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Let Us Fray

With God on their side, these musicians have gone from zeros to heroes.

Although the band's success was undeniably sudden, the launch sequence was initiated years ago. "I've been on this track since I was eight," Slade explains. "I've seriously been thinking about it all my life. Lately people have been saying, 'You came out of left field.' Sure, in this incarnation we did. But since I was eight, my mom's been talking to me, saying things like, ';If you do this, you need to be careful that you're not full of yourself.' And my grandpa would tell me, 'You're nothing special. You're just a regular kid.' You know, keeping me normal."

That sense of normalcy plays a pivotal role in the Fray's appeal. With his faux-hawk, Slade looks more like Calvin, Hobbes's partner in crime, than a SoHo fashionista. And rather than coming off as insufferable hipsters, he and his bandmates -- Welsh, vocalist/guitarist Joe King and drummer Ben Wysocki -- seem like ordinary guys blessed with extraordinary talent.

Slade and King put the Fray together in the summer of 2002 from a couple of failed high school projects. Although both had attended Faith Christian Academy, they'd rarely spoken then. But a few years later, during a chance encounter at a local music store, they realized they were kindred spirits -- ideologically and musically. Each had been playing predominantly Christian music, at church and fronting his own band (Slade in Ember and King in Fancy's Showbox), and both felt artistically stifled within the confines of the Christian framework.

An Epic story: David Welsh (from left), Isaac Slade, 
Joe King and Ben Wysocki are the Fray.
Kaylinn Gilstrap
An Epic story: David Welsh (from left), Isaac Slade, Joe King and Ben Wysocki are the Fray.

"I was a worship leader," King explains. "So naturally, I sang about God and kind of incorporated the whole worship experience into my songs. But I didn't feel like it connected to a broad range of people. I wanted to write about things I saw, about my relationships, about problems that I saw, instead of having to write about God. For so long, I had to think of a cool new way to sing about God, and I didn't feel real to that."

Although the two were no less devout in their faith at that point, they wanted to focus on creating compelling art as Christians -- as opposed to being "Christian artists." So they set about writing songs with less of a theological bent, enlisting Zach Johnson to play drums and put Slade's brother, Caleb, on bass. But as the Fray began to take shape, Slade had to ask Caleb to step down. "It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do," he confesses. Caleb was replaced by Dan Battenhouse, who'd been in a church band with King.

After scraping together enough cash, the Fray entered the studio to record its debut EP, fittingly titled Movement. The material was less pious than bandmembers' previous endeavors -- Fancy's songs "read like Bible verses," King says -- and touched more on interpersonal issues.

"My problem with Christian music," Slade says, "is a lot of it is too happy. It's too smiley. It's like you know from the get-go that it's not completely honest, because they never say they're sad. It's like we're not allowed to talk about anything else. I mean, we all have opinions. I have opinions about morality and about culture and that stuff, but I think the sheer nature of art is kind of take it or leave it. If you pound people over the head, they get suspicious, they don't trust you and it's not art -- it's propaganda. And we're not about Jesus propaganda."

But King and Slade didn't abandon their existential inclinations entirely. And as they started pulling together songs for Reason, alongside the moments of somber heartache expressed in "Vienna" and "Oceans Away" (two cuts from Movement that were repeated on the second recording), they penned some soul-searching tracks. "Without Reason," for example, includes these lines: "I do it on a whim, with no motivation/Following this line and I don't know why/But I've learned to capture time, it's my redirection/I don't want to live this life without reason."

Before the Fray recorded Reason, there was another personnel shift. After Johnson announced that he was off to acting school in New York, Wysocki, one of his best friends and another alum of Faith Christian, was tapped as his replacement. And the recording itself produced another change. Realizing that they'd been a little too ambitious in the studio, the four members of the Fray decided that to pull the songs off live, they'd need someone to play lead. Welsh was the obvious choice, since he'd already played in Ember with Slade and Wysocki. He and Wysocki had been friends since third grade; their parents knew each other through Up With People, "a peaceful-organization-slash-dating-service," as Welsh describes it.

"We kind of musically came as a pair," Wysocki says. "The Fray was the first band that I played in without him. So when I thought of us needing another guitarist, he's the first one I thought of."

Welsh's debut performance was at the Climax thirteen months ago, which explains the lackluster show I saw. But since then, the band has forged an undeniable chemistry. (The quintet has returned to a foursome; Battenhouse parted ways with the group in September, and Future Jazz Project bassist Casey Sidwell and Dave Hedin have filled in while the act searches for a permanent replacement.) Slade and King continue to evolve as songwriters. In the beginning, their interplay was somewhat distracting, both live and on record, because of their disparate approaches to instrumentation and arrangements -- Slade's compositions were more piano- oriented, while King's were guitar-driven. Now, though, it's nearly impossible to distinguish one songwriter from the other. In recalibrating the band's aesthetic, any past Coldplay references have been downplayed, resulting in a sound that recalls Start Here-era Gloria Record textures mated with the more anthemic tendencies of Muse. Needless to say, the Fray no longer has to place a ringer in the crowd to beg for an encore.

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