We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Not every career musician is comfortable with the word “nostalgia.” For example, Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins is notoriously anti-nostalgia, despite most of his radio hits popping off in the mid-to-late 1990s. At the other end of the spectrum is Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath. McGrath not only is comfortable with his place in the ’90s nostalgia realm, he actively nerds out over it.
For the first half of this month, Sugar Ray have been on the road with fellow ’90s alt-rock/pop figureheads Gin Blossoms, Tonic, and Fastball, a brief stint that wraps up this Friday in Frederick, Maryland. McGrath is actually besties with Tonic lead singer Emerson Hart — as he tells me over Zoom, the two have a Better Than Ezra cover band called “Ezra Hart.”
“One thing you’re not going to hear a lot on this tour, and forgive me, is, ‘Here’s a new one,’” McGrath says. “Because I don’t want to hear new songs from these bands either, with all due respect, and I’m a huge fan.”
A hardcore Clinton-era staple, Sugar Ray first formed in Newport Beach in 1986 as the Shrinky Dinx. Primarily a cover band, the Shrinky Dinx had a laid-back, California party-boy style; when they did write original songs, they blended funk, nu-metal, punk, and hip-hop. After signing with Atlantic Records, the Shrinky Dinx changed their name to Sugar Ray after Milton Bradley, makers of the Shrinky Dinks toy, threatened to sue.
Sugar Ray’s 1995 debut album Lemonade And Brownies failed to produce a major hit (though the hard-driving “Mean Machine” got some love on Beavis And Butthead), but their follow-up LP Floored hit big with the breezy pop/reggae-fusion anthem “Fly,” which held the #1 spot on the Billboard Pop Airplay chart for four consecutive weeks.
Sugar Ray’s third studio album, 1998’s 14:59, is the one most Top 40 fans had in their CD collection. Leaning harder into a full-blown pop-rock sound, 14:59 featured the band’s best-known singles to date, such as the flamenco-pop “Every Morning,” the moodily mid-tempo “Falls Apart,” the reflectively fingerpicked “Someday,” and a truly underrated cover of the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.”
Though Sugar Ray’s self-titled fourth album failed to reach the same level of success, producing just one hit (“When It’s Over”), McGrath stuck around in one way or another, appearing on a slew of reality TV programs, police procedurals, and the so-bad-they’re-good Sharknado movies. Meanwhile, Sugar Ray have released three more albums, 2003’s In The Pursuit Of Leisure, 2009’s Music For Cougars, and 2019’s Lil Yachty. In 2011 McGrath teamed up with Everclear’s Art Alexakis to organize the SummerLand Tour (they parted ways a couple of years later, citing differing creative visions).
McGrath was kind enough to sit down with me for a wide-ranging career retrospective, where we talk about the upshot to being in a ’90s nostalgia band, what it meant to hear Harrison Ford singing “Every Morning” in Shrinking, trading lines with Robin Williams in Father’s Day, and surviving Celebrity Big Brother.
Sugar Ray’s Co-Headlining Summer Tour With Gin Blossoms, Tonic & Fastball (2023)
What is your overall history with the Gin Blossoms, and what can fans expect from this very era-specific tour?
MARK MCGRATH: You are what this tour is for. People that remember the music of the ’90s, revere the music of the ’90s.
I’m grateful to be a small part of that history. These bands, Gin Blossoms, Tonic, Fastball, I was a fan of these bands before I had the pleasure of meeting them and then before I had the chance to call them friends.
To be at this point in our career where you can cherry pick bands you want to [tour with], that’s the good part about getting older in music. Yes, you get to watch us get old on stage. That’s not great. The hair starts going back a little bit. The bellies start going on a little bit. But some of the benefits are, you get to do things you want to do, maybe not things you don’t want to do.
There’s not a business around it anymore. Meaning, with a record company wanting you to do all these promos and stuff. We’re going on tour with our friends and playing the hits you want to hear from the ’90s and the 2000s.
I want to hear the songs I fell in love with, those memories, the songs that are going to create new memories for the tour that’s coming up. I think a lot of bands don’t like to talk about the “nostalgia” word. I get it. It’s not everybody’s place where they want to live. But I am so grateful that nostalgia is associated with our band. If you look up the word “nostalgia” in the dictionary, the adjectives are mind-blowing. “A time and place that I want to go back to. Fond memories. Will always be in your heart.” I’m like, why would anybody not want to be nostalgic?
