the dynamic. He's a record producer in the truest sense of the word. He's worked with everybody from Romeo Void to Tony Bennett to Sublime, so he encompasses the full spectrum of music. And that's us. We needed someone who could go to those extremes."
In addition to helping Sugar Ray find their musical voice, Kahne also gave Mark a new strength and confidence as a singer, something that rings clear in his vocals throughout "14:59." "Before I was always just sort of clutching at straws," McGrath says. "I'd be screaming here, I'd go to a falsetto there. David really showed me where my voice wants to be." Perhaps the most striking aspect of songs like "Someday" and "Falls Apart" is their open-faced honesty and sweet emotion, another relatively new terrain for Sugar Ray.
"Besides the title, the record really is lacking irony," Mark says. "We've done irony, and I'm not sure if we even do it that well. I mean, I'll leave that to the Becks of the world. 'Fly' kind of validated us as a band and let us know that we can really write songs. And that opened the floodgates for us in terms of creativity."
That growth is perfectly in tune with the band's shared experiences in the years since their 1995 Lava/Atlantic debut, "LEMONADE AND BROWNIES." Among the adventures shared by Sugar Ray was the relentless activity which followed "FLOORED." The band hit the road across America and Europe with a vengeance, including a spot on the big Blockbuster RockFest in Fort Worth, Texas and a summer kicking it on Warped Tour '97 .
The mind-blowing popularity of "Fly" found Sugar Ray dominating America's airwaves -- the song held the #1 position on the Billboard "Hot 100 Airplay" chart for six consecutive weeks while the song's companion clip was a #1 video at MTV, VH1, and The Box-- and performing on national TV programs such as Late Show With David Letterman, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and The Howard Stern Show, not to mention Mark's smart appearances on Politically Incorrect and VH1's Rock 'N' Roll Jeopardy. They also found their faces in any number of magazines, including Rolling Stone, Details, Spin, Cosmopolitan, Request, Alternative Press, TeenPeople, and People (who declared Mark one of the sexiest men of '98!). With all the hubbub surrounding them, Sugar Ray became a close-knit family, confronting deaths, celebrating marriages, reveling in a huge hit record, and ultimately coming through with the evolved perspective that marks "14:59."
"We're starting to write about what's real in our life," says Mark. "When we first came to L.A., it was all about beer and chicks and cars, that's where our mentality was. Now we're not afraid to say 'I miss you' or 'I love you' in a song. We've done a lot of living in the last four years, and I think that we've grown from those experiences."
"'Fly' taught us that we can sing a softer song," notes Murphy, "a song with lyrics that might actually have some meaning."
Case in point: "Ode To The Lonely Hearted." The Sugar Ray of old would never have dared to wear their hearts on their sleeves with a tune this tender and soulful. Originally performed by Rodney and Stan's Eighties-era Newport Beach combo, the Tories, the song was penned by Nick Sopkovich, a longtime friend who remains a hero to the members of Sugar Ray.
"This guy was the most unreal prodigy songwriter of all time," Mark enthuses. "We were thinking of some songs to do, and I'm like, 'I always loved 'Ode to the Lonely-Hearted.' I'd love to give that a try.' It's just a classic, classic song. There's no bullshit there. It's not hiding behind any sort of 'alternative' curtain. It's just real heartfelt sentiment."
Not to say Sugar Ray didn't have plenty of vinegar left in them -- check out the old skool punk F. U. of "Aim For Me," or the fired-up "Burning Dog" (a different version from the one which appears on Atlantic's 1997 "THE AVENGERS: MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE.") Near the conclusion of the sessions, the band had a re-think that led to some of the album's best moments. "Falls Apart," and the Devo-inspired post-punk-pop of "Personal Space Invader" and "Glory," were written and recorded in a three day burst of creativity.
"We were looking at the record and there were a lot of songs like 'Someday' and 'Every Morning,' which are great, but we just thought we were stuck in this genre cocoon," Mark says. "We forgot about the rock! So we said 'Time out,' and went back into the studio."
The final track recorded for "14:59," the album-opening speed metal piss-take laughingly dubbed "New Direction," could never be mistaken for anything other than pure, unadulterated rock, even if it is only a 47-second-long blast. As for the "New Direction" which closes the record, that's yet another Sugar Ray in-joke.
"That's actually 'Every Morning" done in the fashion of a Russian polka," Murphy explains with a grin. "We've always said we'll do everything, we'll cover any sound, we'll even do polka... and we had yet to do polka. Now we have."
Springing happily from genre to genre, the band have proven themselves remarkably open to outside input. Just as "Fly" saw Sugar Ray joining forces with Jamaican toaster Super Cat, the new album's skankin' funk anthem, "Live & Direct," sees them teamed with legendary Boogie Down Productions founder, KRS-One.
"It's phenomenal," Mark beams. "To be in a position to be able to collaborate with someone like KRS-One, it's truly amazing. Collaborations are something we really enjoy doing, especially with artists from other genres, because there's so much music out there, and it's good to be turned on to different things.
"I look at this band as more like fans making music as opposed to us being 'musicians,'" he adds. "We don't want to limit ourselves to one genre, you know, and that's why we're able to write songs like 'Fly' or 'Every Morning,' songs that cross over to so many formats."
1999 should be Sugar Ray's wildest ride yet. "Every Morning" has proven an instant hit, and with a passel of smashes waiting in the wings, they'll take the "14:59" show on the road, bringing their special brand of madcap rock 'n roll intensity to the people. The truth is, for Sugar Ray, it's still simply about fun, fun, fun.
"We're just so happy to be doing this," avows Mark. "We got into this for fun, you know, and we're maximizing our fun to death. It's been incredible, so anything else that comes our way is gravy. We still lose our minds every time one of our songs comes on the radio." "Things have changed," Murphy says. "'Fly' changed us. It gave us confidence to make this music. But we're still the same five boneheads from Hancock Park. We just don't live in the same joint anymore." The fat lady hasn't even begun to sing. Reset your clocks, folks. Sugar Ray are back in town...
© Atlantic Recording Corporation 1/99