It's a long haul from acoustic gigs on a tiny Washington D.C. stage to having the number one single in the country. But with the jangling pop lyric of "Everything You Want," a candidate for the most pervasive tune of summer 2000, Vertical Horizon finally struck oil or at least discovered a field of platinum. In 1991, while in college, Keith Kane met Matthew Scannell at a party and asked him to sit in on his weekly gig at a small Georgetown club. Vertical Horizon was born onstage a week later. After college, the two singer-guitarists self-released the smooth, folky CD There and Back Again, which eventually sold 20,000 copies thanks to the group's nearly non-stop touring.
Having built a sizable grassroots following, Scannell and Kane expanded their sound for 1995's Running On Ice, which included Dave Matthews Band's Carter Beauford on percussion. Drummer Ed Toth and bassist Sean Hurley later signed on as permanent members and Vertical Horizon's itinerary took them to college gigs across the country and then to slots opening tours for such acts as Allman Brothers, Better Than Ezra, and Shawn Colvin.
Live Stages, recorded in 1996, documented highlights of the Vertical Horizon songbook in a live, electric show and set the stage for the band's singing to RCA Records, which re-released Vertical Horizon's three self-produced CDs as well as their breakthrough 1999 disc Everything You Want, which features the smash hit of the same name. Produced by Ben Grosse (Republica, Filter), the album completed the transition of the band's James Taylor-style folk songs into guitar-powered power alt-pop with cool, sparkling textures, a sometimes crunching delivery, inherently catchy melodies, and a big radio presence.
Guitar.com: You say you copped some Eddie Van Halen riffs growing up, but there's some of that Byrds or R.E.M. jangle or even James Taylor in your playing too?
Matt Scannell: I knew the music was great stuff, but I didn't have any Byrds album. So they were never a big influence. The same for R.E.M. I only had a tape of Murmur. So they were not a big influence either. At same time, I can't say as a musician of this generation that I wasn't influenced by them. Peter Buck writes great parts. But I spent more time learning Steve Vai, Jo Satriani, and Eric Johnson riffs. Also Rush's Alex Lifeson and Andy Summers from the Police. It wasn't until much later that I really listened to Hendrix play. The record that really turned me on to Hendrix was Band of Gypsys, and it destroyed me. His playing is so emotive. "Machine Gun" is the quintessential rock song, even better because it's live. I loved Hendrix' tone and his use of the Octavibe [like the UniVibe]. His touch was fantastic. And the way he dealt with the tuning mechanism on old Strats, he was battling the guitar as much as playing it, fighting against and making love to the technology at the same time.
Guitar.com: Did you teach yourself to play?
Scannell: I learned a lot by ear, listening to records and picking out the parts. I had lessons, too, starting at about 14. I think the two together are important. I played electric guitar in bands in high school and college. Switching to playing an acoustic was dictated by external needs. [Guitarist Keith] Kane had a weekly gig in Georgetown on a stage that was only six-feet wide. A band wouldn't fit. The first time I played acoustic on stage was with Kane and Vertical Horizon, so it was a totally new experience for me.
Guitar.com: You were evolving into a singer as well as a guitarist?
Scannell: I learned how to sing listening to James Taylor, and learned how to sing harmony by singing harmonies to his records. Eventually, I realized that the instrumental rock stuff was cool but that songs were really where it was at, looking at classic songwriters like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Simon & Garfunkel. So in college I divided my time between heavy duty guitarists and songwriters. My goal is to have some of both in my playing.
Guitar.com: Melody is a very important element not only in your vocals but your guitar riffs.
Scannell: That's a compliment, I definitely work on it. If you play melodically on guitar you're playing outside of the box, outside the scales and licks that everyone learns and plays. One thing that helped me was to sing guitar solos. That made me come to the guitar from a place that was by nature more memorable than just thinking like a guitarist, more than just patterns and stuff I had practiced. It's almost like you're thinking with a different part of your musical mind -- less reflective and muscular and more intuitive and musical. George Benson is a monster at that.
Guitar.com: Growing up, you listened to very pyrotechnic players but you have a much broader view now. Who are your current guitar heroes?
Scannell: One genius is the Edge from U2. He just kills you with beautiful melodic ideas -- and his simplicity. You know, I used to think that Yngwie Malmsteen was better than [AC/DC's] Angus Young because he could play so fast, but now I know it's not so. Angus' tone, touch, and rhythm -- it's just huge. It's like being a good [public] speaker. The more words you know, the better you can express yourself, but you don't go around saying seven-syllable words all the time. You have to connect the dots with simple phrases.
Guitar.com: Vertical Horizon is a very song-oriented band, so guitar solos take a backseat to the tunes. Still, there's a lot of subtle, creative guitar work going on. For instance, your acoustic riff for "Great Divide" is simple but it has a special tonal and melodic quality.
Scannell: With acoustic guitars and songs in general, using a capo [to alter a guitar's tuning] is not a bad thing. Guitarists see a capo and automatically think you can't play, it's looked down upon. But to me it's like using an alternate tuning. A tired idea can sound fresh with it. For "Great Divide," I stuck the capo way up the neck on 7th fret and used a lot of close intervals -- half-and whole-note steps. Close intervals can sound muddy and unclear on the lower register of a guitar, but up the neck they can be harp-like and mandolin-like. It's very simple, but it sounds great. Shawn Colvin does that a lot in her playing. With songs, it's always about the vocals, so it has to be in a comfortable range to sing. But I also want to play it like I want to play it on guitar. And using a capo let's me do that. For example, on "Like We Are" my guitar is capo-ed to the second fret because the vocals sounded better there. It all comes back to what's right for the song.
Guitar.com: You've worked as a studio guitarist, including sessions with Swirl 360, Armani Coppola and Bruce Hornsby, who also used you for some mandolin.
Scannell: Those were all amazing experiences. I'm pals with producer Mike Mangini and he let me become involved with the session world. When I'm home I try to do as much session work as I can.
Guitar.com: Session work can be very different from recording your own music. What are some ways you handle the approaches and techniques required?
Scannell: For my first session I practiced the whole night before. I was nervous and got no sleep. But I walked in and the part just came to me. The most important thing about session work -- it's all about your relationships with people. Secondly, it's about your playing. If you know how to get along, they ask you back. I was awed by Hornsby. After my session he asked, "What are you doing tomorrow?" He said to come back and hang out and I was there all week. I learned a lot just watching.
Guitar.com: When Vertical Horizon wants to insert an interesting texture, you seem to prefer guitar treatments over keys and electronic sounds. Like that pulsing guitar delay on "Everything You Want."
Scannell: Yeah, I'm not against synths, but I always gravitate toward the guitar. People ask me how I play that "Everything You Want" part. They think it's a pedal all the time, but it's not. I used a Tyler [a Strat-style guitar], rolled the tone off the treble-bridge pickup and put it through a VHT 45 amplifier. I played the part with my fingers and then we flipped the tape over and I played against it going backwards. I like the way a guitar sounds. It's a limitless instrument, and not just with processing and effects. Like Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, he's so creative and innovative that you don't need a sampler or keyboard when you've got him in the band. I'm fascinated how just two hands and a guitar can sound so different with different people.