Like I was kind of saying, Rachel, we’re such great friends with the Gin Blossoms. We toured with them a whole bunch. We were on the Goo Goo Dolls’ ’99 tour with Fastball. They’re just such great folks. Tonic, I’m in a band with Emerson [Hart] called Ezra Hart, and we would do all the songs of Better Than Ezra, Sugar Ray, and Tonic. Emerson’s a really good friend of mine, so this is going to be like summer camp for ’90s saloon singers. We want everybody to come out to have some fun. I implore you to find a stronger tour if you like number one hits of the ‘90s..
Harrison Ford Singing “Every Morning” In Apple TV+’s Shrinking (2023)
How did it feel to watch Harrison Ford of all people being like, “I love this song?” In addition to his character loving “Every Morning,” apparently Harrison genuinely wanted to sing “Every Morning.”
MCGRATH: Well, there’s a few things to unpack there. First of all, there’s so much great TV out right now. A lot of great shows will escape you. When streaming first started, you hear about Mad Men, and we all went to it. There’s so many great shows. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, that escaped me. I just watched it a month ago. I’m obsessed.
We’re in a position, Rachel, where I think we’re right in the wheelhouse of licensing songs on Netflix and Amazon Prime and those types of series. I think fans of the ’90s, they’re trying to get the licensing in there, and a lot of shows that are available. Some of them take place in the ’90s or have a ’90s reference. So our music gets licensed a lot, and I’m so grateful for it.
Yes, I saw the Shrinking license come in, which I’m very grateful for. It wasn’t [a] huge [amount of money]. It wasn’t low, but I’m always happy to get the music out to these Netflix scenes because I know [it] can [go] viral, and I know there can be a moment where when they’re on some of these series where people hit me up on social media and go, “Mark, do you see this?”
It’s just fun, and it keeps the music alive. I’m super grateful no matter how they use it. Sometimes they get a little snarky, and that’s fine, man, because no one makes fun of me better than me.
That one, when it was sent to me, my jaw fell on the floor because you license a song, you don’t know how they’re going to use it. Rarely does someone sing it acapella along to the track. Rarely. And rarely is that person Han Solo. Seeing Harrison Ford singing that song a cappella with… She’s wonderful, the actress, and I can’t remember her name.
Oh, Jessica Williams.
MCGRATH: Jessica Williams, amazing. She was actually on, I think either Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel, and she walked out to the house band playing “Fly.” She goes, “I love Sugar Ray,” so that was another great moment.
But when I saw that, Rachel, my jaw dropped on the floor. Every now and then I get these wonderful moments where I think, “Well, my career has peaked and nothing can really blow my mind,” and then I get on stage with the Beach Boys on July 4th at the Hollywood Bowl, or Harrison Ford, AKA Han Solo, is singing “Every Morning.”
I also know that Harrison Ford was presented with 10 songs to sing. “Every Morning” was the last of the 10. He hated all the first nine. I don’t know what they were, I’m not even going to speculate, but he goes, “Yes, I’ll do ‘Every Morning.’” I mean, the fact that he also picked it by himself, that was a “pinch me” moment. I get goosebumps thinking about it.
It kind of takes the stink off Sugar Ray a little bit. As the ’90s decade goes way farther [in the rearview], people get more nostalgic. At the end of the day, whether I was on the cover of People’s Sexiest Magazine ’99, whatever the hell it was [People magazine named McGrath the “Sexiest Rocker” of 1998], all that stuff fades away. As I said, I’m the first guy to be very self-effacing. But we wrote some really good songs that I’m super proud of. I think being on Shrinking really validates that.
The Shrinky Dinx Era (Late ’80s-’95)
With the earliest inception of Sugar Ray, when the band was called the Shrinky Dinx, you guys were putting out a different, rougher sound. It’s harder, a lot more punk-inspired. I saw a video of you performing on stage and I got a lot of Iggy Pop shirtless vibes.
MCGRATH: I cut my stomach. I used to cut my stomach because Iggy Pop did, and would bleed all over. It was superficial, but I loved the drama of it. I loved the theater of it all. I’m sorry to interrupt you, Rachel.
