Mark McGrath Interview: The Dark Side of the 90s

Whether or not they were alive in the ’90s, everyone knows the name Mark McGrath and has heard at least one Sugar Ray. The lead singer has also remained in the public eye outside of the music scene, with stints as a co-host of Extra, host of Don’t Forget the Lyrics!, and more recently as the wild card in The Masked Singer season 5. He also hosts a fascinating Vice documentary series called Dark Side of the 90s, which does exactly what it purports in its title: explore the hidden underbelly of the decade everyone’s nostalgic for, ranging from the rise and fall of Beanie Babies to the racial tension of Cops.


But despite his work on Dark Side of the 90s, McGrath himself prefers to look on the bright side. Despite acknowledge the pitfalls and societal struggles, he also recalls the high points of his professional career that took place in that time, and recognizes them for the launching pad that had led to fulfillment in his personal life as well. Plus, without hits like «Fly,» would we have gotten the incredible Sugar Ray cameo in 2002’s Scooby-Doo?

Related: Best Sitcoms Of The ’90s, According To Ranker

Screen Rant went in-depth with McGrath on what the ’90s really meant to him and Sugar Ray, how quickly rumors go viral with no hint of truth, and what the song «Every Morning» is most certainly not about.

Screen Rant: Everybody, this is a special one. I am joined by my best friend Mark McGrath.

Mark McGrath: Indeed! What is up best friend? BFF?

It’s funny, Ash, you and I have gotten closer just on social media and stuff. So it’s really fun. You always say, «Let’s stay in contact» or whatever, but you never do. But you and I have managed to do that. So, I’m super grateful for your friendship and for having me on.

It’s amazing. You know who I interviewed on Friday, who told me to tell you that he says hello? Mr. Ethan Hawke.

Mark McGrath: That’s insane! And I want to tell you why it’s insane. Forever, as you know, I’ve been compared to Ethan Hawke. Those who are watching are saying, «No way.» Now, in the 90s and probably about the early 2000s, before I put on like 25 pounds, I looked like Ethan Hawke.

I used to have the Reality Bites hairdo. I wore these sort of dentists chair shirts. I wanted to be Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites. That’s what I wanted to do. And forever, people have compared us. There was one TMZ episode where a guy was running down the street after Ethan and going, «Mark! Mark!» And he turned around, it’s Ethan Hawke and they did a whole thing on it on TMZ. I always thought he was kind of annoyed by it. I’ve never really heard his perspective. So, for him to say hello to me? I am honored.

I think he loves it.

Mark McGrath: Did you talk about it at all? I only say this because I’ve never heard a peep out of him at all about the Mark McGrath/Ethan Hawke thing. And in fact, I will tell you this: when I went to Extra for the first time in 2004, there was a big rollout there. Our executive producer who actually got me to work at Extra, Lisa G., legend in the business, was good friends with Katie Couric. And Katie Couric had Ethan on the Today show, and they’re talking about Ethan’s book he has coming out, and the theater he’s putting on, and all these wonderful, intelligent, incredible things he’s doing.

And at the end of the morning — it’s the morning, so it’s kind of low energy. You know what I mean? Like, «Cool interview…» — At the end, she goes, «Ethan, I just gotta tell you–» And also, behind him, there’s a split screen of me and him. And she goes, «Has anybody ever told you look like Mark McGrath?» And he goes, «Yeah, they’ve told me that.» Kind of resigned, like, «That’s a bummer.» There was no fun in it at all, and I felt so bad because I love Ethan Hawke. I’m a big fan of him.

I was just bummed out if that ever bummed him out. Because I get it a lot; at least, I used to back in the day. I used to sign autographs as Ethan Hawke, because I didn’t want people to think he was mean, because at first I’d say, «No, I’m not him.» They go, «Oh, come on, man. I see you’re trying to be low key, I’m not gonna bother you.» So, I ended up signing autographs. I know he’s probably gotten a little bit of that on his own. So, I’m glad to hear that it doesn’t bother him or he has a sense of humor about it.

