Every so often the stars align just long enough to result in a truly great rock record. Such is the case with Edge of Free’s debut album. Combining captivating acoustic riffs, brilliantly heavy guitars and heartfelt lyrics that are melodic and hard-hitting, their songs of addiction, love, loss and survival are delivered with passion that can only come from someone who lived it. Produced by Toby Wright (Alice In Chains, Korn, Tantric, Metallica), Edge Of Free’s debut, self-titled album is an intimate collection of honest songs powered by guitarist John Hussey’s dynamic music and singer Scott Sneddon’s dark melodies, soaring choruses and gut-wrenching lyrics about depression, drug addiction and recovery. The album features eight songs from the whirlwind of writing, refining, rewriting and recording in 2016. With disarming honesty, songs like “Blood Eagle,” “Pushin’ The Needle” and, first single, “Pony,” the listener can hear and almost experience the tumble into depression and other struggles Sneddon faced as they reveal themselves in the tone and lyrical content of the record. With such a powerful debut album capturing the ears of both critics and fans alike, it’s hard to believe Edge Of Free almost didn’t happen. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Scott Sneddon to delve into his amazing journey as both a human and an artist. Along the way, they delve into the process of breathing life to into Edge of Free’s dynamic debut album, the challenges faced along the way and what the future holds for this band on the rise!
Music played a big role in your life story. How did it first come into your life?
Oh boy! Well, I’m the son of a professional classical Broadway musician, who actually lived down here in Nashville, Tennessee, where I’m at right now. Music has been in my life forever. I couldn’t wait to play the recorder when I was 9 years old! I was like, “I can’t wait until fourth grade when I get to play the recorder, man!” [laughs] Shortly thereafter, I wanted to play drums and they are what I picked as my first real instrument when I was able to join school band at 10 years old. I played snare drum but my parents would not allow a drum kit because I lived with my stepdad and it was one of those conflicting kind of things. [laughs] I was a drummer at heart but my best friend down the street had parents who bought him a drum kit, so if we were going to play together guitar was the next logical choice. A couple of years after I started playing drums, I switched to guitar. I didn’t have to switch to guitar but it was one of those things where he had older brothers and one of them happened to have an electric guitar that he said he would sell me for 40 bucks. Sure enough, that is how it started. I grabbed it, took a couple of lessons from him and I was on my way to playing guitar around 11 years old.
At what point did you decide to pursue music professionally?
There are two phases to this journey. I played music all through high school and I had a band. Funny enough, I was in a band and this kid showed up during the last few years of high school. He was the son of Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad. That is what he said and I didn’t believe him! Then he came down and sang and he had pipes from hell! [laughs] I was doing background vocals and guitar then because I was still too shy to sing lead at 16 years old. We were going for it even at that age. I was going to be a musician or die … period! From that perspective, I moved out to Hollywood when I was 19 years old, played music and took odd jobs. We got really close to getting a record deal. We were offered a publishing deal but things didn’t pan out. I continued playing through the years. We had that experience and it was pretty disheartening to be so close, to have major management and to be looking at a record deal that was going to solve all these financial problems and then have it fall through. I broke the band up and went off on my own. About this time, John [Hussey] and I moved to Nashville together. We played out here as a duo and that is where some of this songwriting started over a decade ago. We lived together out here and I would say we were indie professional. We didn’t make any money playing but we were serious about what we were doing.
Obviously, your story doesn’t end there.
