Caleb Slade could have chosen an easier field to go into than music.
Name sound familiar? What about the face? Even if neither registers, you might recognize the voice, which sounds suspiciously similar to one that sold millions of records around here. That's because Caleb Slade is the younger brother of Isaac Slade, frontman of the Fray. Try standing in that shadow as a musician.
"I don't feel 'woe is me' about it," Caleb says, making it abundantly clear that he's not out to earn any sympathy points. "These are the challenges of my youth and my coming up. This is just the nature of... this is just the name of my beast. That's fine. It's what it is."
Still, Caleb has his work cut out for him. Being the brother of a rock star may have its advantages, but it also brings its own brand of scrutiny. Before anyone's heard a single note, expectations are set. Comparisons are inevitable, and any success that comes might be dismissed as coattail proceeds.
"There are obviously going to be advantages," Caleb says, acknowledging the realities of sharing a surname with a famous brother. "If I want to be successful as a musician, a huge part of that is getting people to listen to you that first time. And getting people to listen to me is going to be easier because of who my brother is. I can recognize that.
"At the same time," he adds. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a musician in Denver who would trade spots with me."
To be sure, Caleb's story thus far is filled with unenviable moments. He was a member of the Fray before it was even known by that moniker, and he was relieved of his low-end duties just as the future multi-platinum band was beginning to take shape. His brother broke the unfortunate news that his bass-playing abilities just weren't up to snuff, which was devastating for Caleb, who'd spent massive amounts of his childhood watching Isaac play. "It was crushing," he confesses. "I was a mess, dude."
"A lot of it was playing with Isaac," he explains, taking a breath, voice cracking slightly. "Music was always the most important thing to Isaac. It was always the thing he cared the most about — so to me, playing music with him was about him bringing me into the most important thing in his life, you know?"
Adding salt to the wounds, the song that first gained national exposure for the Fray, "Over My Head (Cable Car)," the omnipresent anthem from 2005 that essentially launched the band's career, was about Caleb. Sung from Isaac's perspective, the song — which includes the lines "Let's rearrange/I wish you were a stranger I could disengage/Just say that we agree and then never change/Soften a bit until we all just get along" — documented a particularly tumultuous time in their relationship. While tapping into his frustration may have been creatively cathartic for Isaac, Caleb, understandably, had a different reaction.
"I think the hardest thing about it," he recalls, "was that 'Cable Car' was written as, like, this time capsule of the biggest argument me and Isaac had ever had, the wedge that started to drive this big crack between us — and I heard it three or four times a day, at my job, playing over the Muzak, just everywhere. Honestly, in hindsight, I was probably pretty angry. I think I probably felt it was really unfair."
If he was angry, though, he didn't show it. Caleb rarely missed a Fray show or function, and never revealed his feelings in public. "He's my brother, you know?" Caleb declares in a delicate voice, conveying the deep sense of admiration he clearly has for his brother.
Rather than dwell on his misfortune, Caleb focused on carving out an identity of his own. After taking a trip to Europe, he began working as a repo man. "My identity became very tangible and easily describable to other people," he recalls of that time. "All of a sudden, I had a profession that was almost as interesting to talk about, you know? Maybe. So it was convenient for that. And it was also convenient because of the hours I kept. I almost checked out of society. I would start work around eight or nine at night and jerk iron until five or six in the morning, and then I'd stay up for a few more hours and then go to sleep."
He found the honesty of the repo interactions invigorating: "It was terribly traumatic for my mother, especially," he recalls. "I had this job where people were trying to stab me and shoot at me." But eventually he decided to pursue a degree in philosophy. Making music was no longer even part of the equation.
"I honestly never considered that I would be a musician," he says now. "It was just something I was doing for catharsis, for emotional enjoyment, for therapy, for processing, for whatever it was. Music was Isaac's thing."
But just after graduating, as he was considering law school — "being a lawyer was the perfect articulation of my intellect," he notes — Caleb spent two days with a life coach who helped him realize where his true passions lay. "Without music, sometimes it feels like I have a computer but no monitor," he muses. "I know those emotions are there, and I have those ones and zeroes, but it doesn't make any sense until there's a screen to plug in to translate."
