Q&A with Matt Scannell

Posted October 25, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

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You collaborated with Richard Marx on this album. He did collaborate with you on the last album. I also read that he was on the tour with you guys this summer. What was it like working with him?

Richard is like a brother to me. We’re just really, really close. We like to hang out and spend time together. We do acoustic shows together, where we play his songs and my songs together all through the night. And it’s really just an excuse for us to get together, go to towns we like to go to and eat at restaurants we like and then we play a gig, which is kinda funny. It’s the exact opposite of how this business is supposed to work, where we’re just having fun. We do those acoustic shows throughout the year on occasion, but Richard and I have written a lot of songs together. I wrote with him on his lead single for his last record. This record, obviously, “You Never Let Me Down,” was a collaboration that we wrote together for me. And I asked him to come up with something that I wouldn’t write for myself. He came to the table with the title, the melody for the chorus and the hook for the chorus. I had the concept. Collaborating with him is very much effortless and at the same time inspiring because you have to really bring your A-game.  He’s a quick writer. He’s a sharp writer. He knows basically instantly what he likes and what he doesn’t like. And I’m a fairly quick writer in the moment to, so it’s like playing Ping-Pong together. The ideas start blasting back and forth. It’s really fun. You know, we have a great time writing together.

And the whole story about him coming out on the road with us on this last tour we did, we had an extra bunk on our bus, And I was joking with him – he was in Chicago and his summer was kind of slow and was sort of relaxing – and I said get off your ass, you need to get back on the road. You need to join Vertical Horizon for a couple of weeks so you won’t get soft. And he said, “Cool, I’m in.” So he came out and joined us. It was terrific, because the guys and the crew all love him.

I was going to say he’s written for almost everybody in every genre. I know he’s played with rock back in the day, but he’s not someone particularly in that vein. I wonder what he sounds like in a rock band.

You know there are YouTube videos of him on stage with us. The really fun thing about playing with him is he’s just so money, he’s so on. When he sings, the harmonies are perfect.

I have to mention Rush’s Neil Peart. I think he’s one of the greatest drummers in rock music, and in music in general. I know he’s on “Instamatic.”  He played on two tracks on the album. I can pinpoint him on “Instamatic.” Can you identify the other track?

He plays on “South for the Winter,” which is really not the one that you’d expect because there’s not a whole lots of drums until the very end of the song. There’s a sort of signature drum fill in the last chorus at the very end of the song. When you know it’s him, then it makes total sense. And that’s the only time he really comes in. It was interesting. Neil is another really great, sweet, dear friend of mine. When I was making this record – he played on our last record, he played three songs. And I told him we were doing this one, and I didn’t even want to ask him to play on it, although of course, I desperately would want him to play on anything that I do, because he’s such a great guy and such a consummate musician behind the drum set. And I told him we were making this record and he said, “Cool, save one for me.” And I was like, “That’s terrific. Well okay, I will save one for you and then I’ll actually save two for you just in case we get done early on the first one. And that’s exactly what happened. The day we went over to Henson Recording in Hollywood and “Instamatic” just went so quickly and so well, I brought out the other song and said, “Hey, look. Here’s something else that I think you would play real beautifully on.” And it was an extremely different style of song for him, much more subdued.

I didn’t even know he played on that. I thought he was on “Evermore,” but knew it wasn’t him. You know his sound.

He has more flourishes. He’s a really exciting drummer, and also excitable. And that’s the other fun thing about him. He’s got this joyous childlike enthusiasm. When we were tracking in the studio, he asked me to be in the room with him. And so I was almost like a conductor in a way. When he did the last Rush record, the producer was in the room with him.  A lot of recordings these days is done, certainly in isolation and geographic isolation. There’s no human interaction in the performances, and Neil was really vibing off of my – you know – I go crazy. I jump up and down and get all excited in the studio. I get elated. Even when we were doing a dark track, I get so happy. And yeah, so I stayed in the room and let’s sorta do this together. So it was just a joyous time. And even working on “South for the Winter” – I think at that point I had decided that it would be the last song on the record – he added so much gravity to the song.  I mean, his restraint and holding back and not coming in.

Oh yeah, I don’t know how he does it. It’s just…freaking crazy. Especially at his age. It seems like he’s still at his zenith.