Yeah! We had a home studio and we were writing music but I had some really big issues with depression, alcoholism and all this other stuff started happening. I ended up bailing and going back to LA. Back in LA, I continued for a few more years before I hit a wall with all the depression, drugs and all that kind of stuff. I went to rehab and, basically, made a right turn to get out of the music industry and back into school and did surprisingly well. I did well enough to get a bunch of scholarships and ended up getting accepted to UCLA’s electrical engineering school! Right about the time I got accepted to UCLA, I also won the JPLUS Scholarship award, which is for the student most likely to achieve in science. They pick one student from the school and I won that and it ended up landing me an internship at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), the NASA center out in Pasadena. Talk about a right turn! [laughs] During this time, I actually quit music. Just like any really bad break up, it just seems to end it for you. I put guitar and writing down for five or six years and just focused on school and being sober. It was pretty amazing to be honest. I finished my degree and went full-time as a systems electrical engineer at JPL. I worked on the Mars rover that is up there right now, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which people also know as Curiosity. I physically worked on that and it was my first task out of the university after I graduated. I graduated Magna Cum Laude, with honors and all that great stuff! I really wanted to continue and pursue a PhD but right about that time I was looking at buying a house and things like that but the job opportunity at JPL presented itself, so I went for it and took the full-time position. I had worked there part-time since the internship I got when I was accepted at UCLA. I worked and put myself through school by doing that. I settled into that and became a NASA engineer, which is pretty cool, but not cool as being a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band! [laughs] You are who you are and I always had this sense that I was born to be a musician. It wasn’t even a choice and there was no question. Sure enough, I came back to it. I started playing guitar again after the five to six years of a complete break. I started to write songs again very casually and never expecting to worry about getting a silly record deal and all the baggage that comes with the industry side of it. I went back to it not having to need it so badly or coming to it so desperately. It was just like any other relationship where things start happening in a healthier way. After a couple years of playing guitar on my own and singing again, I called up John. I hadn’t seen him in quite a few years. I said, “Ya know, man, I need to go back to Nashville.” That was kind of a turning point for me. The one year we spent in Nashville together after the record deal fell through, he and I started creating the music we create now for the very first time. I felt I needed to go back and see that place. It had been a while and when I came back and visited him, sure enough, I had him pick up a guitar and we played through one of the old tunes. It was just like only a day had passed! The whole vibe was there!
I went home and really started thinking, “I need this for my sanity. I can’t maintain my sobriety if I don’t have an outlet. It’s not enough just to have a day job.” I just got in the habit of writing songs and playing every day. After another visit out to John, about a year later, I said, “We need to make a fuckin’ record! Sure we both have our professional lives that don’t involve music and we are both happy; let’s try and ruin that!” [laughs] There was some apprehension to be honest. We were doing so well but there are so many pit-falls that can happen. I said that to him and he said, “Why would I do that? No!” [laughs] I went back home; I live just north of LA and he lives in Nashville. I kept trying to talk him into it. He sent me a few new tracks he had written, which were like beds of music with layers of guitars. He knows where my head is at when it comes to music. When he started writing, when we began doing this, is completely different than what we had done before when the whole record deal was coming around. This was a true collaboration between him and I. It ended up falling into this natural division of him sending me the music and I would work on the lyrics and vocals. Even though I play guitar, I like not knowing the guitar parts. I feel it allows me to be really objective toward the song. I don’t look at it as, “OK, it’s G to C to D. Come on, that’s boring! Everybody does it. Throw it out.” I listen to it and if it’s moving, I run with it! I can listen to the lines that will flow on top of it and grab their lyrical bits and put them together. We fell into this pattern, over the past six or seven years, and started writing and demoing it. It was really cool! I loved the music we were getting. It didn’t necessarily appear commercial but we didn’t care. The goal was just to make the coolest record that we could make. We are both doing fine and we both have nice houses, so we don’t need money from the music industry necessarily. The record was for us to be able to create this art and to be able to say, “We finished what we started. We really explored where this path and collaboration could take us.” That resulted in kind of a waterfall where, when we finished enough songs, we found some players in Nashville to fill the band out. John had some friends who were producers and I had a couple friends who were producers back in LA, who I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. I touched base and said, “I have been writing this music. Maybe you would be interested in taking a listen.” Through that, we got some really good feedback. One of the producers said, “I love this. I would love to produce it but I know a guy who I think would be even better. His name is Toby Wright.” I had heard the name and knew it sounded really familiar.