From there, his next steps were obvious: "I'm going to put my music out there and see what the response is," he remembers thinking at the time. "I'm going to put myself out there to be accepted or rejected, one of the two. Either way, it's not going to be good enough anymore — I'm not going to be satisfied to just write my music and show my friends every once in a while and leave it at that. That's not good enough anymore."
With that in mind, Caleb gathered up the songs he'd been writing on the piano and started recording demos on his laptop, and on the advice of Isaac, he began working with Warren Huart, a Los Angeles-based producer who engineered the Fray's second record. After co-writing and tracking songs with Caleb, Huart pointed him in the direction of Jeff Linsenmaier, a member of the Fray's crew and Dust on the Breakers, a revolving collective that Caleb belonged to at one point, to continue writing and recording. When duty called Linsenmaier back on the road, he encouraged Caleb to meet with Tim Husmann, a multi-instrumentalist who turned out to be as much a mentor as a collaborator. The two spent several days a week writing and arranging before heading into the studio with Nathan Meese, who played guitar and bass on the sessions, to finish recording what became Victory in Defeat, Caleb's splendid six-song debut. Listening to it, there's no question that Caleb has boldly stepped out of the shadows. But again, the comparisons are going to be inevitable.
Musically, the Slade brothers clearly draw from the same pool of influences. Caleb's songs, while piano-heavy, are less directly pop-oriented and even more artfully steeped in sweeping, widescreen post-Brit pop. Vocally, the pair share a timbre and range, but Caleb's faux-Cockney phrasing is a little more exaggerated, as though he's savoring each and every word as it leaves his lips. The differences become even more pronounced in the lyrics. Despite being born on Valentine's Day, Caleb is much less of a romantic, heart-on-his-sleeve troubadour than Isaac is. Because of this, Caleb's songs tend to be less evocative and more reflective.
"I think he approaches things from a more emotional state than I do," Caleb says of his brother. "His emotional intellect is comparatively off the charts. I would say my approach to things has always been a little more on the intellectual, rational side. A lot of times, my songs are attempts to understand something that's difficult to comprehend, like a relationship or the dynamics of love — why love has so much pain involved in it.
"To put it another way," he continues, "I think Isaac's more capable of representing the immediacy of that emotional experience. He's really good at capturing that experience, whereas I think the thing that I'm good at is explaining and understanding that experience."
Caleb's view of that experience takes a more stoic approach to love's redemptive power, and when his lyrics examine our hopes, disappointments and shortcomings, they're not necessarily buoyed by an underlying sense of optimism. Take "Sure as Hell," for instance: "Sure as hell, there are days when I don't want you/There are days when I can't see past our differences/I can't see past my fingertips/To see the separation is only finger's width/But in your eyes I am working on this/And I am working on this."
And on "Hand to Reach For," he's even less starry-eyed: "There you go again/Blaming your circumstance/On some random happenstance/When are you gonna figure out/The world doesn't work this way/The world doesn't work for pay/And you're not rich anyway."
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But being rich isn't really the point; neither is fame, from the sound of it. "I think my goals are pretty small and tangible," he says. "I would love to make my living making music. I would love to not have to work a job so I can do what I care about — but I think that's kind of everyone's goal, though. But as far as the grandiosity of it, I don't have a specific goal. I exist in a world that runs on money, you know? So I want people to buy my music. I want to make money on my music. I want to be compensated for the hard work I've put into it. I don't think that tarnishes my art. But I will be making music for my life. I have for the last eleven or twelve years, whether or not I was playing for anybody. I've always played music, even when it hurts my wrist. Even when it's caused me tremendous amounts of physical pain, it's always been worth it. It doesn't matter. I will always have that piano, and I will always play it.
"I think what I don't want to have happen is I don't want to be successful, musically, as a result of non-musical elements," he concludes, launching into a stream of Lloyd Dobler-worthy assertions. "I don't want to be marketed really well and therefore be successful. I don't want to be packaged right and be successful as a result of that."
Welcome back to the fray.