Posted October 8, 2013 by whopperjaw in Tunes

Vertical Horizon’s Matt Scannell: Inviting fans on a musical journey

Vertical Horizon
Vertical Horizon

Having recently wrapped up a stint touring on the annual Under The Sun tour, Vertical Horizon has just dropped its sixth studio album, Echoes From The Underground. Funded via fan contributions with a PledgeMusic campaign, the project has been in the works for an extended period. It’s clear in talking with lead vocalist/guitarist and songwriter Matt Scannell that the ability to finally share his work with the world is both an exciting and a nerve-wracking prospect creatively. Scannell challenged himself in a variety of ways, while the recording process itself presented its own challenges in return. In the end, the album is without a doubt the band’s most fully realized release to date.

Although Scannell wrote the bulk of the album’s material himself, he did get some help from longtime friend Richard Marx, who lent production assistance on several tracks and provided songwriting input on lead track “You Never Let Me Down.” Scannell also got some support from another high profile friend, drummer Neil Peart, who came back to play on two tracks on this new album after performing similar duties on 2009’s Burning The Days.

Whether you’ve been following the Vertical Horizon story since the earliest days or you’re new to the band’s music, Echoes From The Underground is a lengthy journey worth taking. Here’s what Scannell had to say about the newest release and several other topics — including what it’s like to have Rush’s drummer play on your album.

Let’s start at the top and dig into the story behind this record. It’s been a few years since your last record, but I also know that you’ve put a lot of effort and time into this one, so it’s not like you’ve been idle.
Right, right. No, this one is a real labor of love, but it was also a challenge. This one, I really wanted to stretch and I wanted to push myself as a writer and a singer, as a musician and as a producer. I think that as a result, it was an intense process and it took longer than I would I have liked it to. But I also feel like sometimes they take the time that they take. Music is definitely an imperfect science at best. So it was a bit of a rollercoaster ride at times. But the interesting and lovely thing about it is that I can listen to this record and absolutely enjoy it because I took the time and really made sure that it was the record I wanted us to make.

I can say without hesitation that this is my favorite vocal performance of my career as a whole.

What was it that added to the time that you spent on this record? What were the things that really kept you working on this?
Well, I always call it the wormhole. Sometimes I get sucked down the wormhole, and sometimes I go willingly down the wormhole, but regardless the net effect is the same. You know, I’ve been inspired by lots of different kinds of music over the past couple of years and one of the genres to me that’s just really exciting is electronic music. I’m listening to dubstep records, stuff like Burial, and of course Deadmau5, and also tapping back into my love for New Order and Joy Division.

For me, that was never on the musical agenda for what Vertical Horizon could do and I really wanted to change that up a little bit, just to embrace the sounds that I was hearing and the sounds that were inspiring to me. So part of that is really a learning curve — how far can we go and what feels right and genuine and then what feels forced? There were moments of both, honestly.

I’d say the biggest challenge for me that set me back about probably about eight months when all was said and done was that I got the flu in probably early 2012. It was right when I was supposed to be singing the record. The disciplinarian in me and the producer in me said, ‘Okay, you’re singing the record now.’ That’s something that can go very quickly, but most often for me it doesn’t because I tend to hear things in my head a certain way. Of course, it’s not just the lead vocals but it’s the double of the lead vocals and the harmony vocals and the doubles of the harmony vocals — all of this stuff. The challenge was that I was sick for about a month or a month and a half and by then I had unknowingly had really lost a lot of my tone. When I went back into the studio, I was still suffering from the sound — I still had sinus congestion and all of these things. Bottom line, I could hear it in my voice, but I didn’t hear it until about a month after I’d sung the whole record.  When I listened with my producer’s cap after really spending the time singing, I had to say ‘You know what? It’s not good enough.’ I had to trash it and start again. It was heartbreaking . . . so needless to say, I’m getting my flu shot this year.

Richard Marx, my dear friend and brother, came in. I sort of sent up a call for help. He came in and produced my vocals on two songs, “Half-Light” and on the song that we wrote together, “You Never Let Me Down.” That got me going again and got my mojo back and I took it from there. As a result, the beautiful thing about this is that I can say without hesitation that this is my favorite vocal performance of my career as a whole.

