Interview by: Mike Farley
here for a review of Vertical
Horizon's latest album
Vertical Horizon has just released the follow-up to their 1999 RCA Records debut,
Everything You Want. The new record is called Go and recently I got to talk to bassist Sean Hurley about life on the road, playing music and monster cereals.
Mike Farley: It’s been four years since your last record, which spawned four singles including a number one. So what have you guys been doing since then?
Sean Hurley: Four years is a long-ass time, but we put out Everything You Want in 1999, and we did about two and a half years of touring. So we couldn’t even think of doing anything up until then really, because every day was “promote, promote, travel” and it leaves you tired and crazed. We took a solid month off, and then we started rehearsing for the new record and putting songs together. And at that point I had moved to Los Angeles. Matt (lead singer) had moved there too, so we knew we wanted to do some work in L.A. We wound up doing the whole record here whereas we had split up where we recorded
Everything You Want, which wasn’t our favorite thing to do. Two and a half years of steady touring really makes for a tight unit, so we were real excited about the interaction we had musically once we set out to do new material. And we finished a record’s worth by August 2002, but things being as they are, our label changed presidents three times during our time off. So we had to sit on our record for what turned out to be a year. In the end Clive Davis came in and asked for one more song, and we recorded “I’m Still Here” and they felt it would be a really strong first single. Then we went out on the road and I don’t think we’ve sounded this good
MF: Did you have a feeling expectations would be higher after the success of the first record?
SH: Oh yeah. We were really naïve the first time around, so we didn’t really have any expectations of ourselves and we didn’t know what the expectations were from the label or the public. But once you put yourself out there and people know your name and they’ve become familiar with your songs, you learn that the game is much more complicated than when you’re doing it the first time around. Success wants to breed success, and it’s just natural for you to put some expectations on it. We didn’t go in and say, “We need another number one,” we just went in and expected a lot of ourselves.
MF: You just wanted to make a good record?
SH: Yeah, and that’s a challenge any time. Even when you’re doing garage/demo/budget stuff, you’re still challenging yourself. But I don’t think we consciously thought about what the bigwigs would think, but that’s always there at the end of the day when you’re turning in some music. It’s like, “Now that I know how things work, what are they going to say? Are they going to feel the same way we do about the record?” That’s the challenge – new people, new attitudes. It kind of plays out day-to-day, week-to-week, meeting new people. And it’s a stranger game than I ever thought it would be.
MF: And it’s a learning process like anything else, right?
SH: Yeah, certainly we did the bulk of our learning through the Everything You Want process. We’re like, “Oh, that’s how radio works.” Or that we had to do “this” to get “that.” I’m still getting surprises, sometimes good and sometimes bad, on what it takes to sustain a career in this industry. Especially where things for a lot of people now are declining.
MF: How many records is your deal with RCA for?
SH: I guess I’d have to double check the contract, but it kind of goes on a record-by-record basis. They have a certain number of options above three, and then at the end of every record they will exercise their option to do another, but I can’t say off the top of my head if it’s three or five, but it is a multiple deal.
MF: Can you describe a typical day in the life of a rock star?
SH: Well, I can tell you a typical day in the life of me. And I wouldn’t consider myself a rock star. The only time I feel like that is when I’m playing and getting into character. I think we all – and this includes people in other bands that I’ve interacted with – feel like you’re putting on a show, and there’s some acting involved. When we’re traveling, that’s the mundane part but the typical life that evens the score for everybody out there. You’re traveling from one city to the next; say from 2:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. Like we just did Nashville to Charlotte. After a show you kind of wind down, have your after-show food. We might try to find a restaurant or get some pizza. Then it’s eight or nine guys piling into the bus. We’ve been watching the “Family Guy,” which we have on DVD. We keep seeing new episodes but every time someone turns the DVD on, another guy will groan “Augh, it’s ‘Family Guy’ time.” Someone grabs a beer; I usually have some pretzels and juice. We unwind on the ride, and then shuffle off to our bunks. Just imagine trying to stand in a van as it’s going 60 miles per hour down the highway. It’s not graceful. I’ve fallen over as I’ve been urinating. That’s not a typical thing, but does happen. Eight guys in about the space of a typical hallway in an apartment building, and when everyone goes to sleep there’s eight guys snoring. The bunks are about the size of coffins, with little curtains. You sleep the best you can – some fall asleep pretty easily, some don’t. We were big on cereal this time around. Halfway through this tour, we decided to only ask for monster cereal on our rider. We were getting only Count Chocula, because it’s hard to find Boo Berry and Frankenberry, but they are out there because they do advertise it on the back of the box. So that was it – wake up in the morning and devour two boxes of Count Chocula in a day, do our sound check, play our music and travel again.
MF: Count Chocula before sound check – that is ROCK for sure.
SH: Dude, that’s the “Monsters of Rock” cereal, and doing that is what made us feel like we’re living the fast life.
MF: How does the songwriting process work for you guys?
