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Matt Scannell on Neil Peart
Artist P.O.V.

Words by Mover

Matt Scannell, the lead singer of Vertical Horizon, knows the value of patience. It took more than six years for the band to finally release a follow-up album to their big 1999 hit, Everything You Want. Its delay was the result of a corporate purge at their label that left the Vertical ones out on the street of broken dreams without a record contract.

After much soul-searching, the band decided to defy the suits and work their way back — but it didn’t happen overnight. As part of their personal survival plan, each member set aside time for his own projects. Scannell worked with Richard Marx as a co-writer and lead guitarist in Marx’s touring band.

But besides that, Scannell slowly developed a personal friendship with drummer Neil Peart. Scannell’s association with “The Professor” was not originally based on music but on a chance meeting and discovery of similar interests. Mutual professional admiration aside, the two organically developed their friendship outside the artificial bounds of recording studios, tour buses, and other rock ‘n’ roll scenery. Cars, watches and hiking were the order of the day; not sound checks, video shoots, and trips to Guitar Center. For the two new friends, there was no Vertical Horizon and no Rush, either — just two guys building a friendship day by day.

But Scannell and Peart are not just two ordinary guys, and it was only a matter of time before the subject of music eventually surfaced. After their non-musical friendship had been established for a number of years, Peart, with his songwriter’s hat on, offered Scannell lyrics that sparked him to write a song; and then it was off to the races. One thing led to another until Peart put down his pen and picked up sticks to lay down drum tracks on their collaborate song, as well as two others penned by Scannell.

The enthusiasm with which they approached this project shows in both Scannell’s recounting of the genesis and recording of the song and Peart’s account of it, which can be found in his online diary. There may have been no rush to do this record, but it was obviously a rush for the two of them to do.

Matt Scannell: It was kind of an incredibly circuitous journey, it wasn’t like we got together to work; the work came last, actually.

Drumhead: There was a friendship?
MS: Yeah, we became friends.

DH: How so? Did Vertical Horizon open up for Rush?
MS: No. The main connection came through my girlfriend, funnily enough. The short version of the story is, Neil was selling a car to a friend of my girlfriend who owns a BMW dealership down in Texas, and he needed pictures of Neil’s car to put up on his website. So he asked if we would go over and take some pictures of this guy’s car.

So I went over to take pictures of Neil’s car. I had never met him before, and I was really excited because Rush was my favorite band growing up, and those guys are really the reason I play music. Then, as we opened the gate to say hello, I was thinking about what I could say to him to let him know how great this was for me to meet him, and he just shook my hand, looked me right in the eye and said, “You know what? I love your work.” I was like, wow, man, what a beautiful moment. I mean, how cool is that?

And it was funny, because we both love cars; we had all these similar interests. I was wearing a watch that he liked — that was a watch that he used to own — and we just started talking and hitting it off.

 

DH: So he’s based in LA now?
MS: Yeah, he lives here now. When so much of your life is spent on the road, there are some people who can understand it and some people who can’t. It’s kind of nice to hang out with people who have had that experience and you can just understand each other almost implicitly. I felt that way with Neil: that he and I just both understood where each of us was coming from.

DH: Instantaneous click
MS: Yeah! There’s no doubt about it that when I first met him I was really excited to be able to speak with one of the people who was most influential on my life and my career and my music. But very soon thereafter, it was just “my friend Neil.” And in some ways, I think the best thing about all this is that I have this great friend who just happens to be a monster, one of the greatest drummers of all time and an incredible lyricist.

A Way With Words
MS: Then somewhere along the way, we sort of talked about getting together. I can’t remember if it was me or him, but it probably was me who said we should get together and write some time.

We both sort of embraced the idea, and a couple of months later he just said, “I’ve got this idea that I think might be really good for you. Do you want to check it out?” It was a lyric called “Even Now.”

So he came over, and I took a look at the words, because he writes lyrics on his own and then brings them in. I looked at them and the music just flowed out instantly, and he noticed it. I remember he said, “Is this something you had, that you’ve been working on?” And I said, “No, it’s just coming out right now.”

DH: I wonder if having the opportunity to do this for you, outside of writing for Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, (Peart’s bandmates) also affords him the opportunity to go in a different direction lyrically.
MS: (excitedly) Yeah, yeah, I think you’re right. He loved the subject matter for my voice. You know, I think he knows that what I’ve done as a lyricist and as a songwriter has tended to be sort of relationship-focused, relationship-based lyrics and that’s, well, a romantic relationship. A lot of his lyrics are about relationships, but they tend to be a bit bigger.

DH: Man and science, science and nature.
MS: Yeah, and the situation that we find ourselves in as human beings. I’m really sort of micro, looking at why some romantic relationships work and why some fail. So I know that he embraced the idea of working on a song that maybe had a little bit more of a direct connection between two people in a romantic way. And I gotta tell ya, I think he did a really great job.

