Interview: Mark McGrath Talks Dark Side of the 90s

(Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Building upon its successful Dark Side of the Ring documentary series, Vice premiered a spin-off called Dark Side of the 90s. The first episode chronicled trash television and Jerry Springer’s rise, while next week’s will focus on the legendary club The Viper Room. The series is hosted by Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath.

RELATED: Dark Side of the 90s Trailer Teases Vice TV’s Newest Docuseries

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese got to speak to Mark McGrath about Dark Side of the 90s prior to its premiere. They spoke all about the series, his personal ties to The Viper Room, a strange concert experience for WWE, and comparisons to Ethan Hawke. Check out the full interview below.

Tyler Treese: Mark, absolute pleasure to speak with you. I’ve been blasting 14:59 all week in preparation. A great album.

Mark McGrath: Ah, dude, I love hearing that, man. That record was good to us and that was the record that said, you know what? I think we might be here for a while.

How did you come on board with this project? This is the second iteration of Dark Side, we had Dark Side of the Ring focusing on pro wrestling. Had you seen any of that?

Yeah, I stumbled upon it. I’ve never been a giant wrestling fan, and the Dark Side series is so compelling. I was immediately drawn into it. So I just casually, when I was surfing, once I saw the Dark Side of the Ring like, wow, this is really well done. They’re really going in a deep dive. It’s not just the same photos over and over. They’ve got the major players involved. That’s what I kind of took away and I forgot about it. I went on with my life, right? So last Christmas, I get a call from the people at Vice. “Listen, you were a Secret Santa gift for some of our employees, but they don’t know it’s you. So, you’re doing a Zoom call with them and they’re gonna be surprised at you.” So let’s just say they have a sense of humor over there at Vice. I was the ironic Secret Santa gift.

So when I popped up, it was a bunch of producers, really hipster-type folks that were just really super cool. We all got along really well. We forgot about even like what the topic was, and at the end, after talking for a while they said, “Would you ever want to do something with Vice or be involved in Vice or maybe be a part of a documentary?” So I go, “Sure. Give me a call. I’m up to.” This is Hollywood baby things get done like that, but I just didn’t think anything of that and it went away and then this offer came in about two months later. Now they’re doing the Dark Side of the 90s, would I like to be a narrator.

Now, I don’t want to say it came from that Vice Secret Santa, but boy it sure was a bit of serendipity. The people involved in this, the production team, weren’t on the phone call, but I think it was in the air for me to sort of be a part of this. Towards certainly the end of the 90s, I became at least one of the faces of the 90s, and I was honored to get chosen because I’m telling you, like I said before, these episodes are so well done and researched. I thought I knew everything about the 90s. I was there, and I was fascinated by how little I actually knew and how much I learned.

Speaking about living it, the second episode is on The Viper Room. I’m sure that was a very personal subject matter for you. I read that you met your wife there and proposed. How personal was that episode for you?

Couldn’t have been more personal. In all the paparazzi footage that you’re going to see and there’s a ton of, you can see my elbow and outfit. You know what I mean? Like if you waited two more seconds on the edit, you’d see me pop in. All my friends are in there. I remember Adam Duritz bartending there. I met my girlfriend there, who is now my wife, like you mentioned. In fact, I went back to The Viper Room and asked her to propose there. So The Viper Room has so many connections for me. It was before Sugar Ray fame. It was trying to sneak in and begging the doorman to get in. Then that was the first place I went when we got a little fans because being able to walk into the room as a legitimate “success story” was quite a thrill. I’ve spent many a night there. Some I don’t remember, some I do remember, but it felt like I was kinda going through my own 90s yearbook ironically, when I was narrating that episode in particular. That one really, really got to me.

An episode like that, where you’re dealing with people you know, is it a bit weird to be narrating over it?

You know, it would be because in the past they’ve done things in the 90s like say on grunge and you get that English voiceover guy. [Does an English accent] “And then he came in and took over from Seattle,” and it used the same stock image photo that twists and turns over and over. It goes back to that photo 30 seconds later. It’d be totally weird if it was done like that. There’s zero tabloid energy to the Dark Side episodes. They are so well researched. I mean, Robin Antin, who’s a good friend of mine, started the Pussycat Dolls at The Viper Room. She’s a huge part of the episode of The Viper Room. My best friend was going out with her at the time when she was putting the costumes together for The Viper Room.