I don’t think I’ve ever sung better. Although it was a bit of a speedbump along the way, now that the record’s done, I can say that if I had settled for what I had done vocally and tonally, it would be very hard for me to listen to this record. Although it took more time than I would have liked and certainly than our fans would have liked, it’s worth the wait given that I really wasn’t ready to sing the record.

How much additional pressure did the fact that you had the fan-supported component to this add when you went behind the target that you had set as far as delivery?
It absolutely did. But I will say in the same breath that I was also just comforted by our fans who basically just said, ‘Hey, we get it — sometimes things don’t go according to plan and we’ll be waiting for it.’ So although there were some people who certainly were frustrated, even the ones who were frustrated weren’t nasty. This process is an incredible one, making a record with fan support and also being somewhat beholden to them throughout the process. In other words, needing to keep them updated on the progress and wanting to let them into the inner machinations of how a record is made.

You know, I’ve never done that before and now having done it, I would say conceptually I’d rather to continue to do it this way. I don’t feel like I want to go back to the old method. Because there is a sense of excitement that they bring to the table that for some of the more mundane tasks otherwise wouldn’t be there. So I loved it. Even in the times when people were saying ‘we were hoping it would be done right now,’ we knew it was coming from excitement and passion as opposed to annoyance.

[The Internet] cut out the need for the middleman between musicians and their fans and it’s great.

Well, it’s interesting hearing you talk about opening yourself up like that. One of the things I love about being a music fan now is that fans have that ability to get inside things. When we were growing up, the update a fan got on album was a story in Rolling Stone. You didn’t get the type of access that you get these days.
You’re absolutely right — it was very much an arm’s length relationship at best and now it’s one to one daily maintenance. The band is treated almost more like a family member by the fans. We’re on their Facebook feed. We’re tweeting with each other. If you think about it conceptually, it used to be the ‘rock star’ myth was very much in effect. Now, everybody knows we’re just people. As a result, the beautiful thing is that when you get sick like I did and you let people know that you’re sick, it’s like they send you chicken soup. They send you a metaphorical chicken soup and you wind up feeling better.

I think it’s awesome and you’re absolutely right — when we were growing up, as a fan, you just were dying for any little tidbit and you bought the Rolling Stone the day it came out on the stands. I remember Musician magazine was one of the best magazines out there and you’re waiting with bated breath for this stuff. For some time [the Internet] was sort of sounding like the music business death knell and I think now that the Internet can be hailed as the thing that reconnected us. It cut out the need for the middleman between musicians and their fans and it’s great.

You guys have been doing things independently for quite a while, so if anything, doing what you did with PledgeMusic just seems like an enhancement to your overall process.
 Yeah, and you’re absolutely right. We were sort of fan-funded before people knew what that was called. We started very much in a grassroots capacity and embraced the constant one to one relationship with fans back in the day. We did sign onto the major label joyride — the joyride and pain ride — but now it feels comfortably right for us to be doing this thing in a manner much more reminiscent of the way we started it. That’s terrific. I think for some bands it would probably be a greater adjustment, but for us it feels like coming home.

One of the things that jumped out to me was that there were sounds on this album that I didn’t feel like I’d heard on a Vertical Horizon album before. “Evermore” was one of those songs that made me curious about influencing factors. It might be one of the coolest sounding songs I’ve heard from you guys. There’s so much happening sonically with that one and so many different layers.
I love that you like that song and I love that you’re drawn to that song because for me that was one of the real templates for the record as I wrote it. I remember there’s that “hanging on/ Evermore” section which is sort of where the big rock guitars come in. In my old definition of self, I would have said, ‘Well, that’s the chorus for the song. That’s the meat and potatoes of the song.’ I kind of like that it’s approached from a completely different perspective than it would have been traditionally, at least within the context of this band.

