Interview By: Victor Alfieri
Photo By: Marjorie Salvaterra
Vertical Horizon is back after a six year break with Burning the Days (you can see the review of this album here). I had a chance to talk to Matt Scannell, lead singer and guitarist of the band that started at Georgetown in 1992.
VA: There’s a lot of change that has gone on over the course of the years for this band, from the sound, to the structure and dynamic of the band. The story about the record company is pretty well documented. How much of the change of the sound of Vertical Horizon was influenced by the record company?
Scannell: I think that was a much smaller component to the changes we went through musically and stylistically than people would believe. I remember specifically sitting down with the record company and them saying, “What type of band do you want to be? What type of album do you want to make? Either way, I’m fine with it.” I don’t think there was any pressure in the early days to sound like anybody or be more “timely.”
It was more the fact that I had started off and always played music in bands. I had played electric guitar in bands. And when Keith and I started, it was far more of a change for me to do what we had done on There and Back Again, and to a lesser extent, Running on Ice. It’s almost like, when you think of it, Running on Ice makes more sense, Live Stages makes more sense. And then Everything You Want its like finally I’m back to the rock band that I always wanted to be in.
I think in fairness to Keith, he was far more of a folk guy. If he was left in isolation and making music, it would be far more acoustic-based. My music would be more rock-based. So we were trying to meet in the middle somewhere, but when you add a drum kit, it sounds a lot further away from acoustic and a lot closer to rock music.
I feel like there was a lot less involvement from the record company early on. I feel like when we were making Go, that was a dark time when Clive Davis took over the label, and we were really not flavor of the month for him. So I felt them kind of tinkering with a lot more then during the making of that record. That record still stands up for me and I’m still proud of it.
When we were making Everything You Want, RCA was like Camelot. It was the Promised Land. It was probably the best label to be on at the time, and they did a stunningly great job with us. Conversely, I think RCA, after Clive took over, became a much, much darker place. The spirit of the company changed incredibly. Something like 80% of the people that worked there when we were first signed, were fired. It was just a completely different culture. It’s not meant to be a slam of Clive Davis. He just wasn’t a fan of us and we weren’t a fan of the way he treated us.
VA: With the stylistic differences between you and Keith, have there ever been or are there issues now? It’s pretty obvious that, while you started as a duo, you are now the front man of this band.
Scannell: I think that when we first started this band, with There and Back Again, the album was purposefully half Keith’s songs and half my songs. And what really started happening, quickly as we started progressing as a band, is that my output of songs just started greatly increasing. Keith’s input started slowing down, and I think that is evident with Running on Ice.
I think that when you’re a songwriter and you just start voraciously pumping out songs, you know 50, 60, 70 songs, there’s just a lot of material to choose from. And that’s what happened with Everything You Want.
It’s a balancing act, you know, Keith is like a brother to me, and brothers have good days and difficult days. There’s nobody on this planet, I think that has a kinder soul than Keith Kane. He is one of the best people I’ve met in my life. I love him and I’m glad to work with him as much as I can.
That being said, I’m a pretty driven songwriter. I have a pretty strong vision of what music means to me and what kind of music I want to be making. I spend a lot of time doing it. I just think that, naturally over the years, I have just assumed the leader of this band just because it felt a little more natural for me to do so. Keith and I spoke about this fairly recently that it was a position that he was a little less comfortable assuming. So it probably made sense for me to become the figurehead of the band.
You know a lot of long time fans of the band think there is some sort of plot to oust Keith or something. Dynamics change, people change and develop and grow in different ways over time. Because we did There and Back Again in one way, doesn’t mean that we were tied to that.
VA: With the new album, you have come full circle. You started off independent and released a few albums on your own. Then you signed with the large label and are now back in the driver seat, doing it all yourself again. How does it feel?
Scannell: It’s wonderful. I think it’s absolutely where we should be. I also think that creating a record label and then making sure all of the little things get done can be a completely different job description than being an artist that’s signed to a label where things just get done. At this point I am pretty OK with it, but I am strongly trying to keep the balance a healthy one. Over the past few years, I spoke to a lot of record labels to get a feel for what they would do with a band in our position. This definitely feels right to me and I get the feeling that, from our fans, that they are incredibly supportive of this decision.