I was like, «Oh, I’m interviewing you’re 90s Brother, Mark McGrath.» And he was like, «Oh, tell him I said hi!»

Mark McGrath: Oh, I’m glad to hear that, man. Because like I said, I’m a fan. Good guy, man. So I apologize to him for years of torture. But you know, he’s still in shape and looks great, and I’ve gone off to pasture.

That’s not true! You are doing this Vice documentary called Dark Side of the 90s, which explores everything about the 90s. You are our 90s doula. When you hear ‘the 90s,’ what flashes through your head?

Mark McGrath: I gotta say, the 90s were really, really good to me. All my dreams came true in the 90s, dreams beyond my wildest expectations. And I had some pretty wild dreams growing up. It was a real sweet spot for me, and I’m honored to sort of be the doula, if you will, that’s great, or the ambassador of the 90s. I’m grateful for it.

A lot of bands or a lot of people don’t want to be associated with the 90s, because I think they feel it’s a bit of nostalgia. And nostalgia in the music business is considered bad by the artists for some reason. I looked up the word nostalgia in a dictionary, it means remembering the best times of your life, sharing times with others, wishing to go back to a more innocent place. It’s all these wonderful descriptions. I think in the music business, we look at nostalgia as the kiss of death, meaning your career is over.

Nostalgia in sports is something we all revere, even the athletes go, «Oh yeah, back in the day…» And we celebrate the nostalgia. But in music, you can watch us grow old. So, nostalgia almost reminds us of a time maybe we were better, younger, we were relevant. I understand people being hesitant to really embrace that.

But for me, I am honored to have affected a few people. They remember the times, they remember the music, they remember where they were. So I dig into it, I lean into the nostalgia of the 90s, because I’m so grateful to be a part of it in the first place. And as far as the 90s as a decade, it was last time we all, meaning all of us, shared a communal experience on receiving music, receiving TV shows, receiving books that came out. And I say this because, TV shows were on at nine o’clock on Thursday night on NBC, and we all sat around and watched it. It was a communal experience. Records came out on Tuesday, and we all got them on Tuesday. MTV would debut a video on that Friday, we all watched it collectively. We didn’t have social media, so it wasn’t real time, but we all experienced it in real time, and we will never do that again. I think that’s why the nostalgia of the 90s — everybody’s yearning for the 90s — will always be in existence. Now, that’s the good part of the 90s.

There was a dark side of the 90s. Because I lived it. I was there, and I’ve been fortunate to host the Dark Side of the 90s, now on Vice. When you think about tabloid TV, you think about the Viper Room, an episode we did last year, where I met my wife at the Viper Room, so that was so strange, doing the deep dive into that one and narrating that one. The UFC’s rise, this year, in the 90s. There have been so many just incredible stories of the 90s and revisiting them through my eyes in Dark Side of the 90s has been incredible. I think we look back on all decades with rose tinted sunglasses. But Dark Side of the 90s really does an expert, professional way of doing the deep-dive into all these topics that people care about. We did Dark Side of the 90s one and people wanted more, and we’re happy to deliver, Ash, coming back strong.

Sometimes, you go see a band and you get the sense, once they play their hit, that they’re kind of reluctant to do it. The first time I ever saw you, the energy emulated off you. I remember my friend and I being like, «Mark McGrath is the coolest person in the world,» because we wanted to be in your presence. And it was so contagious, how happy you were.

Mark McGrath: Well, that’s a huge compliment, Ash. All I want to do as a performer is emote that kind of energy, because I’m having the best time ever, it’s never false. I don’t care if there’s three people out there, or 1000. You can’t fake that energy. You can’t fake that joy. I say this because, I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t walk around all day being joyful and happy. I live life like everybody else, and I try and be as positive I can, but life beats you down. Life is hard. But on stage, when I get out there, there’s this magic that just exists on stage. I’m so proud to be part of that lightning in a bottle moment, and I want to share it with the audience.