I love that. Well, I was just wondering if you could walk me through the evolution of your hanging-from-the-rafters-style punk and moving into what ultimately became Sugar Ray.
MCGRATH: Yeah, the Shrinky Dinx started in 1988. The Shrinky Dinx were the four guys that became Sugar Ray. What happened was, when we got signed to Atlantic Records, Hasbro or Mattel sent us a licensing deal because they own the license to Shrinky Dinx. They went, “Oh, that’s great. You’re the Shrinky Dinx. It’s a million dollars a year and we want a [percentage] royalty rate for anything you ever sell the rest of your lives.” We looked at ourselves and went, “Should we tell our 12 fans we’re going to change our name?”
That’s how we became Sugar Ray. Sugar Ray is the Shrinky Dinx. Shrinky Dinx started out as a cover band. We played Iggy Pop. We played Sex Pistols. We played Run-DMC. We played Red Hot Chili Peppers. We played Blondie. We played the Clash. We played reggae, hip-hop, country, whatever it was. The more ironic, the better, especially in the ’80s.
We had long hair, and at that time it was all Sunset Metal: Poison, Bang Tango, LA Guns. We hadn’t written any original songs, so that was our vibe back then. We were kind of like a crappy Hanoi Rocks meets a crappy Faster Pussycat with a whole lot of the Beastie Boys thrown in without any of the talent of those bands.
In 1994, we had two original songs. One of those, we decided to do a video, because my best friend of over 50 years, McG, was getting in directing. He had a 35 millimeter camera, so he made a video that looked like it could go directly on MTV for our one song, “Caboose.” We had two songs: “Lick Me” and “Caboose,” to let you know of our songwriting prowess back then. “Caboose” was the least offensive of the two, so we made a video out of that and McG became a director that ended up doing all of our videos, Smash Mouth’s videos, Offspring videos, Sublime videos, Korn videos. He really had an eye on what the future was going to be at MTV.
We made this video and then sent it everywhere. This is back in the unsolicited days of music where you could send a cassette tape. We didn’t want them to hear the music. We wanted [them] to look at the band, and that’s what Atlantic Records did. They said, “We don’t know what the hell this is, but they look like they’re having fun.” This was during the period of grunge, where everybody was kind of angry and down, and we’re four guys from the beach going, “Yeah,” with quick-edit videos, and bulldogs in the immediate frame.
We’re skating on an ice rink with our shirts off playing hockey, skateboarding, just stupid things we thought were cool. Luckily, Atlantic Records’ president at the time, Doug Morris, said, “I think that’s cool. Sign them.”
Getting back to your question, now we’re in this unique position. Careful what you ask for. We got a million dollar record deal with Atlantic Records. We have two original songs. Don’t forget, back then you could lie. Information wasn’t as available as it was today. There was no social media. It was almost like letters were sent by smoke signal.
“Yeah, we’re big in Southern California. We got a ton of originals.” And they brought it, so we’re like, “Oh my God, we got to make a record.” What we did, we weren’t very good, obviously. I didn’t know where my voice wanted to be. We went into the studio and started writing punk songs. We loved the Germs. We loved House Of Pain. We were trying to throw all these things into one big vat. We’re like kids in a candy store.
Some of those songs on our first record are straight up R&B tracks because we were working with DJ Lethal from House Of Pain and now Limp Bizkit. He was throwing us these R&B, Bobby Womack tracks. I don’t know what the hell to do with them, so I started doing falsettos and stuff. Ironically, some of our softest, most creative stuff is on that first record, but our hard stuff is too.
We were part of the Nirvana phenomenon, not because we sounded like them or looked like them, [but] because of the punk-rock ethos that went to the record labels, who said, “This is the aesthetic we’re signing going forward.” We were what they all threw against the wall, you know what I mean? Because no one knew. Nirvana came out of nowhere. No one knew what was next, so we got caught up in that, and Atlantic took a chance with us.
A lot of our stuff earlier was punky, thrashy, almost rap-rock. I was a huge fan of Rage Against The Machine. They were breaking at the time. Korn were friends of ours from Orange County. We were downtuning and doing all that. We were an amalgamation of everything and a whole lot of nothing all at once.
