This Holiday Inn parking lot in the heart of Hollywood feels like the surface of the sun. It's just after 10 a.m. on Wednesday, February 8, the beginning of the Fray's first national headlining tour. But while the mercury will rise to a record-breaking ninety degrees before the end of the day, the members of Denver's biggest breakthrough act are as cool as ice: This heat is nothing compared to the searing intensity of the industry spotlight now focused on the group. Propelled by one of the country's hottest songs -- "Over My Head (Cable Car)," currently resting in the Top 10 on Radio & Records Triple A and Hot AC charts -- the Fray has sold out nearly every date on this tour well in advance. On the strength of that infectious, piano-driven pop ditty (from How to Save a Life, which itself peaked at number one on Billboard's Heatseeker chart), the band has also garnered high-profile supporting slots on tours with Weezer and Ben Folds, been the subject of a You Oughta Know segment on VH1, and appeared on The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson and Late Night With Conan O'Brien. And this evening the Fray will perform its hit on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in front of six million or so viewers.
The track rings with the simple refrain "Everyone knows I'm in over my head" -- words that seem oddly prescient, given the Fray's astounding trajectory. Still, vocalist/pianist Isaac Slade, guitarist/vocalist Joe King, drummer Ben Wysocki, guitarist David Welsh and touring bassist Jimmy Stofer look remarkably composed as they board the van that will shuttle them to the studio for an 11:30 a.m. sound check. Even with all that's happened over the past few years, they say the best part of the experience has been the relationships they've fostered with each other. Besides, none of them expected to make it this far, anyway.
A half-hour later, the van passes through the gates of the NBC compound and comes to rest beside Jay Leno's vintage Fiat in front of the Tonight Show soundstage at the rear of the lot. Inside, Leno himself, dressed in his trademark denim jeans and button-up, welcomes the musicians with a few friendly words and escorts them up the stairs. But despite the host's amiable demeanor and his crew's laid-back attitude, everything about this production is regimented down to the minute. Before the Fray has a chance to settle into two adjoining dressing rooms, someone from the production staff appears and beckons the band to the stage.
With Mat Kearney and Hot IQs, 8 p.m. Friday, March 10, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, $20-$25, SOLD OUT, 303-831-8497
As the members plug in their instruments for the first take of "Over My Head (Cable Car)," they're flanked by crew members who position cameras and run them through the day's production schedule; various representatives from the Fray's label are seated in the audience. While the soundman dials the group in, Slade, sitting behind a keyboard that looks like a baby grand piano, pulls a camera phone from his pocket and fires off a few shots. At 24, he's already accustomed to a national audience.
"One of the most nerve-racking gigs I've ever had happened to be captured on camera for millions of people on Conan," Slade reveals. "I freaked myself out for that show. It was the first time we really played in front of a significant number of people. And I used a real piano, so it was harder for me to play. And it had all this weird stuff on the keys, so my fingers kept slipping. For the first half of that song, I was a wreck. That was very overwhelming. It felt a lot like when we played for the executives at the Sony building in New York to see if we could become something more than a local band."
But right now, on the Tonight Show stage -- which is roughly the size of the Bluebird's -- the Fray looks a lot like the same group of locals who were playing the Climax Lounge and the Soiled Dove not all that long ago. They're even using most of the gear they used then, which came over earlier on their posh new tour bus. For both Ferguson and Conan, all of the equipment was rented, which was "sort of like driving somebody else's car," notes Wysocki. Welsh has personalized his vintage Musicman amp by attaching a piece of paper to its grill with his fiancée's name, "Janelle," crudely scrawled on it in black marker; Wysocki has clipped a small image of his wife's face on the head of his kick drum. And just in case there's any question where these boys hail from, Welsh's amp rests on an Anvil case with stickers touting several Denver radio stations as well as "Salazar U.S. Senate." They all seem as poised as if they were filming an episode of the Noise Floor.
"See, no big deal," remarks Anna Chiarelli, Slade's fiancée. "It's just the Tonight Show. I think that's how they keep up with all this, by making it no big deal."
The Fray is a very big deal right now, but a large part of the group's charm is how humble everyone remains. Just three years ago, the act had sold under a thousand records and played fewer than fifty shows -- none of them out of state -- and now it's at the top of the charts. But by the time these musicians absorb whatever pivotal event has just occurred, the moment has already passed.
