“We’re more of a sculpture band,” starts The Fray’s frontman Isaac Slade. “We have a rough idea of what we want things to look like and sound like, but we don’t know what’s going to be so we keep on chipping away and forming it until it resonates with us, and then at that point we put the damn thing out.”
Sometimes it takes decades to hear the progression of a musician’s bleeding heart out of the stereo. The Fray has managed to up the ante with each album, from their 2005 How to Save a Life to their 2009’s self titled effort, both discs becoming huge pop radio hits. Their singles aren’t strangers to the usual adult contemporary charts, but it’s the band’s philosophy, and quite possibly singer/songwriter and pianist Isaac Slade’s penchant for singing the hell out of every song, and show universal truths, that sets them apart from the rest. The band collectively go into the recording studio with a very significant goal in mind — to open their wounds, reveal their scars, and bring their flaws to the forefront.
Slade recently sat down with PopMatters to give an in depth look on Scars & Stories and all that went into creating the AC/DC and Queen-inspired “stadium like” feel to the album, discussing staying true to yourself, vulnerability, the reality in not knowing all the answers, being afraid and the universal connection.
“For us we feel like we dug deep and made music that we followed our instincts to find and discover almost like new territory in a stray country that we didn’t know. We really trusted ourselves and [by] using momentum, the recording process to keep things moving along, and just trust our voices on who we are and that’s enough,” says Slade.
This time around, the band popped out an album called Scars & Stories, formed mostly on the road, and in Slade’s Colorado cabin. The album is a crafted compilation waiting to get under your skin and remind you of feelings that were only simmering to the surface with songs like “I Can Barely Say”, “Munich”, and “Turn Me On”. It’s a familiar mix of up-tempo, mid-tempo and the fan favorite stripped ballads that have made The Fray heavy weight champs in the game of lovelorn lyricism and melodic riffs that will tug at your heartstrings. However, this time around the band is questioning their longevity and the meaning behind the gravitational pull of life. There’s a greater depth to the songs, the lyricism is fresh and the band proves that they’ve matured right along with their sound and their fans.
This attitude of wanting to connect to their audience by showing their scars is just one of the reasons why the seats are packed and sold out months in advance all over the nation. They have stories to tell and they’re not concerned with playing the parts of the ill-conceived “rock god” status that comes with having a few of those stories in easy rotation on Top 40 radio. The Fray is a band that’s concerned with getting down on their fans level, because if anything they realized that we’re all here for the same reason.
“Everyone’s got scars. I think they represent what you’ve been through and maybe even hint at what you’re going towards. There’s this great moment in a relationship where you know them well enough to take your shirt off, and show them scars of what you’ve been through. They either leave because it’s too much or they stick around and the relationship gets really, really, interesting, and I feel like we’re there at that point with our fans. We’re ready to go Full Monty with them,” said Slade.
The universal connection through storytelling was realized early on by Slade: “I think what we get with travel is, we see what it is that you and I have in common. You can live in a different city and in the different part of the world doing the opposite job of what I do and everything looks different. I think when everything looks different you can see the similarities even clearer. We both want significance, we both want security, we both want to know what we’re doing matters, and who we are matters. It’s the great equalizer. We try to write songs that connect rather than elevate us into some pedestal position. We always strived for that connection, and in that connection is the universal experience and that’s key.”
For a band that leaves their hearts on the stage and has captured wave after wave of listeners clamoring for the next lyric to post on their Facebook page, Slade admits it’s not the easiest thing to do for people. “To be flawed on a mass media world wide stage is a scary thing. I remember talking to Adam Durtiz from Counting Crows during ‘You Found Me’, and it was very hard for me because it was about difficult stuff I was going through right then. I didn’t have it figured out. I was singing about my questions, not my answers, and I told him I’m nervous about singing this song over and over again because it feels very naked and he said ‘Why else would you sing these songs? You should only worry if the songs are not naked — if they don’t cut to the bone. Every song should be that real, and that open, and that honest.’ It changed my perspective a bit that it’s kind of the point.”
As for having that one personal song that speaks out much more than the rest, Slade says this time around it’s “Munich”, a song he wrote about his wife, Anna, and the idealistic preconceived notions that ultimately sparked a myriad of questions about her purpose in his life, and the gravitational pull of the simple mysteries of the world. “I was left with almost like a universal elemental mystery of attraction. Okay she’s not my value, she’s not my meaning, she’s not my soul mate in the romantic Victorian sense, and then what is she? There is this magnetism that I feel for her. There’s this pulling of forces. It reminds me of the planets orbiting around each other, and with all the technology and all the science and every single thing we know about the world, we still have no idea why there’s gravity. We know how it works, we know how things operate, and we know how things function, but we don’t know why it exists. There’s still a mystery and I think that song is my attempt to capture a little bit of that mystery of ‘I don’t know what holds the universe together, but I think it’s the same thing that holds my wife and I together.'”
For a band that seems to be aware of all of their surroundings, the future of how they get their music out there with the always-changing record industry does come in to question, and how can it not? In the last ten years as fans and industry players we’ve seen head honchos close shop, digital sales being counted more then CD sales, and as it stands right now, bubblegum pop group *NSync still holds the record for most sold albums in a day for their 2000 hit No Strings Attached. There’s a touch of this reflection in “48 To Go” lyrics that read, “where will we be in a half a century” persuade the listener to think Slade has more on his mind than just his own mortality. “We’ve always made television a priority. It’s one of the new emerging mediums for bands, and it’s a challenge. You never really know what it’s going to look like until you see it. It is a changing landscape. My job is to write songs and to sing the shit out of them and I let my people around me sort of figure out the rest. I don’t know where the industry is going. I do know that through all the changes the industry is gone through throughout the last 110 years, people have always found the music they like and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
One of the things that work for this particular album, and for a fan of The Fray, is that you never get a feeling of being beaten by self-indulgent lyrics that distance the listener from the band. Although Slade pens the most personal songs on this record, upon listening to Scars & Stories you never get the sense that he’s pushing a specific agenda down your throat. There’s a more universal purpose, and Slade admits, that sometimes it’s about telling stories that come from other sources of inspiration, most notably a favorite artist Norman Rockwell. “One day I was just in the cabin by myself and pulled out a Norman Rockwell book and flipped to one page, and I was just going to write what I saw. It was a scene of a boxing arena, with a crowd around it and the main guy had gotten knocked down and everyone was wondering if he was going to get back up. The bad guy was kind of yelling at him and the girl was in the crowd standing up realizing that she might lose her man. I put it on the piano and wrote ‘The Fighter’.”
And sometimes what makes the most ideal listening album is the simplistic moments shared between friends when they’re off the road. “We’re perfectly content to live enough life that we have good material to write from, then write it, record it, tour it for a couple of years and then take a minute to go play baseball, and BBQ, and then start all over again. These are my best friends. These are the guys I would take a bullet for. I don’t know exactly what it’ll look like in 10 or 20 years but I hope it’s the four of us, writing real songs about real life, and playing them for anybody that will listen.”