Isaac Slade on The Fray Through The Years: “There is a Beautiful Magic to This Whole Music Business.”
Interview by Shannon Shumaker
When it comes to music, each city and each state has their hometown heroes, and through the years, The Fray has undoubtedly been that band for Denver, Colorado. They were the first concert I went to by myself as a teenager, something that sparked my passion for music, and they have easily inspired countless others. The three-time Billboard Music Award-winning group hasn't slowed down since their inception, with four studio albums under their belt, a brand new greatest hits record, Through The Years out now and their fifteenth anniversary as a band coming up in 2017. To bring this year to a strong close, they are currently out on the road with American Authors and will be playing two hometown shows right after Thanksgiving - The Fox Theatre in Boulder on November 25th and 1st Bank Center on the 26th - and thankfully, they haven't forgotten where they came from.
When I caught up with frontman Isaac Slade over the phone before The Fray's homecoming performances, he was quick to site his upbringing in Colorado and the band's dedicated fanbase as a few reasons for their longevity and humility. No matter how big or small of a stage they may play in their hometown, The Fray will always feel connected with Colorado, making these upcoming shows a must-see before they dive into the new year.
Not only did you guys just release your greatest hits album, Through The Years, but you’re also going on your fifteenth year together next year, which is crazy to think about. When you were first starting out, was it ever a thought that you’d end up where you are now some day?
Isaac Slade: Yeah, actually. We used to sit around in the early days, in 2002, 2003 when we started and talk about what kind of band we would have to be to achieve longevity. We used to throw around the phrase “twenty years” a lot, not just for today and for tomorrow, but how do we do this so we don’t hate each other in twenty years? How do we do this so we’re not broke in twenty years? We kind of learned a lot of lessons from the burning heaps of car wrecks on the side of the road called rock 'n' roll, and learning from those stories… So in a sense, we have kind of thought like this for a long time, but the real heart of your question, we had no clue we would ever get to play shows with fifteen, twenty thousand kids who know the lyrics in Philadelphia. I remember that, the biggest show we’ve ever had for ourselves that we were headlining was probably twenty-three thousand kids and I was standing on stage, and it just felt like I was in the middle of a movie, like it didn’t feel real. I’m still there a little bit. I still try to wrap my head around looking at Spotify numbers or something, I still don’t know how that happened [laughs].
You kind of mentioned learning lessons from bands that came before you, but is there anything that you’ve learned over the years you’ve been together that you’ve taken forward with you?
Yeah, I’m sure there’s probably a 99 lessons book that we could write. One of the ones that really stands out to me is that mixing success and self-worth almost always turns into some kind addiction. [laughs] If you mix those two, you’re gonna find a vice that numbs the pain, because if you’re really attaching your value and your worth to you name it; company profit, a paycheck, approval, radio charts and awards, or applause, or even the moment at a party when somebody asks you what you do and you tell them you’re in The Fray and they freak out… You know, if you attach your value to that moment, you are in for one hell of a ride, because it will beat the shit out of you. I mean, you can’t do that for very long and survive, because when you’re up, you’re way up and you feel like you’re a God, and when you’re down, you have nothing to live for. So I think over the course of ten years, I haven’t talked to the guys about it, but I bet you ten bucks that every single one of the guys would agree that it has been a part of each of our stories. When that pollutant got into the water table, it’s like poison and you gotta figure out how to filter it quick, otherwise you’re not gonna last for long.
Now, we’re based out of Denver, and you’re from Denver as well - do you feel that your upbringing in Colorado had any affect on your work ethic or your music as a band?
Undoubtedly. I mean, on an internal level, I think the stock of people that are in the state, and especially in the cities I grew up in - Denver, Boulder, Northglenn, Arvada, Lafayette - I think you just get a certain type of person that focuses more on telling the truth than putting on some kind of display. And really, I do think of it in terms of that spectrum - either you’re gonna put on a front, or you’re gonna show what’s going on inside. And you can do both, ideally you’re doing something right down the middle, but when I travel, there’s certain cities and certain areas of the country that just lend itself to that really naturally. What you see is what you get and lyrically, we’ve always tried to do that. Like, I would love for you to be impressed by me, for sure, but I’m not gonna write the song to impress you, I’m not gonna write the song to make you think I’m a badass or I’ve got it more put together than I do. And that’s rare, that’s an extremely rare thing, especially in the entertainment industry. You’re supposed to use every resource available to you, from makeup all the way to music video screens behind you on stage to make yourself look invincible and flawless, and we just haven’t ever done that. We just ran from that as fast as we could.
The new album, Through The Years kind of merges your past and present with all of your greatest hits in chronological order from your start until now. Then, the last three songs are new, and they sound very different side by side with your older material - did you have any goals when you were working on “Singing Low,” “Corners” and “Changing Tides?”
