Flashback: Grammy night, February 2006. Cordoned-off bystanders scream wildly as icons like Bruce Springsteen and Tony Bennett head into Sony BMG’s invite-only after-party. A tangle of paparazzi jockey for their front-page shots. The four members of the melodic pop-rock outfit the Fray, giddy to be attending such a high-profile event, step onto the red carpet. Suddenly, a cry breaks out from the camera pit: ”They’re nobodies!”
Like a retreating army, the paps drop their gear, and the band hurries into the party. But as they tell the story nearly a year later while relaxing backstage before a near-capacity show in Coral Gables, Fla., the episode was far more amusing than humiliating. ”We were like, Oh, okay, cool,” recalls guitarist Dave Welsh with goofy mock nonchalance. ”See you inside!”
These days, the guys can certainly afford to laugh. After almost two years of non-stop touring and two trips up the pop singles chart, the Fray are now double-platinum, double Grammy nominees. (Alas, they went home empty-handed on Feb. 11.) Their touring built a core following, and just as the melancholy anthem ”How to Save a Life” became a VH1 staple, the ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy made it the Official McDreamy Love Triangle Theme Song. ”When the Grey’s thing came along, that was sort of just icing,” says drummer Ben Wysocki. More icing: this year’s two Grammy nods, for ”How to Save a Life” and ”Over My Head (Cable Car).” And yet, the foursome has largely managed to sidestep the klieg lights of fame.
”We’ve enjoyed a lot of anonymity as a band, and it’s nice to kind of stand behind the music,” says guitarist and co-songwriter Joe King. Welsh agrees: ”It’s not like we released our record and sold 80,000 the first week, and had this major exposure. You hear about new artists that do, and they sell a lot in the beginning, but then they’re gone in a couple months. [For us], it was more of a word-of-mouth and Internet thing.”
Long before they were selling out arenas and accumulating some 400,000 friends on their MySpace page, Isaac Slade, 25, and King, 26, were just two guys who had played in rival bands (called Ember and Fancy’s Show Box, respectively) at their Arvada, Colo., high school. By chance, they met up again at a local guitar store in 2002 and decided to team up. ”We all grew up, for the most part, sheltered Christian boys in the suburbs,” explains Wysocki, 22, who was still a teenager when Slade and King recruited him and Welsh, also 22. Today, all four still live in the Denver area with their wives, and King has two young children.
Initially, not even the local radio station would get behind their then-unfashionable sound. ”We wrote and recorded seven songs and Joe sent them in,” says Slade. ”I kept telling [Joe], they play Nickelback, they play Staind…. Nothing with piano. Like maybe one Coldplay song.” Indeed, they were turned down flat. Airplay on a night devoted to local artists finally led to coverage in the Denver alternative press. A local scout alerted Epic Records, which then came calling, freeing the guys to say goodbye to their day jobs (Welsh was a shoe salesman, King an eBay PowerSeller).
Since April 2005, the group has been on the road almost constantly, supporting big names like Weezer and the Pixies, and circling back to play bigger and bigger shows in towns they’ve been to many times. ”A lot of venues, we couldn’t get 30 people in our first time,” says Slade. ”It’s great to go back. I mean, we played this place in Philly on the first tour we ever did, and there were six people — three girls on the main floor, three girls in the balcony.”
Whether the attendees number half a dozen or more than 7,000 — as they did on a late-January night at the University of Miami — the Fray are remarkably devoted to their fans. They’ve gone so far as to pass up a chance at Saturday Night Live twice, because accepting the gig would have meant canceling tour dates. ”That’s been our life for these past two years,” explains King. ”[For SNL] you have to commit a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and we can’t do that.” The same principle dictated their decision to turn down TRL. Even though they were a no-show, they topped the show’s countdown last December.
”We’ve gotten over worrying we’d be a one-hit wonder,” admits Slade. ”But we hope we’re not a one-album wonder.” At least one fan doesn’t think they will be. His name? Justin Timberlake. Not only did the pop star tell an MTV audience he couldn’t get ”Over My Head” out of his head (”We pretty much freaked,” admits King), he invited the band to his private post-Grammys bash. And this time, the four young ”nobodies” from Colorado were ready for their close-up.