"One of the surprisingly least overwhelming things for us was opening for the Pixies and Weezer in Milwaukee," Slade recounts. "There were probably ten, fifteen thousand people there. And everyone expected us to be cool with it, because we were with people who had been playing for ten, twenty years. We just had to fit in, so we pretended to be totally cool playing in front of all these people. I was ready to be freaked out -- to get out there and totally psych myself out -- but it was really just a big room with a lot of people. We did exactly what we always do, and it worked."
Co-founded by schoolmates Slade and King in 2002, the Fray started as an informal collaboration between two burgeoning songwriters, with Wysocki, Welsh and bassist Dan Battenhouse later joining the fold. The group started collecting accolades in a hurry, which helped finalize the deal with Epic.
King is keenly aware of how fortunate the Fray has been -- particularly since the act didn't have to sacrifice its basic tenet in order to find success. "From day one, all we wanted to do with our music was to make music that was honest and sincere."
That sincerity has been recognized by everyone from fans -- many of whom are now traveling hundreds of miles to see the band after forking over considerable sums on Craigslist to get tickets (although the March 10 date at the Paramount is sold out, the Fray will be back at Universal Lending Pavilion on June 24) -- to the program directors across the country who've added "Over My Head (Cable Car)" to their playlists. "The first conversation I ever had with the head of VH1 about the band, I played him 'Cable Car,'" remembers Jason Ienner, who co-manages the Fray with Greg Latterman, and also oversees John Mayer's career. "What he said to me was that he believed Isaac. A lot of bands that are out there, they don't believe what they're singing. They're singing, but if you don't believe in how they write or the music behind it, it doesn't translate into that honesty in what they're singing. It disconnects with the public."
Slade believes every word. But while he exudes tremendous confidence on stage, he's very insecure about his vocal ability. "I gave up on my voice years ago," he reveals. "I just decided I couldn't do music, because it wasn't strong enough. And slowly but surely, it's been given back to me in pieces. So when somebody says I'm a good piano player, or when somebody says I'm a good songwriter, I do struggle with taking credit for that. It's something I worked at, and I feel like I have a gift. But my voice could be gone tomorrow. It was gone; the doctors told me not to sing for a year. So when somebody says, 'You have a good voice,' it bounces off my head; I don't hear it. Which is a blessing to me, because I feel it's given me the ability to do this. I can definitely see how the other singers and these superstars struggle; it's your identity."
For better or worse, these guys have put themselves on full display, pimples and all. "We're not really pretty and we're not hip," Wysocki notes, adding that Slade once said that God gave him acne to keep him humble. "But we write good songs and we play them well."
Although the members of the Fray are indeed remarkably unremarkable, they've been blessed with considerable talent and have crafted some pretty compelling music. That's why Stofer -- the mysterious fifth guy on stage who's hardly ever mentioned and never included in the photos (he looks and sounds exactly like Finch from the American Pie franchise) -- opted to leave school to tour with the band. "I really do like the music," says the former Bop Skizzum bassist, who for a time tag-teamed bass duties with Future Jazz Project's Casey Sidwell, after Battenhouse parted ways with the Fray. "Even though I didn't have a hand in writing it, I do have a hand in performing it," Stofer says, "and I'm still emotionally attached to it. It's the same way when you listen to a song and it connects to you, you know?"
On the act's debut, How to Save a Life, the burgeoning blockbuster that has sold well over 100,000 copies, the focus is all on the songs -- a fact underscored by the notable omission of Slade and company being listed as the authors in the liner notes. Track after track is infused with tangible pathos that just about anyone can relate to. Slade contends that's why the Fray has been so successful. "We're in a very interesting time for the entertainment industry," he points out, "where there's all this glitter, and this film on everything that kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth. People are just getting tired of it. And I think there's a hunger -- in me, personally -- for people on camera, on the microphone, on stage, to be exactly who they are, not the prescribed 'I'm gonna look like I don't have it all together so that people think I'm a normal guy. So that people will know that I'm not being fake' -- instead of just getting on stage and being exactly who they are.
"They want something real," he adds, "and for us to get out in the open and say, 'We are not perfect people. We have all kinds of problems. They might be a lot of the same problems you have.' So we're waking up and doing the same thing we do every day, and still trying to figure out why we're here on this rock -- all the questions that regular people face. If we earn the title of 'just a bunch of regular guys, what's the big deal?' -- that's the goal, man, for people to be into our music because we're just like they are. I would hope that's why people are into us, because they sense that we are nothing more than who we are."
