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A Passionate Claim to the Middle Ground

Vertical Horizon believes in tuneful alt-rock, even if it's not the music of the moment.

August 06, 2000|MARC WEINGARTEN | Marc Weingarten is an occasional contributor to Calendar

In the 1960 hit Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie," Elvis-like protagonist Conrad Birdie sings "Honestly Sincere," a sly commentary on rock stars who project earnestness but function on pure, callow cynicism.

That's a criticism that might easily be leveled at Vertical Horizon's Matt Scannell, were it not for the fact that he is, well, so darn sincere.

Along with Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas and Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins, Scannell has become a poster boy for sensitivity whose songs reject irony and embrace young love as a subject worth examining in jangling pop songs.

"A lot of people might think the lyrics are trite, but if you look at them over and over you start to connect with them," says David Bendeth, the senior vice president of artists and repertoire for RCA who signed the band to the label. "Matt is extremely clever, and he hones his songs until he gets them just right."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 14, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Vertical Horizon--An Aug. 6 Calendar story on the band Vertical Horizon gave an incorrect chart figure for the single "Everything You Want." The record reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart. In addition, the story referred to band member Keith Kane by the wrong first name.

In Vertical Horizon's "Everything You Want," which recently peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart, Scannell has the audacity to complain about women who bypass potentially strong relationships until the next best thing comes along, thereby turning the tables on what is usually a woman's lament. Yet he somehow gets away with it, singing the lines, "I say all the right things/At exactly the right time/But I mean nothing to you and I don't know why" as only a cuckold could.

"That song is about different experiences I've had in my life," says Scannell, 30. "I've been on both sides of that coin. But I think it's less sexually specific and more about those times when you think, 'I'm the perfect person for you and you just don't get it.' That can get very frustrating."

At a time when rock is propping itself up on the twin extremes of rap-metal and teeny-bopper pop, Vertical Horizon (Scannell, bassist Sean Hurley, drummer Ed Toth and guitarist Keith Kane) is offering a third way, proffering tuneful, tenderhearted salves for listeners who miss the halcyon days of alternative rock. Its latest album, also called "Everything You Want," is almost reactionary in its disavowal of any current musical trend.

"We're kind of in the middle," says Scannell. "Wait a minute, that sounds kinda lukewarm, doesn't it? We don't want to be thought of that way just because we're trying to write song-oriented rock tunes. I think there's room for everybody."

Now that rock's roughneck flank (Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, etc.) has proclaimed its dominance, bands like Vertical Horizon (which plays the Greek Theatre on Aug. 24, opening for Third Eye Blind) have become insurrectionary, asserting a belief in the power of time-tested pop conventions to win over listeners.

"I don't hear a great difference between the rap-rock bands," says Scannell. "It's like in the '80s, when you had all those corporate rock guys like Winger that had the same sonics. I do hear some good guitar playing in those bands, though. But I'll take Tom Morello and Rage Against the Machine over those other bands any day."

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Vertical Horizon has found itself swimming against the current ever since it formed in Washington in 1991, a time when the city's "straight edge" punk movement led by the band Fugazi was the talk of the town. Scannell and Kane, Georgetown University grads wielding acoustic guitars and gentle, lovelorn ballads, lacked the punk cred to crack the city's major club circuit, so they instead hit the coffeehouses in Georgetown.

"Fugazi was kind of the D.C. scene, period," Scannell says, "but we tried not to think too much about that at the time. We started doing the acoustic-based thing right around the time that Hootie [& the Blowfish] came out, and it was heartening to see acoustic music coming back to the forefront. We knew that if we had good songs, then we'd be OK."

Scannell and Kane became a fixture at a tiny bar called Dylan's, where they slowly began to build a modest following. It was during this time that Scannell learned his first hard music-business lesson.

"We would just get raped by club owners," he says. "We'd play for 700 people and we would get 25 bucks at the end of the night. I then realized that no one's gonna be nice to you. You have to get your own business in order."

Scannell took it on himself to become the band's manager, booking agent and publicist. He bought Donald Passman's book "All You Need to Know About the Music Business" and "nerded out on it," and he had CDs and T-shirts made to sell at shows. "We booked our own tours around the country," he says. "I advanced the shows beforehand and settled them afterwards."

Scannell's business savvy helped grow the Vertical Horizon brand. Its three independently released albums--"There and Back Again," "Running on Ice" and "Live Stages"--sold more than 70,000 copies combined.

The Dave Matthews Band's drummer, Carter Beauford, who played on "Running on Ice," introduced Vertical Horizon to RCA, where it signed in 1997.

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