Lyrical Drumming
DH: It’s interesting because he’s not only incredibly intelligent, but his choice of subject matter is usually so poignant and diverse… and quite important, as well. I can only imagine that somebody like you or Geddy must love working with him because rhythmically the stuff is just so dead on.
MS: I think it puts him in an interesting position as a drummer because he’s so tied into the words that the vocalist is singing — it makes him almost more invested in making sure that the drums serve the song and serve the lyrics. I always knew when I listened to Rush records that they were all working together as a whole, but I didn’t realize how much he plays for the lyric until we worked together, which was shocking. It’s really interesting because — at least in the case of our session — he wanted to raise the vocal up, lift it up to make sure that it was rising to the top of the music. He wanted all of the music to serve the lyric and the vocal. So much so that there were even times that I had to encourage him to play a little more, you know, “it’s ok to play more.”

DH: So he didn’t necessarily get any special treatment?
MS: If you had asked me that three years ago, when I didn’t know [Neil], I would have said yes, it would have been “whatever you want to play, it’s all going to be perfect.”

But it wasn’t like that. He just wanted to come in and do the best job. He would be the one who would say, “I think we can do that a little better, we can try that one again,” so he wasn’t at all tripping. It was the best.

You know, this guy is at the top of his game because he’s absolutely driven to be the best player he can possibly be, and he embraces all of those around him.

The Writing Process
DH: What was the process of putting the three songs together? From what I’ve read, lots of times Rush tends to send things back and forth to each other as a writing process, and they’re not always in the same room together actually working things out or feeding off of each other in a creative way.

MS: The writing process was interesting because once we had written “Even Now,” I said to Neil, “You know, we’ve got this song together and I sure would love it if you would play on it,” not knowing if he’d be into it or not. And he said, “Matt, no one else can play drums on it — I won’t let anyone else play drums on it. I have to play the drums on it.”

So, we wound up getting Capitol’s studio B for a day, and I’m thinking, Neil’s going to come in and bang that song out, and then we’re going to go to lunch or something. So I said, “How would you feel about maybe playing on a couple more songs?” And he said, “I’d love to hear the stuff.”

At the time, he was actually up in Toronto with Alex and Geddy working on pre-production for the new Rush record. I’d send him the songs and he would go and just rehearse to them. Alex was his engineer,and he would record Neil playing to those tracks and then email them back to me. So he and I developed a dialogue that way.

DH: Did the tracks that you sent him have a guide, like a drum machine?
MS: Yes.

DH: So your initial idea was in there for you to write to.
MS: Yes, I use BFD when I’m writing — either BFD or Reason. I sent him one version with the guide drums and one version with just the click. He’d send me back something, and we’d work with it from there.

The Sound Of Surprise
One of the things I was amazed about was his dynamic range. I’d never worked with somebody who had the ability to play so quietly and sensitively in certain places and then get so big and bombastic in others.

Neil had this way of playing closed hi-hat patterns in the verse or the pre-chorus and then opening the hi-hat up in the chorus. At first when I was listening to it, I would be thinking, shouldn’t we be going to a crash or something else here? But nothing was missing, in a way that I don’t think I really heard before.

DH: Well, your ears are trained for something else you’re used to.
MS: Yeah, and when I sat back and really listened to what he was doing, it was cool because he was opening up possibilities for me to bring in other guitar ideas and other musical elements that would add additional support to the chorus. But again, he wasn’t stepping all over everything else and making room for the drums, he was making the drums fit into the track in a really cool way.

DH: He’s very much a composer. He may be sitting on a so-called “non-melodic” instrument, but he’s very much a composer.
MS: Absolutely.

Making Tracks
DH: When you got into the studio with Neil, what was the recording process like? Did the whole band all play at the same time? Was he playing to scratch tracks that you did with a click, no click…?

MS: When we went into Capitol, Sean Hurley the bass player came, and Sean and Neil set up in the big room. The two of them were recording to scratch guitars, vocal, and a click that I already laid down. But generally, they spent most of the time with a little bit of vocal and a little bit of click.

 


DH: Was it multiple takes and you pick and choose what you want to do with them later?
MS: Yes, we did do multiple takes. I went in for the finest details and would maybe move a fill from one take to another, but we were being that picky only because I could.

It wasn’t like grim situations I’ve been in before where we’ve only got one bar for the verse that actually works, so we have to just loop it back and use it all throughout the song.

It wasn’t like that at all. The bar is so high with [Neil], it’s just really inspiring and really unbelievable. He just sits down and he’s absolutely giving you 100 percent, all day long. There’s no faltering.

