The Fray: The Denver rockers recount How To Save A Life

Saturday 28th July 2007

From a bunch of Denver young hopefuls to international hitmakers, THE FRAY have achieved much in four years.

The Platinum success of 'How To Save A Life' by Denver's The Fray is the latest example of a band of believers going all the way to the big time without any help from the Christian music industry. Thankfully the four year journey from local scene obscurity to international hitmakers hasn't resulted in the band engaging in those tiresome verbal gymnastics where the band insist they're "a band who happen to be Christians rather than a Christian band." In fact, The Fray have been quite open about their faith. Earlier this year lead singer and pianist Isaac Slade told Q magazine, "Our bus is a mobile church. It's where we congregate for quiet contemplation." Fray went on to say, "I just don't believe in extreme behaviour. Nobody wants to hear that balance is the key to life, but you know what? Balance IS the key to life."

The plaintive, piano-driven rock of The Fray first emerged when Isaac and guitarist/singer Joe King met up and persuaded two of Slade's former bandmates drummer Ben Wysocki and bassist Dave Welsh to join the band. The Fray garnered an early following through impressive area gigs and the support of local radio, which led to a listener-driven campaign to get the band a record contract. With strong word-of-mouth, the band won "Best New Band" honours from Denver's Westword magazine and got substantial airplay for their independent EP 'The Reason' released in 2003. (Such is the interest in The Fray that Epic Records are now planning a re-issue of 'The Reason'.) A demo of "Over My Head (Cable Car)" lodged in radio station KTCL's most played songs of 2004. By now the clamour to see the band signed was deafening and they signed onstage at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado.

The group's organic rise to fame is key to their long range plans: "I think it's vital to the longevity of a band," said Joe King. "Of course Denver is where it all started, but word spread across the country via the internet even before radio stations were playing us. I remember on our first headlining tour, we would play cities where we weren't on the radio at all, and the venue would be full of people singing our lyrics." He added, "Some people think we came out of nowhere quickly, but we had been working hard for four years before the mainstream public had heard about us."

Dave Welsh added, "The grassroots is where music lives and breathes, where it finds its energy and its passion. Music can still exist when it becomes mainstream, but only if it has firm roots with the fans at home. I think you become a musician at home, and simply refine that skill on the road as a touring, major label band."

The first single from 'How To Save A Life', "Over My Head (Cable Car)" climbed into the top 10 on the Billboard singles chart, has been certified platinum and was streamed more than a million times on MySpace in just one month. Indeed, MySpace has been good to the band: they've been streamed over 16 million times, they have had more than five million views and close to 300,000 friends on the networking site. The Fray doesn't fit easily into any niche, and they don't need to: word of mouth (or, word of digital mouth) has been good enough. The songs stand on their own, no clever marketing or catering to genres necessary.

"Over My Head (Cable Car)" was inspired by Isaac Slade's temporary estrangement from his brother: "It is about a fight I got in with my brother, Caleb. After he graduated high school, we drifted apart and really hadn't spoken in a long time. One day we both realised that we needed to fight it out. We'd been friends for 20 years. That's a long time when you're only 23 years old. We fought it out, and he's one of my best friends today."

The title track was inspired by Slade's experience as a mentor to a crack addicted teen. "I was a sheltered suburban kid when I met this guy. He was a recovering addict, coming out of a really tough teenage life. Thankfully, he was on his way out of that life, so he was able to really look back with some objectivity. The song is more of a memoir about his slow motion descent and all the relationships he lost along the way. Some people actually formed a non-profit organisation called Save A Life. They lost their son to a tragic car accident and apparently 'How To Save A Life' was the last song he downloaded. Another girl lost her mother to suicide. She wrote me and said it helped her deal with her mom's death."

The band recently saw footage of two high school kids performing the song at a talent show, which was somewhat mindblowing for Joe King, and provided him with something of a "full circle" moment. "Something so simple as two high school students playing our song at a talent show doesn't seem like it would be a huge moment, but it was. I'm proud of it because I relate to it so closely. That was me eight years ago, learning my favourite songs, from my favourite artists, and playing the songs that moved me. It just hit me that someone was now doing the exact same thing as I was but with my music." It was a "full circle" moment for his bandmates as well: Slade and Wysocki first performed together at a talent show years ago.

It turns out that The Fray's music has resonated with lots of people: they are one of the most licensed bands of 2006, with their music being featured on Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy, What About Brian, NCIS, One Tree Hill and Bones as well as in HBO's summer promos. Said King, "I would say my favourite so far would be the recent HBO spot and the Grey's Anatomy spot, both using 'How To Save A Life'. I remember last year seeing the Aqualung HBO spot and was shocked and almost jealous by how good it was. I called our managers and asked if we could get a spot like that, and I remember him saying, 'That's a tough one.' When I watched our HBO spot I didn't move, I don't even remember breathing because I had the chills."

With the huge success of How To Save A Life the band have gone from playing small club gigs and opening slots to headlining larger venues, including a "hometown" gig at legendary Denver venue Red Rocks, which was famously host to U2 (two tracks of their classic live EP 'Under A Blood Red Sky' was recorded there). Ben Wysocki commented, "When you're the opener, you have 30 minutes, maybe 45, to prove yourself. . .and in a way, it is hard to settle in. When you're headlining, you can take a little more ownership of the crowd, they're yours for an hour and a half or so and you gotta treat them right, take care of them, be responsible with them, do the best you can to entertain them. There is pressure either way, but definitely more satisfaction in a headlining show."

The band have quickly become adept at delivering a powerful stage show as demonstrated on the live "bootleg" 'Live At The Electric Factory' available through iTunes. The Fray also, of course, played a sold out show at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. Said drummer Wysocki, "That was really good, it was our first big headline show in London, we've done a couple of smaller shows like club gigs, not to say that they weren't great, cos they were, loud and hot and crowded, but Shepherd's Bush Empire obviously there is history there and it's a great venue. It was awesome for us to do a gig there and have people come out and sing along so it was a really cool thing." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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