Now, what you do when you release the first record, Rachel, is you go out and tour that record. We toured that record for about a year and a half, and we became better as musicians. We became better as songwriters. We went, “Oh, what does a D7 do? Hey, what do the Beatles do in that change?” We were starting to get better at educating ourselves on how to become songwriters, and that’s what led to “Fly” and “Every Morning.” By the same token, we didn’t give up all of our interests in the harder stuff, so we just kept integrating that.
When the success of “Fly” happened, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I went, “Huh? People reacted to that? I think we got a few more of those in our back pocket,” which led to “Every Morning,” “Someday,” “When It’s Over.”
There’s three main songwriters in the band, and we all just threw songs together. It was just a lot of divine intervention, a lot of trying, and a lot of throwing ourselves into the deep end of the pool. I mean, don’t forget we got signed, we had two original songs, so we had to learn how to be songwriters after we got signed.
“Mean Machine” On Beavis And Butt-Head (1995)
Can I correctly assume that you were Beavis And Butt-Head fans in the ’90s? Do you remember when “Mean Machine” showed up there in 1995?
MCGRATH: Without a doubt, and it’s still a big feather in our cap.
Beavis And Butt-Head were the Siskel and Ebert of punk-rock criticism back in the early ’90s. As huge fans of Beavis And Butt-Head, we’d watch it and say, “Oh my God. What if they did our band?” We’d joke. We were in Newport Beach, California as a cover band and imagining what they would do and all these crazy things.
Our first video “Mean Machine” did not get added to MTV, but there were other ways to get on there, and Beavis And Butt-Head was one of those ways. Now I would take one Beavis And Butt-Head episode over 30 spins on MTV.
When we heard that was happening, [it was like], we made it. That was it. If nothing ever happens again, we’re in the Beavis And Butt-Head family, and they liked the video and gave us two thumbs up.
It was an incredible accolade for us. There weren’t a lot on that first record, believe me, especially in America. We made some dents in France and Germany, and in the UK. We were in some magazines and stuff, so we felt a little bit of what it would be like to possibly have success on a very small scale. But Beavis And Butt-Head was huge. It was the first time people in America went, “Oh, there’s a band called Sugar Ray. They’re on Atlantic Records.”
It was the first validation of anything that was legitimate in the world of music, and getting two thumbs up was amazing. I think it increased our fan base for people coming to the shows from three to eight, so that was huge. You can really see the Beavis And Butt-Head effect for Sugar Ray. That’ll always be super huge. It’s just something cool to say, especially then, and Beavis And Butt-Head, especially in the ’90s, there’s nothing more iconic, to be honest, especially to get the thumbs up. Because you could have had the Winger phenomenon. Kip Winger is still angry at Beavis And Butt-Head for what happened to them.
Making A Cameo In Father’s Day (1997)
A couple of years later, Sugar Ray played “the boys in the booond” in Father’s Day. You personally have a scene with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. What was that experience like for you?
MCGRATH: Getting a call for Father’s Day was fantastic for us because our first record came out, [and it] didn’t do much. Ivan Reitman, who directed the film, [produced] Animal House and [directed] Stripes. You had Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and Ivan Reitman. I’m like, this is going to be a $200 million movie. It’s going to be gigantic. It was a real honor for them to take a chance on us.
They weren’t looking for a big band. They were looking for a band that people kind of knew, but it was a legitimate band, but wasn’t huge, because they didn’t want a huge band to take away from the movie. It was a wonderful opportunity for us. Robin Williams and Billy Crystal were so welcoming and kind. Billy Crystal felt like your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving or something. He just was funny. He was quick. He was busy and [kept] to himself, but you could ask him a question. He was wonderful.
I’ve gotten to know him since then, and I’ll see him every three years somewhere at an airport or something, and the joke I always say is like, “Hey, when’s Father’s Day 2 coming out, Billy? I’m ready.” He goes, “We’re waiting on it.” We have a running joke around it, so that’s amazing. It’s another one of those things where I went, “Well, if nothing ever comes of the band, we are in a movie you could buy from Blockbuster for the rest of your life.” That’s what I was thinking back then.
Then, Robin Williams. I don’t think I’ve ever been around someone who’s affected me more that I really spent less time with, if that makes any sense?
That makes complete sense.
MCGRATH: When you’re making a movie, you’re spending long days, long hours, and there’s a lot of downtime. We had a lot of filming. We were in the Mayan Theater in downtown LA with the full crowd there, and they would say, “Stop, breaks.”
