Q&A with Matt Scannell
Vertical Horizon’s frontman opens up about Echoes, concept videos, Neil Peart and the willingness to try out new sounds
As the towering frontman for the pop/rock band Vertical Horizon, Matt Scannell has seen many highs in his career: two heavyweight Top 40 hits (“You’re a God,” “Everything You Want”); the band’s first three independently-released albums repackaged and distributed on a major label; double platinum record sales for 2001’s Everything You Want; one of their songs, “Best I Ever Had (Grey Sky Morning),” became a champion hit for country singer Gary Allan. Scannell has also seen his share of lows. In 2003, the band walked away from their contract with RCA after feeling uneasy with the label’s representation of them. Plus many of the original members have since left the band, leaving him as the lone ranger.
But Matt Scannell is a man that doesn’t know the meaning of quitting. It’s just not a part of his human nature. Even with all the bad news clouding him, the Worcester, Massachusetts native marches onward. Without missing a beat, he began collaborating with other artists, including two joint-collaborative acoustic duet albums with Richard Marx. The band regrouped and released 2009’s Burning the Days independently, giving hardcore VH fans something to quench their appetite. Now after a long four-year hiatus and with a great sense of resilience, the band has returned with a new album.
Echoes From The Underground marks the seventh album for Vertical Horizon and features more of Scannell’s ambitious songwriting. Talk to him and he believes he’s uncorked a career high for the band…and for himself. “Without a shadow of doubt, it’s my favorite vocal performance of my career as a singer,” he says in a recent interview by phone.
He’s got plenty of reasons to be proud of the new disc. Two of the tracks features Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Rush drummer Neil Peart, a guy who Scannell calls “a great guy and such a consummate musician behind the drum set.” With Peart behind the drums on “Instamatic,” the song clearly transforms into an epic arena-rock finisher, something done Rush knows all about. Marx, a songwriting legend, co-writes the album opener, “You Never Let Me Down.” Echoes also introduces the band’s closest followers to newer concepts, techniques and different shades of balladry. The electronica vibes on “Lovestruck” sounds like something that would have landed on a Peter Gabriel or Daft Punk record, and Scannell knows that. “I had been listening to a lot of my Joy Division records,” he says. “New Order, Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel and the Earth, Wind and Fire records. You mentioned the Daft Punk thing, but the rhythm guitar is sort of this slinky Nile Rodgers type of stuff. All of these influences are sort of waiting to be embraced and I said, “Screw it, let’s just do it.” And if it didn’t work, I was gonna treat it another way. But it worked for me so perfectly. It felt so right.”
And there’s no mistake about it that Echoes From The Underground feels just right. The album was practically funded by fans using crowdsourcing giant PledgeMusic. Despite not having the superior distribution giants behind them, the future of Vertical Horizon is still being propped up by millions of fans worldwide. In our exclusive interview with the talented singer/songwriter, Scannell opens up about the group’s humble beginnings, the ambitious new album, the temptations of doing a solo album and the willingness to try on different sounds. As always in these manner of fruitful chat sessions, the conversation bends in almost every direction. Scannell opens up about concept videos, the pains of the music biz, the joys of being an independent artist, U2’s Pop album and Birmingham’s over-the-mountain hot spots in the late Nineties.
With hits like “You’re a God” and “Everything You Want” already secured in the band’s corner, can you explain the evolution of the band from its early days and where it is now.
The band originally started off as an acoustic thing. To be honest with you, one of the main reasons for that was because it was so easy to get around Washington D.C. with an acoustic guitar to go to a gig than it was to pick up a drum set, a bass guitar and all those types of things. I had always played in rock bands growing up, so Vertical Horizon was the first thing that I had done that wasn’t really sort of in that template. Then as time wore on, we started getting followers and we started to do some good business. It became evident, we started over-reaching. We started having a drummer and a bass player and carrying more gear around and I would play more electric guitar and that sort of thing. So it was a very natural progression in one sort of – as much as it was musical it was also majestical. It was kind of a strange thing, but it helped us to build in a business sense in an appropriate pace so we didn’t have a huge cost or overhanging and crippling us when we really weren’t making very much money. So then it took on more of a band feel and we were able to play some more styles of music that I had really always envisioned for the band. And with Everything You Want, when that hit, it was just an absolute blessing and a real joyous time. We were able to go all over the world. And somehow now, however many years on, we are still doing this. We’re still able to make records, which is a real testament to me of the loyalty of our incredible fans and the people around the world. And with this new record, I feel this journey continues. We really, on some levels, have done the rock record thing, at least in my opinion. It was time to push a little into new levels. Keep the rock songs covered, but by the same token we were really trying to push and follow the muse where it takes me as a songwriter, which is slightly in a different direction, slightly more electronic.
