Isaac Slade on the Fray's new album, working with Brendan O'Brien and opening for U2

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Update (2/7/12): Isaac Slade and Joe King give a track-by-track breakdown of Scars & Stories, the Fray's new album.

UPDATE (5/24/11): Our original interview item from last week has been updated with Isaac Slade's post-show impressions opening for U2 at Invesco Field this past Saturday.

Isaac Slade sounds at greater ease these days, like he's completely comfortable in his own skin. After spending the better part of his career grappling with the pressures of trying to live up to everyone's expectations, he's reached a point where that's no longer as big a consideration, which has freed him to flourish in his role as frontman and subsequently make the best music of his life.

Westword: What's the plan for Thursday? Is it just you guys?

Isaac Slade: There's one surprise, maybe two surprises. But I'm not at liberty to say. I can't even say if I know who's playing. [laughs] I don't even know what band's headlining that night. I've never heard of them.

Interesting. Me, neither. [laughs] So tell me about the new record -- that's what I'm really eager to hear about.

Brendan O'Brien is a badass. He's kicking our butts. He's great. I think he's able to speak each one of our languages so well. Like, he's fluent in every area, whether it's an instrument you're playing or a track he's mixing or a lyric he's listening to. He's just got really good at all aspects of record making, and it gives him the backstage pass to everybody's cubicle, you know?

How far are you in?

We've tracked six songs. They're 95 percent done. I mean, they need like tambourine and stuff. They're good. We've got nine more that we're going to go back and finish as soon as U2's done. We're taking Memorial Day weekend off, and then we're going back to Nashville.

That's where you're recording the whole thing?

Yeah, there's a studio called Blackbird. Amazing studio, man. John McBride -- Martina's husband. He came up as Garth Brooks's sound guy and started a sound company and then sold it, and now it's the biggest PA company -- or maybe sold part of his company -- and then started a studio in '01, '02. And near as we can tell, man, it's one of the best studios in the country.

What else has been recorded there?

Google it. It's stupid. You would not believe what's been recorded there.

So do you have a release date yet?

No, we're holding everybody off. We're going to get it out this year, hopefully October, November. Hopefully, everybody will be listening to it around the table at Thanksgiving.

Do you have a title for it?

I don't have a title for it. I'll talk to the guys to see if I can tell you which title I think I want to call it. But I've got to get their permission first. We haven't told anybody yet. It won't be our second self-titled album. It won't be our third album, second self-titled. [laughs] I'm stoked about it, though, man. You can hear some rock in the drum kit, I'll tell you what.

How much has it changed from your demos?

A lot. There's some brand-new songs that came right at the end. There's a few older ones, like in the last two years. But for the most part, it's kind of a whole different ballgame.

Is it more melodic?

To be honest, we've written a bunch more since what you heard. One ended up kind of finding its way through the demo process. And then a second one called "The Fighter," which I think is my favorite track right now. There's two songs, one's called "The Fighter" and one's called "Heartbeat" -- those are the working titles -- and those are the two I'm super-stoked about. The melody is beautiful, some of the best lyrics I think we've ever written. The choruses feel like choruses. Sometimes the choruses are just, like, higher verses [laughs]. I think we figured out a few choruses on this one.

So how's the process changed? What's different about recording this record than your previous two?

Everybody's settling into their roles, I think. I think the Edge said that the difference between bands that last and bands that don't are the ones that every single person knows where they fit. We're all starting to that figure out. Like, Dave [Welsh] is amazing at putting skin on it. He just comes up with these incredible textures and incredible melodies to counter my vocal.

Ben [Wysocki] has kind of stepped up in the studio as a producer, a pre-producer and then kind of a second, Brendan's right-hand man. He's sees the vision better than any of us of the whole song. The three of us get a little focused on our own deal, so Ben has been able to kind of rise to the occasion and become that -- he's got the makings of an incredible producer. He's able to play his instrument and then zoom back and be like, "Nope, needs less drums." We're like, "What?" Who says less of themselves?

