King Of The Fray

The Fray’s co-founder / guitarist Joe King talks with Pollstar about songwriting, how Nirvana influenced him and the band’s current tour with Kelly Clarkson.

Having formed The Fray in 2002 with schoolmate Isaac Slade, the band recorded its first album, How To Save A Life in, 2005. Now the band has three studio albums under its belt. Its self-titled sophomore effort dropped in 2009 and the most recent release, Scars And Stories, landed in stores earlier this year.

We caught up with King shortly before The Fray embarked on its tour with Clarkson. The guitarist made several observations about the band’s 10-year history, saying “it’s two very strong songwriter types and personalities.”

Photo: Danny Clinch
(left to right) Left to Right: Ben Wysocki, Isaac Slade, Joe King and Dave Welsh.

From a guitarist’s standpoint, are you comfortable with people describing The Fray as a ‘guitar-driven’ band?

Early on I fought the comparisons. I think every new band, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in the band, musically, there are comparisons and it’s hard to hear those, sometimes. Then I just learned to accept it as a compliment, to be in the same camp as other bands that you’re somewhat similar to.

How would you describe your relationship with Isaac Slade?

It’s always an interesting thing with him and I. He’s like a brother to me. You can imagine creating and working side-by-side with your brother at all times, there’s going to be moments when you can’t stand him and he can’t stand you. You’re on opposite ends and it’s like, “Did we have the same mother? How did you get blond hair and I got brown hair?” It often provides the friction needed in the creative process. As much as it’s hard to have friction in a relationship, beauty also comes from that. Writing songs with him, side-by-side on stage … I love to be inspired by him, too. I know it’s equal for him. We kind of feed each other. We’re just trying to get along. It’s all right.

Do you and Isaac finish each other’s sentences?

I know exactly how he’s going to respond pretty much in most situations. I know what his favorite foods are. It’s like I’m married to the person but it’s weird. I can’t have sex with him, nor do I want to (laughs). It’s a yin-yang thing. The band and [it’s] history, it’s two very strong songwriter types and personalities. They either last a long time or they don’t.

So even in the most volatile moments you and Isaac know that at the end of the day you’ll still be a band?

Yeah, I think even when the dust settles, you know who is in the room with you, that person hasn’t left, they’re still there, fighting. There’s an element that, you know, it’s natural to be passionate and have two people having opposing opinions at certain times. … To me, that would be more trouble than anything, if someone didn’t care to even fight anymore. … Not that they fight, but discuss, disagree or voice their opinion, because then, I think, you lose yourself.

Do you ever compare your relationship with Isaac to other songwriting teams such as Lennon and McCartney or Keith Richards and Mick Jagger?

Not in the sense of careers, but only in the sense of relationships. Just knowing different relationships of different musicians in the past that you can relate to. The beauty of the Lennon/McCartney relationship is one of them is pushing and pulling yet they ended up not having a long career together. If you look at it, a very short amount of time [when] they created all these amazing, most beautiful songs, ever. To me, I’d rather have the most creatively inspiring time in a shorter amount of time than a long creative [time] that doesn’t pan out as much.

Photo: Rod Tanaka /
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, Colo.

With three studio albums under your belt, the band is no longer a newcomer and you tour extensively. How do you keep it fresh?

That’s about being in a band. It’s hard to do anything in life completely alone. When you have a band with you and you’re all creative heads and thinkers, you end up inspiring each other at different times and moments. Dave [Welsh) can go on a road trip and discover some great new food and restaurant and inspire a conversation about food. Each of us can inspire each other in different ways. When that happens it feeds the group, feeds the entire thing. If that’s not there … I think it’s like a Dylan thing. Dylan was jealous of The Stones for years because he saw their camaraderie, he saw their brotherhood, the community around them. Dylan was like, “God, I wish I could have a band.” Someone you can play ping pong with and they can yell at you when you do something stupid. Or be honest with you and say, “Actually, that’s not the best.”

It sounds as if the band is a tight little unit onto themselves. Does that apply to touring as well?

We all travel together. It’s not like we have four different buses and don’t want to see each other until 7 p.m. We’re all pros, a traveling group. … That makes touring at least fun. You can hang out after shows, have a good time, explore the city together.

How did the upcoming tour with Kelly Clarkson come about? Did you approach her, did she approach you, or did a third party bring you together?

