The journey to success was tough—and they have the scars to prove it

“This is the first time we got to make the record we wanted to,” declares Isaac Slade of the Fray’s third album, Scars & Stories. The group went through plenty to reach that point. Formed by singer and pianist Slade, guitarists Dave Welsh and Joe King and drummer Ben Wysocki in the early-2000s church-music scene in Denver, the Fray found its secular breakthrough with 2005’s double-platinum How to Save a Life. A self-titled follow-up topped the album charts in 2009, and the group collaborated that same year with hip-hop producer Timbaland on his Shock Value II album.

But it wasn’t for nothing that this band gave itself a name that suggests acrimony—internal dissent has been part of the Fray’s chemistry all along. By the fall of 2010 unity was at an all-time low, until the members gathered at a Las Vegas studio to record a track for—of all things—the lighthearted compilation album Muppets: The Green Album. “Tensions were high,” Slade says. “We went into the studio and got drunk in the control room trying to sing ‘Mahna Mahna’ like Tom Waits. We realized we still love being in a band together.”

The rejuvenated Fray proceeded to contribute a track to the tribute Listen to Me: Buddy Holly (“Take Your Time”) and to record Scars with producer Brendan O’Brien, who provided a more muscular sound in part by de-emphasizing Slade’s signature piano. Slade spoke with us about his group’s tumultuous journey, as well as the surprisingly helpful advice he received from Rwandan President Paul Kagame.


Where did you get the album title?

It’s actually a B-side for the record that didn’t make the cut. It was a little five-verse folk song that I wrote about my four ex-girlfriends and the woman who became my wife. It became a map of where I have been, where I am and where I’m going. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song like that before. It was this catalog of what we’ve been through. More importantly, they’re not wounds—they’ve healed, which is a healthy thing.


Why the more rock-oriented sound? 

We love how it came out, but we didn’t intend it. We didn’t realize it until Dave and I went out for tacos one night in L.A. Most of the record was done, and we were like, “It’s a lot louder.” Part of it is Brendan O’Brien, who’s a guitar god. Brendan turned the pianos down a lot. But Dave and I discovered a dialogue on this record. Normally we’re both going all the time—I’ll sing something and he’ll play something. On this record we’re going back and forth. It’s almost like having another singer, it’s really cool. I don’t know how much was Brendan and how much was us sitting down and listening to each other. But I think for the rest of our lives there’s that trust in each other that we can rely on.


How do Brendan and Timbaland compare as producers?

They’re opposites. (laughs) But Brendan and Timbaland both had a common motif in the pace at which they work. There’s a momentum they try to capture. It keeps everything moving, but also never gives you a chance to doubt yourself. If you’re hauling ass down the road on the median, you only have time to check the map a couple of times and pray to God you get there instead of second-guessing every turn. Typically we’re a very second-guessing band.



We had a bit of an identity crisis. We got very big very fast, had these quiet songs we had to figure out how to play live, and we didn’t really know what we were doing.


How did your church roots affect you?

There are a couple of specific things we’ve learned from music in church. Every song has to be of substance. Every single thing you sing has to matter—and that means the lyric, the melody, tempo. It taught us songs are not for us, they’re for everyone in the room. If you keep it for yourself, it becomes an inward feedback loop. Also, those songs were very simple and singable by the 9-year-olds and the 69-year-olds who were sitting next to each other in church.


Which new song came easiest? 

“Be Still.” It’s the last song on the record, just me and the piano. I was up late talking on the phone to my little brother while he was going through some personal stuff. I woke up the next morning, pulled out a guitar and started writing this song as I was playing. I came up with the whole first verse, chorus and melody right there—and that never, ever happens. I’m usually like a woman in labor with songs. I sang the song for the first time on tape as a first take. The guys in the control room were like, “Great, why don’t you do another?” And that’s the one we

used on the record.


Which gave you trouble? 

“Turn Me On.” It was a rocker, we were trying to be Foo Fighters. Everybody in the band jokes that we’re going to “soft-rock [the listeners’] faces off.” But this song was about passion, it was aggressive and fast and I was trying to be [Foos singer] Dave Grohl. It was not working for obvious reasons: I am not Dave Grohl. We had to take three weeks off from recording to open for U2, and played at a Denver stadium where we’d grown up seeing football games [Invesco Field]. We tried the song, and it ran through us like prune juice. It was terrible. We tried it a few more times and it never worked. So we went back to the studio with Brendan and slowed it way down like a Marvin Gaye song.


How about the cover for the Buddy Holly tribute? 

It led to us doing a covers EP that’s going to come out in a couple of months. We did Annie Lennox’s “Why,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” and “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And then we went down to Nashville to do a version of “Boulder to Birmingham” with Emmylou Harris.

How has success affected you?

I have wrestled with a lot of loneliness in this band, especially as we’ve gotten more successful. I guess it’s a cliché, the lonely lead singer in the band, but it’s hard explaining to people how isolating it is. I’ve spent the past seven years running away from that, but this time I’ve accepted it. I’m the singer, I’m the leader of this band, and y’all can like it or you can screw yourselves.


What changed your attitude?

It was on this trip I took to Africa [in October 2010]. I was in Rwanda, sitting with the president of this devastated country. I asked him, “How do you handle the loneliness in the spotlight?” It was a long six or seven seconds while he pondered whether to answer. Then he talked for 30 minutes straight about leadership, the pedestal and the spotlight, and how no one asks you to come down from it—in fact, they usually ask you to stay up there. It helped me understand how to deal with it. Strangely, I felt a certain comfort from this African president telling me it’s OK to feel alone.

–Eric R. Danton

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