Matchbox Mania; Chart-Topping Band Discounts Comparisons with Counting Crows and Hootie

By Ed Masley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)

Matchbox 20 is one of those bands that couldn't help but hit.

They've got that sound - the vocals that yearn to be saying much more than the lyrics, the ringing guitars, the accessible singles that may have you scratching your head as you wonder if this is the latest from Hootie or maybe the new Counting Crows.

Lead singer Rob Thomas has heard the comparisons, just as he's seen the band 's record, ''Yourself or Someone Like You,'' go quietly platinum. Twenty-three weeks on the charts and it's still No. 9 with a bullet. The latest from U2, released the same day as the band's major-label debut, is currently No. 152.

''It's hard if you're not a heavy band and you're not a folk band,'' Thomas says. ''You're somewhere in the middle of the road and they try and define you. So Darius (Rucker of Hootie), Adam Duritz (of Counting Crows) and me and Brian (Vander Ark) from Verve Pipe - all these bands get lumped together. And there's nothing we can do about it.''

The comparison Matchbox gets the most, he says, is Counting Crows, a band that made its mark a few years back with the similar vibe of a record called ' 'August and Everything After.''

''We get compared to Counting Crows an awful lot,'' says Thomas. ''But I think the way we're gonna set ourselves apart with that is we're gonna have a new record out and it's gonna be called 'September and Everything Prior to September.' ''

Matchbox fans may be surprised to learn that ''Long Day,'' the single that made them a force to reckoned with, nearly didn't make it to the record.

''It wasn't quite coming together the way we wanted,'' says Thomas, ''And I don't even remember what we added, I think it was just the dynamics of the song, bringing it down and then bringing it back again. It's kind of funny. Our producer always used to tell us you never know, the song that could be your first single could be one that's not even written yet. He used to say that through the whole pre-production process. And then it was true, man.''

He calls Matt Serletic, who earlier made his mark producing Collective Soul, the band's sixth member.

''He's amazing,'' he says. ''He's 26 years old, you know what I mean? He still gets excited about it. He's not, like, 40 and over the business.''

Serletic helped Thomas write ''Push,'' a hit that this week drops to No. 3 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart.

The future hasn't always looked so bright for Matchbox 20. The day the record hit the streets, its label, Lava, folded.

''We didn't know what to do,'' says Thomas. ''Our record had just come out that day, and a lot of bands got dropped. A lot of employees got dropped. So we were very worried.''

Fortunately, Atlantic (the label of Hootie) decided to throw its weight behind the project.

Since then, the band has been touring.

The first time they toured, it was opening shows for the Christian rock band, Jars of Clay.

''I never felt more like a heathen in my entire life,'' Thomas says, with a laugh. ''But they were really cool, actually. They weren't preachy. We didn't want to do the tour because we'd heard these stories about these big festivals with all these religious bands and their anti-abortion propaganda and all this anti-free thought propaganda. But it turned out to be nothing like that at all. It turned out to be people who liked music and, you know, half the kids there didn't realize that Jars of Clay was religious.''

As Thomas is hanging up, he remembers to add that the Matchbox show tonight at Metropol is a homecoming gig for drummer Paul Doucette, who grew up in North Huntingdon.

''I don't know why I did this interview,'' Thomas says. ''Our drummer's from Pittsburgh and he's, like, really upset that he didn't do it. This is the first time since we've been doing well that he gets to go back.''