Late last year we were doing a couple of one-off shows. I think one was for a radio station. She was on the bill – it was a Christmas charity show – and we just really clicked and ended up doing a Christmas song together onstage that night. It felt real natural, artistic and fun. … I think nowadays it seems like fun packages are kind of emerging, different types of tours. Not necessarily the same types of bands, but different enough. When that discussion came up, our manager mentioned the show with Kelly, [saying] “What about something like that? It’s different enough but it still probably appeals to a similar audience and she’s a great musician.” It started to make sense once we kicked it around, to do the co-headline thing.

Will The Fray and Kelly perform together at the end of the evening?

We’ve been talking about that. Eventually it might happen. That’s what’s fun about touring. We’re all going to be out there. …at some ping pong bar late at night and say, “Let’s do this tomorrow,” and I think that’s just going to happen. I like the idea of creating something specific for this moment, this summer, a night, for instance, when the fans know they’re getting something unique and special with this moment. It’s not like, “Let’s do something we did two years ago,” with Kelly.

When you were a teenager going to concerts, did you see any artist collaborations that still stick with you today?

Growing up, I went from different genres. I loved rap. I was kind of a little wannabe gangster kid. … listening to NWA. Rap and that whole movement, [the] hip-hop world, were huge for me.

Then bands like Nirvana really inspired me. I never saw Nirvana live. I remember seeing [the video] for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A bunch of kids jumping around in this gym and this big amp on stage and [Nirvana] is just passionate about what they’re doing and not giving a shit at the same time. I just resonated with that. It inspired me to be in a band. I think a few moments like that made me want to do it.

Rather than naming bands that inspired The Fray, were there singular moments in other artists’ histories that helped inspire The Fray?

Not necessarily one band we’re referencing all the time. I think it changes constantly and it’s based on what strikes you as great, musically. A few years ago we’d be talking about Wilco. Years before that we’d be talking about Pearl Jam or U2. Recently we’ve been talking about Santigold and some of the production elements of her record that she just put out.

It’s all across the board. I’d bring in some Merle Haggard, a country song. You know you’re being inspired by somebody when you’re jealous of what they’re doing.

So who are you jealous of these days?

Do you know Michael Kiwanuka? I’m jealous of his style. He’s doing something great. His songs are beautiful.

Do you remember the first rock song you learned to play on guitar?

“Come As You Are,” the Nirvana song. I learned that first then I started learning old hymns. At the time I was learning to how play in front of people, sitting on the church stage leading the praise services. It actually helped with the pop elements, surprisingly. If you look at a typical church song, the congregation needs to sing the song and the melody needs to be memorable to the point that people can sing it. It kind of ingrained in me the sense of having that universal element in songwriting, something that somebody can attach to and sing right away.

Listening to the most recent album, Scars And Stories, it sounds as if the band is more sure of itself than on its 2005 debut album, How To Save A Life. Is that an accurate observation?

I’ll take that as a compliment. That’s what you hope for, I think, in a band. As many failures as we’ve had, or just the learning curve, the first record, you just throw it together. We were little kids and it was beautiful for what it was and [we were] proud of it. I think I’ve held on to the idea of never putting something out that you’ll regret down the road. … If you don’t believe in something, then put it out and it doesn’t do well, then it’s like dying twice. Because you put something out that you didn’t believe in, you sold it and sold yourself and it didn’t do well. At least if you put something out that you believe in and it doesn’t necessarily resonate or connect, you’re still proud of it. … I think that’s kind of what I stand by; just trying to always do something I believe in.

What do you see for The Fray in the future?

I see new music still coming. I think we’re still a young band. In a lot of ways we’re just getting our feet on the ground a bit. Some of the greatest bands in our history, in my time, I see them on their third or fourth record getting really into who they are in the band. I’m hoping we’ll make many, many records.

Photo: David Conger /
Paramount Theatre, Seattle, Wash.

Upcoming shows featuring The Fray and Kelly Clarkson include Thackerville, Okla., at the Winstar World Casino Aug. 4; Orange Beach, Ala., at Amphitheater At The Wharf Aug. 6; Alpharetta, Ga., at Verizon Wireless Amph. At Encore Park Aug. 8; Clarkston, Mich., at DTE Energy Music Theatre Aug. 10 and Cincinnati, Ohio,. At Riverbend Music Center Aug. 14. For more information, please visit