Sugar Ray and its fans can thank Celebrity Big Brother for an assist in bringing about the group's first new album in 10 years.
Frontman Mark McGrath was part of the 2018 CBS show, finishing third overall. For his introduction package producers wanted some footage of the singer working in the recording studio; So, McGrath, guitarist and co-founder Rodney Sheppard, drummer Dean Butterworth and producer Michael Lloyd hit the studio and began jamming on an idea that turned into the new song "Higher Tree." "We forgot they were even filming this piece for Big Brother," McGrath tells Billboard. "We ended up writing a song and recording it right then and there. It just came magically." It also put the wheels in motion for the Little Yachty album, which comes out July 26.
"Two days after I came out of the (Big Brother) house, the guitar player said, 'Dude, you're not gonna believe this…'" McGrath says. It turns out producer Lloyd sent "Higher Tree" to BMG, which wanted to sign Sugar Ray to a new deal. "I was just so happy to get out of the house — 'Omigod, I'm free!' — and this comes along and I was like, 'You gotta be f***ing kidding me!'" McGrath says. "We figured out the economics of it that made it work for everybody. It doesn't have to be such a substantial investment anymore. It's all streaming now, and we'll make a couple (physical) copies for shits and giggles. So we were like, 'Yeah, let's get in the studio.' Michael Lloyd was willing to produce the rest of the record and we took our time. There was no fourth quarter we had to hit. It's the first time we've ever been in the studio with no expectations at all. I think we made a fun record."
And recapturing the fun of early Sugar Ray hits such as "Fly," "Every Morning" and "When It's Over" was key for Little Yachty's 11 tracks — up to and including a cover of Rupert Holmes' "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," which Sugar Ray has been performing live for many years.
"A couple songs started taking shape, and we were like, 'Do you want to make a modern-day yacht rock record?'" McGrath says. "We were like the yacht rock of the '90s — us, Smash Mouth, never the cool guys in town but we sold a lot of records and had our place in '90s history. We're a band that likes a good time; My buddy S*A*M Hollander says, 'Dude, you guys are the most Jimmy Buffett band of all time.' So we just decided to make a record our fans wanted to hear. It was a fun record to make, top to bottom."
One of the songs, "Make It Easy," has light hints of the "Fly" guitar riff; it was primarily Sheppard's work, according to McGrath, inspired by the guitarist's 30-year relationship with his wife. "When we first started getting together and wanted to be Faster Pussycat or L.A. Guns, he had been dating this girl for six months and was like, 'I think she's the one.' I was like, 'Dude, slow down. We're just starting a band.' But she's stuck by him since day one, and you can hear that in the lyrics." McGrath adds that "Make It Easy" "is a very Sugar Ray-sounding song. Rodney has written some of the most iconic riffs of the '90s, I say with no irony. The stuff he came up with on 'Fly,' 'Every Morning,' 'Someday.' These are classic licks. 'Make It Easy' fits in that family as well. Right away you know it's Sugar Ray."
The band has live dates scheduled throughout the summer and into the fall, though no formal tour to promote the album. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of Sugar Ray's first deal, with Atlantic Records, which led to the multi-platinum 1995 debut Lemonade and Brownies. "It feels like 10 seconds ago, really. Like yesterday," McGrath says. "I'm smart enough to know to stop and smell the flowers, but it's still going by so fast. I feel like we're one of the bands that didn't deserve the success we had. We got lucky. I feel like we're the band that snuck in backstage and didn't have a pass, but I'm still happy to be here. And I'm proud of the songs. I think they've been validated by the American public, not by us. I never thought that 25 years after we signed our first deal we'd be signing with another major label. That's really exciting."
Check out the album artwork and track list below.
Little Yachty track list:
1. Highest Tree
2. Coconut Bay
3. Good Good Lovin
5. Sunday Love
6. Perfect Mornings
7. All Of The Time
8. What The World Needs
9. Make It Easy
10. (Escape) The Pina Colada Song
11. California Gold