Behind the McMusic : McG, Director of Hip Videos for MTV and VH1, Started Rolling Credits as a Kid Back in Newport

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone channel-surfing to MTV and VH1 over the past two years has gotten an eyeful of images sprung from the mind of one Joseph McGinty Nichol, known since infancy by his family nickname, McG.

"Lately, it's McG-TV, as opposed to MTV," chuckles Lewis Largent, the channel's vice president of music programming. "He's done a few videos we've played."

Says Mike Tierney, Largent's counterpart at VH1: "We're not just talking about somebody who makes popular videos for us, but someone who hits home runs with our audience."

McG, 29, grew up in Newport Beach, and his rise in the video world coincides with, and has been boosted by, the burgeoning worldwide success of bands from the Orange County alternative-rock scene.

His ties to Sugar Ray, which plays a sold-out show tonight at the Hollywood Palladium, are almost familial: a childhood friend of the core members, McG is considered an adjunct member of the band.

He has served as musical advisor and songwriting collaborator, as producer of Sugar Ray's first album and, perhaps most important, as a mediator and in-house psychotherapist who helped keep the band together on a couple of occasions when it seemed about to spin apart. Oh, yes--he's made a couple of massively popular videos for Sugar Ray too.

And the way he's connecting with the MTV crowd hasn't been lost on Hollywood--along with McG's rock-video and commercial work, he's being eyed for feature-film directing.

The reel of hits McG has directed for million-selling bands could stock a compilation album of late-'90s alterna-rock nuggets: "Santeria" by Sublime. "The Way" by Fastball. "Got the Life" by Korn. "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" and "Why Don't You Get a Job?" by the Offspring. "Walking on the Sun" by Smash Mouth. "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies. "One Hit Wonder" by Everclear. "To All the Girls" by Wyclef Jean. And "Fly" and "Every Morning" by Sugar Ray.

McG's visual signature, say MTV and VH1 executives, is his use of bright, vivid color. His core theme is fun: "There's always a party around the corner that's going to pop up at any time," says VH1's Tierney. "He creates a feeling that is really in sync with the late '90s, of fun and frivolity and a big party going on."

Crowds of dancers populate most of McG's clips--a predilection for Busby Berkeley-like flash, tumult and fleshy titillation he traces to his older sister plunking him down as a boy to watch Hollywood musicals with her.

Another trademark: McG likes to silence the music and bring the action to a standstill--a sort of pregnant pause to nudge viewers used to music video's unyielding frenzy--then restart the clip with a fresh burst of audiovisual energy.

"We watch as many as 10 or 12 [new] videos a week, and he's the one director who, when it comes on, people know who directed it without having to look at their [credits]," Tierney says.

Today, McG is a lanky 6 feet 2 of friendly, upbeat enthusiasm. People who know and work with him invariably invoke phrases such as "positive energy."

"When a take turns out the way he wants it, he just screams with joy--'That's it! It's so rad!' " says Offspring leader Dexter Holland. "He's really open to suggestions, but not in a rolling-over kind of way. If he thinks something is important, he'll tell you."

Says Paul Pontius, a friend of McG's since 1991, who sprang from playing in O.C. rock bands to signing Korn and working as a top talent scout for Immortal Records: "I don't know one person that doesn't like him."

Twenty years ago, McG was scampering around the Newport Beach Tennis Club acting out rock 'n' roll fantasies with his newfound best friend, Mark McGrath, the Sugar Ray front man and Rolling Stone magazine cover-boy to be.

"We were bored kids who had to hang out while our mothers played," McG recalled recently, perched under an umbrella on the patio of a cavernous Van Nuys TV studio where he was shooting a commercial for the Gap. "We'd be running around, playing air guitar to the janitor's radio. We'd fight over who got to play air guitar and who got to play air drums. We were just infatuated with the prospect of entertaining."

When McG got a job at a surf shop at age 12, McGrath landed there too, and the buddies would kill time with long debates about music that helped hone their ideas and their wide-ranging tastes, which ran from punk and metal to pop ballads. McG especially loved flamboyant, larger-than-life rockers, with Freddie Mercury of Queen his chief idol.

From Surf Shop to Studio

In high school, McG was an awkward kid who used his surf-shop earnings to rent recording studios so he could tape rock 'n' roll odes to girls he wanted to impress.

He had the gumption to front what he calls now a "terrible" high school dance band called the Q Tips, with McGrath ostensibly as the supporting singer who was always "standing right next to me stealing the show."

