The Fray Scars & Stories: A track-by-track breakdown from Isaac Slade and Joe King
The Fray breaks down Scars & Stories, its third full-length release, produced by Brendan O'Brien. We caught up with the Fray's chief songwriters, Isaac Slade and co-founder Joe King, and the two gave us the full story behind the songs on the new record, from how a YouTube clip of a fire dancer inspired the pair to pen "Turn Me On" to how King wrote "The Wind" straight off of returning from his divorce proceedings to how "Be Still" came to Slade one morning after taking a sleepless, late-night phone call from his little brother. If you came here looking for the story behind the songs, you've come to the right place.
Last spring, right around the time the Denver-based band was touring with U2, we caught up Slade, and he spoke to us then at length about the process of recording the album with O'Brien and what it was like playing a hometown show with Bono and company at what was then Invesco Field. The quartet (due on Letterman tonight) finished the record later that summer and went on to release the first single, "Heartbeat," that fall. Shortly thereafter, they embarked on an extensive promotional campaign, which included a private show and impromptu pizza party at an unsuspecting fan's house in San Jose.
This past weekend, just before the act's Super Bowl Sunday performance in Indianapolis (or the morning after, in Joe's case), we caught up with the guys for a track-by-track breakdown of the new record and to get their thoughts on the eve of Scars' release.
"What I rest on and what I go to as an artist," King told us, "because I think every artist kind of has this anxiety before they release something. It's normal, and I've gone through those gamut of emotions. But what I'm resting on, I heard a quote that said if you put something out that you don't believe in -- you just kind of push it out and it fails -- then it's like dying twice. But if you put something out that you believe in and it fails, then you can live with yourself, and you can continue to thrive and create, because you believe in it.
"So no matter what," he went on, "I believe in this record. I believe it's our best work. I believe that we're better now and we've written better songs than we ever have. And that's all I can do. I have no control over how it does, and I don't really care. I do, but I don't. It's reflective of where we're at in life right now, and I believe in it. It's true. It's our stories."
And we've got the stories behind those stories. If you bought the record and you're listening to it right now, googling the lyrics and wondering what songs like "Run for Your Life" or "Here We Are" are about, wonder no more. Page down to see what the guys had to say.
* The intro of this post has been revised and updated with some additional quotes added.
Jump to: Page 1 (Songs 1-4) | Page 2 (Songs 5-9) | Page 3 (Songs 10-12)
I spent some time with President Kagame, president of Rwanda, in the fall of 2010. A good friend of mine, he was having some meetings with the president and asked me to tag along. I was in Cape Town, writing and experiencing a little bit of writer's block at that point, probably starting to find my way. I was, like, right on the edge.
I didn't know much about Rwanda, the genocide and stuff, but I knew enough to be in awe of this general-turned-president, who basically drove in the country on a jeep with his army and took the country by the hand and saved her life. And then he got into politics and became the president. So I'm sitting with one of the guys who was responsible for ending one of the worst genocides of our time.
So it was a heavy moment, you know? I was there specifically to write, so I think I was in that place of being kind of open to the world, eyes open, my antennas were up, I guess. He shared a little bit about kind of the loneliness of his position and the spotlight and the pedestal and kind of how he handles it. It was really eye-opening to see what level this remarkable figure of history turning Rwanda around from where it was twenty years ago to one of the leading, advanced nations in the whole continent today.
On another level, he's just a guy who reminds me a lot of Jimmy Stewart: He's tall, lanky and shy. It just kind of set the whole scene. It's like I saw the whole song in my head, of this guy coming in and taking a country by the hand, like feeling for that pulse, you know?
And you could feel it. I took a helecopter ride around the country and went to the genocide museum and saw a bunch of the kids running around screaming, dancing and singing. You just feel this electricity, this buzz, coming back to this country that's come back to life. And that's where I wrote the song.
Obviously, you know the whole story with Isaac going off to Africa and the inspirations that he pulled from there. On my end of things, it kind of became clear early in the process once we started hashing through that song that it was going to be one of our strong songs. To me, it was almost the emotion that it created, just overall, especially the first thing that you want fans to hear, this emotion really reflecting the place in life where we're at.