I’ve been a massive Peter Gabriel fan for my whole life it seems and as far back as I can remember, his voice has been part of my mental jukebox. So for me, that piano sound reminds me of some of the things that he did, but it also reminds me of something that Trent Reznor would do. So there are those influences — Nine Inch Nails, Peter Gabriel — but also there’s that four on the floor pulse out there in the background somewhere. I mean, I’m really, really proud of that song.

To come back to what you were saying about the layers, there is that bridge bit, but then there’s a surprise sort of second bridge too, which is the “never be enough” section. Coming from a place of writing songs that would fit into a radio format, naturally I love pop music, but I also like trying different things. That’s a perfect example. I wouldn’t have conceived of doing a second bridge and I probably wouldn’t have done that guitar solo either. But the whole spirit of this record is so much, ‘Hey, let’s try different things and let’s push.’ You come out with something that’s new and fresh and different. I think we owe it to ourselves as musicians and as a band to remain passionate about what we do and therefore concerned with maintaining that strong connection to the muse of this thing and the inspiration. But we also owe it to our fans, the people who certainly pledged their support for the record, but also people who after all of this time are going to say ‘Oh yeah, Vertical Horizon, I like that band, let’s hear what they’re doing now.’ We owe it to them to be trying. That’s what this record is really trying [to do is] to achieve something.

You are kind of proving with this album that you can do pop music while still being inventive. It can be interesting and have commercial appeal at the same time.
That’s great — I love to hear you say that. When a record first starts getting out, it’s a scary time, man, because we’ve been in the bubble. I write these songs and almost every song on this record was written in a dark room or certainly a quiet and fairly meditative place. So I’ve written this stuff essentially for myself to try and fix all of the stuff that’s broken. So when they start getting out there, it’s like ‘Oh, God.’  [Laughs]

It’s a personal experience and personal tastes, so I don’t begrudge anybody hating on this record. But at the same time, I do hope that people can see that it was fueled by genuine passion and genuine inspiration.

You’re wondering if they’re going to say, “Man, this is the worst Vertical Horizon album ever.”
Oh yeah! They could say that or they could say that this doesn’t sound genuine . . . this doesn’t sound like it came from a real place. And look, everybody’s entitled to their opinion about anything, but certainly about music and art. It’s a personal experience and personal tastes, so I don’t begrudge anybody hating on this record. But at the same time, I do hope that people can see that it was fueled by genuine passion and genuine inspiration.

“Consolation” is another track on this album that really has a lot of atmosphere to it and now that you mentioned it, I can certainly hear Peter Gabriel in that one.
I am a huge Elbow fan. They take their time. That’s been a real inspiration for me. They say, ‘Look, your three-minute-and-fifty-nine second song? That’s fine and maybe we’ll have a few of those. But generally we’re going to let the song take as long as it needs to take.’ “Consolation” is a perfect example of that.

I was up in New Hampshire visiting my brother. They have this event up in Laconia, New Hampshire called Laconia Bike Week and these motorcyclists come from all over the country and probably Canada as well and basically descend upon the town. As we were driving down the road, I saw a family with their lawn chairs, picnic baskets and beach umbrellas sitting on the side of the road and watching the bikes go by. Well, it doesn’t sound quite as good to say ‘bikes go by’ so I used a little poetic license and changed it to cars. But it was fascinating, I saw that the kids completely enthralled by this whole thing. The wife had a smile on her face and the father seemed to be looking off in the distance with this kind of almost haunted look on his face. And it may have just been a snapshot. You know, you take a photograph and in between emotions and facial gestures, you see something that wasn’t actually there. The guy could have been just about to smile, but when I saw him, he looked kind of scared. The image stuck with me so strongly that I wrote the whole song based on what I thought he was feeling at the time. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record and I love it when the band finally kicks in and the big guitar moments happen.

This record takes more of a journey than some of our other releases have, but it’s purely because we were given the freedom to do so by our fans.