And Joe King has been playing the bass. He's been doing some bass on this record, and it's badass parts, man. He's coming up with some wicked stuff. He bought a nice bass. He bought a nice amp. So he's been doing that a lot.

So it's possible that he might start playing the bass live?

He is going to play the bass on Saturday at Invesco.

So is he the sole bass player in the band now?

No, no, no. We've got a guy named Jeremy McCoy. His dad played with Johnny Cash; he's a Nashville guy. But I think Joe will play one song called "Here We Are." That's a new song we're going to play.

How many new songs are you going to play?

The Fox will probably be five or six. Invesco, I think we'll play "Heartbeat," "The Fighter" and "Here We Are." Those are the three. We tried them out last week at a couple of private gigs, and they felt great. I think dynamic-wise, Joe and I have come to terms with who we are and who we're not, as a band and as a frontman. And Joe's right behind me. He's just taking off on the background-singing stuff and coming up with all these beautiful parts, and then just dozens of songs in the last year of just beautiful melodies, beautiful, kind of sweeping landscapes that he kind of lets me put my story on, and then he and I kind of hone it.

So we're starting to find a groove that we've never really found before. Everybody's just relaxed now. We're putting up a video blog -- actually in the next hour, probably -- that my brother-in-law shot of us in the studio. I watched this thing, and it looked like so much fun. It was like all four of us, but I forgot I was in it. I was like, "I want to be in that band. It looks so fun -- oh, God, I am." [laughs] There's an ease about it that we've never had before, and I think it comes across. The music just feels more organic and natural.

Click through for Slade's pre-show impressions opening for U2, and be sure to read the full review of the U2 concert at Invesco if you haven't already.

So let's talk about this weekend. You've reached two milestones in your career, tremendous milestones: You're playing with U2 -- which, bucket list, done, right? -- and you're playing Invesco. Both of those things are impossible to wrap your head around, much less fathom. That being said, how do you feel about that?

I'm a very visual person, so I asked for a tour of Invesco. A couple of months ago, they let Ben and I swing by, and I plugged in my iPod to their very, very fancy eighth-inch cable and played some of our new demos over the P.A., and they gave me a microphone to test it out and let me just get my head around it. So as far as that side goes, I feel like I'm ready. It's the same thing we do, just different numbers.

We played a big festival in Boston that had a hundred and something thousand people -- they estimated like a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand. You couldn't see people at the end; it just kind of blended into this blur of color. It was doable, man. It was totally doable. It was just more people.

I think because we played that size before -- obviously, it will be different than anything we've ever done before -- but at least I can put it on the map. It's a new neighborhood, but I know roughly where it is and what to do when I get there.

As far as opening for U2 - I bought a T-shirt of the Unforgettable Fire tour from the Salvation Army when I was a junior in high school, before I knew their music, even. I knew their singles, but I didn't know any of the other music. But I saw this T-shirt, and I was like, "Oh, this looks awesome." And I've been wearing it probably once a week, every week, for the last nine years. I played Paris last year, and this girl came up to me and she goes [feigns French accent], "That is the U2 shirt that you wore last time you played Paris." I was like, "Well, can't apologize for that. I'm proud of the shirt. What can I say?"

So I think there's little moments like that where each one of us has that kind of connection to them in some kind of otherworldly way that we just haven't put the two in the same sentence, like, them and us. It's always been them, and we're sort of playing our music, and they've never been in the same paragraph. I think that will be the coolest thing, just to be affiliated with them. I saw a billboard the other day and I was mid-sentence saying something, and I think I just trailed off. I was like, "And I just don't know why we...whoa! Our name is on that billboard! That is badass.'"

Is that something you even fathomed when you started the band?

No, you don't really fathom that. You fathom quitting...

I mean, three nights at Red Rocks had to be completely unreal. But now, it doesn't really get much bigger than this.