It's not...even though we've been through the storms, it's like we're on the other side of it. We're in the open and we're going somewhere. So "Heartbeat" just had this, like, emotion to it. It's visual and it kind of creates this theme, this setup for the rest of the trip. It just kind of raised its hand early and then became a staple for us.
The second verse, to me, is kind of special. I was raised in Aurora, and we had a tiny little house, and I had a bunch of siblings, and we always had people staying with us because my parents invited people in. The only escape for me was the record player that I'd go to in the corner. I'd put on the headphones. It was like my safe spot. There was also one of those old-school kerosene heaters. I'd burn my G.I. Joes on the top, and it had this very distinctive smells.
It was like one of those white heaters, and you know, my dad would always have to prime it and then you'd have to light the lantern thing in the middle to create this heat for the whole house. So I always used to lay in that corner, listening to records. So the second verse, I don't know why it popped in my head, but I wanted to put this idea - because we're talking about fire; we're talking about heat - and I just wanted to incorporate that feeling as a kid and what that did for me into a lyrics. So that whole kerosene is in relation to our little heater in the house that kept my little toes warm.
I went to Breckenridge and wrote by myself in a cabin up there for a while. I brought all of my journals from second grade until now. And I brought a couple big coffee table picture books, my little voice recorder and my guitar and just went up there. I bought a bunch of groceries and kind of holed up in this cabin and wrote a bunch.
One of the songs I wrote up there is called "Scars and Stories." After reading through a bunch of my old journals and diaries, I was thinking about my marriage and all the relationships that led up to it. It was kind of a road map of how I got to where I am today and how I sort of fell in love with the girl that I'm married to now.
While I was up there one afternoon, I busted out a Norman Rockwell coffee table book and put it up on the piano. It was this really famous painting of his of this boxing match. The scene has the girl in the crowd with a surprised look with her man fallen in the corner and this big huge kind of doofus looking guy [standing over him], kind of looking like 'What? I didn't mean to kill him.' I just set it up on the piano and started playing.
I'd never really done that before, started a song from scratch based on a visual. But I started writing "The Fighter." I was writing it mainly about the guy wrestling with his doubts. It's a scary thing to face your doubts, especially in a relationship.
I think if it's just like [the notion that] if you don't face death, you can't really live. If you don't face divorce, you can't really stay married. It's not an 'I do,' and then you're set. It's an 'I do,' every day. And when those doubts come in you can stuff 'em, you can cram 'em, you can ignore them, but they're like hungry dogs in the basement [clamoring] to get out.
So what I meant to communicate was that doubts are okay. Struggling in a relationship is okay. Wondering if there's somebody better is okay. Because then you choose to stay, instead of shrugging your shoulders, saying it's good enough. If you carry those doubts secretly hidden in the corner of your chest, they'll kill you. They'll kill everything, man.
But if you kind of bring them out in the open and talk about them and sort through them and figure out where they're coming from and face them, it's a scary thing sometimes - the reality is that sometimes marriages ends or the relationship ends, but sometimes you stay married for the rest of your life and it's real.
I'm not sure who....what actress... I forget what actress it was, but it was one of the first black actresses, and she had said something similar to the bridge in the song, "It's not the load that breaks you but how you carry it." I was just brewing on that idea. This actress said something very similar to that. She had gone into an industry that was not open to her being in a lead role and just the weight of going into an industry like that and being one of the first ones, she said something at one of the award shows, she said something similar, and it just kind of stuck with me and I couldn't let this idea go that we all have loads.
We all have something that we're inevitably going to be carrying with us, but how you carry it is the difference. I think if you carry it in front of you or behind you or if you're carrying everything, the point of how you're actually carrying your load is all the difference. I have stuff that I'm carrying that I'll carry the rest of my life. Not that they're bad, but I have them there. They're almost like good things now that I'm carrying with me from the destruction.