Robin Williams was never off. Meaning, when they go, “All right, cut. Reset. Another shot,” Robin in his entertainer’s heart, always felt the need to entertain. Here is this guy, he just did a very physical scene. He’s sweating and changing his shirt to a new shirt, the exact same shirt because he’s sweating through it because he’s so physical with his comedy. When he would stop, he’d get a glass of water and start doing stand-up comedy to the entire room. All he wanted to do was put a smile on everybody’s face. I wish he knew about the smile he put on all of our faces so he could put one in his own face. You know?
I think there’s the “tears of a clown” philosophy to him. I never saw him depressed. I never saw it. Just the opposite. But I think the reaction, what he did, the way he always was entertaining, always joking with the band, it was just a constant stream of insanity and genius. That was Robin Williams. He was so down to earth and kind. You’re like, Robin’s the biggest movie star in the world. He just came off Mrs. Doubtfire, which was the biggest movie ever, and he was so down to earth.
He wouldn’t hide behind his entertainer’s heart. He had a really big heart as well, and I get emotional thinking about it, man. I don’t know. He was a gift on Earth, and I just wish he knew how much he meant to all of us, and how many lives he affected, including mine. I wish I could have told him more. The fact that I was trading lines with Robin Williams was amazing, and Billy Crystal. The fact I got to know them as people was something completely unexpected.
We were so looking forward to the movie coming out. This is Father’s Day. It’s Ivan Reitman, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams. It’s going to be huge! Now, I knew the first problem was that we filmed in the summer and fall of ’96. By the time the movie was ready to come out in spring of ’97, their biggest promo of the movie was “Fly.” They kept playing “Fly” because “Fly” was like #10 on the charts. I’m like, “Why isn’t there more of the movie in here?”
I think that was my first tip off. I’m like, maybe something’s wrong here. That was our first big movie premiere. We got to bring our moms, walk down the red carpet. I’m like, “Whatever happens, it’s going to be amazing, because this movie’s going to be big. And you know what? They’re probably going to see how good of an actor I am, and I’m probably going to be the next Brad Pitt, because it’s just so obvious. Look my talents!”
Father’s Day came out and had the worst opening for the three of them [Reitman, Williams, and Crystal] of all time. The movie quickly faded away, and that was it for Father’s Day, and I think that was it for my acting career. Yes, I got to be in Scooby-Doo, Joe Dirt 2, and Sharknado 2, 3, and 6, but I think you could see where my skill set lay after that.
But yeah, what an experience. [I was] broken-hearted to hear about what happened to Robin, but I’m always grateful for the memories.
Speaking of Scooby-Doo, do you remember much from your time on that set? Did you get a chance to hang with the actors – Sarah Michelle Geller, Freddie Prinze Jr., or Matthew Lillard? You all became famous around the same time.
MCGRATH: Well, it’s interesting you say that, and I just was thinking about it for the first time. There was a lot of simpatico between all of us because their careers were ascending in the acting world and ours were in the music [world] at the same time. If you were in a teenage movie in the ’90s, you were going on TRL. You’re going on MTV. Our paths were definitely intersecting.
It’s an honor, because I’m a fan of all of them, and became more so after the movie. We actually spent five days filming that on an island called Moreton Island off the Gold Coast over in Australia. I didn’t know what to expect. We went out there in a shuttle and literally docked on Spooky Island.
There was no behind the scenes. The dock, what you see in the movie, the boat, that exact dock, you see [them] in Spooky Island. I wasn’t ready for that. I’ve done some movies where it’s all a facade. You walk on set and you walk off, and it’s just normal life.
We were on Spooky Island for five days. Now, what they did is, they dumped out all the model agencies in Australia and put all these beautiful people on Spooky Island for five days. Let’s just say these Australians liked to party. I remember it being one gigantic five-day party. There was no time or space. There was just booze and certain rave drugs, and just insanity happening. I’m like, “Oh my God, this…” Look, I got into music to party and have some fun. The fun is already here on Spooky Island. We had so much fun on that shoot. I remember after day five I go, “You guys have got to get me out of here. I cannot take this anymore. These Australians are killing me. These beautiful extras are destroying the band.”
