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 record?
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?