I am. Yep, at this point I am. Sean Hurley still plays on the records – he wasn’t the original bass player but he played on every Vertical record since Everything You Want. He’s still recording on the albums, but he is an incredibly in-demand session player here in Los Angeles now and he also tours with John Mayer. So he’s in a very terrific situation there and I’m so grateful that he still comes over to play on the Vertical records.
There seems to be a good deal of heartbreak, emotional struggle and relationship struggles outlined on this record. And you really don’t sense it until you dig deep into the lyrics. With this being your seventh album to date, because of the subject matter would you consider this your most mature record to date?
Well, I hope so. I think it would be natural if that was the case. It wasn’t a conscious decision to be more mature, but I think as a writer I’ve certainly been growing and continue to grow. It’s a very active pursuit for me. It’s like a daily work out, you know: writing songs and practicing songs, practicing my vocal chops, just trying to get everything leveled and better. So it would make sense to me – I think we certainly didn’t try to aim for the sort of lowest common denominator, to do something that our hearts weren’t into or to do what’s the flavor of the month kind of thing. I can speak in first-person now – I think it’s more appropriate. I feel like there’s a bit of legacy now for this band. I mean, getting into your seventh album and that’s a catalog of work certainly is a lot of time. I’ve grown up a lot of ways in this band. So, yeah, I think it is our most mature effort and release. And I know for me, without a shadow of doubt, it’s my favorite vocal performance of my career as a singer.
A lot of artists – I hear this so often when I do these interviews with artists a lot of times they say that their current record is their best record and you interview them two or three years later for the next record, and they say that this is their favorite record. But that’s a progression and I expect that because every artist should be going from one level to the next.
I do have to comment on that because you’re absolutely right. A friend of mine said that to me ‘I hear you saying that Echoes is your best record.’ And I say, ‘Well, I think it is.’ He says, ‘Well, that’s what you said about Burning the Days.’ What a crying shame if it would be though if one were making albums and one was realizing that they were on a downward arc and not trying to beat their old stuff. I think if that were the case for me, at least as far as my level of inspiration and my level of commitment to music and the band…if that were the case, I need to hang it up and do something else. Thank God I don’t feel that way.
Since we’re talking about the maturity of the record, I know that in the early days you had joint collaboration in terms of songwriting with Keith Kane, whose no longer in the group. And he shared vocals with you in those days. Without getting too privy into confidential information, are a lot of the songs birthed out of your personal affairs?
Yeah, absolutely! I tend to write most definitely from things that either happened to me or to friends of me or experiences I’ve read about. But its events that have impacted me in some way, whether or not it was actually a one-on-one experience for me or something that I know someone is going through that impacts me emotionally. I’m not much of a fiction writer. It doesn’t really work for me. I would love to be able to do that, but it’s just not my strength, nor is social commentary and stuff like that. It starts to sound fake and phony when I try to do it. Maybe someday I’ll be able to do that, but I find that my voice as a writer is that much clearer and authentic when I’m writing about things that affect me emotionally. And I think as a writer, I have done collaborations over the years. For this record, for example, I collaborated with Richard Marx on “You Never Let Me Down,” but some of my therapy time really comes from sitting down in a room alone and trying to fix all the stuff that’s broken inside of me.
There even was a bit of a break from your last record and this one, with you venturing more into collaborative projects with other artists. And a lot of frontmen in band tend to do those kinds of things. Recently, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James did it recently with his first solo project. Is that something you’ve ever entertained. Doing a solo record. And if so, I would imagine what that would sound like.
Yeah, it is something that I’ve thought about. I don’t know. I guess all the concepts will be off. Vertical Horizon does ground me in some way as a writer. I think as a result even though this record as a lot of different styles on it, or different colors than we’ve used in the past, I think it does keeps me grounded in some way and I like that. But it would absolutely be a wonderful experience. And who knows? Who’s to say that something like that won’t happen or another band project called something else.