"Turn Me On" came from writing in Cape Town, actually. I went down there and started having some ideas about this family curse. A girl comes in and falls in love with...kind of a Romeo and Juliet type situation, and she kind of falls in love and breaks the curse of generations -- of kind of the father's sins and all that. And the girl is so mesmerizing. She's, like, free. She's like a belly dancer almost in a very rigid, stiff, kind of regimented, legalistic world. She comes in and kind of upsets the food cart.
So I came back from Africa with this idea, and Joe and I pulled up an old 1940s YouTube clip of a fire dancer. It's like soft porn, basically. The girl had on this super hot belly dancer bikini, and she's like, "I am going to dance the fire dance," and then the music starts and she just has the most mesmerizing...I don't know if she's very good at talking. I don't know if she's very good at politics or if she made money in her life, but she knows how to dance. And her body and everything she did was mesmerizing. And so, I've been married long enough and had enough sex, that it's about time I started writing about it.
We were in the studio playing with the songs, figuring out what we were going to do, what we were going to write about, as we normally do, just kind of goofing off and going online and looking at YouTube videos. We came across this black and white video of this exotic belly dancer, just her and some music and her dancing. And the way her body was moving, I was captivated. We were both just sitting there staring at the screen, watching her dance.
After that, it was boom! We need to write a song about the movement of a woman and just this power that...we're almost powerless to it as men, and that's a beautiful thing; that's how we're created. But when we see that beauty and the movements, it's breathtaking. And we just started diving into the song, and it kind of came from that energy, too.
We got to play the song during the U2 tour, and it was a completely different incarnation. We were trying to go more straight ahead with it. Everything was more locked in straight away, and it just kind of fell flat. It was pretty obvious. It wasn't horrible, but it just didn't react like we wanted it to. It didn't feel right. After that tour, Brendan was like, "Guys, you need to make the music as sexy as the lyrics are. This is not...they're just very disconnected." So we just kind of got in there and started playing a little more.
I also kind of got obsessed with James Jamerson in the studio. He was always kind of in the discussion in the studio, and I started diving into his work. He's on tons of Motown records. He's just one of the best bass players that ever played. He really is. He just came up a lot in the studio, and I started to learn from his stuff, a bit of emulation, and then I just kind of went for it.
"Run for Your Life" was a unique song writing process. Joe and I went to a remote studio in Leipers Fork, which is kind of a remote area outside Nashville. We went to a studio called Dark Horse, and just walked into a room with a grand piano and a guitar and wrote two or three songs. This one came from thin air, you know? We started with this idea of twins, two sisters, one makes it one doesn't. We really wrote it about the one that is left, the survivor, who's sort of wracked with guilt, like "Why me?"
We kind of put it in contrast to this African concept of Sankofa. It's basically this concept of: If your village burns down, go back to it and pick through the ashes and find anything good and then take it with you and leave and never look back. It's like an acknowledgement of tragedy and hardship, alongside celebration, almost, and thankfulness for what you have. Kind of run as fast as you can from that black hole of guilt.
The image I get immediately, and I'll never forget it: We're in the countryside outside of Nashville. Isaac and I are at a studio called Dark Horse. We get to the studio and have no clue what we're going to write about. We just know we need to write something. And the visual image I get is him and I sitting out in a field with a six pack of beer. It was an afternoon with horses in the distance by a creek - it was perfect kind of country feeling, middle of America.
We're sipping those beers, and I had been brewing on this word "sankofa" for a while. The word is an African word and it's where a villager would go back to their village that had been destroyed by whatever, fire or famine or whatever, and they would go back through the destruction and they would dig through the mess and the dirt and the rubbish and they would pull anything from that destruction and take it with them to their new dwelling place.
For me, that whole confident truth is in me. There are legitimate things that have been destroyed in my life, but how I respond to it is everything. Going back to it is kind of difficult because you have to face it and try to pull the good from those things, because there are still diamonds in there and there are still some good things in there that aren't destroyed that you can take with you. It brewed from that and then we combined it with the story of two sisters. So yeah, that song has a pretty close place in my heart.