The Muppets, advice from Bono and world travel helped The Fray find their mojo, writes James Wigney
Saved by Bono and The Muppets.
THINGS were looking grim for US rock band The Fray ( pictured) after their self- titled second album.
Having made two hit records, which yielded the monster singles How To Save a Life and You Found Me and four Grammy nominations, the Denver quartet were being torn apart by in- fighting and were also questioning what they were doing and whether they wanted to continue doing it.
They were on the verge of splitting when they reconvened to decide whether there would even be a third album, and the early attempts at writing were not going well.
Salvation came in the most unlikely of guises: The Muppets.
The band was given the opportunity to record a song for last year’s Muppets: The Green Album and the much- loved nonsense song Mahna Mahna leapt off the list because it had no lyrics.
Many drinks and laughs later, they found their mojo coming back and their joy in creating music again.
‘‘ Part of the pain of songwriting is writing great lyrics sometimes and the fact we could sing the song with just whatever was a perfect opportunity to let loose,’’ guitarist Joe King says.
‘‘ We were in Vegas and we weren’t really getting along so it was amazing to not say anything and have it bond you.
‘‘ We needed a break from heavy emotional lyrics so we just drank a lot to record that.’’
The recording of what would become the band’s third album, Scars and Stories, was also punctuated by dates supporting supergroup U2, enabling them to trial new songs but also adding to their existential crisis. ‘‘ It made me question everything,’’ says singer and pianist Isaac Slade.
‘‘ It made me question what we were doing with our art and were we progressing and challenging ourselves? Are we writing better songs?
‘‘ When you see it like that, it’s hard not to see the scale and the size of it and think about how they have done it and how they connect to people.’’
Advice from Bono made the band feel better about their uncertainty and the sense of being lost.
Rather than fight the feeling, they embraced it, reasoning that it would take them into uncharted waters creatively.
‘‘ Bono said he had never felt confident going into the studio,’’ King says. ‘‘ You’d think that they would be saying ‘ we have the songs and it’s going to be a great record’ but he said that if you know everything you are going to do before you go into the studio, and the song is chiselled and perfect, then you leave no room for magic to happen in the studio.
‘‘ So it’s nice to have holes and questions before you go in.’’
Also key to The Fray’s renewal was the decision to spend part of the recording budget on travelling – but as individuals, rather from the inside of a tour bus.
Slade used the opportunity to visit Rwanda, where he spent time with President Paul Kagame and visited the genocide museum.
His experiences there led him to write Heartbeat, which would become the first single from Scars and Stories.
‘‘ I kept envisioning the country as this girl who was six in the ’ 90s when the genocide happened, which would make her about 23 now,’’ Slade says.
‘‘ And I met a woman there who was about that age and she was beautiful but she had this sorrow to her voice that made me want to ask her 100 questions – how she made it, who helped her as a little girl – and she is a metaphor for the country.
‘‘ They are getting back on their feet but under incredible duress.
‘‘ I love that idea – it’s very Springsteen to rescue your girl from the bad guys and get her out of town.’’
With song titles such as Rainy Zurich and Munich, and specific geographical references dotted throughout the lyrics, their travels are plain to see in the album.
Back in the studio, their choice of producer Brendan O’brien helped them snap out of their funk and really got things moving.
Slade says he and his bandmates have a tendency to over- think things and sometimes find themselves stuck.
O’brien, famous for his work with AC/ DC, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen, was having none of that, reasoning that the band’s instincts and decisions were the right ones, simply by virtue of their having made them.
The result, says King is an album that is as extroverted as the first two albums were introverted, with a sound that is much closer to their live act.
‘‘ I am proud that this record reflects where we are in life right now because we are searching more than we ever have, individually and collectively, we are trying to discover more, we are more curious and trying to open up,’’ King says.