If there is any one person that a Rush fan should thank for reuniting the prog-rock giants after the band took a long hiatus in 1997, it’s Vertical Horizon’s frontman Matt Scannell.
Wait. Who? And from what band was he?
After Rush’s drummer, Neil Peart, saw both his daughter Selena and wife Jacqueline pass away within a matter of a year, the legendary rock icon took some much-needed and much-deserved time away from the Canadian trio. As questions arose concerning whether the band would ever manage to return, Peart—who took off on his motorcycle for a journey that lasted somewhere around 55,000 miles—found himself listening to pop radio more than usual. As fate would have it, he happened to fall in love with a song by Vertical Horizon called “Everything You Want,” and—according to Scannell, who would later meet and become friends will Peart—the song inspired the drummer to get back into music.
It’s true: one of Rush’s biggest fans became one of Rush’s biggest reasons to return to music.
“Rush is absolutely my favorite band of all time,” Scannell said. “So when I met Neil for the first time, and he told me that story, it was the most amazing thing. He just seemed so genuine.”
Scannell knows a thing or two about bands being on hiatus. After running into a series of unfortunate events with their record label at the time (RCA) and the merger of Sony/BMG, Vertical Horizon never got a fair shot at releasing an immediate follow-up to their 1999 smash album, Everything You Want. Though VH’s follow-up album—a slightly more rockin’ effort titled Go—did eventually see the light of day (twice actually: once in 2002, and again when it was re-released in 2005 with Hybrid Recordings), Scannell is quick to note that sometimes, a record’s success may be more dependent upon the nature of the beast that is corporate music than one could ever imagine.
“When we were going through our breakup with RCA, we kind of got lost in the shuffle,” Scannell said. “We were sent to work with Clive Davis and it’s safe to say we were not Clive’s favorite band. [The label] then took their time in letting us go from our deal. It was a torturous time.
“It had a big effect on us. We all felt disconnected from one of the reasons why we got into music, and that was to feel a connection. You have to be in love with music and you have to be strongly connected when you make music. We needed to feel that connection to continue to do what we want to do as a career.”
The disconnect felt between the band members and the label eventually took its toll on everyone, according to Scannell. That feeling of discontent led to the band stepping away from Vertical Horizon after the release of Go.
“We were just so worn down after all that,” he said, referring to the situation with RCA. “I think we needed to step back. Nothing was definite. We weren’t ‘breaking up’ or ‘going on a hiatus.’ We just haven’t been extremely active lately.”
While the band itself hasn’t been busy, Scannell himself has managed to stay active.
“Even though Vertical Horizon hasn’t been working that much, it hasn’t been a break for me,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of producing work, really trying to hone my craft. I want to work to get better at what I do, especially songwriting. I need to be a better producer, too, which is why I’ve been doing some work with Richard Marx. I’m also helping Daniel Powter [“Bad Day”] work on his new album. I’m always trying to get better.”
Constantly trying to “hone his craft,” as Scannell put it, has led to good things for the songwriter. While staying busy writing songs over the past few years, he began to realize that his work was turning into a new Vertical Horizon record. That new Vertical Horizon record has now turned into Burning The Days, a release that features the band in their most aggressive light yet.
Tracks like “All Is Said And Done,” and the album’s lead single, “Save Me From Myself,” are easily some of the moodiest songs that the band has ever penned. Though the former eventually opens up to sunny days with a friendly chorus, the track’s verses set a somewhat angst-ridden tone that can be discovered throughout the entire album. “Save Me from Myself,” on the other hand, uses a stammering guitar line throughout that finally bursts into flames as the song crescendos during the chorus. Couple that with a line like “Happy endings all around / And still they haunt me” at the end of the track’s final verse, and what you have is a somewhat darker side to a band that fans may be a bit surprised to hear.
“I struggle with being a ‘glass half-empty’ kind of guy,” Scannell said when asked about the heavier tone his words set throughout Burning The Days. “It can be pretty boring, and not a lot of fun to be around. I get weary and suspicious of happy songs. The truth is that I am a happy person, but I always want my lyrics to come from an honest place. When I first started writing songs, I picked up my guitar to work out my demons. Sometimes, I return to writing to try and help me get the darkness out. I firmly believe that somewhere, something is always deteriorating, but somewhere, something is always healing.”
The album’s tone may be helped by the abundant work done while collaborating with Peart, who plays on three of the album’s tracks, including “Even Now”—a song Peart not only plays on, but helped write. Though his presence is minimal, it is clear that Burning The Days could not have come together without the help of the famous drummer.
“It was a beautiful thing to work with Neil on this record,” Scannell said. “But it was extremely different to work with him. He brought a bunch of lyrics to the table, and I’ve never worked that way. We are both very meticulous and obsess over the smallest things. We are both perfectionists and we both have this desire to make sure everything is done right. He is very confident and trusts his instincts in ways I can’t attain. Then, on top of that, he has an incredible skill set, as we all know.
“I knew he had never played on anybody else’s record, but when we got done writing ‘Even Now,’ I thought to myself, ‘I have to ask him to play,’ expecting him to politely decline the offer. But when we got done, I said to him, ‘You know, I have to ask you to play drums on this.’ He shocked me when he said, ‘You know what? No one else can play drums on this song.’ I immediately booked this great studio in L.A. for a day, and it didn’t take him long to finish tracking the song, so I asked him if maybe he could do a couple more songs. It was during [Rush’s] Snakes & Arrows time, so I knew he was busy, but he did it. I ended up producing the drum session for him, too. It really was a beautiful, beautiful time.”
The release of Burning The Days comes as something more to Matt Scannell than just a Vertical Horizon record. The album itself turned into an opportunity to realize his dream of working with someone who has now become a good friend of his, Neil Peart. But aside from this incredible collaborative opportunity, Burning the Days breathes new life into a band that the singer has now been involved with for nearly two decades.
“I sincerely believe in this record,” he said. “The biggest misconception about this band is that it’s a radio band, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We started by getting on the road and worked through a grassroots way of touring, way before we were successful with Everything You Want. People are familiar with us, so we may be able to resonate with some individuals because of our past successes.
“Music is not about ‘what if,’ it’s about ‘what is,’” he added. “It’s about dealing with things that must be dealt with and saying things that must be heard. As long as you do that, you will remain relevant, and that’s what we are always trying to do.”
Then, after pausing for a moment to reflect on the intentions of Burning The Days, he continued with enough optimism in his voice to scare all the possible darkness out of the words that help create the mood of his band’s latest album.
“I guess we will find out what happens,” he said. “We just want to be given a chance.”
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// Notes from the Road
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