It's been said that God works in mysterious ways. He's spoken through dreams, a burning bush, even a jackass. And now it seems he's delivering a message through a Sony Pressman. The voice doesn't really belong to the Almighty, of course; David Welsh, lead guitarist of the Fray, commandeered my tape recorder while his bandmates and I answered nature's call. But it might as well be God talking. Having chronicled the Fray's miraculous ascent for the past year, I feel like I've witnessed divine intervention. How else could an unknown act -- one that's played fewer than a hundred shows, sold just over a thousand discs and performed out of state only once -- garner a major-label deal in such a short time?
If you ask Mike Flynn, the associate director of A&R at Epic Records, it was the music that did it. According to band legend, one of the label's scouts tipped him off to the Fray after coming across a Westword piece on the Internet.
I'd stumbled on the Fray in October of 2003, when pianist/vocalist Isaac Slade slipped me the rough mixes of Reason, the outfit's sophomore EP. When I next wrote my column, I described the music as "mind-blowing," flush with "cascading melodies, intricate arrangements, flawless falsetto and, best of all, stunningly well-written songs." The disc moved the Fray to the top of my must-see list.
A few weeks later, I caught the band at the Climax Lounge -- and immediately wondered what I'd been smoking. At this point, the Fray had maybe fifteen gigs under its belt, and this performance revealed a complete lack of chemistry. To make matters worse, before the set was even over, a guy made his way through the sparse crowd urging everyone to yell "Encore."
When I ran into Slade a short time later at the Little Bear, he came clean and admitted that he'd put his friend up to it -- for my benefit. "'Come Together' would be our big hurrah after everybody cheered and wanted us to come back on," he remembers. "We had never had an encore before. 'The Westword editor's coming,' I think I said to my friend. 'We have to make this a big show. We'll come back out and do the Beatles song after you yell "Encore."' It didn't really work out, though. It kind of blew up in my face."
Not exactly. Slade's earnest confession was one of the reasons I kept my eye on this group. The other: I couldn't pry Reason out of my disc player. Last December, "Vienna" easily made the cut for my top songs of the year. I sensed that sooner or later the Fray would tap into its true potential, with performances to match its recordings.
Little did I know that things would coalesce as quickly as they did. Over the next three months, the Fray's live show improved so dramatically it was as if the band had some form of sonic Progeria; the group earned a nod as Best New Band in Westword's Best of Denver 2004. And with each gig, one local luminary after another began to take note. Don Strasburg, Eric Pirritt and the crew at the Fox Theatre were the first to book the Fray as a headliner. After hearing Reason, Jake Schroeder was so floored that he immediately invited the band to appear on his Mountain Homegrown radio show. At about the same time, KBCO asked the band to record in its famed Studio C, and KTCL started testing a few of the new songs with its listeners. In June, the Fray won the rock category of the Westword Music Showcase Awards, upsetting local favorite Rose Hill Drive, among others. By then, the buzz was so loud that it was beginning to be heard outside of Denver.
By October, one of the Fray's new songs, "Cable Car," had tested well enough that KTCL added it to regular rotation -- a stunning feat for any new act, especially a local one. And in an unprecedented move, the station launched a listener-driven campaign to get the Fray signed. Ironically, by the time the station was giving the song regular spins, none of the bandmembers were in town to hear it. They'd been flown to New York by Epic for a private showcase. Hearing just one cut had been enough to interest Flynn. "The only song that I heard was 'Vienna,'" the A&R man remembers. "I was just really compelled by Isaac's voice and the lyrical content. It just sounded real to me. It was real music. It was timeless music. All I know is when I heard it, I got on an airplane and went there. I didn't care where it came from." In fact, he came to Denver twice to hear the Fray perform, and then the label brought the band to New York. After hearing a handful of songs, Epic execs were sold on the Fray. Just like that.