This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, we talk to music video director McG about his place in shaping the visuals of late-’90s MTV with his eye-popping clips for bands the era’s biggest bands, and about the differences between the music video worlds of ’98 and 2018.
“Dreamy” is how Joseph “McG” Nichol describes music in 1998, or at least his place in it, as a new director whose seminal music videos launched Ferraris into bridges, motorcycles over school buses and a list of rock bands — many of which hailing from his native Southern California — into the mainstream spotlight.
In an era when MTV and its daily video rotation remained the primary avenue to visually connect with your favorite band, burgeoning ‘90s acts like Sugar Ray, The Offspring, Smash Mouth, Korn and Barenaked Ladies all utilized McG’s distinctly audacious viewpoint — complete with grandiose stunts, retro dance routines and an exceedingly vibrant color palette — to help define themselves as the crop of bands that would ultimately shake rock’s focus away from Seattle and relocate it in newly energized Orange County.
And ‘98 was a particularly stellar year for McG, who at this time conjured the iconic setups for Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” Korn’s “Got The Life,” Smash Mouth’s “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby,” Fastball’s “The Way,” and his satirical masterpiece: The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).” Along with hip-hop widescreen auteur Hype Williams, McG essentially defined the look of MTV at the end of the millennium.
McG went on to direct and produce for film and television (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation, The O.C.), but 20 years removed from his days of shooting four-minute mini-musicals in SoCal, we got the man behind the camera to revisit exactly how he went about giving a fresh face to late-’90s rock on the radio.
Let’s take it from the top. How did someone get involved in shooting music videos back in the late ‘90s?
For me, it was very organic. I was going to school in Newport Beach, California in the ‘90s; I was pre-med, I intended to be a doctor, but my whole life was music and film. I had orange dreadlocks, I was going to see bands every single night, and I’d come to realize, “Hey, I’m friends with Gwen Stefani, Zach De La Rocha, Sublime, Stone Temple Pilots.” I was very influenced by Rick Rubin and how he started Def Jam out of his NYU dorm room, and I thought, “What if I could get all of these artists who are out of Orange County, and sort of reactionary to what was going on in Seattle, and start putting out some records and shooting some videos and bring this sound and feeling to the world?”
That’s what I hoped to do, and my point of entry was that I was best friends with Mark McGrath (of Sugar Ray) and he was super handsome! So in this age of video, I thought, “Why don’t we make a video? (‘Mean Machine’)” And it was really that simple. My whole life I’d been a still photographer so thought, “Let’s do it.” I didn’t know what it meant to have a producer or get permits, so we’d go out and shoot material and get chased by the cops and get in trouble — it was true do-it-yourself culture.
Of all the videos you made in 1998, The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” had to be the most fun to shoot, right?
That video was borne out of The Offspring being from Huntington Beach, and I new Dexter [Holland, frontman] a little bit. I got a call to come to the studio, and they wanted to play me their new single — which was sort of their take on suburban white kids who were obsessed with hip-hop culture. I remember going up to the studio and talking about it and it was clear that it wanted to be the color and excitement of Hype Williams but the mischief and playfulness of Spike Jonze. And that was kind of my identity in ‘98: I had my left foot in Hype Williams and my right foot in Spike Jonze. Sometimes that was right for a band, and sometimes it wasn’t. And unfortunately I don’t remember if that character [from the “Pretty Fly” video] had a name.
Let’s talk about the “One Week” Barenaked Ladies video. There are dancing devils in a royal court, a ‘70s car chase, a stunt-woman jumping a school bus with a motorcycle. Can you please unpack this one for us?
I always liked to make my videos in acts, like how a movie would have a three-act structure, because I never liked videos where if you saw the first 20 seconds of the video, you’ve already experienced everything to come… The beginning of that video is largely plucked from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where at the end Dick Van Dyke liberates all the children, and I just thought it would be fun if the scene were to be raided by these satanic sirens that came in and propelled us to the next beat.
And I always loved Starsky and Hutch so that explained the car chase, and I’ve been an Evel Knievel aficionado forever and thought it’d be fun to try the idea of Evel Knievel not being a man but a woman and jumping over a school bus. I just thought it would have maximum impact and value. I always reflect on being a kid and staying up and waiting for the Billy Idol “White Wedding” video to come on. and thinking about what kids would be excited about these days. And it proved to be exciting for a minute there.”
Are you okay with us calling Smash Mouth’s “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” video and all its Can’t Hardly Wait juxtapositions — and Jennifer Love Hewitt entering at the end — the most ‘90s music video of all time?
