On The Line with Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon

Vertical Horizon has been going strong for over two decades now and there’s no sign of stopping, considering that the band released their sixth album in 2013 and they will begin work on their seventh later this year. I spoke with Matt Scannell, the band’s frontman, about Rush, the effectiveness of social media, nineties band tours, crowdfunding and more.

Alex Obert: Growing up, who was the first band that you really got into?

Matt Scannell: Rush.

Alex Obert: And how did you discover them?

Matt Scannell: I think I heard them on the radio. My best friend, a guy named James Levine, he was my neighbor down the street and he and I would listen to the radio. He had two older brothers, so they had Led Zeppelin records and Yes records. I don’t think either one of them had Rush. I think we must have heard Tom Sawyer on the radio or something and we both lost our minds. Then we started saving money to buy the Rush catalog because they already had something like thirteen records out. He would buy one and I’d buy the other, we’d flip flop and wound up getting the whole catalog. We became obsessed.

Alex Obert: Did Rush serve as a gateway to discovering other bands?

Matt Scannell: Well I think if left to my own devices, I probably sound more like a folk singer than a rock singer. And I think it kind of encouraged me to explore a heavier side of music. I did get into Yes, I did get into Genesis, but I also got into The Police and U2 and Van Halen. Rush was an interesting band because they had the complexity and challenging pieces of music, but they also had really intelligent lyrics that were more challenging than a standard AC/DC lyric. That’s not a slight on AC/DC because they’re one of the greatest bands ever, but it’s a different style of writing. Both of them have their place. But at that time in my life, I think I liked the idea of lyrics that told stories more. So I looked to find more bands like that and there weren’t too many bands along those lines. I just started spreading outwards in terms of different genres. I remember listening to James Taylor and I basically learned how to sing harmony vocals by listening to his records. I would create my own harmony lines around him, almost making every song a duet. I think all of that stuff blended and fused together into who I am now as a musician.

Alex Obert: When Vertical Horizon was starting out in the early nineties, what were you listening to at that time for influence and inspiration? There were certainly some major bands breaking through at the time.

Matt Scannell: I loved Failure. I thought that band was great. I loved Jawbox. Pixies. I think Foo Fighters had just started, obviously Nirvana had made a massive impact. But I also liked Barenaked Ladies and a lot of other great bands that were doing different things. I loved Soul Coughing. I thought that band was incredible! The lead singer has gone on to do his own thing. I remember listening to that Failure record and just trying to comprehend how anything could sound so good. (laughs)

Alex Obert: Before the days of social media, what was it like doing band promotion? How did you spread the word?

Matt Scannell: Well originally, it was postcards. We would have a mailing list at every show and we’d encourage people to give us their physical address, since there was no email address. Then we’d do postcards every couple of months and they would map out where we were gonna be and when we were gonna be there. We’d send them to the appropriate towns. It was a lot different. It was a fascinating time because you would have this sense of building something that was like a brick and mortar store. You had to go get the paper and cut it up and have the paper printed, the stamps and everything, writing out and printing out the addresses. Glad that’s over!

Alex Obert: So I noticed that you often like to post on the Vertical Horizon Facebook page and communicate with fans. What does that mean to you?

Matt Scannell: I really do. I enjoy it. We’ve been really lucky to have a lack of haters, a lack of trolls in our social media. Of course now they’ll come running. Occasionally you get people who just aren’t really happy. But generally speaking, we have a lot of happy people who celebrate the music and celebrate the band. It’s a joy to have interactions with positive people, people who love what you do. For me, that’s not a big ask. I feel like it’s a pleasure to check in every day, couple of days and say hi and tell people what’s going on in my world. I think social media can become all-consuming and I think that’s a real serious potential problem because when I sit down to talk to so many of my friends and they have one eye on you and one eye on your phone. It’s important to be in moments. St. Vincent has a song called Digital Witness. If I don’t have a digital witness of something, then I didn’t do it. Taking a picture or posting or something. I don’t want to live my life that way. I think there’s a balance, let’s put it that way. There is a wonderful way in which we can all be connected and have shared experiences, yet at the same time, if we’re so concentrated on these shared experiences, then we may be missing out on the one that’s right in front of us.

Alex Obert: I also saw that you enjoy taking a lot of photos and sharing them with fans on Facebook.

Matt Scannell: The photographs are a lot of fun for me. I love photography. I love thinking about things from an amateur photographer’s point of view. I wouldn’t even really call myself a photographer, but I just love the medium. With phones now being as fun and advanced as they are from a camera perspective, it just makes the whole thing enjoyable. Snapshots can look cool and you can just put them up instantly. As long as it’s fun, then I’m down with it. If it’s not fun and it becomes fake or forced, then I go kicking and screaming. (laughs)

Alex Obert: What are your thoughts on your fans taking photos at your shows and posting them on your band’s social media?

Matt Scannell: It’s pretty incredible. We probably see it the most on Twitter, but Instagram’s been coming up. And Facebook as well. It’s amazing to step off the stage then take a look at what people were seeing and their perspective on it. It keeps us connected to the fundamental excitement and joy of seeing a band live, whether it’s your favorite or one that you’re just discovering. It’s like when I went to see Rush for the first time or the tenth time, fifteenth, twentieth, thirtieth time. There’s a tingling in your stomach, you get excited and can’t wait to see these musicians that you respect and admire so much. So when I see someone taking a picture or see a photograph from a live show, it reminds me of that emotion. To be honest, it’s an honor because I realize the beauty of a dream come true. This is the only thing that I ever really, truly wanted to do. It’s exciting to have people feel that way about us, they take pictures and talk about it. It becomes something similar to the experiences that I felt and continue to feel in my life when I go see bands that I love play live. It’s not lost on me that we’re incredibly lucky.

