If you go
What: The Fray, in concert.
When: 8 p.m. June 3.
Where: Roseland Theater, 8 N.W. Sixth Ave., Portland. Show was originally scheduled at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall; tickets purchased for that venue will be honored.
The Fray has decided it likes being a commercial band that gets on radio and has hit singles. But it took a period when hits became hard to come by for the group members to recognize that truth about themselves.
As singer/keyboardist Isaac Slade said, the group had gotten onto pop radio pretty much by accident.
“We didn’t set out to break into the Top 40,” Slade said in a recent phone interview. “We just wrote a bunch of songs and people said they could be on the radio.”
Formed in 2002 in Denver, the Fray was signed by Epic Records and saw its career take off when the title song from its 2005 debut CD, “How To Save A Life,” topped Billboard magazine’s all-format Hot 100 singles chart. That was followed by a second single, “Cable Car (Over My Head),” which went Top 10 on multiple charts, including the Hot 100.
Four years later, the Fray released a self-titled second CD that kept the band on a roll. It went platinum and gave the Fray a multichart Top 10 single in “You Found Me,” a Top 10 Adult Pop hit “Never Say Never” and a third song, “Syndicate,” which went Top 20 on that same chart.
Then came album No. 3, “Scars And Stories.” The band got a Top 10 Adult Pop hit in “Heartbeat,” but that was the only song that registered. Looking back, Slade realized that the album’s poorer performance made sense.
“On that third album, we made a record with zero effort or zero deference toward that current sound or toward anything. I think it reflected in the reception and the sales and everything,” he said. “I was telling somebody we kind of exited the highway and got on a frontage road.”
So when the Fray — which includes Slade, guitarists Joe King and Dave Welsh and drummer Ben Wysocki — started work on album No. 4, the recently released “Helios,” getting back on the Top 40 highway was a major objective.
“We set out from day one — maybe day two — on this fourth record, you know what, let’s merge back on the highway,” Slade said. “Let’s make a record that’s relevant and still us, but let’s explore some new territory and see where it goes. And if it’s terrible and we can’t find a sound that represents who we are, then obviously we’ll just pull a U-turn and go back to where we were because that will be where we are. We’ll play theaters for the rest of our lives and there are worse things.”
So far, the results are somewhat promising. “Helios” was released in late February, and its lead single, “Love Don’t Die,” went Top 10 at Adult Pop.
One step Slade took to try to appeal to pop radio was to collaborate with outside songwriters (including Busbee, Matt Thiessen and Ryan Tedder) with a track record of writing hit songs.
The Fray also gave its sound a makeover on “Helios,” recruiting Stuart Price, who has considerable experience as a DJ as well as producer, to give the music a more modern edge.
“Stuart had worked with the Killers, and we know those guys a little bit,” Slade said. “He had also worked Pet Shop Boys, but he’s also worked with Madonna. He also had a real sensibility about himself from working with the dynamics of a group. So that, mixed with his real ability to get the most out of a 1980s eBay drum machine, (made Price a good fit).”
“Helios” indeed brings some significant new dimensions to the Fray sound. The earnest piano-laced pop ballads that have been the band’s signature are still present, albeit these types of songs (“Break Your Plans,” “Hold My Hand” and “Our Last Days”) are mixed with synthetic elements. But other songs (“Hurricane,” “Give It Away” and “Love Don’t Die”) branch out into more danceable uptempo territory and feature electronics and other synthetic sounds that are common in today’s hit singles.
The Fray is only now beginning its first extensive tour in the states in support of “Helios.” But the band tested many of the new songs on audiences during a smattering of shows early in the year — including private gigs hosted by businesses. Slade said those corporate shows are an especially good litmus test and he was encouraged by the response.
“We were playing in Vegas at this, whatever, Vegas kind of club with a bunch of people with nametags,” he said. “It’s one of the toughest crowds we ever play, corporate events,” he said. “And everybody just locked in for ‘Hold My Hand.’ They had never heard the song, obviously. Most of them had probably heard one or two of our songs, but they didn’t even know it was us. They just locked in, stopped networking and (exchanging) business cards and listened. It was such a throwback to the old days before anybody had a clue who we were. You had to earn it. You had to be hungry. And it reminded me of 2003 all over again.”