The album clocks in at nearly an hour and although it doesn’t feel too long, that’s a lengthy statement to put out in today’s short attention span world. Did you have any concerns about that?
No, I have absolutely no concerns because I feel like if people want to stop it, they’re welcome to stop it. They don’t have to make it south for the winter if they don’t want to. This record is really a record that we needed to make and the songs that I needed to write and I hope that people want to take the whole journey. But yeah, it’s way more ADD now than it was back in the day. I applaud guys like Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree for kind of saying, ‘Hey look, I’m going to stick to my guns and I’m going to make the music I want to make and I’m going to do it the way I want to do it.’ That vision is really applaudable and I think that for me I just sort of embraced it. It all came back to the fans standing up and saying without hearing a lick of music, “We will stand up for you and say that we want it, so make the record you want to make.’ Talk about empowering; it’s shocking how strong we felt their support. This record takes more of a journey than some of our other releases have, but it’s purely because we were given the freedom to do so by our fans.

The length indicates that you embraced the format of the album and the artwork indicates that you were thinking about it as an album. You mentioned it as a journey and that art, right from the time you see it, invites you on that journey. I’m curious to hear you explain the artwork and how that relates to the title of the record for you.
The first thing for me was the artist that we worked with, this guy named Justin Wolfe, who is a tremendous talent. He and I worked on the re-release of the record Go that we did together. For me coming to the table on this one, I sent him all of the lyrics and we were talking about what it could be. I’m fascinated with the concept of each one of us being in very many ways, as connected as we all seem to be, also completely shut down from one another. We’re locked away. What are you doing? Well, I can tell you what I’m doing. I’ll tell you where I am and I’ll check in; you’ll know where my body physically. But mentally, you may be somewhere else entirely. You may be in a difficult place. So it seems like we have a constant cursory glance towards one another and yet at the same time, we don’t necessarily get any deeper than that. At least it seems to me often that we’re not getting deeper than that. So the themes and lyrics of this record very much deal with the layers of connection between people, but also the layers and the ways in which we disconnect from one another. I asked Justin to help me put a visual to that and he sent me a couple of ideas when we first started to dialogue about it.

I don’t tend to be the most visual guy in the world. I think sonically, so after a go-around or two, he sent me this key with a lock in it and I thought, ‘My God, where has that been all of my life?’ The beauty of that is that we need connection to really unlock ourselves. We need someone else to come in and find us. You think that you can do it yourself, but you can’t. You cannot unlock yourself. I think that mostly and honestly, it’s a super-cool image. It’s something that once you see it, you won’t forget it. I love iconic stuff like that.

I think your buddy Neil Peart is going to give you a high five or something for that album art. That’s Rush-worthy.
You know, it’s funny, because it is [reminiscent] of Storm Thorgerson, Hugh Syme and these great artists who build these landscapes, you know, like Roger Dean. But it also brings me back to Rene Magritte, who was just such an incredible painter and came up with these surreal things that could never happen and therefore, they made you think about things as opposed to just going, ‘Well okay, there’s some flowers in a vase.’ There’s not a whole lot of flowers and vases on this record. There’s a lot more massive keys floating through the atmosphere.

[Neil Peart] has a way of playing the drums that’s just explosive. But he dances with you. As a singer, there’s a much, much stronger connection.

I definitely hear Peart’s presence on the two tracks that he plays on, especially “Instamatic.” Did his playing on those songs change things at all for you or cause you to change up what you were envisioning doing with them as songs?
That’s a good question. When he worked with me on the last record, Burning The Days, it was the first time that he and I had worked together, so I didn’t really know what to expect as far as his contributions were concerned. Well, the incredible thing about it is that I was stunned at how much he was playing for the vocal. A lot of people see him as this kind of virtuoso, but clearly a drum forward guy, implying that everything else feels like on some levels like it might be taking a backseat. It really couldn’t be further from the truth. He hears a song and certainly has his stamp that he puts on it. He has a way of playing the drums that’s just explosive. But he dances with you. As a singer, there’s a much, much stronger connection.

Being a Rush fan, I loved the music and even though there are very complex things going on from each of the three guys, it feels sort of like one thing. So I hadn’t really dissected necessarily the relationship between the drums and the vocals. Being in this work environment with Neil in the studio, I was struck with how dialed in he was with my vocal phrasing. So I really didn’t have to change much of anything. He just kind of elevated it all.