Alex Obert: What did you take out of Under the Sun a couple years ago?

Matt Scannell: That was fascinating because I learned a lot. When we do our own shows, there’s a cadence to it, very much a flow. I think it’s just a very natural thing, not overly scripted. I mean there tend to be stories that are told where it’s hard to change the story about how I wrote Everything You Want. This story is the story, but the moments in between the songs are fairly loose and low key conversational. It was really fun for me to see Steve and Mark work the crowd in the way that they do, I really admire their approach as showmen. It reminded me of seeing David Lee Roth front Van Halen back in the day, they have a real sense of how to work an audience and make the show a little bit more theatrical. It was good for me to experience and learn from and find my own place with it. And I’m not doing carbon copies of those things because it would be forced. It’s nice to see that night after night after night after night, these guys are really good at what they do.

Alex Obert: There are now separate nineties tours with Summerland and Under the Sun, do you personally feel that these are good ideas with good intentions?

Matt Scannell: Unless you know something I don’t, I think they absolutely are. Nowadays, it’s probably better for bands to team up when they can and share the experience of touring and putting the whole stage show together. All the different bands getting all their different fans together, cross-pollinating and all those things. I don’t think it can be bad, but I guess it comes down to how the relationships are between the bands on the bill and also the road crew. It would be not so great if people didn’t get along and weren’t pulling for each other. We were really fortunate when we did Under the Sun because the culture was extremely positive and everybody was pulling for each other. If something happened where there was a problem for one guy, someone else would help them out. I have been in touring situations where that’s not the case and that can make life pretty miserable. The advantages you get as an audience member, you get to go to a show and hear a bunch of hit songs and see a bunch of different bands do their thing. The downside is that you’re not gonna get that deep into their catalog. So if you are a massive Gin Blossoms fan and you want to see Robin sing songs that weren’t hits, then you’re probably going to the wrong show. That’s when you should go see them do one of their own gigs because that’s when they’re gonna hit you with these incredible, massive pop tunes. And I have to mention Robin because he was great on the tour too. We all learned a lot from each other.

Alex Obert: On the topic of hit songs, how did you develop the intro for Everything You Want?

Matt Scannell: I heard it in my head when I was initially becoming inspired to write the thing. The basic tone is a James Tyler guitar, he’s a famous guitar builder out here in the Los Angeles area. The guitar he has is called the Classic with a Seymour Duncan humbucker in the bridge and I had the tone control wired to the bridge humbucker, which is kind of unusual on a strat style guitar. So I could really roll the tone down. Then I ran that into a MXR Phase 90 Pedal with the speed set very low. Then recorded it into I think it was a Matchless Clubman 35 amplifier, but I don’t know that for sure. Ben Grosse then added some delay to it. I can’t recall if we then flipped the tape over or we just did a reverse thing. I think we did put the tape over, we did one version with it going forward and one version with it going backwards. You get that slight reverse sound as it swells into each note. At the end of the day, it’s a pretty cool effect. The version that I had in my head didn’t have that reverse component, that was Ben’s idea and it was a really, really good one.

Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, what advice do you have for aspiring musicians who quote, unquote want to make it in the music business? A lot of musicians have been utilizing pledge websites, which seems to be the way of the future.

Matt Scannell: Well I think that crowdfunding is a tremendous resource, there’s a fundamental purity to the whole thing. I think bands and artists really should take advantage of it and allow their fans to express their support. An overwhelming feeling that we have from our PledgeMusic campaign was that people were happy, thrilled to be able to do it and to help us. Take advantage of that opportunity, but also at the same time, allow your fans to express themselves in that fundamental way. You make great pizza, I’m gonna buy your pizza. (laughs) That’s what this is, we’re just making pizza. And our fans like our pizza. It’s a terrific development. Making it, I think part of the model now that needs to be re-assessed is “what is making it”. You have touring musicians, you have people who are effectively YouTube stars, you have Twitter stars and Instagram stars. And then somewhere off in the distance, you have major label recording artists. You need to try to define what you think making it is and then pursue that. Know what the golden ring actually is, know what it is and know what it isn’t. If you’re trying to make a lot of money, music may not be the best career path for you. There are plenty of other options that pay far better and have much more job security. But if you’re someone who really can’t do anything else, meaning you eat, drink, breathe, sleep music, then okay, I would say to get as much stage time as possibly can if you want to become a live performer. If you’re someone who wants to write songs for other people, just write as many songs as you possibly can. I think it’s really just to do it to the limit. And by that I mean I see some people who say they want to do it, but they do a lot of talking and not a lot of doing. And the difference to me between people who make things happen and people don’t make things happen are the people who get in and do it every day. So first of all, define what you think making it is and make sure it is what you think it is, then do it nonstop until you make some headway.

Alex Obert: In closing, what are your plans for 2015 in music?

Matt Scannell: New record of sorts. Touring, playing all over the place as much as we possibly can. We will be starting the new record at some point this year. And then we’ll just continue to play our shows. People want to see us play and that’s the greatest gift in the world, we’ll happily do it.

Alex Obert: I’d love to thank so much for your time and for a very insightful interview.

Matt Scannell: Thank you so much, man.

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