Oh exactly. I agree.

It really makes the youngins’ looks they need to go to school.

He can make just about anybody look like they need to go to school. The guy is so driven. He writes book. He has this whole Bubba’s Bar ‘n’ Grill thing on his website where he teaches people how to cook. He is a multifaceted man and just a tremendous spirit and inspiring to be around. It’s like a shot of adrenaline when you’re in his presence.

Is he like a honorary member now of VH?

He jokes that he’s auditioned for this band for five or six years and we still haven’t let him in. But no, he’s definitely a member of this band and certainly has a place on our records. And one of these days, maybe we’ll get him up on stage to jam out on something. But yeah, he’s first and foremost one of my favorite people on the planet.

If that happens, Neil Peart and VH! That would be just crazy.

It would be crazy. And believe me, that would be the greatest “would” of all time. He’s always welcome wherever I am, let’s put it that way.

You’re such a big fan of Rush. Were you there when they inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

You know it’s funny, I wasn’t there. I was working and wasn’t able to attend, but I got the play-by-play from a lot of my friends who were there. It took them a long time to do the right thing, but I’m glad that the Hall finally acknowledge Rush’s place in the pantheon of greats.

“Lovestruck” is one of the standouts to me because it’s so different from what you’ve recorded. It has that Peter Gabriel/Phil Collins ‘80s glamour to it, a little Daft Punk off of their new records. What was the inspiration behind that song and what do you think the reception will be from your devout fans?

Well, that’s a really good question. When I started working on the production of the song, I realized I wanted to take in a direction that we’ve never gone before. To answer this question, I have to sort of mention something else: this record was fan funded. So we worked with PledgeMusic and our fans, before they heard a note of this music, they all stood up and said, “We’ll support you, we’ll buy the record before you even put anything on hard drive and before you put any music down.” From the get go, we had this kind of ultimate release, this kind and encouraging pat on the back from people all over the world saying, “We don’t care what you do; we just want you to do it because we believe in you and love your music.” So for me as a writer and a producer, it pretty much made me chase the muse wherever it took me. And so flashing forward to the writing and creation of “Lovestruck,” I was down in Cabo San Lucas for a long weekend and I was staying in this incredible place and I had all the windows and doors wide open. The ocean breeze was blowing the curtains. It was probably midnight or twelve-thirty. The room was lit by candlelight. It was quiet, peaceful and I felt incredible whole. And I just picked up my guitar and started writing and that was one of the songs I wrote. It came very, very quickly to me. I wrote it on the acoustic guitar, as I tend to write most of my songs. “Constellation” on this record I wrote on piano, but most songs I write on guitar. As I started recording this song, I had been listening to a lot of my Joy Division records, New Order, Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, as you mentioned. 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. It was almost like I left it as it was. It wasn’t like I forced it to go there. It just naturally became what it is. I kept waiting to get tired of the keyboards and either turn it down and bring in more guitars, or scratch the keyboards and go for the acoustic guitars or something. If you notice there are no guitars on that song, which is unusual for me. But it just felt whole. I mean, Ron LaVella’s drum performance, to me – talking about restraint, my goodness – it sounds like a sample.

Yeah. It sounds like a drum pad. It sounds like a sample.

And it’s actually not. It’s actually just a testament to his incredible musicality. We put a towel over the snare drum in honor of the old school recording methods, like [The Eagles] Hotel California, to make it kinda thinner. And then we used a smaller snare drum as well with the DW drum being ten inches diameter. And there’s no cymbals at all. Just ride on the four drum for some of these sections and let the keyboard do the work for ya’. And so at the very end of the song when the hi-hat does comes in with the sorta of layered guitars, it lifts and it naturally feels like you’re finally breathing in. I’m crazy about that song. I absolutely love it.

I think in the very beginning [of the record] you’re getting VH all the way. And then, I know when you get into “Frost,” there’s another one. It goes right into it. There’s this artistic soundscape that’s there. Of course, there’s more guitar – its starts to come in later in that song. But with “Frost” and how it fades, it feels like you don’t want it to end. You almost don’t want the song to end.

That’s just a beautiful compliment. Appreciate that.