SH: For us, it starts with our illustrious leader Matt Scanell. He locks himself away, and if you don’t hear from him for a few days it’s usually a good sign. He’ll emerge with an idea. Sometimes it’s just a skeleton, like on the song “Underwater” on our new record. It was just a concept that we jumped into and with a short amount of time, out came the tune. “Best I Ever Had” was a little bit like that. Then there are other songs like “Forever” where Matt emerges with a full idea, and we go about doing our business. Usually it’s in a rehearsal setting, and we’ll work on arrangement ideas, extending things or shortening sections, trying to “trim the fat.” It gets real democratic from there. Some of the coolest moments are when something comes together really fast. In “Underwater” I came up with what I thought was a really cool bass part within minutes, and other tunes are more laborious, like “Finding Me” on
Everything You Want. I cut the bass for that as we were mixing it because we had lived with my part for a few months and then decided to change it at the last minute. It wasn’t quite right up until that last moment. “Forever” was a cool thing because every other song we rehearsed for a couple of weeks. We brought in our producer John Shanks, and played through songs. On the last day of cutting drums and bass “Forever” was added and we had never played it together. So we built it up in a different way. Instead of adding bass, drums and guitars first, we started with Matt playing guitar and singing and we had to fill in the spaces. From my perspective, all the places that needed to be open were open and you can really tap into a special moment if you have a great idea. Chords are chords, there are only 12 notes, but when you’re in the studio laying down a major label record, and the song is done almost as it’s being started, it’s just really rewarding to have a finished product after five hours.
MF: Who were your biggest influences personally?
SH: For me it started with AC/DC. I started playing the bass when I was 11 and had some cool friends that were getting me into AC/DC. As a bass player, that’s just Rock & Roll 101 – lay it down. You’re not here to show off, you’re here to keep your head down, walk up to the microphone, sing “Hell’s Bells” and walk away. Then in high school the jazz bug hit, because I realized I had this technical ability and nowhere to put it, and jazz opened up all these other possibilities. So that introduced Jaco Pastorius, and I had another cool teacher that was a big McCartney fan, and James Jamerson. So I started getting this blend of simple rock with advanced jazz stuff and just classic bass playing/songwriting stuff. I veered off the path a little bit but by the time I got to go into music school for a short time, I was honing in on players like Jamerson, McCartney, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, and even Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots. People that were doing things in cool popular music that had a little bit extra, not with the “dumb bass player” syndrome. When a bass player stands out that’s pretty cool, because that’s usually an instrument that doesn’t stand out. I am one to keep it simple but I’d rather do it out of musicality and restraint than out of ignorance.
MF: So what’s in your CD player right now?
SH: I can’t get away from OK Computer (by Radiohead). I got it when it came out in 1997 and kind of devoured it but in the couple years that I’ve been more keenly aware of music I’ve fallen back into it and said, “Oh my God, it’s even more brilliant than I remember it.” Same with the new Radiohead too.
MF: Now that stuff’s not like anything Vertical Horizon plays.
SH: No, and I kind of wrestle with that at times. I have a couple of other projects I do. But I do think a good band has a strong voice and the voice of this band started with Matt and Keith. Eighty percent of me feels perfectly at home but live we push things a little bit. We even play Rush tunes live, because we don’t just want to be pop/rock. It’s what kind of makes sense to us when you boil it all away. We grew up listening to rock radio. And I find that we don’t listen to a lot of our peers, because I think I’d be limiting our view. And I’m just a fan of music that pushes some boundaries. We’re all fans of that Radiohead and Jeff Buckley stuff. Me’Shell NdegéOcello, who I mentioned as a bass influence, she just put out a new record that’s totally cool. I bought the new Outkast record too. As a bass player, I have played on a few R&B records. I can walk into a situation that’s funk, or rock, or experimental because my background is in jazz. When we play live, all of that comes out a little bit more than when you’re making a record and have to live with one performance only and you try to do what’s best for the record and for the song. But live, Ed (drummer) and I might push something or play it differently or play something with a little more tension in it. And we’ll probably head down that road as we go along, but I pity the fool who lives in a small world and doesn’t listen to things outside their genre.
MF: What’s your favorite place to eat on the road anywhere?
SH: With the gentrification of so many areas, as a road warrior I appreciate finding a Starbucks or something that’s consistent from city to city. I know why people are against that, but from my perspective there’s this place called Panera. I eat that at home. Five bucks for soup and a bread bowl, and it’s the best you’ll get anywhere for five bucks. I can find it in Connecticut somewhere. That just happened, I was cold and bummed out, Ed and I were walking down the street on a day off and found a Panera. I was like “dude, it’s like we’re at home.”
MF: If you could meet one person dead or alive, who would it be?
SH: I think John Lennon. I like the idea of meeting dead people because it’s conceivable I could run into McCartney but it’s inconceivable that I could meet John Lennon. I’d love to go back in time and hang out with him just as the Beatles broke up, then I could play with him and have him break up with Yoko or something.
MF: One more thing…if you could check out our Website, check out the girls and let us know which girl is your favorite.
SH: Well, I just got married but I’m not dead. All my senses still work.
MF: So you won’t get into too much trouble?
SH: Hell no, she’ll applaud it. Got to keep the blood pumping.
And here was his e-mailed response: “I took a look at the site and you guys have a ton of babes. I wasn't prepared for it. After a quick glance I found that
Martika (Guest Model, May 2003) caught my eye. She rocks it. Thanks again for the interview.”
No, thank you, Sean, and good luck on the road!