Before I get too far, I have to mention that I tend to like heavier music than John. He comes from more of a pop background then I do. I listened to Black Sabbath and was playing Metallica at 13 years old. I saw them at the Fox Theatre in Detroit and I don’t want to date myself but let’s just say my mom drove me down there for the “Ride The Lightning” tour! [laughs] This was back when Metallica couldn’t get played on the radio. The only way you could get a Metallica record was by going to the local indie store, talking to the guy behind the counter and getting him to order it for you. So, I was into much heavier music than John. However, where him and I meet is with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Joe Walsh and old Fleetwood Mac. Old Fleetwood Mac is fuckin’ heavy! I mean heavy in an emotional way. You don’t have to scream and have super loud guitars tuned to low D; just put your heart into it! That’s where we come together musically. Getting back to how we ran into Toby Wright, I went and I checked and he did Alice In Chains’ “Jar of Flies,” which is one of my favorite records of all time! I remember hearing the album before it came out because I was in love with this girl who was the sister of one of the promotions people at Columbia Records. We went out one night and she said, “I’ve got the new Alice In Chains from my sister before it’s out. Do you want to hear it?” I remember listening to it in her car and the first few bass notes that came out in the very beginning of the record and thinking, “This is going to be fucking amazing!” Sure enough, it was! Ironically enough, it was aligned in a way to what I was doing with John. I’m still not really sure how we picked up these acoustic guitars instead of playing electrics. He has telecasters and I’ve got a Les Paul and a Marshall half-stack. I played only electric guitar until I was 20 or 22 years old and I suddenly started playing acoustic. I think I just got lazy! [laughs] I think I got tired of turning in the amp and waiting for the tubes to warm up! [laughs] I don’t know how we fell into the pattern but we ended up playing these aggressive acoustic guitars, almost as if they were electrics and developed this style.
How did you cross paths with producer Toby Wright?
We ran into Toby through this other producer and figured out why we knew him. I’m not sure if I should tell you this part but I will and then we will see what happens! [laughs] So, I told John that Toby was the guy who did Alice In Chains and I thought we should talk to him. John had a phone conversation with him that didn’t go very well. [laughs] They kind of clashed personalities. John said, “I don’t know, man.” I know John well enough that I was able to say, “Well, sometimes you can be a bit short. I can see where he might have just had a bad day.” I called Toby about a week later and he said, “Hey, man! Let me call you right back!” I said, “OK, cool!” I waited two hours and he never called me back. I thought, “OK, John’s right. There’s a problem here.” I gave it another week and I called him back and we ended up talking for around two hours. It was like I had found my buddy from 20 years ago or something! We had the same musical tastes, dislikes, the same desire and thoughts of, “What the hell happened to organic music and being able to really play and not follow the formulaic we feel we are hearing today?” He brought up the term cookie monster vocalists; the thing that started happening in the late ‘90s or early 2000s where every band had to have the obligatory super scream in the middle of the song. We really bonded in a really strange and cool way. I got off the phone with him and I called John. I said, “John, look. From the conversation I just had with Toby, I can’t imagine why I would not want to do a record with him. It was the best conversation I have had with any producer.” We had talked to three or four at that point. We had already recorded one of the songs called “Higher” at that point. We thought it would be the first single. We decided we would throw him that song because it was a tricky song and it changes tempo from verse to pre-chorus to chorus, so our poor drummer was just tortured in the studio! [laughs] Luckily, we have a killer drummer! We threw “Higher” to Toby because we weren’t able to get a good mix. He came back with a mix that was just smokin’. It was like, “Oh, yeah. This isn’t slightly better. It’s the difference between mediocre and great!” With that test, I talked to him and said, “Listen, we need to finish the rest of the album. We don’t have a record deal with anybody yet.” We weren’t really looking for a record deal to be honest. I basically formed my own label. I figured if I didn’t need their money, I didn’t want to take it and have them spend a bunch of money for me. It just wasn’t necessary. We went ahead and finished it on our own. Toby and I worked things out and made plans to go into the studio last year in March. We knocked out all the other songs for the rhythm section in three days. It was really good to have him there! There was a lot more to it than tuning the drums and getting the sounds right, in particular with the drums. That was where a lot of the magic was; getting those sounds right. Like I said, Steve Ebe is a monster drummer and a total pro.