I remember Adam Duritz bartending, like I mentioned earlier. Randall Slavin, who did like all the iconic photographs that you see still today that came from The Viper Room, he’s a huge part and he’s so eloquent in the way he kinda tells his story. So it’s just such a powerful look at The Viper Room. Not only that, you could see the paparazzi starting to develop from The Viper Room. From the energy, because it was a safe place for celebrities to go, but because of that, there’s a lot of what became the paparazzi hanging outside. So I think it’s the first time you really have footage of a club, but people going in and out and all kinds of states. So it was fascinating.

I think programs like this are important because we tend to romanticize the past. What I really liked about the two episodes I saw is that it points out the good, but it’s also is a realistic look. You see the tragedies. You lived through the 90s, you’re a big part of the 90s. How interesting is it going back over these events and even learning new details that you didn’t even know?

You know, I thought I knew them all. Then you hear about The Viper Room and how it kind of went down. It’s the Dark Side of the 90s so it’s tipping your hand and what it’s going to be, but we’ve all been fooled by hot button topics like that, or names like that. Like, “Ooh, this is going to be a dark side. It’s nothing that we all don’t know already.” They’re not afraid to really take a look and peek into the shadows and uncover some of the stones that it’s kind of uncomfortable for some of the people being interviewed to talk about, but there’s a trust there. The dark sides you’re able to get out, the real stories.

I mean, when I went to do the Beanie Babies episodes, to do the voiceover for it, I’m like, okay, this one I’m not that excited. But did you know the Beanie Babies involves counterfeiting and murder? I mean, who knew? It’s just that, it’s truly amazing what they do because like you say, we look back at everything with rose-tinted glasses. Ah, the 90s were so cool, and yeah, they were cool. I mean, I was there, Tyler, but there was a lot of things terrible about the 90s. Whether that is the development of technology. Is it incredible, which is in complete control of your lives today, or is it bad? It’s not afraid to take a look at how it started and why we are where we are today. Also with reality TV started in the 90s with the trash TV and all that. It really peels back a lot of layers that maybe forgot about, or don’t want to remember. And that’s, what’s so fascinating about the Dark Side of the 90s.

I think I uncovered a little bit of a crossover we can do between Dark Side of the 90s and Dark Side of the Ring because I was looking back at one of your strangest concerts. In January 2000, Sugar Ray played at the opening of WWF New York. There were a ton of wrestlers there, The Rock, Chris Jericho, who hosts Dark Side of the Ring, and more. Vince McMahon said, “Anyone who enjoys live music has to like Sugar Ray. That’s what separates the truly great performers from those who just make good music.” Do you have any memories from that? Any stories to tell from that experience?

Boy, you want to talk about the dark side. I’m going to leave some names out. By the way, Vince McMahon, he’s today’s P. T. Barnum. For him to sell Sugar Ray like that before we went on, I’m like, “Oh my God, we’re destined to fail now.” I mean, they must think Nirvana is going to come out and walk on stage, but that was incredible. I remember being in Times Square, opening up the WWF, back then, cafe. I remember all the wrestlers were there and they all wore these fanny packs, all these fanny packs. I just thought it was kind of crazy. Cause this was [2000] and fanny packs weren’t even ironic then, you know what I mean? They were just fanny packs and it was super lame.

I go, what do those guys have in there? And they would open up the fanny pack and there would be all sorts of like pills and things like that. Things to keep them up and running and things to keep them slowing down. I mean, you think rockstars live a rockstar life. The wrestlers were on some other shit, if you know what I’m saying. So I remember that being ironically, a dark night, tying into me narrating the Dark Side of the 90s. The guys were great. They’re bigger-than-life characters. Obviously, they are when they’re in the wrestling ring, but it’s not a big surprise that there are some dark stories in the wrestling world, similar to the rock and roll world.

Ethan Hawke

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

So, sometimes stuff spreads online without it being true.

Noooooo [laughs]

So I did want to ask, there’s a line on your Wikipedia page that you get confused for Ethan Hawke so often that you sign autographs as him and vice versa. Does that actually happen?

This is actually a true story. I think it’s still on there, TMZ once was following what they thought was Mark McGrath in New York and you could hear the guy going, “Hey, Mark. Mark!” and then Ethan turns around and goes, “Ah, no, man, I’m not him,” and you could see the look of just shame on Ethan’s face. He’s like anybody, but that guy, because Ethan Hawke is this incredible Academy nominated actor. He’s a novelist, he’s a playwright. He’s got his own acting studio and then he gets constantly compared to the douche in Sugar Ray [laughs]. I feel bad for Ethan Hawke!