That’s not to say we won’t work with a major label again. With the network they have and the ability to distribute internationally, in a best-case scenario, it can be a wonderful thing. In seeing the best case, and also living through what I would consider a worst case scenario, it would have to be a very compelling situation to bring us back to that dynamic.
VA: With the new album, you had the chance to work with town big names, but specifically a rock legend in Neil Peart. How did that happen?
Scannell: It was a strange set of events. My girlfriend’s best friend on the planet owns a car dealership in L.A. where Neil was buying a new car and trading one in. Her friend asked us to go over and take some pictures of the car to get it moving. On our way over there, I had to formulate my words. Rush was absolutely my biggest musical influence growing up. I’m standing there trying to come up with something that doesn’t sound completely over-the-top. He opens the gate sticks out his hand and says, “I’m a huge fan of your work.” I was speechless, completely taken aback.
You have to understand, as a kid growing up in Worcester, MA, listening to “Power Windows,” and obsessing over every lyrical shift, every clever metaphor, you know, not to mention the incredible musicality of the record, I was driven and inspired and encouraged without them have any inkling or idea of who I was. In many ways, I was encouraged to music by their music, by their records. So it was just the most incredible experience.
Over time, we stayed in touch and have many similar interests. We started hanging out socially. One night over his house for dinner (at this point, Scannell goes on to talk about how Peart is an amazing cook and is working on something for his website, www.neilpeart.net, suggesting we couldn’t go wrong if we liked good barbecue.), Neill showed me a book he was working on that opened with a poem. He asked me what I thought of it, and there was this one line that I just wasn’t sure of.
I’m sitting there debating what I should say. Should I be a fan and say, “Oh yeah, it’s great,” or should I be a friend and be honest? I really wanted to be his friend, so I told him I thought he could “beat” that line. That’s a specific line that I use when working with somebody. It’s not that the original work is bad. It’s just that I think you could do better. He looked at the line and said, “I think you’re right.”
Later, as we were hanging out, he said that we should write a song together. I don’t know if it was a life changing moment because I was honest with him earlier, but there it was. He called me not long after to tell me about an idea he was playing with for a song called “Even Now.” I remember thinking, this is great. I started thinking about some lyrical ideas and we set up a time to meet the next week. We met and Neill laid down a finished lyric, a full lyric. It occurred to me, “of course. This is how he brings music to the Rush guys. His job is to write the lyrics of the songs.” So I sat down with a guitar, and within 15-20 minutes, it was all done. It was one of those incredible moments, and I remember him saying to me, “is this something that you had?” It wasn’t. This is what I got from his lyrics.
So I sheepishly had to ask him to play on this song and his response was “nobody else CAN play drums on this song.” When in the studio, we hammered out this song in about forty minutes, but I had the studio all day. So I asked him to work on a few more songs. So he played on “Save Me From Myself” & “Welcome to the Bottom” and just hit the ball out of the park.
VA: I saw on Twitter the other day that you are going on the road. Where are you going to be heading?
Scannell: There are going to be a lot of dates added. We are estimating 30-40 dates through the end of this year. It’s going to start in the northeast and head west. We’ll go back out after Christmas and I hope to get up to Canada and also around the world. This next year is going to involve a heck of a lot travelling.
VA: You guys have been around a long time. Now that you have come back from the hiatus, is this a one album thing? Where will VH be in five years?
Scannell: I don’t know that I’m worried about where we’ll be in five years. People are too concerned about “what ifs.” What if people stop buying records? What if they don’t come out to hear music anymore? I’m more concerned about “what is.” And I know what is with my band is that we are absolutely true to ourselves.
We write honest music that comes from a sincere place. We want people to come to our shows and feel uplifted, and we also want them to feel whatever it is that they want to feel, because we want everybody in that moment, in that audience to have a true experience. If we’re true to ourselves, than it doesn’t matter “what if” in five years. All that matters is “what is.” And that’s today, right now, it’s the next show we play. It’s the next note I sing. It’s the next guitar solo that comes off my fretboard and that’s all that really matters. Hopefully everybody else can enjoy the moment.
See Victor’s Review of Burning The Days Here.