It's a sunny March afternoon and Isaac Slade, frontman for Denver's piano-pop newcomers the Fray, is taking a break from the band's photo shoot at a hilltop mansion in Los Angeles. After all, with years of touring Colorado indie dives under their belts, the Fray are finally riding high on a Number One alternative single and a debut, How to Save a Life, that's sold over 100,000 copies.
"The photo shoot's glorious," Slade admits. "It's probably, like, a 16,000-square-foot mansion, and you can see the skyline -- and My Chemical Romance is recording upstairs!" But reality for an up-and-coming indie outfit sets in fast. "We have a gig in Denver, so we have to fly back tonight," Slade says of a booking that does sound pretty dodgy. "It's a St. Patty's Day event that starts at 8 a.m. -- you know, a beer-and-breakfast thing. We're going to be dragging our feet all the way back to Denver."
After months out on the road on their first headlining tour of North America, the band has no hesitations about stopping at home -- where, four years ago, Slade hooked up with guitarists Joe King and Dave Welsh and drummer Ben Wysocki, and created the Fray. Slade and King began writing songs that would become the band's 2005 soaring debut, How to Save a Life.
It was Denver, after all, that got behind the Fray's demo of "Over My Head," boosting the song into local radio's thirty most played songs of 2004 before they even had a record deal. "They actually turned down eight songs," Slade says of Denver radio station KTCL. "I told Joe, 'Don't even bother. They hate us.' But he was like, 'What the hell? So we sent them 'Over My Head,' and a DJ named Alf put it on his 'Sunday Night Locals Only' thing. We all freaked out and did the That Thing You Do dance where everybody jumps around! That was the beginning." And Denver indie fans followed, packing their shows across town.
Slade credits the crafting of the group's melodic pop in large part to his relationship with King. "We have this really well developed relationship where he can tell me, 'That sucks.' And I can understand that he thinks it sucks," Slade explains. "He doesn't think I suck -- and he isn't attacking me as a person. I've tried writing with other people, and it's difficult. I've been doing this with Jim for almost four years. We both come from the same high school choir, and I sat behind him and his wife before she was his wife. We've got those roots."
Their friendship has produced an album full of stick-in-your-head hooks, bright guitars and eloquent narratives of personal relationships that together seem custom-made for Top Forty radio or your favorite teenage television drama. The title track addresses Slade's work mentoring a crack-addicted teen, also a musician. "I wrote the song about how there's no formula for bringing somebody out of that," he says. "Life is this organic risk, this give-and-take. You could lose your life -- you never know."
How to Save a Life also has its tales of love lost -- like the track "Vienna." "Actually," Slade admits, "'Vienna' was a break-up song I wrote before [this girl] and I even started dating. It's the tragedy of 'this might not work.'"
Now, as the band prepares for another slew of shows, Slade feels he's grown comfortable with all the "might not work" variables in the touring life. "The bad shows, I can't stop thinking about if I wore the wrong pants or something," Slade admits. "But we've played shows where people just go crazy -- before the songs, after the songs, during the songs.
"Or we'll get to a city where they just stare at you with their arms crossed and these, like, intense scowls, and just listen. It's like they're sucking the life out of you!" He pauses before adding, "But that's exactly what we want: We want the people to be connected."