THE END OF A DECADE CAN SOMETIMES BE A LITTLE rugged in the music business. Think about it: The end of the ’60s
was also the end of some legendary bands, not to mention the
lives of some of great musicians. The close of the ’70s saw lots
of rockers lose their gigs to new wavers. When the ’80s wound
down it was Armageddon for plenty of melodic metal players.
Why should the 1990s be different? If anything, it should represent
an even bigger sea change, being not just the end of a decade
but the end of a century as well as a freaking millennium. Anyone
riding high in that era would almost certainly be consigned to
the dustbin of rock history as soon as the new age dawned, right?
One exception to that truism is the band Vertical Horizon and
frontman/guitarist/songwriter Matt Scannell. The “other” VH hit
the big time in 1999 with their platinum record Everything You
Want and the title track that went to #1. Scannell and his mates
toured the world and elsewhere in support of that album, which
produced two other hit singles. And Vertical Horizon has kept
going. Scannell kept honing his craft, writing tunes, and—unlike
many of the bands that rose to prominence along with him—stayed in the game.
It would be a great story if that’s all there was to it. You can,
after all, tour for years on the strength of a few radio-friendly
tunes and rest comfortably on your laurels. But Scannell has actually
gotten better. Vertical Horizon’s latest, Echoes from the Underground,
features tunes, tones, and guitar solos that are every bit
as good as his best work. It is a gem of a pop-rock record, and
a pop-rock record that actually rocks. It also features an almost-unheard-of cameo on drums by Neil Peart (who also played on
Vertical Horizon’s Burning the Days album). From his Southern California base, Scannell excitedly talked
about the record, his gear obsession, and
the secret to his success.
Your records have always been guitar
driven, but this has to be your most guitar-centric release ever.
I think it is. It was very purposeful on
my end to try to take some liberties as a
guitar player that I’d never allowed myself
before. I don’t even know why I viewed
them as liberties, things like guitar solos.
I guess we had been thinking with our
radio hats on for a long time and guitar
solos were a bad thing. At the very least,
we felt pressure in the past to trim the fat
on the songs as much as possible. For this
record, it was much more of a pure intent.
What do we want to do? I love playing the
guitar, so I wanted to do as much of it as I
possibly could. That meant if a song could
possibly stand to have a guitar solo in it,
I made sure it did.
The tones on this record don’t sound
as heavily layered as some of your previous
albums and, as a result, they stand
out more. What was your method and your
philosophy for tracking guitars?
It was very different than the way we’ve
approached it before. The other records
were often many tracks of guitar to make
one sound. For this record, I’d been listening
to my old Van Halen records thinking,
“If Eddie can do it with one track, why
do I need 60?” There are just two guitar
tracks on a lot of AC/DC songs. Drawing
from the inspiration of those records
encouraged me to pare it down a little bit.
I think also my confidence as a player has
grown, as well as my confidence in finding
a tone that does more for the song—more
of a complete tone that isn’t lacking in certain
areas and needing to be bolstered by
subsequent tracks. I really tried to work
with good core ingredients that could be
a strong foundation. If I thought something
was missing when we were listening
to a track, I would layer another part that
was similar but voiced slightly differently,
and just try to play it as tightly as I could.
What guitars did you rely on for this
My Paul Reed Smith guitars have served
me well over the years, and I used the original
McCarty that I bought for recording
Everything You Want, as well as a white Singlecut
they built for me. That Singlecut is
probably the finest PRS that I own. Those
two guitars are on a bunch of tracks. I’ve
also gotten into vintage guitars over the
past few years. When I met [producer]
John Shanks when we were recording Go,
I learned a lot about old guitars. And when
you find a great old guitar, sometimes it does
something special that’s hard to duplicate
with newer stuff. There were three vintage
guitars that really helped shape this record:
a 1956 Les Paul Goldtop that someone put
PAFs in before I acquired it, a 1959 ES-345
that someone took the Varitone out of so
it’s effectively a ’59 335, and a 1966 Telecaster.
I also used a 1963 SG Junior and a
Danocaster Tele, built by Dan Strain out
of Nashville. He sort of cracked the code
on what makes the vintage Fender stuff
really great. The vintage guitars did a lot
of the heavy lifting, especially for clean
tones. Growing up, I thought the best clean
tones came from single-coil pickups, until
I started playing some great PAF-equipped
guitars. I realized there’s a fantastic type of
chime that you can get from a really nice-sounding
PAF, and it records beautifully. It
gets out of the way. Sometimes with single-
coil pickups that are really spiky in the
treble, you have to sort of dance around
them in a mix, whereas a perfectly voiced
PAF will speak clearly but not get in the
way of the other performances. So a lot of
the cleaner tones on this record are actually
the PAF guitars.
What about amps?
Probably the two MVPs of the record
were my 1968 Marshall Small Box 50-watt
plexi that has been a go-to amp of mine for
years and years, and a Divided By 13 JRT
9/15, which has switchable output tubes
from 6V6s to EL84s so it’s a really flexible
amp. I also used my Matchless Clubman
35 that I’ve had for ages, a 100-watt
1968 Marshall Super Bass, a 1962 brown
Tolex Fender Vibrolux, and a Suhr Badger
18. The heads generally went through one
of two cabinets: a 1968 Marshall straight-front
4x12 with original Celestion Greenbacks
or a Mojotone straight-front 4x12
with Mojo’s version of Celestion Greenbacks.
To me, straight-front 4x12 cabinets
just sound better than slant 4x12s.
