The Fray's Joe King: "We've Had Our Time Hawking T-shirts and Making $25"
For being a relatively friendly bunch of guys, the Fray gets a lot of flak from critics. Admittedly, some of it is deserved as the band's overly earnest brand of pop/rock can be a bit grating. But hell, the majority of acts in the Top 40 can be just as annoying as Joe King and crew. And at least The Fray can write a decent pop song. Who can deny the hummable charm of "Over My Head (Cable Car)," the mega-hit from 2005 that launched the band's career?
From a tour stop in Baltimore, front man King talked with DC9 about the Fray's seemingly quick trip to success, how they cope with negative album reviews and how he's looking forward to seeing his cousin who lives on a chicken farm a couple of hours outside of Dallas when they visit Verizon Theatre this Sunday.
DC9 at Night: Considering that the band plays a lot of festivals, do you enjoy playing outside?
King: We do play a lot of outside gigs, but playing outside on a summer night, there's nothing better than that in my opinion. There are some beautiful theaters that I love to play like Red Rocks in Colorado that [are] so majestic. That makes for a magical night. The stars are out and the crowd is looking up. You can't beat that moment. I love outdoor shows. It's a completely different experience from playing inside.
Have you had some of those magical nights in Texas?
Oh yes. Dallas, we all have family down there. I always enjoy playing there and I always end up having a very large guest list. It's always a stretch to connect with everyone. There are some cities, places like in Alabama, where we will pull in and I will not have anyone on the guest list. In Dallas, I have to figure out how to say hello to 25 different people. It's going to be a problem.
You have family in Dallas?
Yes, I have a couple of cousins in Dallas. I have another cousin who lives on a chicken farm a couple of hours away.
The band's first album, How to Save a Life, comes out in 2005 and goes platinum. Is there a danger in becoming too successful too soon?
I think there is just a danger in being an artist. I think chasing success can be so detrimental to artists in balancing the commercial with the creative. But when you have the success, you just have to take it. You just embrace that. There are bands that get successful very quickly and then their lives fall apart. Life kind of catches up with you after you get off the rocket ship. You come back down to earth and people around you are different. I think it's more of a personal adjustment after you've had that kind of success. But you just have to embrace it and let it happen.
Yet some bands that have early success get criticized for not having paid their dues.
For us, we were a band that had several EPs and we were playing shows in Denver for several years, playing small bars for 10 people and then 40 people. Sometimes, it was just our families that came out to the bar. For us, we knew that we had that growth period. We've had our time hawking t-shirts and making $25. Those days were special and I love looking back on those days. In those early days of being a band, you don't know what's possible or impossible at that point. You just run and you have a dream and you are having a blast at doing it. I don't want to think about having success in the future. That is just a trap for me.
Before the band became a full-time proposition, weren't you an insurance appraiser?
Yes, I worked at an auto body shop. I was a senior in high school. At first, I was basically the shop clean-up boy. I swept floors and washed cars. Over the years, I stayed there through college and the owner promoted me to an estimator and then manager. I loved that atmosphere.
Do you ever go back there and gloat about where you are now?
I am actually still good friends with the owner. He is one of those guys in my life that I go back to when I need some advice. I can lay it all out for him. He is this old-school Italian. He's still super important to me.
The band has developed a large fan base, but critical reaction has always been mixed. Are you sensitive to negative reviews? Why does it seem that bands who achieve massive popularity have trouble connecting with the critics?
I think there is some truth to that. Most of the time, I stay away from the negative reviews. Critics looking at a band that didn't grow up in the era of the Rolling Stones is never a good thing. I care more about what the fans think. That's what matters nowadays, especially having instant access through social media. You know immediately how your music is connecting. I've never wanted to try and please the critics. My god, that would be a disaster. For a restaurant, it can be life or death worrying about a critic. But for bands, it's like giving the middle finger because you don't care what the critics say.
Is there a potential upside to it all?
Honestly, some critics can write such a bad review that it becomes another way to connect with your audience and popular culture. I remember reading the review of our first record in Rolling Stone magazine. It got a really low rating and our manager said it was a really good sign. He listed all of the great bands that had gotten bad reviews over the years. It was awesome. It was all these amazing, legendary bands that got horrible reviews. That made me feel better.
When you are writing a song like "Over My Head (Cabel Car)," do you have an inkling that it might become a hit?
Not really, no. I think that becomes learned a bit as you become more seasoned as a writer. Writing that song, I had no clue that it would have the effect that it did. At the time, I probably sent 10 different songs to local radio stations. I just wanted to get any song on the air in Denver. Time passed and I kept going and going. "Over My Head" was just another one that I was going to send off and pester the radio programmer. I was going to call him and make sure he got the disc. I sent that one in and he called me back. He told me to buckle up and they were going to play the hell out of that record.
You have got to be the only band to cover both John Lennon and Kanye West.
It's funny. There are some artists that you just don't want to touch and I am surprised we decided to do either of those songs. They are great songs from legendary artists, but when you can take a song and do it in an entirely different way, that is a good thing. We just did them like they were our songs. That is the best way to cover a song.