He has an innate understanding of the ebb and flow of music and the build and release of tension unlike any drummer I’ve ever worked with. So “Instamatic” for me is a tour de force. That’s a seminal performance from him as far as I’m concerned. You can hear elements of every chapter of his career and what an incredible honor it is to have him lending his talents to that song. And of course, Sean Hurley, who has played on every Vertical record since I think 1997, just killed that song. The two of them together, we were just laughing the whole time.

I think Neil’s playing is surprising, because I think that some people expect a certain kind of thing from him and while you certainly hear that in tone, what he’s doing fits in context with the song and elevates it, but it doesn’t overshadow what is going on overall with the song.
Yeah, I completely agree with you. He played what was right for the song and you can also hear him on “South For The Winter,” playing what’s right for that song. I remember when I first played it for him, he sort of said, ‘You want me to play on this?’ The song just felt different to him than something he would normally contribute to. I said to him, ‘Hey, that’s why I want you to do it. That’s why I want you to play on this thing.’

So we got the djembe out and he’s doing hand percussion and all of these things. Talk about building tension. It starts with his cymbal swells into the first chorus, but as the song grows and there are these toms in the distance, almost tribal sounding, in the second chorus and then when it finally explodes into his full-on drumkit performance at the end, the release is just glorious. He just did that. He loved the song from the beginning, I think he just wanted to take some time to make sure that he presented the percussion in a way so that it really enhanced and favored the song. He killed it. It’s a beautiful drum performance.

How do you know Neil?
It’s a fairly strange story. A friend of mine owns a car dealership down in Texas, a BMW dealership, and Neil was buying a car from him and trading in a car that he had out here in L.A. My friend called me and said, ‘Can you go over to his house and take some pictures of his car so we can get it up on our site?’ I’m a massive fan and I love his playing, love his lyrics, love his band. So when I got over there I was just sort of tongue-tied.

Neil comes to the gate, opens it up and reaches down, because he’s of course eight or nine feet tall—his hands are the size of tennis racquets. He reaches down and shakes my hand and says ‘I’m a huge fan of your work. I love your work.’ And I thought, ‘Check please, I’m done!’ It was one of the most beautiful moments ever for me and the beautiful thing was that it started with a sense of equality. Our friendship and relationship started with a mutual respect. We took some time and became friends and firmly we are most definitely friends first.

Along the way, he was writing one of his books and he showed me the poem that was starting the book and asked me what I thought of it. I thought it was fantastic, but there was a suggestion that I was feeling inside of myself, something that I would raise my voice and chime in on if I had the opportunity. That was the moment where I could be a friend to him and really let him know what I felt and he could take it or leave it. Or I could just be a yes man. I told him that I thought he might be able to tweak this one thing and sure enough he did. And then, I don’t even know if it was a conscious thing on his part, but he said, ‘You know, we should write a song together sometime.’

So we did. We wrote “Even Now,” the song from Burning The Days, and it was just incredible. It was a really good life lesson for me. I knew that’s how you interact with people, but the history of it, just having been such a fan and having had so much respect for his work, it was a moment in time and a conscious decision to be his friend and that’s a pretty special thing.

You and Richard Marx recently did some busking on the streets of Chicago. What was that all about?
[Laughs] We had done the thing for the Onion . . .

Yeah, which I just saw. It’s awesome.
Oh cool! We were there and I don’t know how it came up, but we’ve done so many crazy things. We’ve done these wonderful gigs all over the place and he’s just such a fun guy. I said, ‘You know what I’ve never done? I’ve never busked.’ We were talking about funny words and ‘busking’ is just a great word and I never busked. He said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I’ve busked either.’ I think he said either just because he was being very literate. So we went down to a street corner and just rocked out. It was very interesting. That’s a tough gig, man. Busking is not easy. I have more respect for the buskers of the world! But it was just literally like almost a dare.

Did you guys have the hat out?
We had a guitar case out and we made a few bucks. The problem is that you go into Starbucks and that 10 dollars you made doesn’t go very far!  [Laughs] 


Whopperjaw is slang for anything slightly askew or out of whack which describes us perfectly. Our online mag covers interesting interviews, craft brews, movie reviews, music news and more.