You already alluded to the guitar solos
on this record. The “Evermore” solo is particularly
burning. Who influenced that
part of your style and made you want to
develop those kind of chops?
I heard Eric Johnson play “Cliffs of
Dover” on one of those Sound Page records
in Guitar Player magazine back in the ’80s.
I listened to that performance and it blew
my mind completely. One of the reasons it
was so inspiring to me was that I felt like
Eddie Van Halen was from another planet, and it seemed like Eric Johnson was from
my planet. I couldn’t imagine attaining the
technique that he had, but at least I could
begin to understand what he was doing. I
tried to learn that Sound Page note for note.
Then there was Steve Vai’s “Blue Powder”
Sound Page. Hearing those guys pick so fast
and clean—along with guys like Paul Gilbert,
Al Di Meola, and Yngwie Malmsteen—
made me really want to be able to play that
way. I think moments like the “Evermore”
solo are where I put my fanboy hat on and
remember how great it felt to listen to and
learn those songs.
Neil Peart plays drums on two songs on
this record, and that’s something that’s very
rare. How did that happen, and what’s it like
to record with a legend?
It’s a testament to how incredible he is to
be able to say that recording with Neil Peart,
the legend, is actually just like recording with
Neil Peart, one of your best friends. He’s one
of my favorite human beings. But what you
quickly realize with Neil is that he’s just a
guy who has a job, and he’s really good at his
job. When we were doing our last record,
Burning the Days, he and I decided to try to
write a song together. It was a song called
“Even Now” and it went really well and he
ended up playing drums on it. On this record
he plays on “Instamatic” and “South for the
Winter.” One thing people might not realize
about Neil’s drumming is how much he
plays for the singer. It’s uncanny how sensitive
he is to the voice. He wants to build
you up as a singer and build up the vocal
performance. As the singer in the band, it’s
really incredible to hear him propel me forward
and raise me up. “Instamatic,” to me,
is one of the greatest performances of his
incredible career. It’s a master class in rock
drumming and I was thrilled beyond belief
to have him appear on our record.
Your tunes always have the coolest
bridges. How does one write a great bridge?
Are there tricks? What does the bridge of a
tune represent to you?
I love bridges. From a songwriter’s perspective,
I view the bridge as the flourish,
the songwriter’s ability to go to a different
room in the house than you’ve been before—to enter into a different environment. I think
the value of a great bridge is that when you
return to the chorus, it feels all the more
fresh and exciting. The chorus, by definition, is repeated and you don’t want your chorus to
wear out its welcome by the end of the song.
I think a bridge can really help to serve the
chorus. I try to start a bridge on a chord that
I haven’t used for the downbeat of any other
section. That will help you start to feel like
you’ve gone somewhere else. If you haven’t
used, for example, the 6 minor, try that or a
4 chord or a 2 chord—something that’s not
your tonic. Go to halftime at the top of your
bridge or take the bass away. Try the opposite
of what you were doing. If you were doing
something long and flowing, try something
that’s more short and staccato, or vice versa.
There’s a song from our last record called
“Afterglow.” The song is in Eb major and the bridge goes to Eb minor. It’s just a one-note
difference, but there’s a massive emotional
discrepancy that we feel between major and
minor. The power of keeping the tonic the
same and just changing the key from a major
to a minor is so emotional. I would recommend
giving that a try, if nothing else.
You wrote a number-one single back in
the 1900s. How did your life change after
that song broke?
So many things changed. It was a transformative
experience. Not to say that there
haven’t been many challenges since then, but
to achieve that was very confidence building
and very gratifying. Up until that point,
I was just working to try to pay the bills.
Every week was a new challenge. And suddenly
that pressure was alleviated. It was
gone. I can’t really even put it into words.
That song changed everything for me. I could
not be more grateful for that song.
You’re still around making music now
and plenty of bands that came up around
the same time as Vertical Horizon are not.
Why do you think that is?
I believe that one of the most fundamental
rules of our job as musicians is to say please
and thank you. When people come to your
show, be grateful to them. If someone gives
you an audition, or a gig, or a monitor mix—
say thank you. You can’t say it enough. A lot
of success in this business comes down to
being easy to be around. Don’t be a tough
hang. When I was really scratching for money
living in New York City in the mid ’90s, I
was introduced to Bruce Hornsby. We went
to dinner one night and Bruce said, “Hey,
would you want to come to the studio and
play guitar on my record?” I said, “Of course
I would. I’d be thrilled to do it.” I went down
there, played a guitar part on a tune, and was
finished within 15 or 20 minutes. My job
could have been done there, but Bruce and
I had a great banter, and we were all having
fun, so he told me to stick around. About
an hour later he said, “Do you know how to
play mandolin?” I said, “Yeah, of course I do.
I absolutely know how to play mandolin.”
I had never touched a mandolin before in
my life. I didn’t even know how to tune a
mandolin, so I tuned it like the first four
strings of a guitar so I could possibly do
something halfway intelligent. I wound up
spending the next three days in the studio
with him, singing background vocals on
the record and playing other guitar bits.
The moral of the story is this: You can be
the world’s best mandolin player or guitar
player, but if you’re not fun to be around,
don’t be surprised if as soon as the track is
done you’re out the door. If you can hang
in a studio or on a bus, if people enjoy your
company, you’re far more likely to get the
gig, and you’re far more likely to get called
back. That Bruce Hornsby record was one
of the most important music-business lessons
I’ve ever learned and I carry it with me
to this day. If you look at videos of Neil and
me when we were tracking “Instamatic,”
we’re just laughing and having fun. The
fact that we get to do this this is a miracle,
so why not celebrate it?