DH: In regard to the kit and production, was it the Neil Peart signature sound? Or because this was a different environment than Rush, obviously being Vertical Horizon, did you go for something different?
MS: Mark Valentine was the engineer on it, and he and I were talking a lot beforehand about what we were going to try and go for with the sound.

On some of Neil’s records I’ve heard his tone be very succinct and very specific: very isolated microphones, with maybe a reverb added on top of that. I was hoping to get a little more room sound on this, as opposed to that real precise tone that I’ve heard on some of the records.

Big Jazz
Neil had all these awesome voices that he could use, but the really cool thing about it was that when I was sitting down there behind his kit, it’s very much oriented like a jazz kit would be. I could conceive of it that way: There’s the one tom in the middle, so you’re almost looking at an extended jazz kit. If you think about it that way, it’s not as scary.

DH: As opposed to the older kit which was double kick, four concert toms, three racks, two floors, and on and on.
MS: Right, with the two timbales, the wind chimes and crotales, wood blocks and cowbells. He still has the cowbell set up, but it never felt intrusive. In fact there was only one time, at the end of “Even Now,” where I was like, “Dude, we’ve got to hear that big…”

DH: The flurry.
MS: Yeah, that big roll — give it to me all the way from the top to the bottom. He was like, “Great, cool, I’ll do it.” And in the track it just sounds so beautiful. I remember when I first listened to “Vital Signs” from Moving Pictures, there’s this one fill that goes from the high tom all the way down (as he air drums the fill). You know, it’s so exciting, so I was so fired up to have a moment like that.

DH: You got his signature.
MS: Yeah, and it’s totally cool. Because with Vertical Horizon, I definitely have a vision of what I want the band to be, and part of that involved keeping songs pretty short. You know, not going too crazy and always wanting to leave people wanting more, or just not wanting to bore somebody.

DH: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”
MS: Right, but as we were doing “Even Now,” I noticed it was something like six minutes and 30 seconds, which is two minutes more than most of the songs that I have been involved in in the past. But I wasn’t bored. I didn’t lose interest at all.I was captivated by the way it was all coming together. So there’s like a two-minute portion at the end of the song where Neil is just really playing. Everything’s building around him, the strings are coming in and all these other vocal parts are coming in and around, and the drums are the featured instrument as the song comes to a close.

CH-CH-CH-CH-Changes
DH: Which CD is going to come out first, this one or the new Rush?
MS: That’s a good question. I’m shopping for a deal right now because I’m leaving my label, so I don’t know where it’s going to wind up, but a lot of changes have been happening like that in my life. There was a time when I would’ve been really freaked out by that, but I’m not at all now.

DH: I find that if you embrace sudden changes, you’re one step ahead of the game. If you sit there and say to yourself, “Uh oh, now what, I feel lost”… then you are lost. But if you look at it as though one thing ending opens a door for something new to happen…
MS: Exactly, I’m totally open to embracing that. I don’t have all the answers, but it will all come clear as time moves forward.

Raising The Bar
DH: No disrespect to any of the other drummers you’ve played with, but you’ve certainly raised the bar for yourself quite a bit now. How will you maintain that, with or without Neil, and where do you go from here?

MS: That’s a really good question. I think that you’re absolutely right — the bar couldn’t be raised any higher. I’m not sure what comes next.

DH: Are there any other people on your list? Now that you’ve got Neil on your credits, I’m sure in some ways it will open up doors to you approaching other drummers that maybe you wouldn’t have approached before.
MS: You know, that’s a really good point. And Neil’s playing on the project was a real vote of confidence from him to me. That means a lot to me because it’s not something that he does.

DH: Other than Jeff Berlin, you might be the only other one.
MS: Right, Jeff Berlin and the Burning For Buddy stuff, and that’s it. So, it couldn’t be a more wonderful compliment. I’ve tracked with Gregg Bissonette and he’s an incredible player. You know who else I really love is Nate Morton, who did the rock star INXS show and now rock star Supernova. Also Gavin Harrison, who plays with Porcupine Tree. You know for me, the ultimate is the kind of player that can mix some of the real “out technique” stuff with the real fat, basic meat-and-potato groove playing. Simon Phillips is another guy I just have so much respect for. I had Protocol back in the day and I remember listening to that, and “Give Blood” is one of my favorite drum tracks.

DH: “Give Blood” is the quintessential rock drum track of our time. When I heard that track, I called Simon up and said, “Man, you’ve done it!” That track could not have been played any better.
MS: I know — it’s sick! With Gilmour on guitar. That’s kind of like a master class in tasteful technique. To me, it all starts with the drummer. If the guy who sits down at the kit owns it and has the ability to propel the music and make the music better, make the music greater, then everything else comes easily. If that groove falters or is hesitant, or if the time sense changes or rushes, then everything else falls apart. That’s why it’s so fun for me to do this interview: there’s nothing more important than you.