When Mark McGrath was in elementary school, he used to put “My Sharona” by The Knack on his record player, stand in front of the mirror in his bedroom, and pretend he was performing for the kids in his class. He’d play it over and over again, for hours, shouting the lyrics into an imaginary microphone, shaking his hips, banging his head. The walls of his room would fall away; he looked through the mirror and saw himself on stage. “My Sharona” was his song, his classmates had all come to see him sing it, and they were losing their minds.
“I’d pretend I was staring at them,” McGrath says. “I was performing at them, and they all needed to love me. I just had this need to be loved. I had to be the cool guy. Because I was not the cool guy.”
Before he wrote four number-one songs, toured all around the world, made the cover of Rolling Stone, opened for the actual Rolling Stones, got named People’s “sexiest rocker” alive, and sold more than 8 million records in the process, Mark McGrath was just a kid growing up in Newport Beach, California, who felt out of place. For years, he was “just kind of existing,” making OK grades and playing basketball and going surfing because that’s what everybody else did. But he knew he was different. He had put on those concerts in his bedroom, he had seen David Lee Roth jump off a bass drum on MTV, and he knew that’s what he wanted to do—he wanted to be a rock star. But he couldn’t sing, and he couldn’t play an instrument, so he kept it inside, silently dreaming of his name in lights on a big marquee, envisioning himself in front of a microphone, playing a sold-out show to a screaming crowd filled with everyone he had ever met.
He put himself as close to his dream as he could: A band called The Tories played all the big parties in high school, and while they wouldn’t let him in, they would let him carry their gear. He trucked their amps and guitars to the stage every time they played, and watched from afar while they covered songs by The Who, The Jam, The Doors. Their singer was a big 60s guy, a mod born at the wrong time, and he refused to do anything written outside the decade. But the rest of the band wanted to play “Back in Black.” McGrath knew that song, he kept telling them—and one night, during a show at a pool party, they let him sing it.
He thrashed; he shook; he shimmied; he screamed. He let it all out, everything that had been simmering inside him since he was a kid singing in front of that mirror in his bedroom. Right as the song was ending, with the microphone still in his hand, he launched himself off of a chaise lounge and did a front-flip into the pool. Finally—just like he’d imagined—all the kids in his class lost their minds.
To understand how Mark McGrath became the Mark McGrath we know, the one who took the country and then the world by storm in the late 90s as the lead singer of Sugar Ray—and to understand why now, at 51 years old, he’s still going at it, releasing a new album nearly two decades after his last hit came out—you have to understand that moment.
“I don’t think I’ve aged, in my brain, since I turned, like, 21,” McGrath says. “I still have the spirit to perform. And I still get nervous walking onstage. And I still want the acceptance, you know? I still need the affirmation.”
Long after “Fly,” “Someday,” “Every Morning,” and “When It’s Over” tumbled off the Billboard charts, Sugar Ray’s fifth album flopped, Atlantic dropped them from the label, and the band broke up, that need kept gnawing at him. It’s the reason he hasn’t gone a single year without playing a show since 1995. It’s the reason for the nostalgia tours, the casino gigs, the corporate shows, the 90s revival festivals. And it’s the reason that—when an opportunity came out of nowhere to make a new Sugar Ray album, their first in 10 years—he said yes.
In 2017, CBS put McGrath into a recording studio to film some B-roll ahead of his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother. They only needed a few minutes of footage, but it felt good to be recording again; he and Rodney Sheppard, Sugar Ray’s guitarist, wound up finishing a song. After a month in the Big Brother house, McGrath came home to some news. Sheppard had shown the song to BMG. The label wanted to make a deal.
That song, “Highest Tree,” became the first cut on the new album, which is out on Friday. McGrath came up with the title: Little Yachty. It’s partly a shout-out to the rapper—McGrath says he’s a big fan (“Lil Boat? You kiddin’ me?”) and that his nine-year-old son “loves his flow”—partly a description of Sugar Ray’s sound nowadays (“It has that feel of maybe modern-day yacht rock”), and, doubtlessly, a publicity play. The album is exactly what you would expect it to be. McGrath isn’t deluding himself about its quality.
“I tell people this record is going to change your life as much as it’s going to change mine: It’s not,” he says. “The truth is, I never thought I’d be putting a record out on a major label again. And we are. And the joy is right there. And if we get to do another one, I’ll be doing backflips.”
McGrath knows his career peaked in the 90s. He knows there is nothing on Little Yachty that comes close to rivaling “Fly,” or “Every Morning,” or any of his other hits. He has virtually no aspirations for this record. All he has is that need—the same need inside him when he played make-believe concerts in front of the mirror in his bedroom, the same need that sent him flying into a swimming pool at his first show. He needs affirmation. He needs to be loved. He needs to perform. And if this record is going to help him do that, that’s all he cares about.
“People always ask me, ‘How long are you gonna do that band thing?’ And I’m like, ‘Band thing? That’s my fuckin’ life,’” he says. “I’m doin’ it until someone takes the mic out of my fuckin’ hands.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.