I was lucky enough to somehow find my way to some kind of medium success in the music business. Incredible. The entire ride was amazing. So I look back nostalgically as well. So if I can at all, give people a moment of joy while they’re watching Sugar Ray or you enjoy the songs, I’m gonna do it. I love these songs and I bow at the feet of the songs. People like them a little bit, you’re gonna hear them delivered by me with all the zest and vigor as the first time we ever played them. I believe that’s a responsibility for me. When you look at this like, «Let’s get this hit song out of the way. Wait to hear our new stuff!»

Let me tell you something, I don’t want to hear your new stuff either. I don’t want to hear Sugar Ray’s new stuff. You know what I mean? I want to hear the hits, and that’s something that luckily, I don’t feel I’m selling out by because I’ve always loved that part of show business and the celebration, and the pomp and circumstance of it all. it’s something that I find — not naturally in my day to day life, but once I get on stage. It’s easy to emulate that because I’m so grateful to be there. But thank you, Ash. It’s a wonderful compliment.

You say medium success like Sugar Ray doesn’t have so many hits. I don’t know the number off the top of my head. But whenever someone’s like, «Oh, Fly!» I’m like, «No, no» And I just start rattling off six or seven hits that I love so much.

Mark McGrath: Well, you know me, Ash. I’m very self-effacing. But when you have two number ones, four top 10s, and six top 40s, and you sold 10 million records around the world, it’s a little bit of a humble brag, if you will. And that’s the good news, no matter what you think about us or whatever, you can never take away we had two number one songs; you can’t take that away. You can try, but you can’t rewrite history. You can call me whatever you want. You can do whatever you want.

You can not like the band, but the people have spoken and «Every Morning» and «Fly» got to number one, «Someday» got to number three, and «When its Over» got to number eight. Those are some pretty impressive stats. And like I said, I’m the first guy to make fun of me, first got to make fun of the band, but I’m very proud of our accomplishments.

One thing you were mentioning is the appointment viewing that we used to have. We didn’t really have the internet the way that we do now. And I think what’s so interesting is in rising to fame in the 90s, you kind of had to pick and choose your battles of what rumors you were gonna shoot down and you had to have like somebody make a statement, you couldn’t just go on Twitter and be like, «Nah, not true.» So I’m curious what the wildest headlines that you saw about yourself were?

Mark McGrath: I mean, there were a lot of crazy ones back in the day, like someone said I had a baby in Germany, but they would go away just as quickly, because for some reason, now, someone validates a tweet from an anonymous account in Des Moines, Iowa with one follower, and that thing is gospel. It’s like Time Magazine put it out. I don’t know why all the sudden journalism, if you want to call it that, or accusations or rumors have become just locked down, biblical if you want, as the absolute truth without any sort of validation, or any way even to document or validate the truths. That’s been kind of interesting to me.

I think it’s been more difficult today to combat rumors than it was back then. Because rumors would get to a certain point, they’d come to your camp and you’d be like, «That’s ridiculous.» And it wouldn’t even see the light of day. I mean, 90% of them never saw the light of day. There was always the one that I was dating Madonna, and I gotta say, I perpetuated that one forever, because that was a frickin cool rumor, you know what I mean? I was real coy about that one like, «I don’t know! We’ve talked before!» I let that breathe a long time until the truth came out on that one.

But the funny thing is now, Ash, there’s a rumor now, and it’s not even a rumor because people believe it as true, and I’ve even said, «This is absolutely false. This did not happen. This is not how it goes down. I was there. I co-wrote the song.»  People believe the Halo in Every Morning is a used condom.

Oh my gosh, Mark. We talked about this because I said this to you and you were like, «What?» And we debunked it and now it’s back. This rumor is coming back around, it will not go away.

Mark McGrath: It got a whole new life again on TikTok. And the funniest thing, me being the moron I am, I perpetuated the rumor again. Because about 10 years ago, someone tweeted me, «Hey, Mark, is it true the song Every Morning is about pegging or a used condom or something?» and I go, «Finally, someone speaks the obvious truth!» It was a joke! Irony has been lost in the social media age, and that’s something I lead with, in humor. I just think it’s so obvious. So for 15 years, that song existed, and we promoted the hell of that song around the world, never mentioned this condom or pegging thing people are going deep-diving with now. Never once. And all of a sudden now, in the last 10 years, now that’s true. It’s just so ridiculous.