On some levels, Everything You Want, Go and Burning the Days were a trilogy. They were three records that definitely shared sonic space, tempo and style and that sort of dynamic. And this record starts on some level where Burning the Days left off, and then over the course of the record it really does change its turn. It goes to a different place. Who knows? As I continue writing and then working on new material, I don’t know if it will be VH or something else, but I would embrace all of it, mostly because what an incredible privilege it is to be creating music after all this time.
I was going to add, before we jump into the album itself, I kind of feel like this is a concept album because there’s a theme that goes into each track. It seems like there’s a focus or an agenda. For the most part, it’s a sad record and there’s a lot of heartbreak in it. It kind of feel like a story is being told, like the whole album is a movie. Would you identify it as that?
Interesting. I love hearing you say that. To me, it makes me feel great because it makes me feels like the songs hang together.
I can absolutely see what you’re saying. When I look at the sort of arc of the end of the record, when you look at “Lovestruck,” “Frost,” “I Free You” and “South for the Winter” could all be this story of a relationship and even a compilation, I guess. It’s interesting – I certainly didn’t approach it that way consciously. The record was not sequenced that way in my mind as I was writing it. And I think that’s one of the paramount qualifiers for a concept album. I think a concept album – and I may be wrong ‘cause I don’t think I’ve ever consciously sat down to make one, but I feel like you sit down and start out with a story rather than a song. A concept album, to me, starts out with a movie script, in your mind, at least. The arc of the characters, the actions that they take, their reactions, and the story would suffer if you took one song out of place and put it somewhere else, because the clarity of the concept would be diminished. I didn’t write these songs in any specific order. It was only at the end when we sequenced stuff that maybe some sort of story could reveal itself. Having said that, I absolutely agree with you. And I thought that, certainly from the perspective of the compilation and with “Lovestruck.” It is almost like you go from the possibility to the tragic reality.
Yeah. “You Never Let Me Down,” there’s still that optimism there and then with “Broken Over You,” you’re still holding on to that relationship. It’s like you’re going through the diary and you’re writing out your emotions. And as soon as we get to “South for the Winter” and “Frost,” it seems like what you have left are just memories and that’s it. It’s just longsuffering.
That’s a really valid observation. It’s interesting. You’re the first person to clearly bring that to my attention. I can’t disagree with you. It’s a fascinating thing. There’s no doubt that is a journey of sorts – I wrote different songs about different experiences involving different people. It’s not like Adele’s 21. Not that I’m comparing to the two records – that record is basically about one person. And I may be wrong on that. But this record is not about one person. In fact some of them – I wrote “South of the Winter” for a friend of mine who is going through and was going through a really difficult time. So although the pronouns are the same – I and you, the narrator is someone completely different from, you know, me personally. Having said that, I love that music doesn’t come with a decoder ring, you know. It’s not a password protected type of thing. You get to take your own meaning away with you. And I wouldn’t want to diminish these songs by revealing that. So if it feels like a story arc, then all the better.
It seems like in today’s world of calculating hits in Nielsen terms, you have to have a viral video to soar to the top of the charts. Any plans for any concept videos for this record?
Not as much. I think things will reveal themselves as time goes on. We will see about the video side of things and what makes sense and what doesn’t. To me you nailed it. Sure, it’s effective and it’s all these other things, but it can be kind of cheap. And I’m not knocking the people who have done it successfully. To me, the real bomber is seeing the ones that weren’t successfully. Then you’ve got this sort of cheeky video, so obviously trying to achieve a goal that’s not artistic but more sales-driven or an attempt to go viral. Yeah, it’s not really how my mind works. Not saying that we won’t do something, but it would have to function on both levels. It would have to be something that we could be proud of artistically. I don’t say artistic like we’re making a Picasso painting, but something that suits the music, the band and feels authentic, and doesn’t feel fake and manufactured.
When you were with RCA, you did have videos that were real big, and are still generating high streams on the Internet. And they were very conceptually done.
They were, but those were really traditional videos. “You’re a God,” in particular, it’s not breaking any new ground. It’s good band performance footage, you got Tiffani Thiessen – who’s a wonderful person, total sweetheart and beautiful – telling a fun and kind-of-cheeky story. It’s very much sort of a basic concept. I think a lot of these things now, like the Robin Thicke …
That was just a lot more obviously, “Oh wow…that’s sensational and shocking.” And you know, that’s fine. That’s a cheeky song, so a cheeky video makes sense. I think they obviously didn’t knock it out of the park on a couple of levels. But for me, it’s not really where I come from. And I don’t think my songs would suit something like that.