Savouring the sweet, sweet taste of success

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 November, 1999, 12:00am

There's no accounting for taste. What do you do when you grow up in the United States devoted to both The Jam - golden boys of Britain's resurgent mod movement of the late 1970s, cocky leaders of the New Wave and self-appointed political agitators - and Kiss, the American rockers in lurid face paint who inspired the likes of Marilyn Manson? First, you grow up confused. Then you form your own band to explore your musical schizophrenia - and in Rodney Sheppard's case, find yourself speeding down the rock 'n' roll highway . . . in demand at festivals, appearing on chat shows and gleefully living out every This Is Spinal Tap cliche illustrating life in Celebrityville.

'We were confused kids!' said guitarist Sheppard from a Los Angeles studio, where he and his Sugar Ray colleagues were covering a Brian Eno song for the soundtrack album to Leonardo DiCaprio's latest guaranteed blockbuster, The Beach.

'We played Judas Priest and Cult covers when we started out, and this band is so democratic, with all five of us throwing in ideas, you can hear rap, reggae, house, rock 'n' roll, you name it, in there. We've always said we'll try anything. We do. We're still confused kids! 'The original purpose of this band was to play at parties and impress girls. Nothing's changed - we're just getting better at it!' 'It was so like Hollywood when we were asked to do this track,' said Sheppard. 'We were just asked out of the blue.' And that coveted spot on the soundtrack is a mark of Sugar Ray's new status as a top-flight attraction.

'We've been a band for 11 years, but suddenly everything's happened very quickly. It's a small miracle; I never thought we'd get past the first record, so this is all we could ask for.' 'This' includes a recent Rolling Stone cover story and repeat invitations to appear on the Late Show With David Letterman. 'We've done Letterman three times already - and it's just like the Rolling Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 60s!' said the unfailingly enthusiastic Sheppard. 'It's even filmed in the same theatre. The first time I totally freaked, it was a childhood fantasy, it was the greatest thing ever!' And that wasn't all. 'We opened for the Stones at three gigs on their tour last year,' Sheppard went on. 'They are just the greatest band because they're still like happy kids. Jagger is the best frontman, Charlie Watts, although you wouldn't believe it because he's so quiet, is the friendliest of the lot, and Keith Richards, well . . . he's sloppy, staggering, he's like a happy little boy. He's a real road dog! 'But the greatest day of my life, the biggest thrill, was in New York recently, when we actually met Paul McCartney. He was a guest star at a Buddy Holly tribute; I grew up listening to the Beatles, too, and he was just perfect. Such a nice guy.' So Sheppard, clearly moving in more exclusive circles these days, continues to be star-struck, even though he can now be found performing at the leading gigs of the day.

'We've just come off a US tour with the Goo Goo Dolls, which was very, very good. It was a real professional tour and they have an army of fans. Fastball played the dates, too, and we all got along, it was all very comfortable,' said Sheppard. 'But if you think of Spinal Tap and life on the road, I tell ya, we've lived out every single thing in that movie - it's so accurate about bands on tour, as most will admit.' And with tongues firmly in cheeks, Sugar Ray named their recently released album 14:59, in reference to Andy Warhol's celebrated comment that everybody will enjoy 15 minutes of fame. Sugar Ray would like all those who dismissed them as one-hit wonders after 1997 single Fly took off to know they're still in business. 'But the title is also us being smart asses, just in case anyone thinks we're taking ourselves too seriously. We make fun of ourselves, and that's a big part of this band,' said Sheppard.

Another big part of it is Craig 'DJ Homicide' Bullock, who isn't a mere concession to hip-hop or house trendiness, as some would have it, but a pillar of the Sugar Ray establishment. His fingerprints also make an indelible impression on the thrash metal, polka (believe it or not), pop and Police-inspired rock of 14:59.

'DJ Homicide isn't there just for the scratching,' said Sheppard. 'He adds textures to the sound, is part of the writing, and provides loops and effects so our drummer [Stan Frazier] can play acoustic guitar on stage . . . and live, he makes the show. He's like a vaudeville act!' The act promises to be crazier than ever next month, when Sugar Ray step back briefly on to the road for a series of gigs culminating in a New Year's Eve bash in Tempe, Arizona. 'They have the Fiesta Ball there every year,' said Sheppard. 'It's a big street fair . . . and it should be pretty insane!'