We had a ton of fun. Matthew Lillard was very ingratiating, very cool. Sarah Michelle was awesome. They were so busy learning the lines, doing a lot, they didn’t have a lot of time. We were thrown into the extras world, but they were doing their own thing. Matthew Lillard was more social than the rest of them. At that time Freddie and Sarah Michelle were already linked up. They were all booed up. They weren’t involved in the messiness.
But I remember Matthew Lillard dipping his toes in some of that. It was just an incredible experience, super fun. I will still walk through a mall today, and a four or five-year-old kid will go, “Scooby-Doo! Scooby-Doo!” When the movie first came out, I didn’t understand. We had a little bit of a role, but not that much where a young kid will recognize me. I go to the parents, “How do they know?” [The mom] stops me mid-sentence. “Mark, we watched the movie 20 times a day.”
Guest Starring In Law & Order: SVU (2005)
How did you even end up doing an episode of Law & Order? Was the show trying to lampoon the potential ridiculousness of a typical rock star’s life? You’re being stalked on the show, right?
MCGRATH: Yeah, absolutely. Law & Order always takes things that are topical and they make shows about it. This was an interesting one. I think I just fit the topical moment. [My character] seems to have an experience with people stealing my sperm. Sorry for being so graphic.
Then somehow my character gets charged with rape and all this crazy stuff. The weirdest thing that happened for me was, a couple of years later my dad calls me on the phone. He goes, “Mark, are you in trouble with the law or something right now?” He goes, “Yeah, a friend of mine said that there’s a sexual assault charge and something about stealing your sperm?”
He scared me, because my dad was very practical. He didn’t get involved in hysteria at all. Very calm. I go, “Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What?” I go, “I haven’t even heard… No.” I was on the phone and I hung up the phone. I went to call my manager. I go, “What was he talking about? Stealing…” I went, “Oh. This moron watched a Law & Order episode and thinks it’s real!” I need to call my dad back and he goes, “Oh.” It was like a Three’s Company episode where everybody was just miscommunicating.
But I’m a huge Ice-T fan. Ice-T was the punk rock of the mid and late ’80s. To get to trade lines with him was really great. We were neighbors in the Hollywood Hills for a little bit before he got Law & Order, and then he got it and he left and I never saw him again. It was great reconnecting with him.
What’s interesting about that is, I didn’t read the whole script. I only read my part, so I had an idea what it was about, but I didn’t know what the layers or what the real through line was about. [But] the fact that I got to work with Ice-T was amazing. TV works very quickly. They shoot the scenes. They move to get two takes. They shoot some other shots, open the shoulder shots and boom, quick. It was a very fast experience and that was great for me. But just like I said, getting to work with Ice-T.
I have a hard time separating myself going, “Oh, this is another character,” so I always feel like I’m just playing myself, which is weird, and that’s the hardest thing to do. I think that’s why you’re not seeing me in Avatar and all these great movies. But I really love acting because it scares the [shit] out of me. But I think there’s a reason why I never had any Mark Wahlberg success in it. I’m just not that good at it, and the same could be said for singing.
Almost Winning Celebrity Big Brother & Starring On The Celebrity Apprentice (2018, 2011)
It turns out you’re great at playing Big Brother, though! That’s not an easy show. It’s so physical and demanding, and it’s so political, socially. I used to have to watch a lot of Big Brother for work, so I give you major props for coming in second. I don’t think I could’ve handled it.
MCGRATH: First of all, Rachel, in just talking to you in the minutes we’ve had here, you would do fine. Your stunts are going to be great. It would take you far. I say that because that’s what happened to me. Now, you seem like a smart girl. You could find out where the landmines are, stay away from them. The thing I did in Big Brother with people I hate is float. I floated. I was just kind, nice. I didn’t cause anything.
I made myself valuable to the house by doing a lot of dishes and things like that. I didn’t get involved in any drama and I was nice to everybody. It’s a simple rule that will take you far, and that’s something that served me well. I was one question away from winning the whole thing. If I won, I was going to take Ross [Matthews] back, because Ross and I had a deal. Ross won and he took Marissa [Winokur] back. She won because everybody was mad at Ross.
Big Brother was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I kid you not. Yes, we have the expedited version. I think I was in there for 37 days total. [Normal Big Brother contestants have to] make it to 92, 94 days. When I’m watching Big Brother now and I see day 84, I get anxiety. I go, “I don’t know how these guys do that.”