And again, there comes a point in time where you can’t even combat the insanity because you’ve spent all day doing it. I made my statement about it, it’s absolutely not about pegging. It’s not about a used condom. Get your minds out of the gutter. It’s just a little innocent song about the innocence of your partner and temptation. That’s what the song is about.  But no one wants to hear it from me. And even when I tried to correct it, they’re like, «Nope. We know what it really is. We’re staying with the truth.» So it’s just useless. Social media is eating itself now anyway, which is interesting to see.

Yeah, it’s funny. I tweeted today, I was like, «Send the weirdest possible questions for Mark McGrath.» And I got a lot of Halo in my responses.

Mark McGrath: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And then you always get the Sugar Gay things because of that wonderful Sugar Gay video. 25 years ago, I was walking out of a bar with a bunch of my gay friends, and it was the night when Madonna was there and she has a bunch of gay friends as well. There wasn’t really even paparazzi back then, there were just people that followed Madonna around because she was the biggest star in the world. And I was walking outside and there the vitriol and the homophobic statements that were coming out of everybody just shocked me. And I was just like, «God, dang, that’s horrible.» It was 2:00 in the morning, and I was just drunk enough when someone inserted Sugar Gay, for me to get upset, because I’d just had it.

I always stick up for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I always have. I don’t get it, and I’m not about it. And it just f–kin– excuse me, it just pissed me off right there. And that was it. And of course, 25 years later, that’s still something exists, but if people really knew what was behind that, I think they’d be a little less quick to throw around certain terminology that is still offensive to people. Because people aren’t calling me Sugar Gay in a positive way. You know what I mean? So to me, it’s just, when you think about what you’re doing, it’s kind of weird. But it is what it is. I reacted like a total moron, the drunken moron that I was. And I did pick the smallest guy in there. Now, people say the guy was 12-years-old. That guy was in the bar that night. He had the best ID in the world or the guy’s 30-years-old.

But look, I was 24 back then. So, it’s an interesting thing to kind of constantly hear about or bat down. But look, I reacted like a moron, make fun of me for the things I said, but just watch the words sometimes, because words still hurt in this day and age.

One of the other things I got for you a lot is that it is the 20th anniversary of Scooby-Doo. People want to know what it was like to play in Spooky Island.

Mark McGrath: Ash, it was the craziest thing ever because we filmed that movie on an island off the Gold Coast of Australia called Moreton Island. It’s about 30 miles off the Gold Coast.

And we got out there on a shuttle, on a boat. It just took us out there. And it dropped us off on the pier of Spooky Island, meaning we lived on the set of Spooky Island with all the extras and all the cast for five insane, party-fueled days. It was unbelievable.

Australians know how to get down and party. They just have stamina. They can party. And man, we crawled off that island back onto that boat. I mean, literally. We didn’t see much of the cast, but all the extras that were around us, man, were just insane. And I love Scooby-Doo, because that cartoon, and I grew up in the ’70s when it came out, that was our go-to. We love Scooby-Doo, so to be part of that movie, to spend five insane days and nights on Moreton Island on the set of Scooby-Doo… We actually slept in the hotel that was part of the movie. We never got out of the Spooky Island vibe. And I think that’s what they were trying to perpetuate, because at the end we all had bloodshot eyes. We were all like zombies dragging out of there, so it was almost method acting by day two.

But it was such a incredible, fun experience. And it’s something I got to show my kids. It’s the first thing they ever reacted at because they love Scooby-Doo and their daddy’s in the movie. So that was really, really fun to do. And the cast was great. They were all wonderful. Freddie, Matthew, Sarah Michelle. It’s really sweet people. So really, really a fun experience.

And Sarah Michelle and Freddie are married, I love it.

Mark McGrath: I know, right? Right? I think they were just going out then. But obviously it was the Shakespearean love for them both. So both very sweet and very, very kind and generous to us on the set.

