Hitfix Interview: The Fray's Isaac Slade on U2's Bono, Rwanda and isolation
As The Fray came together to work on what would become its third Epic album, “Scars & Stories,” the quartet had a collective dark night of the soul; one that could have spelled the end for the multi-platinum piano rock act best known for radio smashes such as “How To Save A Life” and “Over My Head (Cable Car).”
They were in the studio working up songs for “S&S,” out today, and “all four of us were coming of age,” says co-founder/lead singer Isaac Slade. “I was turning 30. We were trying to figure out who we are, what we want to do, how long we want to be in a band. We were partly excited that we get another chance, but partly afraid we were going to be irrelevant. It was a bad, bad week.”
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The future looked so muddied that the band cancelled studio time and decided to take a sudden break. “We were hanging on by a thread, working 15 hour days,” Slade says. During the two-week hiatus, the band members—Slade, Joe King, Dave Welsh and Ben Wysocki—rested and regrouped. “Those two weeks [were] almost giving ourselves permission not to be robotic, to be human. It’s an organic process.”
Much of “Scars & Stories,” as titles such as “Rainy Zurich” and “Munich” hint, was written on the road. King suggested they spend some of their recording budget on seeing the world as travelers, rather than from the inside of a tour bus. Most striking for Slade was his visit to Rwanda, a trip that inspired first single “Heartbeat.” “When you’re on tour, you’re in survival mode, you’re resting your voice,” Slade says. “When I went went to Rwanda, I was wide open.
“In Rwanda, I spent time with [President Paul Kagame], having an incredible conversation with him about the loneliness of being in the spotlight. I [spent] time in the Genocide Museum. There are 250,000 in this mass grave and I’m looking down into the valley. It’s pouring rain and there’s a fire at the bottom that will not stop burning. It spoke to me of how everyone tried to cut them down and they can’t. It’s the story of every human that’s ever breathed. That’s when I wrote ‘Heartbeat.’”
While some artists gravitate toward stardom, Slade says that he can find being a lead singer “a very isolated place,” in that as much he loves his audiences, there are few people who can relate to his experience.
Kagame told Slade, “you have to step off the pedestal yourself, you need to be human. You need to have three friends that you trust. He said the secret with loneliness is you can never make it go away, but you can answer it by giving rather than taking.”
When the band returned to the studio, the members brought in producer Brendan O’Brien, best known for his work with Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen.
After the second album, which Slade hints was too busy-sounding, the band picked O’Brien “to strip down to the essentials and then turn it up a lot....some of the production on this, it’s four instruments. It’s clarified. We never had that much trust in ourselves to leave it to that.”
Slade knows The Fray is at a pivotal time in its career. “It’s a chance to wildly fail in front of everyone or wildly succeed and there’s no in between. We don’t want to coast off into our 60s playing casinos. We want to be better in every sense of the term. It doesn’t necessarily mean bigger numbers.”
Plus, just as he learned from Kagame, he recently had a teachable moment while watching Bono on stage. The Fray opened two dates for U2 on the Irish group’s 2011 tour.
“We played Denver first and U2 nailed that show, it was epic,” Slade recalls. “Then I watched U2 play Salt Lake City a few nights later and the crowd stared at them. Bono was doing exactly what he was doing in Denver: same band, same spaceship stage and the crowd just wasn’t that into it...To know that one of the biggest bands in the world has good shows and bad shows, that was a big thing to learn.”