Now, when you see the description of who they are, like, “Hey, I’m Jim. I’m 22. I’m unemployed,” you can see how they could possibly make it through 90 plus days there. But us, we have our own businesses, our own families, our own lives, and that was the hardest thing, being away from your family, your business. The only “celebrity” thing you’re afforded is that it’s shorter. Everything else is the same. There’s no internet. There’s no news. You cannot whistle. You cannot sing. Nothing. I found myself whistling doing the dishes, [and a voice goes], “Mark, please stop singing.”
Oh yeah, you can’t sing on the Big Brother set because the cameras are always rolling and even humming a tune subjects CBS to copyright issues, right?
MCGRATH: Right. You can’t whistle because of the copyrights, so it is brutal in that sense, and it’s the crushing hours of boredom.
Are you allowed to bring books? Any written material?
MCGRATH: No books. Omarosa [Manigault Newman] had a bible that I would read to pass the time. I’m not overly religious. I have some spirituality about me, but the Bible was just… I just read it. We would read the ingredients on the bag of food, things in the refrigerator, just to occupy your mind. You’re dealing with insanity. Metta World Peace was going to lose his mind. A 6’8″ 240-pound athlete is going to lose his mind in there. We were all concerned about that. He actually left the compound a couple of times. I probably shouldn’t even tell you that. They had to bring him back. He was going crazy in there.
What’s crazy is, you are inside a box, inside a box, inside a box. Another thing about the celebrity thing that made it difficult, we never went outside because they were always doing quick turnarounds with the challenges, so we never [sat by the] by the pool. You never see us lounging around. We were inside dealing with airplane air for 37 days. There were so many things beating you up, and those lights are on until 2AM, and they’re back on again at 6AM.
That does sound excruciating.
MCGRATH: I’m talking stage TV production lights. When you see guys wearing sunglasses taking naps you go, “Look at this douchebag.” It’s only because you’re trying to get some rest. It’s just a constant assault on your senses, your emotions, and so it makes you do crazy dumb things and provides for compelling TV. Let me just say, they know what they’re doing over there, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life, but it was one of the toughest as well.
I was one question away [from winning]. My wife reminds me of this every day. One question away from winning Celebrity Big Brother. You know how on the The Price Is Right and you bid a dollar because you think everybody’s gone over? If I just had one second – they asked how many seconds was challenge number three? Nobody knew, but I was dumb enough to guess the answer. We were all dumb enough to guess the answer. Ross was just the closest. If I had said one second, I would’ve won Celebrity Big Brother.
How did you deal with the physical challenges? Those look so taxing.
MCGRATH: As the oldest guy in the house, I wasn’t going to beat anybody physically. You had James Maslow from Big Time Rush who was working out every day. You had Chuck Liddell, the toughest guy in the world. You got an NBA championship athlete in there. Brandi Glanville, she’s the strongest chick ever. She is so tough and she’s just a really good athlete. That wasn’t going to be my [thing] you know? But if you play like me, you also run the risk of getting eliminated early. There’s always a couple of floaters that make it towards the end, and thankfully I did.
You mentioned Omarosa earlier. She became infamous for her early role on The Apprentice, and she briefly worked for Trump in the White House. In 2021, Omarosa wrote a tell-all book about her experiences there. You were on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2011. Did you get a chance to compare notes with Omarosa?
MCGRATH: She scared the hell out of me going in there because she had just recently left the White House, two or three weeks [before]. It was so pressed that she got to bypass all these things to get into the house because they wanted her so badly. By the way, we all [wanted her in the cast], because her in the cast was going to make for great viewing, and we’re going to get another 2 million viewers because Omarosa was on there.
I didn’t have a lot in common with her going in. I thought she’s probably going to be the person that I had the least in common with. She ended up being a good friend of mine. I like Omarosa a lot, and I think you would too if you spend some time with her. She’s an open book, fully transparent, but she scared the shit out of all of us in the house.
According to Omarosa, we apparently had six months left as a country. Ross was great at getting information out of Omarosa. A lot of it made it into TMZ and it got a lot of media traction apart from just the game because of the things that Ross and Omarosa would talk about.
