The self-titled fourth Lava/Atlantic album from the boisterous Southern California-based quintet masterfully mixes elements of pop, punk, hip-hop, reggae, New Wave, and good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll to create a stunningly multi-faceted collection which takes the trademark Sugar Ray sound to the next level and beyond. Following up on such classic radio hits as "Fly," "Every Morning," and "Someday," new tracks such as the instantly infectious "When It's Over" and the propulsive "Answer The Phone" display a band operating at the peak of their substantial creative powers. While never sacrificing the patented Sugar Ray high spirits and positive vibrations, "SUGAR RAY" is more direct in both its lyrical and musical approaches than the band's previous outings, as reflected by the album's simple eponymous title.
"We just decided that it was time to have a self-titled album," explains guitarist Rodney Sheppard, "because this really is the best representation of Sugar Ray as a whole."
"The truth is, every title we came with sucked!," bassist Murphy Karges adds. "Every title we threw out there was like a joke or an obscene word. We really weren't coming up with anything that fit how the record felt. We finally went, 'Let's just call it 'SUGAR RAY.''"
The album's genesis goes back to Sugar Ray's 1999 tour alongside The Goo Goo Dolls. To alleviate the mind-numbing boredom of the road, DJ Homicide brought along a small recording set-up, including a portable studio and an assortment of drum machines. The bandmates would often jam together, sometimes backstage, sometimes on the bus. These spontaneous hootenannies eventually yielded up more than just a good time.
"Rodney had a guitar lick, and I came up with a beat, then Mark had the 'When it's over…' hook, and we laid it down on the portable studio," Homicide says, recalling the birth of "When It's Over." "That was the first song we wrote for the new album and now it's the first single. I also made a track with acoustic guitar, some beats, and a bassline, and that became 'Ours.' The lyrics and the melody came a little later, but those two tracks were pretty much the start of this record."
Summer 2000 saw Sugar Ray finally coming off the road, and with the endless tour at an end, a much-need break was in order. After a few months off, the refreshed bandmates began convening at Karges' Orange County home to start thinking about their next move.
"We were so ready for a break," Murphy says. "We definitely love doing all the touring and stuff, but we needed a break so that we could love it again. We just decided to shut it down, take a deep breath, and think about what we wanted to do next. Then when we reconvened we had new energy, we were happy to see each other."
The band began jamming and writing at Murphy's home studio, conveniently located in his garage. The bassist had built a handy recording space, replete with home recording ProTools, a drum set, and a bass amp, not to mention a Playstation, DVD player, VCR, TV, and a couch - all the important tools required to make a Sugar Ray record come to life.
"I wanted to make it easy for us to record in a totally organic, natural, comfortable environment," Murphy explains.
"It was a neat way of doing things," says singer Mark McGrath, "not being on the clock, writing songs at your leisure. I guess this is the fruit of success."
Song were written by varying combinations of Sugar Ray members, just as they've been since their 1995 "LEMONADE AND BROWNIES" debut. The difference was that the band members were now scattered about Southern California. The musicians would come by the garage in shifts, each adding their personal touch to the tape.
"I call it 'The Sugar Ray Assembly Line,'" says Homicide. "It's like putting together a car."
"We've all fallen into our own place," says drummer Stan Frazier. "Everybody knows, like, if we need a chorus or some lyrics, that's usually my department. If we need a rock riff with some rad guitars, or some really crafty music, Rodney and Murphy usually supply those. Mark is responsible for lyrics, and verses, and concepts for songs, he's got great ideas about structuring songs and arrangements and stuff. Then Homicide is the beat crafter. Even though I'm the drummer, some of the more vibe-oriented tracks, like 'When It's Over,' they start, from the ground up, with Homicide. He'll come in and say 'Hey, I programmed these drum beats. What do you guys think?' Next thing we know, Rodney's playing a bassline over the drum loop, and there we are in the middle of writing a tune."
"Over the years we've found our little comfort zones, as far as which people work best with which people," says Rodney. "Everybody plays each other's instruments, so a lot of songs just start with somebody strumming chords. But everybody in the band eventually touches every song in some way or another."
The band were soon ready with enough material to begin recording at a proper studio. After a brief stop at their old haunt, Swinghouse Rehearsal Studios - "Just to get that vibe again" notes Mark - Sugar Ray set up camp at NRG Studios in North Hollywood. While Sugar Ray's two previous releases - 1997's RIAA double platinum-certified sophomore effort, "FLOORED," and its smash follow-up, 1999's triple platinum "14:59" - found the band teaming in the studio with producer David Kahne, this time out they wanted to try something a little different. With that in mind, Sugar Ray enlisted the services of Don Gilmore, known to the band for his production work with Lit and Eve 6.
"We wanted a guy that could bring out the live aspect of the band, where we are more of a rock band," says Rodney. "We may be known for our summery easy-going radio songs, but there's another side of the band that we never felt reached its potential on record."
The overall goal was to show off the group's more electric side, juicing things up to remind everyone that Sugar Ray is one kickass rock 'n' roll band. Songs like "Waiting" and "Sorry Now" are jet-powered pop rockers that display a spikier vibe without sacrificing that special Sugar Ray sonic sunshine.
