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Published: Friday, 2/20/2009

The Fray gets personal

BY GARY GRAFF
NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE

The four members of the Fray felt a certain satisfaction when they came off the road in 2007.

Their debut album, How to Save a Life (2005), was a double-platinum smash. The title track and Over My Head (Cable Car) were Top 10 hits, and they had been nominated for a pair of Grammy Awards.

As they began to consider their next move, however, the pressure began to mount.

We d be lying if we didn t say we were nervous, admits Joe King, the 28-year-old guitarist who co-founded the Fray in 2002 with singer/pianist Isaac Slade, going through several other members before settling in with guitarist Dave Welsh and drummer Ben Wysocki. I sat down with the guys and was like, How are we going to do this again? How are we going to write a whole other record that s going to be better than the last one?

It was freaky, he says. We didn t know where to start, even. But that s OK. It freaked us out to the point where we just said, OK, let s get writing again and see what happens.

The result is The Fray, the group s anxiously anticipated sophomore album. Led by the single You Found Me, which was previewed on ABC s Grey s Anatomy and premiered at the 2008 American Music Awards, the album was produced by Aaron Johnson and Mike Flynn, the same team behind How to Save a Life.

While the surroundings were similar, King says that it was not business as usual.

In a lot of ways it was like going back to the roots of how we usually write songs and make music, he explains. But we knew that there was more riding on it this time. We went into it confident, but not cocky. We didn t expect the first one to do as good as it did, so we didn t take for granted that this one would do the same if we just went back to how we usually did things.

Asked why How to Save a Life clicked so strongly with the Fray s fans, King only laughs. He doesn t know, he says, but he thinks that the songs earnest, heartfelt, and sometimes-angsty subject matter had something to do with it.

From the beginning we just wanted to write some music that reflected our lives and reflected who we are as people, the guitarist says. It s our lives. We re singing about real things. And I think maybe that resonates with the fans and the people that listen, because they can feel that.

Success did not necessarily make things smoother for King and his bandmates. He admits to having gone through a lot of hell in his own life in the period leading up to the making of The Fray, ranging from relationship problems to intra-band turmoil exacerbated by the group s heavy touring in support of How to Save a Life.

It was just a point where you begin to almost question everything and question yourself and question why you think the way you do and why you re together with somebody all those vulnerable questions that are hard to think about and approach, says King, who is married and the father of two young daughters. I think everybody comes to a certain point where you look around at your life and you re just in this mode of, What s going on? Why am I in this place? Why are these things happening?

It was really just a time of intense questioning of myself and everything that was going on in my life, he says. No drugs or anything, just looking at the motives of why you do the things you do.

Part of the problem, he admits, was that the first album s success caught the whole band by surprise.

There s nothing we could have done to prepare for that, King says, because you don t know what to expect.

What to expect, it turned out, was a bit of push and pull within the band, even as How to Save a Life continued to rack up sales.

You can t be in a tour bus for two years with anybody, and be around each other every day, 24-7, and not get sick of each other and need time away, King says.

Learning to communicate that fact, and other personal realities, ultimately saved the situation.

I think one of the things I learned was that I can t do it alone, King says. And so did everybody else. We re not really supposed to do it alone. So I think we re at the point now where we re brothers, and at the end of the day your brother s going to be there for you.

King says that the songs on The Fray all come from really personal places, reflecting not only turmoil that the band members had themselves experienced but also situations that friends and family members had been through.

I had one friend that lost a child, another that came down with a disease, he says. These intense things they were going through factored into [the songs] as well.

That didn t make them easy to write, King adds, but that s all right.

We were talking to Adam Duritz from the Counting Crows, he says, and we were like, Should we be worried about being this vulnerable in our music? Is that a bad thing? And he said, Honestly, if you re not vulnerable, you should be worried.

So I think we re OK with laying things out there like that.

Some of the tracks had a head start. You Found Me and Absolute, for instance, was written on the road and played during the Fray s 2007 tour.

Those songs kind of formed, King recalls, and they gave us a little bit of relief, like OK, we for sure have two songs already going into it. At least we had a reaction we could gauge from our fans and feel like we had a starting point.

The group also wanted to give The Fray as much of a live sound as possible, King says, and to pursue a broader dynamic range, as in the juxtaposition of the fragile Ungodly Hour with the heavy, fuzzed groove of We Build Then We Break.

We wanted to make the bigger songs bigger and the delicate songs more delicate, King says. I think we learned, on tour, how to make songs more dynamic like that.

That process didn t go completely smoothly. Fair Fight, a documentary that s included on a deluxe edition of The Fray, spotlights some rifts that occurred during the recording, primarily between producers Johnson and Flynn.

There was a lot of drama with those guys, King admits with a chuckle. They d always fight over ideas and which version of something was better. Not that anybody was throwing fists, at least when we were sober, but it got to certain points where you were feeling pressure or stress and it got the best of you. But it was all good in the end.

King hopes that he ll be saying the same thing as The Fray s cycle continues. With Never Say Never slated as the next single, the group plans to spend the spring in Europe, Australia and Japan before setting out on a full-scale North American concert tour in the summer.

We kind of have everything booked up till the fall, the guitarist says, adding that the album s popularity will ultimately determine if the tour goes beyond that.

No. 1, you want your fans to enjoy the music, King says. That s the biggest thing. I think, as an artist, you lose perspective. You re in the recording process through a year or whatever, and you just don t know anymore. So you need the response from other people and from fans.

That s what every artist craves, so we can t wait to go out and get it.



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