The piano-pop rockers regroup and set out in new musical directions 

After a disappointing commercial reception for the Fray’s third album, 2012’s Scars and Stories, the Denver foursome found themselves wondering—after 10 years and three records—if they wanted to carry on. “Those are the defeats that make you do the math and figure out whether this is something you really want to do,” says singer and pianist Isaac Slade.

After soul searching, the musicians decided it was—and they quickly set out to prove it by wrapping their latest album, Helios, in record time. The band worked with producer Stuart Price (Madonna, the Killers), who pushed them to broaden their sound. The result is an album unlike any the group has made. Along with the Fray’s trademark lush piano hooks, the songs are full of drum samples and synthesizers. Slade even worked for the first time with outside songwriters, including Ryan Tedder (Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson). “It was new territory for me,” says Slade, “and it started feeling exciting and uncomfortable from the first notes we played.”

Along the way, Slade came to terms with what he has described as the isolating feelings that can come with being a frontman, and he and his bandmates—guitarists Joe King and Dave Welsh and drummer Ben Wysocki—made clear their musical commitment to each other and the band. Says Slade, “If we’re still in this band in 10 years, looking back, this will be the record where we decided to do this on purpose, and do it well, and I can hear it in the notes themselves.”


What was the band’s goal? 

We wanted to go stylistically to places we had never been before, and that hasn’t always been the case. We’re walking a fine line between wanting to make something new and exciting, but also still familiar to fans and the public. It’s a funny thing, making art for commerce. We never really started out with a goal before, and we did this time.

What did Stuart Price bring?

The biggest thing he added was being a boundary-pushing guide. Pushing boundaries in the studio is kind of a dangerous affair, because you can make stuff that’s so off the map that you love but nobody else can relate to. Or you want to play it safe and end up making something that sounds exactly like everything else you’ve done, and people are bored. Our third record was all about sounding organic: the perfect snare in the perfect room with the perfect mic. This record was all about the crazy contraptions Stuart would bring in that he found on eBay. It was the equivalent of that in every single area. For me, I’d sing three takes instead of 30, so the vocals have a real throwaway, in-the-moment energy that I’ve never had on any of our records.


Following that lead takes trust.

Well, it took a couple of weeks—but it’s hilarious that it only took that. You make music with guys for 12 years, and it’s still hard to have that. Building a rapport with Stuart was relatively quick. The trust that took the longest was probably with Dave, because he and Stuart are in pretty similar spaces. They’re both pretty out-there creatively, and both are willing to take risks. So they kind of danced around each other in the studio while the rest of us connected with Stuart really fast. And then, two weeks in, Dave and Stuart were best friends.


You minimized piano on the third album. Why bring it back?

Looking back, we had to detox from piano. We had established so much of a reputation around that instrument I think everybody needed to re-establish who are we apart from a piano record. And now there’s a song on the album, “Hold My Hand,” that starts with a good old-fashioned Fray piano hook. I love it. It’s one of those things—you’ve got to leave home for a while to figure out if you actually want to come back.


You worked with outside writers.

It didn’t feel comfortable to do so until this record, and then it did. Our manager told us these are professional songwriters who do this for a living, and worst-case scenario, you don’t use the song and you end up learning something. The best that could happen is you make music you can actually sink your teeth into, and you come up with a whole record much faster than you would writing by yourself. Also, I felt like we had established enough of a sound that I’m not walking into a room blind like a new artist, with no clout. If I had done it 10 years ago I’d have said, “OK, you’re the pro, I don’t know what I’m doing, let’s make your song.” I know my voice well enough now that I can tell whether it’s something I would sing.


What did you learn from that? 

Every single song, without fail, got to a point where I felt like there was nothing there. And every single time, the person sitting across the table would say, “I know it feels stuck right now, but let’s give it another shot.” I learned that these guys have a work ethic that I never associated with making art. I associate art with standing in a field with a lightning rod waiting for it to strike, and they associate a punch-clock. You show up at 9:30 with your coffee, and maybe it doesn’t really start coming together until noon, but you’re working on that factory line the whole time. And they do it every day. I’ve never treated art like that. It’s exciting to have a new fresh approach.


You’ve talked about the loneliness of being a lead singer. Has that changed?

It has changed. I started reaching out and talking to some other folks who are in my shoes—and just finding some camaraderie in that isolation has made it feel so much more tolerable and survivable. Also, to be honest, I started being vulnerable about those feelings with the guys, which was hard. Telling the people closest to you that you feel alone can be a hard thing to say, and it can be hard for them to hear.

Did that affect the band dynamic?

I want to have a band that’s big enough to hold everybody’s personalities and ideas, but for me, unless it’s a little album I make with a friend, if I’m doing music it’s going to be with these guys. I’ve felt that for a long time but never really come out and said it. But I said that a couple of years ago, and I feel like something gelled among the four of us, like, “OK. We’re in this together.”


What was the big catalyst?

Having a pretty unsuccessful third record threw all of us on our heels. Compared to our first two records, which went platinum and were nominated for Grammys, the third record was a frontage road along the Top 40 highway we had always found ourselves on. Those challenging moments are the ones where everybody has to go inside themselves and figure out why they’re here. All four of us had to figure out how badly we want this. Do we want to call it good, three records, and coast into the sunset doing corporate gigs? Or do we want to do a second decade and see what happens? Each of us came to that conclusion together, but separately. We turned 30 in this band, and we decided we want to turn 40—but we want to do it with vibrancy and not as a vintage act.

–Eric R. Danton


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