Omarosa would cook food every day for us. She was super delightful to be around. She knows exactly what she’s doing, when she needs to be the villain. She knows to turn on that button so much so that a couple weeks we were like, “Omarosa we’re not even buying it. We’ll let you do your TV thing, but we’re not even buying. We know what you really are.” She ended up going to my 50th birthday in Hawaii, believe it or not, and so she ended up being a friend of mine. I haven’t seen her in a long time, but it was really fascinating to hear her talk about Trump and compare our experiences.
We had similar experiences [on The Apprentice]. When I was on The Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump was nothing but a gentleman to me. He didn’t say anything untoward. I know it’s fashionable to change the narrative and all that, but I just don’t want [to misrepresent] my experience. I’m not a liar either. I like to speak the truth.
I didn’t see him be disrespectful to anybody there. In fact, when I got fired from Celebrity Apprentice, he called me in his office the next day. We had a 45-minute sit down, [and he] talked to me. “Mark, if you ever need a reference or a letter, I’m happy to write it for you.” I believe him. I believe he would’ve done that. I had no idea he was going to become the President of the United States.
I used to see Donald Trump at gay bars in New York City back in the day, like at trendy places in New York. I know the guy is a lot more liberal than what’s put out to be. I think he found a lane, and I don’t think anybody was more surprised at becoming president than Donald Trump himself. He’s a brand builder. That’s what he does for himself. He saw a lane for himself and went for it.
It was interesting to me that he’d become this person that I really didn’t see on Celebrity Apprentice, and Omarosa said the same thing. That’s why she goes, “Why do you think I went to work for him?” Now, things changed vastly for her when she got into the White House, and she felt like she might’ve been used a little bit. She was very transparent about that.
The ’90s Nostalgia Touring Circuit (2010-2015)
At its inception, what was your experience like producing the annual SummerLand tour with Everclear’s Art Alexakis?
MCGRATH: We had a great time. We had success. We sold out the Greek. Some shows were better than others. I think we were a little early on the nostalgia tip back then.
I think the stink of a decade needs about 15 years until it really goes away, so some of it was still wafting. But you could see there was something there. I thought, “Art, this is great. I’m having fun. I want to incorporate female acts, R&B acts, and hip-hop acts. I want to go full ‘90s on this thing.” Mix it up. [Art] wanted more punky, alternative rock. I go, “Well, that’s not really my vision,” so we had a little bit of a disagreement and then went our separate ways, and I started the Under The Sun tour.
He continued with SummerLand and is still doing it today. I like Art a lot. He’s a friend of mine. I think it taught us both a lot about how to take care of people, bands, crews, and all that. I had a wonderful experience with SummerLand. We just had different visions of what they were going to be.
Then my Under The Sun tours, I think they stopped around 2015. It was a lot of work for me, and I was building this brand that hopefully would go on forever, but it was plateauing, and I just don’t think the nostalgia was there yet. I’ve already seen [today’s] ticket sales. It’s been twice, three times what it was back then. So I think now is the time to do it. Fire it back up again. It’s like a vintage car I have my garage. I might take Under The Sun out again if people are interested.
Say you could curate a ‘90s cruise. Who would you book on that cruise? What’s your dream lineup?
MCGRATH: Oh my God. Could I have anybody?
MCGRATH: Well, I think Alanis Morissette would be my first go-to. I think her record is just so iconic. She’s such a great performer. She just recently went around with Garbage, another band I’d love to have, and they broke records.
I would throw in a lot of bands I’m friends with, the Better Than Ezras, Tonic. You want to put your friends out there, you know? Collective Soul. Goo Goo Dolls I’d have on there for sure. Veruca Salt I’d have on there. I bring Jewel on. I bet these are all impossible people because they all could do their own cruises, but you let me go. You said I could curate whatever I wanted.
Throw the Chili Peppers in there while we’re being greedy. I would throw in Naughty By Nature. I’d want to make it a true ’90s experience.
If you were going to turn on TRL in ’98, ’99, what would you see? Backstreet Boys, you’re welcome. I’d just bring them all in and have this incredible ’90s cavalcade of bands and hits and assault your senses where you just went, “Oh my God, what did I see?” Kind of like when we went to Spooky Island and filmed Scooby-Doo. That would be my cruise. Your mind would be blown.