The key to connecting with a Starbucks customer in 60 seconds or less — according to Isaac Slade, lead singer of The Fray — is to not anger them, assure them you’re working on their order as fast as possible and find out what interests them.
Slade would know. He worked as a barista at Starbucks in Colorado for more than five years before his piano-rock band hit it big with its first single “Over My Head (Cable Car).”
“I would get these regulars every day at six in the morning who were just miserable,” Slade said over hot cocoa Friday at a Starbucks in the Loop, where Christmas music blared in background. “I’d get a little bit out of them every day, like, ‘What did you do this last weekend?’ ‘Oh, I was barbecuing with my grandkids.’ And I’d be like, ‘Ha, I’ve got you.’”
Slade believes it’s important to find a connection with the customer in his current field as well. It’s just that now he does it with relatable lyrics rather than small talk.
During our walk from the Chicago Theatre — where The Fray headlined 101.9-FM The Mix’s “Miracle on State Street” show hours later — Slade was stopped by a nervous young fan who said she wanted to share a story with him. She told Slade she once contemplated suicide and nearly went through with it, but the band’s song, “Little House,” helped convince her otherwise.
“If I can connect with people, deep, deep down, I really do not care if we’re an indie band lugging it away in a van, if we’re opening for U2 or playing the stadium after U2,” said Slade, whose band was indeed an opener for a portion of U2’s 360 Degrees tour. “I don’t care.”
The 30-year-old Slade said he hasn’t always felt this way. He often thinks about what life would be like if The Fray was an indie rock band that didn’t have to deal with pressure and restrictions, and admits he was uncomfortable with the band’s mainstream status early on.
The Denver band achieved success with “Over My Head (Cable Car)” in 2005, but that success doubled in Slade’s eyes when the band’s second single, “How to Save a Life,” was played over promos for ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2006.
“We wanted to be as big as Better Than Ezra, Third Eye Blind and Counting Crows,” said Slade, resting his head against his fist. “That was our goal. Then we started playing shows with those guys and getting to, quote-unquote, the same level as those guys in terms of record sales and ticket sales. It was like the road ran out. There was asphalt and dirt and it was just a field, and we were like, ‘Where do we go after we’re selling millions of records?’ The numbers made us so uncomfortable. We didn’t feel like we had the maturity to handle that. We didn’t have the things to say to that many people.”
Because of the success of The Fray’s double-platinum debut album, “How to Save a Life,” expectations were high for its self-titled second album in 2009. Slade said he is proud of the results even if the latter wasn’t a huge commercial success, but he called the recording process “a pain” and admitted to butting heads with the album’s producers.
“It wasn’t until our third (full-length) record that we realized how enjoyable a record can be,” said Slade about “Scars & Stories,” which is scheduled to hit stores in February. “It was just us in a room making music without the success and failures that we’ve had. We kind of got in the zone and forgot that we’re a semi-famous, partially well-known pop piano rock band.”
“Scars and Stories” was produced by Brendan O'Brien, who has worked with Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, and features the single “Heartbeat.” Slade believes expectations will be lower this time around, and he seems perfectly fine with that.
“The balloon has deflated a little bit, but it didn’t burst,” Slade said.”It’s been reduced down to our core fans — the people we talk to on Twitter and that girl in front of the theater (Friday). That is why the (expletive) we do this. In that moment, all the other stuff goes away -- radio, conference calls, emails. All that matters is that moment. That’s not every day. There are definitely days when I freak out that the charts don’t read well. But we get back to those fans and everything kind of looks right.”
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