This kind of album gives you something different. Most rock bands aren’t normally known for their ballads. And you’ve done ballads in the past before, but these take on a different tone with the electronica segment. It’s like you’re expanding your horizons.

I think we owe it to ourselves as musicians to push – and maybe it doesn’t always work or maybe there are times when you think we overstepped here. You know, U2 got a lot of flak years ago for that Pop record.

Oh yeah. But it’s a good record.

I know. I like that record. But it wasn’t what people expected from a U2 record. You know, it’s kinda fair enough, but the artists need to chase the inspiration where it’s taking them, because to me that’s genuine. If you phone in a song or a record that you made because you think people expect a certain thing, I understand it. I understand those pressures but I wouldn’t want to bow to them. I would want first and foremost to push play on an album and say this is the best I can do. This is me being the most receptive I can be to the inspiration that has been coming to me lately. I feel like songwriting is very much an act of perceiving as much as it is a proactive discipline of writing. [It’s] also sitting back and letting the ideas come to you, harnessing them, honoring them and then putting them forth, and hopefully they’ll resonate on people when they hear it.

Have you already begun to try out some of these new songs on your fans live?

Yeah, we’ve only been playing “Broken Over You.” We played that on our last tour. We will be bringing out some of the songs, probably three other songs from this record, in our live shows coming throughout the year.

With this being a fan-funded record and indie released, are you guys in a better place with the band now being an independent artist?

Yeah, I think the nature of the band when we started so many years ago very much an independent band, very much a grassroots band. And we really honoring and acknowledging that one-on-one relationship with our fans. So it’s something that’s a dialogue that we know well and feel comfortable to us. We are absolutely in a better place when you think of how lucky we are to have a group of people around the world now who continue to hold this band close to their hearts and support our efforts. Really, major label systems, independent systems, whatever type of outlet you’re choosing to perpetuate your music, if you don’t have people who care  about you or people who wanna wake up in the morning to press play on your record as opposed to someone else’s, then you’re struggling. Music is by nature a social thing. It starts out as a private thing as a writer, but we congregate in groups to hear and celebrate the sound of music. And if you don’t have groups who are waiting and cheering for you, then it’s a non-starter. You’re done before you start. You’re done before you begin. So I think for me, the honest truth is if we can keep the relationship, having our fans feel respected, having our fans feel like we acknowledge the role that they play in the very existence of this band, then we’re going to be fine either way. I know that there are plenty of incredible benefits to the major label system when it is done correctly, as far as the artist needs are concerned. I also know from the other perspective, when the major label system isn’t acknowledging or isn’t able to deliver the right things for an artist. Having said that I would prefer this stage [in] my career, to be almost in charge of my own destiny as an independent band. We’re able to work with people who can deliver for us, and if they don’t seem to be delivering, we can take a step back and find someone else that will. When you are on a major label, a lot of it is controlled. That front line kind of feeling is actually not there at all; you’re off in a distance somewhere while all of these decisions are being made that can impact you greatly. I’m not one to slam the major label system because I do feel that there’s wonderful people who work at some of those labels and are passionate and are trying very hard for those artists. For us, we couldn’t have been at a better record label. We could not have had a better group of people pushing and fighting for us. They impacted our lives. I mean, Everything You Want categorically would not be the successful record that it was without the help of a major label. And so, for me to be able to go and play these shows all over the world and have people singing my songs largely because of that record, you know that was a major label system. Like anything, there are pros and cons to all things. And in the record business today, you just have to be really aware of both. And we are undoubtedly where we need to be, of marching to our own drummer. And really, we have a bunch of people who are there supporting us and lifting us up as we continue on with our journey.

Thank you so very much in talking with me, and in depth about the band and the new album. I really wish you guys, if it’s anywhere on your schedule, to check out Birmingham. We have a thriving music scene here, so you might want to Birmingham on your tour stops in the future.

Absolutely! Moneer’s [Garden Deli & Grill], back in the day, and The Purple Onion. Those are some of my places. Magic Platter was a record store that did great things for us back in the day. Birmingham’s a terrific town and I would love to get back there at some point. If we do, please please reach out.


The new album, Echoes From The Underground, is in stores now.
Follow Vertical Horizon at Facebook, Twitter and via their official website.

Vertical Horizon | Echoes From the Underground


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J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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