Christmas came early this year for the Fray. Unless you've been holed up on your couch playing Guitar Hero II for the past week, you're undoubtedly aware that Denver's biggest musical export -- the pariah of many a vitriolic MySpace-blogging pundit and assorted message-board-posting player haters in the scene -- has been nominated for two Grammy awards.
When I talked to Joe King last Thursday night, the band was on a layover in Chicago, heading to a gig in Nashville. They'd gotten the news earlier that day, from frontman Isaac Slade, on a flight from London.
The Grammy nomination announcement had yet to be made when the bandmembers boarded their plane that morning. Just before takeoff, Slade covertly worked his BlackBerry and then, completely poker-faced, approached King and his bandmates -- guitarist David Welsh and drummer Ben Wysocki -- to break some disappointing news. "He was like, 'Well, we didn't get any nominations. Guess next year's the year,'" King recounted. "He was like, totally serious, you know? I totally believed him, because he's the guy who usually doesn't do stuff like that. I would do that, but he's not a jokester. So I didn't know what to say. I was crushed; my heart sank. And Dave was like, 'Are you serious? That sucks.' He probably played it out for like twenty or thirty seconds. And then he's like, 'Ah, just kidding. We got two nominations.' We all stood up and hit him and hugged each other and started cheering.
"The stewardess was getting mad at us because we were blocking the aisle, and she didn't know what was going on. It's the biggest honor that a musician can get, especially considering the company that we're in -- U2, Green Day, the Chili Peppers? And then the fact that we're nominated for two different songs?"
One of those songs, "Over My Head (Cable Car)," had garnered the act an invitation to perform on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno back in February. I'd flown out to Los Angeles to catch that performance, as well as a date the next night at the Troubador. At the time, the ubiquitous single from How to Save a Life, the Fray's major-label debut, was already a bona fide hit locally and making its way up the charts. I'd been covering the Fray since the fall of 2003, when the boys played an awkward set at the Climax Lounge in front of a sparse crowd of ringers obligated to cheer for them by bloodline. And as I sat in the Tonight Show audience, watching those same guys deliver a performance that would be seen by millions of viewers, part of me thought that things couldn't get any better.
The next morning, King and I sat down in his Hollywood hotel room and talked about a number of things, including the Grammys -- which, coincidentally, had also taken place the previous evening. Just a year before, King marveled, he'd been sitting by himself at home watching the Grammys. Now, twelve months later, he was in Tinseltown attending a post-awards party. "I remember thinking, 'Where am I going to be this time next year?'" he said. "We hadn't started recording yet; the next day we were going into pre-production for this record. I was just like, 'Where am I going to be next year?' Just wondering, you know. I didn't really have any expectations, but the thought was on my mind.
"And then last night, it struck me because somebody asked me, 'What were you doing last year?' I was like, 'Oh, my God, I was on my couch, wondering about this same night.' And then we're on Leno and later talking to Tony Bennett at a Grammy party. It's been a pretty wild year."
From King's lips to God's ears. That night at the Troubadour, I watched a standing-room-only crowd zealously sing along with every word from every song like a hometown audience, a sight that left the jaded industry types on hand slack-jawed. That scene became commonplace on the rest of that first headlining tour, most of which sold out well in advance. And things have gotten even wilder since then. Nine months later, the band has gone platinum (and will likely be double by the time the Grammys roll around) and become a household name, stringing up enough accomplishments to fill a Dex-sized dossier that continues to stupefy me.
So could a Grammy be next for the Fray? It's a long shot. For Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal, "Over My Head (Cable Car)" is up against songs by the Black Eyed Peas, Death Cab for Cutie, Keane and the Pussycat Dolls; smart money is on Fergie's humptastic ditty. Meanwhile, "How to Save a Life" is being considered alongside tunes by Coldplay, the Raconteurs, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a collaboration between U2 and Green Day for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal (what's up with these freaking verbose category titles?). That one could be a toss-up; calling "How to Save a Life" a rock track is a bit of a stretch. Then again, consider the source: These are the same folks who gave Jethro Tull a Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental in 1988. (To be fair, the 2004 Westword Music Showcase ballot included the Fray in the rock category -- but that was when the act was playing more upbeat, guitar-driven tracks like "Oceans," "Without Reason" and "Some Trust," which have since been retired, and before "How to Save a Life" was written.)
Regardless of how things shake out this February, King and company are grateful to have been nominated. And in the meantime, there are new challenges to focus on -- including building an international fan base. To that end, the Fray's label is preparing for a major push in Europe and in Australia, where the group has already had a hit single. There's also the matter of writing material for a new release; King told me they've penned three songs, which they've been playing out live. Sometime in May, he and Slade plan to convene in a remote place, sans phones or other distractions, to write more. The goal is to get back in the studio this fall.
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They may be getting ahead of themselves, however. There's still a little life left in "How to Save a Life," since the Mark Pellington-directed video just made its worldwide debut on MTV last week. The band commissioned this second video -- which is artsy, but doesn't make any more sense than the original -- to help separate the song from Grey's Anatomy, the prime-time serial that helped launch the single. Not that the Fray minded the exposure; it's just that some people so closely associate the song with the show that they mistakenly think it was written for prime time.
That's like thinking Christmas was created for Santa.
Upbeats and beatdowns: Props also go out to DeVotchKa, which contributed to the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack that was nominated for a Grammy, as well as Colorado transplant Gerald Albright, who earned a nod for Best Pop Instrumental Album in the jazz category.