Matchbox 20 Is On A Roll

It's apparent after a few minutes spent talking to Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas that he fits the mold of the eager up-and-coming recording artist. Gregarious, self-deprecating and enthusiastic, he has all the boundless energy and positive vibes of somebody who's riding the biggest break of his life.

Which makes it that much harder to bring up this critic's biggest problem with his Orlando-bred band. The Hootie factor. You hear it in songs like Real World, the opening track for the group's major-label debut CD for Atlantic Records, Yourself and Someone Like You. Ambling along on churning guitars, a classic-rocking groove and vocals stuck somewhere between Counting Crows' singer Adam Duritz's angular phrasing and Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker's throaty whine, Real World comes across as an appealing, if derivative, pop confection.

But Thomas, who read similar thoughts in a recent Times review of the record, begs to differ. Nicely, of course.

"I think we sound more like (shock rockers) Gwar than anything," he says, laughing. "Well, you've got to find a reference point for people, so people will staple things onto you . . . even if we didn't think it was the most accurate. We're not Hootie-ish . . . you see us live, and you'll understand."

Still, however much Thomas might disagree, it doesn't hurt to sound like a band that has sold 14-million records in the past two years - and it's clear Matchbox 20's old label, Lava/Atlantic, had big plans for the group. Circulating promotional CDs shaped to look like old-style kitchen matchboxes, the company offered critic types nationwide both the CD single of powerfully anthemic tune Long Day and the full album.

But recent changes at Atlantic - which folded boutique labels like Lava, Tag and others into its parent company, trimming several artists and employees in the process - have raised questions about Matchbox 20's prognosis.

It's a problem facing hundreds of performers as corporations like Atlantic retrench in the face of an industry-wide sales slump. Burdened with a roster that at one time reportedly numbered more than 300 artists - mostly signed in the feeding frenzy that followed the explosive success of grunge and so-called "alternative" rock - Atlantic has spent most of the summer and fall wading through the turmoil caused by extensive downsizing.

With all this going on, how do the guys in Matchbox 20 - who have only sold about 10,000 copies of Yourself . . . according to the SoundScan sales tabulation service - feel? Optimistic, of course.

"Would it have been better to be on Lava for a few more months and have some support when the record actually came out? Sure, it would have," says Thomas, sounding philosophical. "But we got a lot of attention while setting up this record at Lava . . . Atlantic couldn't have ignored us."

This kind of hard work is nothing new for Thomas and the rest of the band, rooted in the ashes of another successful Orlando group, Tabitha's Secret, which broke up amid charges that the group's two guitar players weren't carrying their weight in the band.

Armed with active interest from the folks at Lava, but no guitar players, Thomas, drummer Paul Doucette and bassist Brian Yale set about finding the right six-stringers for their project.

"We auditioned a lot of people . . . including (Allman Brothers guitarist) Dickey Betts' son Dwayne, but we didn't want it to turn into the Dwayne Betts Band," Thomas says. "We auditioned the bass player with Jellyfish, Jimmy Smith. Eventually, we found Adam (Gaynor) and Kyle (Cook)."

Next, they hooked producer Matt Serletic, a veteran of Collective Soul's last two records, to help shape their sound - an earthy mix of modern rock and rootsy styles that references everyone from R.E.M. to Hootie and Counting Crows in its poppy familiarity.

Songs such as the guitar and organ-drenched midtempo groove 3 AM - again the Hootie factor comes into play here - and the dark-toned, almost grungy rocker Busted show Thomas' flair for songwriting, a skill honed by influences as diverse as Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Elvis Costello and Orlando-area performer Steve Burry.

"They're all melody-driven and they write great songs," Thomas explains. "And Steve taught me how to make my songwriting an outlet . . . take all the pain (in life) and release it there."

These days, Matchbox 20 is just struggling to get its art heard by the rest of the world, touring on its own after a long stint opening for Christian rockers Jars of Clay. And the operative word during this time of touring and promotion?

Optimism. Of course.

"Right now, the only thing we can do is play as many shows as we can and get out to people," Thomas says. "If you really feel passionate about what you're doing, you've got to believe it will happen, no matter what."

- Eric Deggans