That sense is what prompted Rich Rubin, KTCL's former program director, to take a chance on a group of young upstarts. After testing "Cable Car," as the song was then called, he added the track to regular rotation in fall 2004 and launched an unprecedented, listener-driven campaign to land the Fray a recording contract. "There's a sadness to the Fray," Rubin says, "that seems to connect with anyone who's been through some sort of heartache."
Last spring, after the deal was signed, Slade and King joined A&R man Mike Flynn (who co-produced the record with Aaron Johnson) in the studio for a low-key recording session. Slade ran through half a dozen takes of "How to Save a Life," and by the time he finished singing the last line, the room was filled with emotion. "Mike looks over to me, and he's tearing up," King remembers. "He's like, 'God, man, this song makes me think about my dad and what happened in my childhood. That was beautiful. It was amazing.'
"Then Isaac and I started getting all choked up," King continues, "and we started losing it. We were just broken. It was a defining moment. Nothing else mattered at that point. We did exactly what we had set out to do, from day one in my little apartment, showing songs to each other and talking about the future and where we wanted to go."
"The label never tried to change us," Slade explains. "They said, 'Don't you dare wear anything other than what you wear every day, and be exactly who you are.'"
"All the things we're doing right now," King says, "Leno, Conan, we're having a great tour that's pretty much sold out, we're on a bus, all this stuff is happening, but that doesn't mean that this is going to last a long time. Who knows? It still could end tomorrow or whatever. For instance, how many bands have been on Leno that you have no clue who they were or what it really did for their career? You know what I mean? I don't think we've made it yet. When we've made it will be when we have a couple good records out and have a solid, solid fan base where we can tour the whole freaking world and can sell out Madison Square Garden and then come home to Denver and play Red Rocks. To me, that's when."
Ienner intends to make that vision a reality. "We've built this on patience," he declares. "Nothing was forced, in radio or otherwise. The video was done over the summer, and they played at VH1 twice -- they loved the band. We waited six months for it to be picked up. During that time, it allowed the band to build on radio. The name of the game has been patience. We've been taking it one step at a time. When we're ready to move up, we move up, and that will continue."
That pace is fine with the members of the Fray. "I think it's been tough to balance the artistic, introverted side of me with the necessity to be a social person in this business," says Welsh, who, like Slade, lives with his parents. "Sometimes it comes really easy, and sometimes radio visits and playing for a lunchroom of people is really fun. And other times, it's like -- maybe those are the overwhelming parts, thinking about having to turn on for an hour when you don't want to."
"I kind of need to hide sometimes," Wysocki confesses. "I'm more of an introvert maybe than the rest of them. And this is a very social business, you know? There's a lot of talking and shmoozing. There's probably once a week when I'm just like, 'You know what? This isn't what I signed up for; this doesn't feel like being an artist.' But there's so much good in it that I feel silly complaining."
While the musicians can be reclusive and their songs emotional, the Fray also writes music that's easily digestible, with undeniable pop hooks. That's what first caught the attention of Alf -- the uni-monikered jock who hosts KTCL's Locals Only show, got a demo version of the song and passed the track on to Rubin. "The hook brought me in," recalls Alf, "but it was the lyrics and delivery that have kept me coming back."
"It's very hooky, and very indicative of what's really hot in the Hot AC format right now," adds Charese Fruge, program director of Alice 105.9, which currently has "Over My Head (Cable Car)" in rotation. "Seeing the guys and their passion when they perform, and their passion for music -- their live performances are amazing."
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After several hours and at least a dozen takes, everyone in the Fray's camp is hoping that the Tonight Show performance will be just as amazing. Just after 4 p.m., Leno warms up the crowd and lays down the ground rules -- laugh at the jokes and don't shout things at the guests while they're being interviewed, because it throws off the rhythm of the show -- and then thanks everyone for coming. Fifteen minutes later, show 3092 gets under way. After Leno's monologue, a few comedic shorts and interviews with Jerome Bettis and Felicity Huffman, the Fray finally takes the stage. With the exception of Slade bumping the vocal mike, the band is flawless. By 5:21 p.m., it's a wrap.
As Leno crosses the stage to shake hands with the musicians, he's accosted by a highly animated Slade, who gives the show's host an unexpected bear hug from behind, throwing a peace sign over his shoulder.
Or is that a V for Victory?