Hey, if you’re willing to give it that crown, I’m willing to accept it! It was exciting to have Jennifer Love Hewitt in it, and I thought it would be fun to introduce sort of a needle-scratch moment at the quintessential prom high school dance, where you have Steve [Harwell, frontman] from Smash Mouth going, ‘Hey, it’s my show,’ and I knew he had the personality to pull that off. I was a huge fan of Grease and all those big dance production numbers, and the fun of having 16 dancers in there to do their thing in a rock n’ roll capacity was novel and interesting.
When you worked with Korn, was there an altered approach, considering how much darker the band’s aesthetic was?
No, not really. There were music video directors who did it for themselves, and then those who did it for the bands. I always tried to do it for the band, to get to know the band, see what makes them tick and what defines them, and provide imagery that was supportive and would further who they are as they’re revealing themselves to the world.
And hanging out with Korn, it was clear they were a hip-hop band who loved hard rock, and thought it would be cool to fuse those two things together. They liked to have a good time even though they dealt with very dark themes and their goal was to create the heaviest music possible. So we thought it’d be a fun juxtaposition to do something more playful [for “Got The Life”] because it wouldn’t be what you’d expect from the sonic representation of their sound.
Your style was so distinct at this time, with your use of vibrant color, intense light and slow motion. Where did all that come from?
That was a product of a very active dream life. We were growing up in Orange County where nothing cool was happening; it was all tract housing and planned communities and the numbing depression of divorce culture. So we thought, “Anywhere but here, anything but what we live every day,”’ which was so void of soul, spirit and imagination. So we created these fantasy worlds. After all, we were in the shadow of Disneyland. I think that’s how you get the No Doubt record Tragic Kingdom… because you need to do something to keep yourself entertained in such a fundamentally cut-and-dry community.
So, I just thought, “Fast cars and color and stunts and dancing,” and the magic of Busby Berkeley-era Hollywood and the musical aspect. I tried to make mini-musicals every time we went out there, because I thought it was like going to a concert — I don’t like when a band stares at their shoes and thinks that’s enough. I like when Pink Floyd does The Wall. I like Queen. I like theater and rock ‘n’ roll and spectacle and effort.
I’m from New Jersey. My friends and I always assumed southern California was where everything was happening!
But isn’t that always the case? If you had asked The Sex Pistols in late ‘70s about London, they’d have said it was miserable, with everyone on government checks and the trash strike. And who knew that out of that would come The Damned, The Clash, The Sex Pistols — one of the greatest musical movements of all time.
And growing up in Orange County, we thought nothing cool would come from here. But you look at it and it’s the epicenter of the globe with board culture, with Volcom, Hurley, Quiksilver… who knew that out of those garages would be a culture that everyone would lock into?
For all those grand stunts you pulled in the ‘98 videos, which was the trickiest shot?
In the “Got The Life” video for Korn, the Ferrari we blew up was actually a Pontiac Fiero — we took the body kit off and it looked like a Ferrari — and we were going to launch it, and the stunt guy came up with a way to do it… he was going to ghost-ride it down this little tunnel by the L.A. River and send it up a ramp and off into this great, dramatic jump and explosion. And it barely got enough speed, got to the top of the ramp, trickled off, turned upside-down and just sat there. It was the most colossal failure. We had to try it again with a totally different methodology, where we had a catapult system and we launched that sucker all the way across the river and smashed it into a bridge. To this day we laugh about that epic fail.”
How do you think music videos factored into artists’ repertoires in 1998 versus 2018?
In 1998, you had a unifying factor in MTV, where people were very excited to sit around and watch the same videos come on, and that’s how you connected with the bands you liked — and more importantly you would connect together, because they were all forced to be at the whim of the programmer of MTV … [Videos in 2018] don’t have the galvanizing quality they once had, but now you have the freedom to watch anything at any time. And that’s cannibalized the budgets except for the biggest artists, and it’s not the same “talked about the day after” culture after the days of TRL. And by the way, “Got The Life” was the first video on there to be properly retired because it got requested so much!
Who’s an artist you wish you could shoot a video for these days?
I think Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino would be at the top of my list right now.
When someone says “the music culture of 1998,” what comes to mind?
I think everybody was reaching for something other than the life they were currently experiencing, and I like that because that’s how you push things forward… I think of Korn coming from Bakersfield, Cypress Hill coming from East L.A., Sugar Ray coming from Newport Beach, Smashmouth coming from the Bay Area — everybody just wanted to get out of their hometown and play in Europe and touch the world. … It’s probably true today as well, but it was certainly true in 1998.