There were a couple things that came up and Toby would say, “Why are you guys thinking of this rhythm?” One of the things you will hear in this music is that it is much more complicated than most people think. It doesn’t sound like RUSH, like we are playing certain sections a mile a minute with impossible drum beats. I have had people say, “It’s weird because the music sounds accessible but until you try to play it, you don’t realize how hard it is!” I’ve said, “Yeah, that’s why we need some people to really spend some time with it before they show up and try to play it! You’re not going to figure this out in two days!” [laughs] With all that said, for John and I, who had written and demoed guitars and vocals, there was the question of, “What the hell is a drum beat going to sound like over that?” It couldn’t be a straight four because an acoustic guitar is doing this really syncopated groove. You have that groove going on and you don’t want to ruin it by stomping on it so you start thinking, “What does the bass do? What does the kick drum do?” We got that sorted out by working with the drummer and working with Toby to fill in those parts, so that took some time to get the rhythms right. Otherwise, you just override all the natural percussiveness of the acoustic. A few adjustments in the studio, particularly on “Pony,” brought out this unique juxtaposition between that up-tempo groove on the acoustic and the slammin’ groove with the bass and drums which holds it down. Those are some of the things that Toby Wright brought to the table. We finished the record and went into mix mode. Toby would email us mixes, we would do a couple of spins on them and that was it. It took us about six months to get it all mixed because we were all so busy!
You touched on it briefly but I wanted to go a little deeper. What can you tell us about your songwriting process? You are drawing from personal experiences with this music. Was it difficult to put yourself out there?
It is a bit. I didn’t know what I was going to write. I never sit down to write and say, “I’m going to write a song about this … ” I have a pretty funny writing process. First of all, John and I aren’t in the same room. Hell, we aren’t even in the same state! [laughs] He sends me the guitar track and I download it into my brain, phone and everything else. I mountain bike everyday and it is part of what I do. It is usually while I’m mountain biking when I have a specific song running through my head. I will listen to it really quickly right before I jump on the bike. I will run it through my head and see what I get that day. I will literally stop when I get a few lines from singing over the music in my head. I will stop and jot them down on the iPhone. I have to tell you, nothing is more frustrating than when I am chugging up some hill or coming down some part of the trail and I start thinking, “Don’t forget the verses! It’s a good verse!” [laughs] I’m trying to remember it but at the same time thinking, “It’s OK, you’ll remember it! Keep going, you’ll remember!” Then a bird flies by and I’ll stop and think, “Oh shit! What was that line I was saying?!” [laughs] The body of the songwriting process happens like that while I’m biking and doing other things, as opposed to sitting down to write. The first thing that comes to me is the melody. There will be some emotion brought by the music. It might be reflective and sometimes I will write at the top of the lyric note page in my iPhone what I was thinking. For example, “Reflective. Thinking back five years. Girl’s name … ” It’s stuff like that where I will get the stage set. Once I have the melody, certain lyrical lines just pop into my head while I’m riding. This is why I am so adamant about going mountain biking every day. [laughs] They naturally start to come to me and then I will begin to figure out what the song is about. I’m a pretty abstract person. The music I’ve always liked is the stuff that really makes you think and has a deeper meaning about life; it goes beyond the simple, “I got drunk last night and fell off the truck … ” or whatever. [laughs] I realized a lot of these lyrics do get really personal and expose some things about me that I’m not sure I want everyone knowing about. It didn’t concern me at all at the time because I didn’t think anyone was ever going to hear the record. I figured we would make it, throw it out there and if someone bought it, that’s great, but it’s most likely going to sit on the shelf.
The process of writing the music and playing it was the enjoyment part. It’s about always looking forward to something new! Even right now when we are in the midst of the album release, it’s like, “Cool! I’ve already written the second record!” [laughs] The first thing I did today was listen to the song I’m working on now because I want to take it with me wherever I go. It’s like a Christmas present everyday — something new and it doesn’t cost anything! Well, it doesn’t cost anything until you go to record it and put it out! Then it gets you back! [laughs] A lot of these personal things ended up in the lyrics and I’m OK with that. There are certain things I am hoping I can make an impact on. When it comes to dealing with depression and addiction, it’s one of those things I think is really poorly understood in society in general. I’d like some people to be able to see that not only is recovery possible but wherever you are in life and whatever you are dealing with, it will pass. It’s important to remember there are solutions to help you get through it. Maybe people will pick that up in some of the lyrics. The album is kind of dark in tone. The first thing that seemed to come up is flushing out all of the troubled things that you’ve never gotten to speak about. For some reason, that is just how your brain works. “This thing has been nagging me forever. Here it comes!” [laughs] One of the songs on the record, “Pushin’ The Needle,” I was very wary of. I didn’t know how John would take it because he is a little bit more sensitive to who might see it. This is something I went through that impacted my life in a way that is really hard to explain but is really important to me. I didn’t want to just write another heroin song. It’s more than that. I said, “I want to address this in at least one song. I have these lyrics that came to me. I wrote them down. They are pretty blunt and pretty brutal but it is what it is.”
