Dave, this is God. The Fray is the best new band ever."
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.
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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.
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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.
"It's like our A&R guy came up to us and said, ''Play something,'" says Slade. "And we're like, 'Dun-dun-dun,' and he's like, &'Cool. All right, I'll strap you in.' It's like I'm looking at this spaceship sitting on this tarmac, and we're all tied together, connected to this cable, and we can hear the countdown. And we're like, 'Oh, my God, this thing's going to pull away and our lives are going to disappear.'"
Although the band's success was undeniably sudden, the launch sequence was initiated years ago. "I've been on this track since I was eight," Slade explains. "I've seriously been thinking about it all my life. Lately people have been saying, 'You came out of left field.' Sure, in this incarnation we did. But since I was eight, my mom's been talking to me, saying things like, ';If you do this, you need to be careful that you're not full of yourself.' And my grandpa would tell me, 'You're nothing special. You're just a regular kid.' You know, keeping me normal."
That sense of normalcy plays a pivotal role in the Fray's appeal. With his faux-hawk, Slade looks more like Calvin, Hobbes's partner in crime, than a SoHo fashionista. And rather than coming off as insufferable hipsters, he and his bandmates -- Welsh, vocalist/guitarist Joe King and drummer Ben Wysocki -- seem like ordinary guys blessed with extraordinary talent.
Slade and King put the Fray together in the summer of 2002 from a couple of failed high school projects. Although both had attended Faith Christian Academy, they'd rarely spoken then. But a few years later, during a chance encounter at a local music store, they realized they were kindred spirits -- ideologically and musically. Each had been playing predominantly Christian music, at church and fronting his own band (Slade in Ember and King in Fancy's Showbox), and both felt artistically stifled within the confines of the Christian framework.
"I was a worship leader," King explains. "So naturally, I sang about God and kind of incorporated the whole worship experience into my songs. But I didn't feel like it connected to a broad range of people. I wanted to write about things I saw, about my relationships, about problems that I saw, instead of having to write about God. For so long, I had to think of a cool new way to sing about God, and I didn't feel real to that."
Although the two were no less devout in their faith at that point, they wanted to focus on creating compelling art as Christians -- as opposed to being "Christian artists." So they set about writing songs with less of a theological bent, enlisting Zach Johnson to play drums and put Slade's brother, Caleb, on bass. But as the Fray began to take shape, Slade had to ask Caleb to step down. "It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do," he confesses. Caleb was replaced by Dan Battenhouse, who'd been in a church band with King.
After scraping together enough cash, the Fray entered the studio to record its debut EP, fittingly titled Movement. The material was less pious than bandmembers' previous endeavors -- Fancy's songs "read like Bible verses," King says -- and touched more on interpersonal issues.
"My problem with Christian music," Slade says, "is a lot of it is too happy. It's too smiley. It's like you know from the get-go that it's not completely honest, because they never say they're sad. It's like we're not allowed to talk about anything else. I mean, we all have opinions. I have opinions about morality and about culture and that stuff, but I think the sheer nature of art is kind of take it or leave it. If you pound people over the head, they get suspicious, they don't trust you and it's not art -- it's propaganda. And we're not about Jesus propaganda."
But King and Slade didn't abandon their existential inclinations entirely. And as they started pulling together songs for Reason, alongside the moments of somber heartache expressed in "Vienna" and "Oceans Away" (two cuts from Movement that were repeated on the second recording), they penned some soul-searching tracks. "Without Reason," for example, includes these lines: "I do it on a whim, with no motivation/Following this line and I don't know why/But I've learned to capture time, it's my redirection/I don't want to live this life without reason."
Before the Fray recorded Reason, there was another personnel shift. After Johnson announced that he was off to acting school in New York, Wysocki, one of his best friends and another alum of Faith Christian, was tapped as his replacement. And the recording itself produced another change. Realizing that they'd been a little too ambitious in the studio, the four members of the Fray decided that to pull the songs off live, they'd need someone to play lead. Welsh was the obvious choice, since he'd already played in Ember with Slade and Wysocki. He and Wysocki had been friends since third grade; their parents knew each other through Up With People, "a peaceful-organization-slash-dating-service," as Welsh describes it.
"We kind of musically came as a pair," Wysocki says. "The Fray was the first band that I played in without him. So when I thought of us needing another guitarist, he's the first one I thought of."
Welsh's debut performance was at the Climax thirteen months ago, which explains the lackluster show I saw. But since then, the band has forged an undeniable chemistry. (The quintet has returned to a foursome; Battenhouse parted ways with the group in September, and Future Jazz Project bassist Casey Sidwell and Dave Hedin have filled in while the act searches for a permanent replacement.) Slade and King continue to evolve as songwriters. In the beginning, their interplay was somewhat distracting, both live and on record, because of their disparate approaches to instrumentation and arrangements -- Slade's compositions were more piano- oriented, while King's were guitar-driven. Now, though, it's nearly impossible to distinguish one songwriter from the other. In recalibrating the band's aesthetic, any past Coldplay references have been downplayed, resulting in a sound that recalls Start Here-era Gloria Record textures mated with the more anthemic tendencies of Muse. Needless to say, the Fray no longer has to place a ringer in the crowd to beg for an encore.
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A few weeks ago, the Fray played to a raucous capacity crowd at the Soiled Dove. But at the end of the set, when the fans were clamoring for more, the band didn't oblige.
"It's very simple," Slade says flatly. "We ran out of songs. We don't play 'Come Together' anymore. We retired 'City Hall.' We retired 'Without Reason.' That's really it. We played every song we had."
"This is why we didn't play an encore," Welsh interjects. "Joe's sitting there looking at the clock -- we had like ten minutes or so left. He turns around and mouths 'Come Together' to the bass player. And as Joe was saying it to him, I was like, 'Lord, please let Dave not know how to play "Come Together" so we don't ever have to play that song again.' Dave looked at him and shrugged his shoulders.
"God is real."