On the Band Wagon
I'm not clairvoyant, but I'll bet I know what you're thinking right now. The Fray? The Fray! Enough already! For crissakes, how much more ink are you going to spill on these guys?
The answer's simple: I'll keep writing about the Fray until the band's tale ceases to be compelling or its music turns to shit -- whichever comes first. But for now, the Fray's astonishing success story is amazing on many levels, which is why I made the trip to L.A. for this week's cover story. And besides, I love the music.
Unapologetically and unequivocally.
But lest I sound like one of those defense attorneys prettying up a deplorable defendant, know this: I am not an apologist for the Fray. In fact, if its next effort is underwhelming, I'll be the first one to take a baseball bat to the band's proverbial kneecaps. And then I'll quit writing about the Fray.
My first mention of the act was a brief aside in this column right after I listened to an unmastered recording of the Reason EP, which Isaac Slade handed me on a Tuesday evening in October 2003. Two months later, "Vienna" made my year-end top-ten list. The following spring, I chose the Fray as Best New Band in the 2004 Best of Denver issue -- and everyone thought I was wacked out on Scooby snacks. "Who in the hell is the Fray?" scenesters wondered. But they found out soon enough.
That summer, the Fray made the ballot for the 2004 Westword Music Showcase and ultimately upset Rose Hill Drive, among others, earning the Best Rock Band title with a breakthrough performance. Since then, the Fray's trajectory has been simply stupefying. A couple of examples: A few months after its release, How to Save a Life checked in at number seventeen on the iTunes album chart after registering a record 240,000 downloads when that site featured "Over My Head (Cable Car)" as download of the week. And the group recently co-hosted VH1's Top 20 countdown.
But these four musicians aren't as interested in statistics and star turns as they are in what their music means to people. The day after the Fray's Tonight Show performance, I asked both Joe King and Slade which part of this whole experience had had the most impact on them. In separate interviews, they offered the same story: Just days earlier, they'd gotten an e-mail from drummer Ben Wysocki's dad, who works as a videographer filming video yearbooks, with a video clip attached of a student at Heritage High School performing "How to Save a Life" on acoustic guitar at a high school assembly. The musicians were floored.
"It was something small," King noted, "but to me, that was a cool moment, because that was me in high school. I can rewind, and that's exactly what I did, covering my favorite artist and playing their songs. I was like, 'Oh, my God, there's people doing that with our music.'"
"As an artist," said Slade, "you'd like to think people are hearing your words. Maybe they remember the chorus, maybe they remember the title, if you're lucky. But this kid memorized the whole song."
It's stunning to see the effect that the Fray's music has had on people -- not just in Denver, but across the country. I caught the act's show at the Troubadour in L.A. last month, and the fans were screaming and singing along the entire time. You would have thought it was a hometown show. And just last week, at the 9:30 club in Washington, D.C., over a thousand people showed up and responded the same way. (You can find a clip of the performance at www.youtube.com.) The Fray's date at the end of March in St. Louis has already been moved from a venue that holds 200 people to one that holds 2,000 because of overwhelming demand. Ditto for Phoenix and Spokane.
So why have these guys made such a splash in the mainstream when so many other worthy musicians from this town have never managed to rise above underground cult status? God knows we've produced a staggering number of storied musicians who've gotten major-label backing over the years. Groups like Sixteen Horsepower, the Fluid and its offshoot, Spell. Then there's the holy trinity of the Mile High pantheon: the Samples and Big Head Todd and the Monsters (both bands have respectable followings and are doing just fine on their own, thank you very much, but they're not superstars) and the Subdudes (currently in the midst of a minor resurgence, with a tour stop at the Gothic Theatre on Friday, March 10). And let's not forget Vaux (the jury's still out on where the band will end up after splitting with Atlantic, but I'm betting it will be back in business by the end of the year) or Love.45 (seriously, why isn't 3 Doors Down opening for this act right now?). A myriad of other artists -- too many to mention -- have been linked to indie labels and issued albums that may have been critically acclaimed, but never gained any serious momentum.
Many of these musicians were/are as talented as members of the Fray (and more artistic, frankly), and yet they never really broke the surface. What made the difference? Aside from the undeniable accessibility of the music, the Fray also benefited from fortuitous timing -- giving rise to complaints from detractors that the group made it without paying the usual dues.
I asked King and Slade about this, too, and they both wrestled with their answers.
"We weren't slugging it out for years and years," King allowed, "but we definitely did what every other local band has done. It just happened a lot quicker for us."
"I can't speak to how people perceive us," Slade said. "It's not my job to defend what we're doing; It's my job to do what we're doing. From my perspective -- which is the only one I can speak of with authority -- it doesn't feel like we snuck in. If people don't like us for who we are, I can accept that. But if people don't like us because we're successful, then that's something they have to deal with themselves. We have been successful in what we've done, but we've not done it by being anything other than who we are."
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