No, I think...it's hard to explain. You're going to give me so much shit for this: It was more exciting to quit Starbucks than to open for U2, and I haven't done it yet, so I may change my mind. All I knew was waking up at four in the morning and making as many lattes as I could before I fell back asleep, and that was all that I knew, like that was my life. I tried to keep my friends, I tried to graduate college, and I tried to make enough money to pay my cell phone so it didn't shut off -- Cricket! Pre-pay, baby!

And that was it, you know? That was the biggest goal we had, and pushed and pushed and pushed. And once we got that, it was like pure exhilarating awesomeness to be able to go to part-time and then quit and just do music full-time. And ever since then, it's like thing after thing after thing: Okay, Leno, try to wrap you head around that. Nope. Can't. Oh, gold records, nominated for a Grammy. Try to wrap your head around that and you can't.

So all you're left with is just enjoying it. Experiencing it. Memorizing the moment and enjoying it as much as we can. So here comes U2. It's like one more moment I'm just going to try my damnedest to memorize.

With regard to U2, when you guys played the Mile High Music Fest, you were criticized -- actually by me -- for changing up your stage show to be more arena rock-like. You certainly were evoking U2 with the images you were using, with you coming center stage from behind the piano, making the Jesus Christ poses, that sort of thing. In the face of actually playing with them, how does that...I mean, you can't out-U2 U2. Have you even thought about that?

Yeah, you know what, two things in response to your criticism: One, that was far and away the shittiest show of our entire summer tour. I'm embarrassed by it, actually. I remember everybody was just in a bad head space. I lost my voice and compensated by pretending.

Second thing: Everybody wants us to stay the same, and everybody wants us to change. And, ideally, as an artist, you can do all of that in private. You can go through your own metamorphsis and break new skin and grow and go through and hit the adolescence of your career and emerge a mature, fully formed entitity.

But it doesn't work like that when you start out young and go for more than five or ten years. I think because we've realized that, we've been able to embrace it and kind of live by a new motto. We used to run around scared. We would always ask ourselves: "Is this us? Is this something we'd do? Is this counterfeit? Is this authentic?" And at one point, Dave just looked at us and said, "If we do it and we like it, it is us, period. That's how it works. If we make more fans after we change or we lose more fans after we change, as long as we're still us, Fountainhead style, it's true to who we are.

And you know, the show you caught us at was an awkward, kind of junior-high moment. We're like, "Oh, can we be this band? Can we try to be those bands?" And we took - just like we've done our whole career -- we took pieces of every success and every failure with us into the next phase of creativity, whether that's the live show or that's the album.

I remember telling you after our first record was out for a while that it never occurred to me while we were making the first record that we were going to have to play these songs live. It was all about the headphones, man, because none of us had fancy speakers and none of us had car stereos, so it was all about playing them through our little iPod headphones. And then we took these songs live and realized they were really slow and we only had ten of them.

And that absolutely affected our second record. We made the second record differently because of one of the first record's weaknesses. And I think from being chained to the piano my whole career, locked up in this little introverted, sorrowful, shy kind of anti-frontman -- part of that is who I am, and part of that misses me by a mile. Part of that is no more me than if I was the drummer or something. I'm just not a drummer. And I'm just not like a locked-up, introverted guy in real life. So why would I pretend to be Rivers Cuomo on stage? For a long time I did it because I was nervous to try. If you don't try, you don't fail.

So I just kind of sat there with my back hunched over and my arms kind of hanging at the side and being like, "Oh, sorry for coming. Sorry we're not this band. Sorry we're not that band." I'm done with that, man. I'm so tired of that. I'm so tired of apologizing for people coming to our shows. Or apologizing for how big we are. Or apologizing for how small we are. Or apologizing for not meeting everybody's expectations. It's like it's so freeing to not dance by committee anymore, to be able to stand up on stage and communicate something to the front row and to the back row because it's in me, rather than communicate something that I think will make the front row and the back row like me better. That make sense?

Click through for Slade's post-show impressions opening for U2, and be sure to read the full review of the U2 concert at Invesco if you haven't already.

What was your reaction to playing with U2 at Invesco?

I felt oddly at ease, actually. I felt more comfortable there than I did playing the Fox. I'm not sure why.

