As it is with many artists, Isaac Slade often works firsthand experiences into the songs that he writes for his rock band, The Fray.
For instance, after he and his younger brother, Caleb, had a falling out early in the group's formation and Caleb was kicked out, the lyrics for 2005's “Over My Head (Cable Car)” rose out of the rift: “Let's rearrange/I wish you were a stranger I could disengage/Just say that we agree and then never change/Soften a bit until we all just get along.”
And it was Slade's work as a mentor at a camp for troubled teens that became the well that he drew from to write “How to Save a Life.” The song, off the double-platinum album of the same name, includes the lines “Lay down a list of what is wrong/The things you've told him all along/And pray to God he hears you/And pray to God he hears you.” The song peaked in the top 3 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States.
“Whatever situation we're in might make it into the music,” said Slade, The Fray's pianist and lead vocalist.
He added that he never relies on a write-by-numbers formula.
“Each song tends to come from a different process. Sometimes there's an initial germ of a thought — a seed, almost. You plant it in the soil and see what happens,” he explained. “Six months later, three months later, or even the next day, I might listen to a demo or something and get inspired because it reminds me of some story or something that I'm trying to say. Then you start tending to it like a crop.”
Listening to The Fray's fourth studio album, “Helios,” which was released in February, it's apparent that this is a good time both personally and professionally for Slade and his bandmates — guitarists Joe King and Dave Welsh and drummer Ben Wysocki. Slade and Wysocki are both new fathers and the album's first single, the upbeat “Love Don't Die,” has spent the past nine weeks on Billboard's Hot 100.
“It's a bright record,” Slade said about “Helios,” “and we're all in the bright seasons of our lives.”
They're also in the midst of an extensive concert tour, with stops at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula on Friday and at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Saturday.
Given that Helios is the mythical Greek sun god, it was fitting that the band traveled to the expansive Ivanpah solar energy project in California's Mojave Desert to shoot photos for the album. With more than 300,000 mirrors reflecting the sun's rays, the facility generates enough energy to power 140,000 homes.
“It's incredible what that thing can do — it's our generation's Hoover Dam,” said the 33-year-old Slade. “Those big garage door-sized mirrors are called heliostats, so we borrowed from that inspiration, which resonated with the Greek god reference. It all kind of made sense.”
It also made sense to shake up the process for producing “Helios.” They brought in Grammy-winning British electronic musician Stuart Price, who has worked with The Killers, Pet Shop Boys and Madonna.
Slade admits that recording a song routinely meant 20 or even 30 vocal takes before he would be satisfied.
“We probably used to struggle the most with over-thinking things,” he said. “Second-guessers were amateurs to us; we would quadruple-guess.”
But Price's method consists of coming into the studio, do two or three quality takes and then move on.
“We knew he was going to push us, and he did,” Slade said.
When it comes to experiences, life on the road often includes some memorable ones — and, of course, potential material for future songs. Like during a stadium tour in 2010 when the band opened for U2, and Slade and crew were able to hang out with their musical idols. Or early one Sunday, the morning after a concert on the Mediterranean island of Malta, when everyone arrived at the airport and Slade discovered he had lost his airline ticket.
“I was told, ‘Sorry, it's non-refundable. If you don't have a ticket you don't leave Malta,'” he recalls. “It was a frantic rush. I ended up having to buy a second ticket for an ungodly amount of money an hour before the flight took off. It was crazy.”
More recently, there were some speed bumps along the road to “Helios.” One came in the form of “Give it Away,” a track that separates itself from others on the album thanks to its light funk sound. Work continued on the lyric until the 11th hour, when Slade said they were finally able to “hammer something out that was real and authentic, and still us but new.”
He adds they weren't sure how “Give it Away” would be received until the first time they performed it live last month at Baltimore's Pimlico race track the day before the Preakness Stakes.
“It was amazing,” Slade said. “There was one moment when the whole crowd started dancing, moving around and jumping up and down.”
The Fray will likely witness many more moments like that during the weeks ahead as the band has another 30 concerts in the United States and Canada through the end of July before the tour moves overseas in mid-September.
What: The Fray with Barcelona and Oh Honey.
Where: Pechanga Resort & Casino, 45000 Pechanga Parkway, Temecula and Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday in Temecula and Saturday in Los Angeles.
Online: Check out the five songs that sum up The Fray's musical journey at bit.ly/SzX8K6