That leads to my next question. You experienced and overcame so much in your life. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
I would say one of them is to never give up. By that I don’t mean, “If you want to be a rock star, never give up! You will be!” Bullshit! [laughs] If you want to be a linebacker for the Detroit Lions and you are 5′ 5,” ya know what? It’s not going to happen. However, never give up in life. There is happiness somewhere and there is something you will be able to contribute if you look to do so. Sometimes, I think it takes looking to contribute rather than looking for what you can get. It may seem trite but it’s really a tricky thing. Especially when I grew up in California. I grew up in Michigan and people seemed to be naturally more open to helping you as a friend. When I got to LA and this Hollywood scene, people really seemed to want to see what they could get from you. People would come and go. It was like, “I’m here to get something and then I’m gonna go.” People would even talk about it like that. I would hear, “I’m gonna take what I can get and be gone in two years.” Well, good luck! [laughs] The ultimate thing I would say is that it doesn’t have to end and it doesn’t have to always be miserable. That is the one thing I have learned and I have to remember it for myself because all it takes is five minutes and you can have something trigger that makes you fall into some depressive spiral. One tough decision can ruin everything. Of course, you saw Chris Cornell, which was a huge fucking blow. In particular, that guy, you can hear it on the record, he is a huge inspiration to me. I love his music. I’ve probably played more of his music than I have played of my own because that’s the way it panned out for me! I didn’t get to find a band when I was 20, 25 or 26 and play with them for years. I look at that and think, “Man, I’ve been through those times.” If you are going through a period of withdrawal or have been sober and you starting to use again, you can feel the ultimate trap scenario where you can’t stand living another day but also the thought of not living is horrible too where there are two horrible decisions in front of you. It’s not that simple. What needs to happen is that you recognize that the chemicals in your brain may do this to you but it will pass. Ultimately, there is always light at the end of the tunnel and people can find happiness one way or another.
Well said! You mentioned already beginning to focus on a sophomore album. Where do you see Edge of Free headed in the future?
I hope we get out there and tour to really expose the album. I think there are people who would really love this music. I think we have a really unique voice. As far as the next record, I think the topics will be similar but the writing is maturing. There is a little more conciseness in the lyrics, along with more specific topics. I’m really excited to see how this all blossoms and where we end up going with this! We haven’t demoed any of the new songs yet. They are just ideas that we have thrown back and forth and that we have guitar and a vocal sketch for. I’m really excited to discover what she looks like when she grows up! [laughs] It’s really that kind of parallel! I hope we get to tour in support of the record and that it’s, at the very least, available and people out there are aware of it. We are really excited to start looking into tour plans. I think that may fill out the story a little better. I say that because so much stuff can be done on a record these days with computers. You can adjust people’s vocals and tune them. There is no tuning on the vocals of this album at all. Toby warned us about that. He said, “Even if we’re not taking things and putting them back in key, people are used to hearing this tone that comes from this Melodyne machine. I think that is what I’m missing when I listen to music today. When I listen to a song, I don’t want to hear it modified by a machine to change the notes and timing. If you are changing the pitch and the timing, what other variables are left? [laughs]
Yeah, you are losing a lot of the soul that comes from a live performance.
Yes! I was surprised to find out how prevalent that is in today’s rock music. I think if people come down and see us live, it will be like, “Oh! I get it now!” I don’t play guitar anymore when we play live. I only sing and it has become a full instrument for me. It feels so natural! That’s the cool part! I think it will really round out the experience for people when they get to see us live! We are hoping to get the second record out around February or at least have a new single ready for that timeframe to keep the train rolling. Creating the music is the heart of this project. That’s what we want to do the most! If I can get to the point where I can spend all of my time doing this, that is what I would choose to do … aside from being a human and a father, of course! [laughs]
Awesome, Scott! We appreciate your time today. This album is truly an awesome piece of work and we look forward to spreading the word! I’m sure we will cross paths again soon!
That sounds great! Thanks for much, Jason!