What were your first thoughts when you got up on stage and you were looking out at a stadium full of people?

Oh, man. Uh ... [pause] I remember thinking: Oh, it's the same thing that we've always done, just more people - easy! [laughs] So I kind of just kicked in, you know? Remember the first lyric I sing, count it off, wait for my cue and then sing the shit out of the song.

Was it everything that you thought it was going to be?

It was a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be nerve-racking and I was going to have to lean behind Dave's amp and throw up a little bit. But I was really, really comfortable. As soon as it finished, I wanted to get back on stage and play the set again top-to-bottom.

Luckily, you'll have the chance to do that on the other dates you have on this tour.

Yeah, dude. I'm sitting on the tarmac right now, trying to get to Salt Lake so I can do it again.

So how does this rank in the top moments of your life?

It was kind of a grandslam sort of weekend: Playing that secret show at the Fox. I went out with a bunch of friends after that I hadn't seen forever. Had a big birthday party with my family on Friday with my family and with some friends up at the Fort, sitting around the fire smoking cigars and drinking scotch. And then went to U2 and just played the biggest set I ever had. So next to my wedding weekend, it was probably the greatest time in my life.

What did you guys do immediately after the show? Did you stick around and watch U2.

We went out and watched the show until the end, and then we went to the Green Russell and got some drinks.

Did you get a chance to see the Bono and the guys after your set?

Apparently, they had a private gig they had to set up or something. So they left right away... unless they had a party I didn't get invited to - which is totally possible. [laughs] But it was really cool. I got back to the dressing room after our set. It reminded me of Weezer. We played with Weezer in - what was that '05? We came back from the set, and you know, we gave them that "thank you" banana, and they gave us a "you're welcome" pear.

I invited them [U2] to my birthday party on Friday, and they couldn't make it. But then on Saturday night, I got back to my dressing room, and they had given me a ping-pong table for my 30th with a big ping-pong paddle on it and sunglasses drawn on it. Bono signed it, and his wife, Ally, signed it: "Much love. Happy birthday!" So that was pretty cool.

Sort of awesome, you mean? So how did you feel the reaction was to the new songs?

Actually, I was shocked, man. Those songs worked better there - the new songs - worked better there than they did at the Fox Theatre. We had four new songs with old songs mixed in, and the old songs felt like the tender moments of the show. Whereas the rock ones filled up the room a lot better. I'm excited to try this new record out at our own shows with our core fans in the room - kind of taking them out on the road, you know?

It seems like you guys got a little bit lost in the moment when you were playing the more piano-based stuff...

Those were the moments when the U2 fans had some familiarity. They were there, obviously, to see U2, but you could see the recognition in their faces like, "Oh, I know you. Yeah, let's get some coffee."

When you first came out, it looked like you were looking around at the stadium and were kind of awestruck...

U2 has a guy named Jack, who acts as the spirtual guru of the tour, and he always tells them before they play the shows to find one person in the audience and play for that person. And when you're done looking at that person, switch to another person and play for them. So I was at the crowd trying to remember that they were individuals and not just a big group of ticket buyers.

So I think I came out and I saw one face, and then I saw another face, then I saw another face, and it multiplied in my head - I don't know how many people were there when we played, probably 40,000 or something - and I just kept thinking how many stories are out there, people with jobs and families and hopes and fears. And they brought all of it that night, and I gave as much as I could.

Did it go a lot faster than it seemed like it would?

No, actually. It was like a good, steady 45-minutes. It felt like real time. I was so mentally looking forward to it for eighteen months, that I think once it finally came, I could breathe, memorize, soak it in and enjoy it.

Do you think it's going to be a lot easier on the other dates on this tour now that you have Denver out of the way?

It's a cakewalk for me. Now I know how my jacket feels up there. I know where to stand. I know that it takes, like, seventeen minutes to walk from one side of the stage to the other.

I loved that bit about "They said I can't use the bridge, so I have to walk around."

Yeah, Paul McGuiness [U2's manager] laughed so hard when I said that.

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