Vertical Horizon lead singer Matt Scannell still has the kid in him, the boy who used to bounce up and down on his bed and strum a tennis racket like a guitar.
He’s downright giddy talking about the New England rock quartet’s long-overdue good fortunes. Their big-label debut album, “Everything You Want” (released June 15 on RCA), contains a bona-fide college radio hit, “We Are,” which climbs to No. 21 this week on Billboard’s modern-rock tracks chart and sits atop P&P’s weekly Picks chart. And the band is sharing stages this month with The Verve Pipe, Hootie & the Blowfish, Fuel, Everything and Dovetail Joint.
But when you’ve been together eight years, sometimes you have to wonder, “Why now? Why didn’t it happen earlier?”
That’s why, with still-vivid memories of days when money was too tight to mention, Scannell and guitarist Keith Kane, bassist Sean Hurley and drummer Ed Toth are taking nothing for granted.
“You can’t do something 24 hours a day for eight years and not really feel at some point that you’re banging your head against a brick wall,” Scannell said recently. “There were definitely those moments where I would say, ‘Screw it, let’s just go and have an ice cream soda and call it a day and sell all the gear.’ Every time that happened, almost without fail, something happened that was just such an incredible indicator, like some voice from heaven or wherever saying ‘Hey, don’t do that. You have to keep going.’
“I think it’s important to listen to that voice, and at the same time, I think at some point it’s important to make your own voice that says, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough.’ I haven’t heard that voice from inside of me yet.”
Scannell stops dead in his tracks, thinks back on his comments and starts laughing.
“It sounds like I’m hearing lots of voices, doesn’t it? I don’t know why this sounds like a Tori Amos interview,” he said. “I’m starting to wonder about that, but I’m channeling some energy here, I’m feeling it.”
He should feel it. Vertical Horizon has struck it big with “Everything You Want,” a collection of ambitious guitar pop in the tradition of Live, Matthew Sweet and – don’t laugh here – the vastly underrated Outfield.
“We Are,” in particular, is instantly likable, something that will incite you to turn up the volume on your car stereo, roll down the windows and shout out the infectious chorus, “I don’t know how/And I don’t know where/We are we are.”
“We Are” is a bold, grand production, smothered with multilayered guitars and harmonies in Wall-of-Sound fashion, thanks in large part to producers Ben Grosse (Republica, Filter) and Mark Endert (Madonna, Fiona Apple) and veteran mixer Tom Lord-Alge. That’s in keeping with the song’s heavy message, of someone questioning their own existence in a mixed-up, messed-up world.
“Generally speaking, I try to write about things I’m thinking about, things that are happening to me or at least things that have happened to me, things that I can relate to, then when I sing about it, I feel like I’m singing from the heart,” Scannell said. “So when I wrote ‘We Are,’ I was really thinking about how isolated I’ve become, we’ve become as people from each other. That’s a pretty scary thing.
“When people say, ‘Are you questioning your own existence?’ it sounds pretty grandiose, but I really didn’t mean for it to feel that big. But when you start singing the chorus, ‘I don’t know how, I don’t know where we are,’ that is a big question. The chorus came off as a pretty big existential moment, but the song itself is really more about ‘seven days and not a return,’ working every day at a job that you just hate and getting nowhere, something like that. Those kinds of things, everybody deals with issues like that. I was feeling them, so I wrote them down on paper.”
After tracking “We Are,” the group sat down with Lord-Alge and observed his mixing magic. They loved what they heard.
“I felt from the very beginning when I wrote ‘We Are’ that I was proud of it,” Scannell said. “Along the way, and this probably goes for the whole record, as we were listening to the record develop, I think everyone in the band felt like we were doing something we could be proud of. Whether or not we’ll score is probably still to be determined, but we knew we had a pretty good shot. We knew we had worked real hard, and it showed.”
“We Are” is a great song to hear on CD, but can its mammoth sound be duplicated live? Scannell hopes so.
“There’s tons of guitars on that song, like Def Leppard-many guitars,” he said. “That’s going to be a challenge (capturing it live), but in a live setting you have a lot more of a grace period people offer you. They come to see it and they say, ‘Okay, look, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief a little bit and forget about the 90-piece string section that happens in ‘Best I Ever Had’ and just listen to you sing the song. In that sense, we do allow ourselves to miss some of the atmospheric parts, but at the same time you have to make sure the band can play. If the band can play, the audience is willing to go wherever the band takes it.
“With ‘We Are,’ the most important thing for me is that the vocals are nailed. And we nailed the vocals. It’s three-part harmonies live. It’s there. What you hear on the record happens live.”
BWF (before we forget): Get online with Vertical Horizon on the Web @ www.verticalhorizon.com.