Another question I got for you is, «Does Mark still have any logos or merch with Sugar Ray’s original name Shrinky Dinks? And does he ever miss that name for the band?»

Mark McGrath: Shrinky Dinks… Look, it’s a pretty lame name, let’s be honest. We don’t have any merch left over.

Here’s the thing, we’d still be the Shrinky Dinks today if once we got signed to Atlantic Records, Mattel said, «Oh, that’s great. You’re the Shrinky Dinks? Here’s a year licensing lease. It’s $1 million a year, and we get 25% of whatever you make forever in perpetuity.» And we’re like, «Oh, I think we’ll call our 12 fans and let them know we’re changing our name.» This is before the first record even came out, which didn’t have much success, as you know, Ash. It was easy to change the name because our hand was forced upon us.

I’m a huge sports fan, and Sugar Ray was my first sports memory, the 1976 Boxing Olympics at Montreal, and Sugar Ray just, he was just the MVP of that entire Olympics. So I somehow conned the band into saying, «Sugar Ray’s a piece of Americana. It’s not even sports.» And so they went for it. So, no Shrinky Dinks merchandise. We only made one batch of that. And we went on the tour with Korn, believe it or not. Korn and Lordz of Brooklyn in ’95. So actually, no, we never… That was Sugar Ray. I’m just, I’m debunking my own story.

There is no Shrinky Dinks merchandise. There’s stickers. We ripped off the Burger King logo and put Shrinky Dinks in there. Those are collector’s items, if you will, to about five people.

We were talking about going to your concerts and how you love performing. For people who might want to see you, you perform all the time with a bunch of other iconic kind of ’90s, early 2000s artists, what do you have on the forefront?

Mark McGrath: Yeah, there’s a lot. You can go to sugarray.com or markmcgrath.com. It’s both one and the same. Or I’m kind of, I’m pretty busy on Twitter and Instagram and I try to promote as many shows as I can. I do a lot of private shows, Ash. There’s a lot of corporate shows and private shows. I’ll get together with Richard Marx and Tone Loc and we’ll do these private shows where they have us play and we come in and play with the band that they provide, and we do our songs. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in that sort of circuit too. But the public shows are obviously on our internet, so check it out. I mean our website, so check it out.

I’ve had the pleasure of being part of the I Love the 90s Tour, which is Vanilla Ice, Tone Loc, Color Me Badd, Coolio, Rob Base, all these wonderful artists I’m huge fans of. So that’s always fun. I do the Pop 2000 tour, which has got Chris Kirkpatrick from NSYNC. It’s got Ryan Cabrera. It’s got O-Town and LFO, which is really fun. Just celebrating all the hits. Kind of what we talked about earlier, Ash, it’s people there that understand why we’re there to celebrate the hits, revel in the nostalgia, not run away from it, embrace the nostalgia. And I’m also in a band called Ezra Ray Hart, which is comprised of Kevin Griffin from Better Than Ezra. He’s the Ezra part. I’m Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray, I’m the Ray part. And Emerson Hart, he’s the Hart part from Tonic. So we play all the great music from better than Ezra, Sugar Ray and tonic on one stage, all of us together, one band, no one leaves the stage. We play a lot of ’90s hits as well. So you can see I really celebrate ’90s culture and I’m glad that it’s celebrated back towards me.

I feel honored to be a part of so many wonderful projects. And I think the ’90s now are bigger than they’ve ever been, certainly a nostalgia trip. I’m trying to work as much as I can because I’m grateful for it all.

Oh, man. I love talking to you. You’re always so motivational. I love your robe talks. I also love that time you broke up with somebody on Cameo or something.

Mark McGrath: Ash, another misdirect.

Is that a misdirect?

Mark McGrath: Well, it’s another thing I go viral for that’s not even the reason, but you can’t even explain it, and why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

When I started Cameo a couple years ago — Cameo is a service, in case a few people don’t know, where people can call up celebrities, quote-unquote, and have them wish you a happy birthday, wish you congratulations on a wedding, whatever it is. Your wish is their command if it’s reasonable to the person you’re asking.

