It’s late 90’s. At the foot of the Rocky Mountains in a small suburb of Denver, Colorado a band is formed. “We all went to school together” explains lead singer, Isaac Slade. History is littered with tales of bands forming out of school friends having a laugh and making it big. Radiohead, Green Day, Pink Floyd and Queen are all examples of friends writing music together outside of classes before making it big. The problem is, this band didn’t make it big; and they weren’t the Fray.
“Ben [drums], Dave [lead guitar] and I had a band and we were not very good. There was a certain looseness about us that most people did not come to appreciate. Joe had a band and they were actually pretty good. But they broke up. So when they broke up and we broke up we joined forces and started the Fray back in 2002.” So how did the name ‘the Fray’ come about? “We had a gig, but we just didn’t have a name. So we put out a little fishbowl and we asked for name suggestions. We took it home that night and I was a big math nerd back in highschool so I had one of those big dry erase boards in my room. So we wrote up a bunch of names up there from the fishbowl, from the internet, from our brains and I think we even had a dictionary out at one point. We decided on the Fray that night.” And that was the start of something big.
With the band’s latest record, Helios, seeing its release at the end of February, Isaac was eager to say what this record meant, as an album and to the band itself. When a band is best known for writing songs about lost love and suicidal tendencies, such a shift in tone is doubtlessly worthy of comment. “Helios was the Greek God of the Sun, and this is probably the brightest record we’ve ever made. We’ve been known for being a pretty dour band and this album just comes at a bright time with new relationships and new babies coming. Our wives are all pregnant and having kids.” The shift in tone in this album reflects the band’s readiness to explore the full spectrum of emotion and not pigeonhole or typecast the band to any specific emotional state.
“Technically, the name actually came from our photoshoot. We did a bunch of pictures out in the Mojave Desert at a solar energy plant and if you look at our album cover actually it’s a bunch of those mirrors, they’re these big three meter wide mirrors that all shine and reflect the light of the sun onto this big tower and make a bunch of energy. So we shot out album cover out there and those big mirrors are called Heliostat.” Says Slade; showing how the presentation of the album is representative of the light and positivity surrounding the lives of the band members.
In relation to the previous three albums, Isaac is honest and self-critical: “We’re a bit limited as a band. We’ve always written songs about our lives and about our stories and we’re limited in the sense that we have only really written about what we know.” These ‘limitations’ of the band have been used in the past as great strength; notably two of the band’s biggest singles: Cable Car (Over My Head), which was influenced by Slade’s relationship with his brother and the song that the band is best known for; How to Save a Life, which is based on Slade’s experience as a camp mentor dealing with a troubled teen.
“That first record [How to Save a Life, 2005] and that second record [The Fray, 2009] were pretty dark times. They were just about us in our twenties trying to figure out about who we were and what ‘it’ all meant and where were going with our lives and then we had some really difficult things happen.” Slade tells me, reverently. “Relationships and all that kinda stuff ending towards the third record [Scars and Stories, 2012]. So it was a real dark decade. It was a medieval decade, really! Of our lives, it was the dark ages, really.” Slade admits, his tone shifting into a laugh. “So I think all of those records represent that. They capture ‘that’. When I listen to them, there are bright moments and they are filled with hope but those are really candles in the dark. This one is a bit of a ‘dawn – the sun is coming up’ record.”
The topic of maturity in a band – in their outlook and their sound, is the subject of great debate. Does a band have to actively try to change or should they let the circumstances change around them and react to that? Slade posits that it’s “a bit of both” in the case of the Fray. “We have had really cool things happen to us in our life. Joe got engaged, he’s getting married this fall. Ben just had a baby. My wife is having a baby in a couple weeks; our guitarist [Dave] got married like a year and a half ago. So there is a lot of good stuff in our lives that has given us a lot more stability and has led to a lot more purpose.” Isaac offers philosophically, “But I think there was also a conscious effort to make a more modern, relevant record. When we made our third record we purposefully reached back into our roots in the late 90’s rock era with this producer called Brendan O’Brien who was ‘the man’ back then. He made all of our favourite Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine records and he worded with the Chili Peppers. That was our throwback record. With this one we wanted to make something that was ‘here’ and ‘now’ and reflected what we were excited about today.” However, the shift in focus has not impressed everyone “Germans are hilarious. We were playing a show here in Cologne and two fans came up to us after the show and the first girl says ‘I do not like the new sound!’” quipped Slade with a commendable German accent. “And all we could say was ‘Aw, too bad, we’re so sorry!’ but then her friend said ‘But wait! I do like the new sound!’ and we though ‘Okay. One of you liked it, one of you didn’t. I’ll take it.’”
While Slade notes that he is always inspired by Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin and all that is great about the 70’s; the three bands that influenced the Fray most in Helios were “M83, the new Daft Punk record and Lorde. Those were the three CDs that were in the rental car.” When asked about a potential return to Ireland Isaac was tentative “Don’t quote me. Well you can quote me. Quote me saying ‘don’t quote me!’ But I think we’re gonna come back around September or October. We’re gonna tour the US and Canada this summer and then we’re gonna jump back across the pond in the fall. Which is really my favourite time to be in Ireland. I love the rainy grey with my Guinness.”
Coire Mc Crystall