"It wasn't intentional," notes Stan, " like, 'We want to put out a rock record.' We just wanted to play some guitar and bash some drums."
"It's the essence of the band," adds Mark. "It's why we started this group. We just wanted to play Judas Priest songs around a keg, and that spirit is very much alive in us. We started this band to rock. We've been fortunate enough to evolve into a band that writes these pop songs that people react to, but the essence of this band is rock n' roll."
"It was really great to work with a producer who dug rock n' roll the most," enthuses Murphy. "Don let us turn the amps up, he recorded Stan bashing the cymbals as hard as he could possibly play them. When we listened to the playback, I was like, 'This is us? This fuckin' rocks!'"
One of the many highpoints of "SUGAR RAY" is the easy-flowing "Stay On" which features guest vocals from the band's good friend, 311's Nick Hexum. Hexum, who lives just up the street from Stan, was happy to lend his trademark vocalizing to the proceedings.
"Stan dropped off a tape at Nick's house, and the next morning we had this beautiful chorus that Nick worked out," Mark recalls. "Further down the road we were at NRG and who happened to be in the studio right next to us but 311! So Nick came over and sang the part and it was great. It's always fun to collaborate with people you're fans of, y'know."
As with previous Sugar Ray albums, "SUGAR RAY" also includes a few tips of the hat towards the band's prodigious musical influences, notably their love of Eighties-era pop. "Under The Sun" is a delightful assertion of Sugar Ray's New Wave roots, a song that no other band could get away with. Over a bluesy acoustic guitar and drum machine groove, Mark - the band's acknowledged musical know-it-all - testifies to the glory days of KROQ and heroes like "Culture Club, the Clash, and Men Without Hats."
"I was listening to one of those Flashback Lunches," he says, "and they're playing Men Without Hats and I'm thinking, 'This is the greatest song I've ever heard!' It took me immediately back to my high school years. Bands like Duran Duran or The Human League, they were the soundtrack to my high school years and subsequently, my life. I realized how important these songs are to me, even though they're often looked at as sort of novelty songs. You think about what you were doing back then - the hair, the dancing, the clothes - it's easy to see it as a novelty, but it was really important to so many of our lives. So we decided to come up with a song to memorialize all that.
"Plus," he adds with a grin, "I know there's never been a band in the history of the world to put Men Without Hats in a lyric, so we're real proud of that too!"
The record also unveils new colors in the already-substantial Sugar Ray paintbox, on such tracks as the C&W-tinted "Just A Little." "SUGAR RAY" closes with "Disasterpiece," a riff-rockin' little number that acknowledges their undying affection for The World's Greatest Rock 'N' Roll Band®, as well as a token of appreciation for allowing Sugar Ray the privilege of opening a trio of 1999 stadium dates.
"You either cover a Rolling Stones song or you reenact one," Mark says of "Disasterpiece." "We're huge fans of that sound and hopefully we added our own touch to it. It's unabashedly, unashamedly a Stones rip-off… I shouldn't say rip-off, it's a tribute! A tribute to a great fucking band that let us play three shows with them!"
When the Gilmore sessions concluded, the band realized that while the majority of the record was the exact combination of electric energy and inventive songwriting that they had in mind, beat-based songs like "When It's Over" and "Ours," had reached the point where they needed one man's magic touch to make them perfect. They reached out to their old collaborator David Kahne, the studio whiz behind the console for the band's two previous collections, and the man the band holds responsible for helping them to find their musical voice. Sugar Ray knew that Kahne would add just the right amount of seasoning to turn the tracks into Sugar Ray classics.
"We just felt that a couple of the songs weren't taken as far as they could be taken," Rodney explains. "We knew they were good songs, they just needed that extra something, and we knew that David would know how to make them better."
"Kahne just has this weird psychic chemistry with us," Homicide says. "Nobody else could've done what he did. He's like a mad scientist - he's super-intelligent, he really understands everything about music. He wants our music to be progressive, yet still be familiar. So when you hear 'Ours' or 'When It's Over,' it sounds like Sugar Ray, but it's Sugar Ray at the next level."
With its increased focus on musical craft and individual expressiveness, "SUGAR RAY" is undeniably the most fully realized Sugar Ray record to date.
"I don't know if we've matured as much as we've grown," says Rodney. "Anything you do year after year you hope you get a little better. We're not really mature - we're just better at what we do."
"It was the culmination of us growing as musicians," Homicide adds, "and the producers recognizing that and having a vision for us. It was also the combination of us maturing as a band and as people. Of course we're still the same bunch of idiots, but we've got some serious stuff to talk about this time!"
"People try to pigeonhole us but we just keep doing what we do," concludes Murphy. "We're happy to be here. For some reason, when the five of us get together, there's an energy and a magic that we're so lucky to possess. We're going to do what we do as long as people enjoy it. Who cares what shelf you put our records on? We're Sugar Ray and we'll keep making our music as long as the five of us are together."
© Atlantic Recording Corporation 6/01