I was just starting, and I was trying to get some followers, some action going in the Cameo world. And someone asked me to break up with their boyfriend, and he was a grad student and he had to get his dissertation done. She wanted to let him down easy, but didn’t want to affect his dissertation. All this weird stuff. I knew it was a joke right away, because how many grad school students are fans of Sugar Ray? Zero. Right? They like Bon Iver or whatever the hell his name is, and Iron & Wine, and those bands. I saw through it right away. But what I did, Ash, is I delivered what they wanted, very straightforward. I did it with a straight face like, «Hey man, best of luck. And I hope maybe someday…» And I was doing it.

I was four minutes into it, and that’s a long Cameo. I go, «Listen, maybe someday we could all meet at a Sugar Ray show and high five backstage.» I thought that was a sure tip that it wasn’t real. So, I sent the Cameo and I go, «Look, the four friends will laugh at me and whatever. I made a couple bucks, and I’m going on with my life.”

Three weeks later, I’m looking at Twitter and I’m trending number one on Twitter. And at the bottom it says Cameo and I go, I didn’t even know what they were talking about. Someone goes, «Yeah, dude, that Cameo you made about the breakup is trending.» I forgot about the breakup. I don’t know what they were talking about. I go, «That can’t be right.»

So, then I saw the video and I’m like, «Oh, oh, oh, man. I was…» And then half the people said, «Oh my God, Mark. You’re so sweet. That was so wonderful of you.» And the other half were like, «Oh, what an idiot, man. They got one over on him.»

Billy Bush is calling me from Entertainment or Insider, or wherever he was at the time going like, «Hey, Mark, will you come on and talk about the breakup and all that?» And it was just so weird. And I was in position where I didn’t want to disappoint the people who thought it was very sweet, but I didn’t want to people think that I thought it was real. It was so bizarre. And then that went viral around the world. But what it did do was it elevated my Cameo position. So, the very thing I was trying to do with it, it actually happened in the most misdirected, weird way again.

What I’m trying to tell you is that all my viral sensations, if you will, are not really what you’re seeing. And I think the irony is that’s what viral videos are in the first place. Boom!

Two things: your Cameo must have the best types of strange requests now, and I really wonder what it’s like to wake up and see your name trending before you click on it, being like, «What could this be?»

Mark McGrath: It’s horrifying. Because the reason why I’ve trended in the past, they’re not reasons you celebrate, you know what I’m saying? In general, if you’re trending and you’re someone like me, it’s because they’re getting over on you. Not like, «Hey, it’s Mark McGrath’s birthday.» No one cares about that.

It’d be like, «Ooh, look at Mark who’s an idiot here. Or he did that over there.» Which is, some of it is real, I get it. But a lot of it is a little bit of misdirect. This is showbiz, baby. Just spell my name right, Ash. You know what I’m talking about.

I think you’re underestimating the adoration for you.

Mark McGrath: I will say this, Ash, there was a time there where the stink of the ’90s was real fresh, the highlights and the frosted tip hairdo, all the memories, all the fashions and trends of the ’90s were real smelly to people. They were like, «Ooh, this is expired.» It was like sour milk to people.

And I, being a face of the ’90s, certainly got a lot of, a kickback from that. And well-deserved, rightfully so. Coming out of a decade, there’s always that, «Oh my God, we can’t believe we did that.»

Now, when a certain generation cycles out of that, now has been a lot of like, «Oh, we love the ’90s.» And there has been a lot of more adulation. I’m self-effacing. I’ll say my whole spiel about that and they’ll go, «No, Mark, we’re serious. We just love the music.» This is coming from a band with neck tattoos and they’re all emo and angry and they’re, «We just love the music.»

And so, I almost have to temper the way I get down and talk to people because there is a sort of adulation and fondness for that music, and I’m super grateful for it. It’s a really wonderful position to be in.

More: 10 Hidden Gem Movies On Amazon Prime From The 1990s

Available episodes of Dark Side of the 90s can currently be streamed on Hulu and can be purchased through Prime Video.

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