McG figured his future lay in the business side of music. The Shrinky Dinx, who later changed their name to Sugar Ray, formed a few years after McG and band members McGrath, Stan Frazier, Rodney Sheppard and Murphy Karges graduated from high school. (Karges went to University High in Irvine, McG and the others to Corona del Mar High School; the band's deejay, Craig Bullock, joined after Sugar Ray made its first album.) McG dreamed of being their Rick Rubin figure, a producer-slash-label honcho who would launch the band to fame.

McG majored in psychology at UC Irvine, intending to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist. But after graduating, he says, he couldn't face more years of study and instead started his own company, G Recordings, floating it with earnings from a job driving a delivery truck.

McGrath, who went to USC, had dropped out of the Shrinky Dinx and fallen into a yearlong, post-collegiate depressive funk.

"He wasn't working; he was just sitting around. I was a little worried about him," McG says. McGrath eventually joined McG on the job, sweating over cargo; McG says he thinks the working-stiff perspective helped his friend decide that fronting a rock band wouldn't be so bad, after all.

Later, in another crisis for Sugar Ray, it was McG who persuaded his buddy of the merits of the band's breakthrough hit, "Fly." McGrath, deeply insecure about his singing voice, wanted to play screaming wrath-metal, not the lilting pop ditty the other members had confected after he stormed out of a rehearsal.

"McG has been very involved from Day One as the psychologist, therapist and [musical] collaborator," says McGrath, recalling how he almost quit the band over "Fly."

"He said, 'Where else you gonna go--work at Del Taco?' "

In 1993, McG begged $3,500 from his father, the owner of a business that tested new drugs for pharmaceutical companies, and made a video of a Shrinky Dinx number, "Caboose," that memorably featured McGrath in ice-hockey gear. It was the first video for McG, whose hobby had been still photography. The homemade clip was the band's ticket to a deal with Atlantic Records.

McG had signed the Shrinky Dinx to G Recordings, but he let them out of the deal, thinking Atlantic might balk at sharing the band with another company (in fact, such joint-label releases are commonplace). It was an expensive mistake, in light of Sugar Ray's eventual multi-platinum success.

But maybe if he'd become a successful record mogul, McG wouldn't have had time to become the architect of "McG TV."

He hooked up with Korn through his friend Pontius, while the Huntington Beach band was still unknown, and shot three videos to accompany its million-selling debut album--financing the first one, "Blind," out of his pocket.

Korn's label boss, Happy Walters, became a McG fan, and assigned him to do three more videos for the hit rap group Cypress Hill, an act Walters managed. In 1997, McG got an assignment that required lots of imagination: shoot a video for Sublime's "Santeria," somehow working around the fact that front man Brad Nowell was dead and there was no footage of him singing the song.

The result: a humorous treatment that drew upon Sergio Leone westerns and "Star Wars," with Nowell appearing as a shimmering Obi-Wan Kenobi ghost-figure who communes with the video's star, Nowell's loyal Dalmatian, Lou Dog. It was the first in a succession of hits for McG, an auteur without formal film training.

"I was just reared on MTV," he says. "I knew what I ultimately wanted to see. I knew what was exciting. My whole style was a reaction to what was happening with grunge. I thought, 'Let's make it fun.' I've always been very frustrated by people who don't think fun and artistry go hand in hand."

His Vision Is Turning Hollywood's Head

McG has been keeping a frenetic pace lately--he says he works seven-day, 100-hour weeks--churning out three music videos a month, shooting occasional commercials and putting his name in play as a potential feature-film director.

"I'm very close [to landing a feature]," McG says. "[Hollywood] is reacting positively to the way I'm reaching out to the MTV audience.

"The type of feature I would make would have a huge music presence; I never want to leave the music behind. My pace is super-hectic, and I'm looking to slow down. But I'm so lucky to have this opportunity, I don't want to slow it down. I want to keep going."

McG will produce at least part of the debut album by an Oasis-like Fresno band, the Underdogs, that recently signed to Immortal Records. He and McGrath hope to start their own record label together. Still, as other opportunities proliferate, McG sees his involvement with Sugar Ray as fundamental.

"What I'm most proud of is that Sugar Ray and I, and Mark and I, have been able to maintain our friendship through some weird, adverse circumstances," McG says. "I want to continue with them. They're my best friends, my inspiration and the source of what brings me the most happiness."

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