Not any specific goals. We’ve had a couple universal aims for the music that we make that have really stayed the same over the course of our entire career - of making music that speaks to us first. I don’t need to rock out to it on a road trip, because listening to myself would be weird, but when I hear it, I have to feel something. And if I don’t, hopefully one or two of the other guys feels something. If there’s something there, we chase it as hard as we can. A lot of the times, two of us will end up feeling it and two of us won't, and we kind of use that as a test to decide if it’s us or not. By and large, really without exception, at least three of us were vibing on the song when we put it out, and hopefully the song grew in popularity and connection to the fourth guy that just didn’t get it. Looking back on it, that’s been the case all along. The songs we record and write are an amalgamation of all of the influences we’ve had over the years - all of the songs and artists we’re listening to at the moment, all of the movies and books, conversations and trends and things you see on the news - it’s all just a mosaic of our experience of the world at any given moment.
If you look at record three, we worked with one of our heroes from the 90’s, who was all about acoustic, real instruments and drums, and we would spend days on snare tones and I think it’s one of the best sounding drum records we have. They’re pristine, they sound alive. And then you look at the fourth record and we worked with this really profoundly influential EDM artist, and he pushed us and challenged us to go into new territory, thinking outside of that acoustic drum kit and getting onto an old school 808 drum machine, using the same exact machine Tupac used and seeing what happened and being open to that new territory. So looking back, I think it’s awesome to sort of see that evolution as we try to stay true to that stuff we were talking about that sort of comes from being from Colorado, as well as always jumping on a boat and seeing where the wind takes us.
So right now, you guys are on tour in support of the album, and you’ve been doing meet and greets for every show - what has been your favorite part about meeting people at these shows?
I think there’s a tendency as a performer to get a little wrapped up in your day and your moment, like I’m trying to figure out what to eat after the show and looking up a food menu, and I’m thinking about my voice and I have a little bit of a cold, and I’ve gotta figure out flights for my family next week. That’s my 6:15 at night, and then we walk into a room of fans who humbly, they’ve paid to come meet us and tell us their story about how our music has impacted them. They open our eyes to a different experience and a different world that our music has had the honor to play a small role in as part of the soundtrack of their life. A lot of times, the fans we get coming to meet and greets are the ones that went through something so harrowing that they barely made it, or somebody close to them actually didn’t make it, and our music was right there. So we have a lot of people that come back and hug us and just sort of fall apart, because in a sense, we were there when their brother took their own life… I mean, I feel like a priest after that. People come up to me, and you would not believe the stuff they say, because we’ve spent a long time together. There is a beautiful magic to this whole music business, that we can spend a hundred hours with somebody and they come up and they just jump right in and start talking about one of the darkest moments of their life and how we were there. And then they say thanks, and they walk away, and it’s profound, the impact it has. Like I said, my 6:15 is very different from my 7:15. I walk back into the room breathing deeper, remembering what’s important. I usually call my wife just to check in and know that she’s still there, to take stock of the little things and try to be grateful.
"I’ve stood at the four corners, I’ve stood at the county line and looked out past DIA, I’ve stood at the base of Devil’s Thumb, I’ve been all over that damn state and I think when I stand on stage, I feel the gravity of that."
I think that takes you back to that whole mentality you were talking about with Denver and honesty. That’s what resonates with people and what makes those songs stick with them, is you being honest and not trying to put on a facade.
Absolutely, and I definitely do it. I don’t want to give off the impression that I stand up on stage and I’m perfectly vulnerable. I’m the first guy on stage to be thinking about how I look and how people are reacting, like, “Oh, they didn’t laugh at that joke,” or “They’re not clapping when they’re supposed to.” I’m definitely human and I think about that stuff. It’s funny, everybody’s got a compass, and when you make your north everybody’s approval, you end up carving out parts of your soul. You just have to fake it because you can’t make everybody like you and you’re going to do anything in your power to get it. And when you make something else your north - everybody has something that’s very true for themselves, but for me I think there’s some kind of actual reality and actual truth that’s going on, and an actual way to take from people or give to them - and if you make something like that your north, their approval matters, you feel it for sure, but it’s like weather. Like, “Oh, people are mad at me, I gotta put on a jacket, it’s raining.” [laughs]
You guys are going to be in Denver and Boulder right in time for Thanksgiving, so you’re going to be home for the holidays. What has you most excited for those two shows at The Fox and 1st Bank Center?
Denver is just a special city for us as a band. I think coming up in the scene - we played dance halls, youth groups, coffee shops, and the stadium, opening for U2 and everything in between - we have an attachment to the Denver, Boulder, Springs, Fort Collins, Summit County, Aurora corridor that we don’t have anywhere else. So when we get to pull fans from all over there and from other parts of the state, it ends up just feeling like a richer experience than most places we play. I’ve stood at the four corners, I’ve stood at the county line and looked out past DIA, I’ve stood at the base of Devil’s Thumb, I’ve been all over that damn state and I think when I stand on stage, I feel the gravity of that. When we play in Detroit, there are people from all over the state and the city that are there with their own stories, but I don’t know them. When I’m in Colorado, it’s like I know them and I can feel them, so it just hits us a differently, and that naturally makes its way into our performance. We just feel more comfortable in a way to really swing as hard as we can.
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