I’m telling you, bro, I can go to the airport. Sometimes I go through security, I’ll have a hat on or something and they’ll go, “Hey man. Um, I saw Training Day, man, you were so great.” I go, “No, I know you’re talking about Ethan. It’s not me.” They would get mad. They go, “Oh, you don’t have to be like that, man. I wouldn’t bother you or anything,” and so instead of them thinking Ethan Hawke is a dick, I started signing autographs as Ethan Hawke. So they wouldn’t think he was a dick. I’m happy to hear that he’s doing his side. I’ve never heard that he’s done that or he’s admitted to it, but I’ve done it just so people don’t think Ethan’s unpleasant, cause I’ve heard he’s nothing but a cool guy. But have you ever seen us both in the same room? That’s the question.

That is a good question.

One last thing, sorry, I talk a lot. So he was being interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today show, when I first started Extra and this was probably 2005, and he’s talking and he was really eloquent, in an intellectual manner about the novel he’s got out and it’s kind of a low energy, morning interview and Katie Couric is about to wrap it up. She goes, “Ethan, I’ve got to ask you something,” and he’s like, “Yes?” So behind them, there’s a split screen of me and him. And she goes, “Has anybody ever told you that you look like Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray?” and you feel a little piece of him die on that screen that day. He handled it like a gentleman. He’s like, “Yeah, I’ve been told that. Yeah. Yeah,” but he was not trying to go into it at all. So Ethan, if you read this man, I’m still apologizing my friend.

You mentioned The Viper Room being personal and the surprise of the Beanie Babies episode. Is there a favorite topic that you covered in this?

Yeah, The Viper Room was so personal to me. So I mean that that doesn’t even count because like I said, I met my wife there. I got engaged there.

That TV for teens episode is really cool because it tells basically the story of the Fox network. Now I know it’s kind of unbelievable to think about now, but back then there was three big networks and they weren’t challenged. They basically had a monopoly of the TV world and then Rupert Murdoch goes, “I’m on my own network.” So they started and they struggled and it didn’t last. This little show called The Simpsons came along and then changed TV forever. Then they found what their lane was with the Melrose Place, 90210, and now Fox is one of the big four networks, you know? Ironically, now there’s so many networks. It doesn’t even make a difference if you’ve got a streaming company. But that was a really fascinating topic to me and how that all came about and how there was just the ups and downs. They had to rob Peter to pay Paul to keep that network running.

That was a great one, and grunge in the Seattle sound. I thought I had heard it all, but you haven’t heard a lot from the Sub Pop guys. Now that I challenge any other series to really go in depth with the Sub Pop guys. It’s a real testament to the hard work of the production team on Dark Side of the 90s. They really got the players that you really wanted to hear it from in the episodes. The Baywatch episode, you have the executive producers and their whole take on the whole thing. So it’s just phenomenal. It’s so well done. I mean, you saw Dark Side of the Ring. It’s well done. It’s just about the 90s. They’ve got a wonderful series here. I’m honored to get a small part of it.

We’re seeing COVID restrictions ease up and after a year of not being able to see a lot of your fans, are you excited to tour again and do some shows?

Thank God. We’ve been playing probably since late March. We’re a band that has songs that appeal to a big demographic. I thank God. So we’re able to play the casinos or if there’s like a zucchini fest or something, Sugar Ray’s playing. I like to say if you smell funnel cake, Sugar Ray is playing. So we’ve been able to get out there and play a little bit. Depending on what state you’re in, there’s different protocols. Some people are wearing masks, some people aren’t, but it’s been really great to get back because music is so important. Not just for the artists, but for people. Music is life. Music is what we need right now.

So I know there’s been recent resurgences and it’s a virus. It’s going to do what’s going to do. Take care of yourself. That’s the best advice you could give. If you’re sick, probably stay home. I think a lot of common sense goes a long way. We’re still trying to figure this thing out. I know the Foo Fighters rescheduled some gigs and even Buckcherry had to. So it’s an interesting time. I think the tours are going to be a little difficult getting those started, but the one-offs that we’re doing, I, fortunately, haven’t had any problems yet.