By Dave Dimartino
If Matchbox 20 lead singer and songwriter Rob Thomas had his way, the band's multi-platinum album Yourself Or Someone Like You would have come from a band named Larry. "Wouldn't that be great?" Thomas said to LAUNCH's executive editor Dave DiMartino during a recent interview outside of San Francisco. "People would say, 'Who are you gonna go see tonight?' and you could go, 'Larry.'" Alas, Thomas was overruled by his bandmates, some of whom performed with him in his pre-Matchbox 20 Florida outfit, Tabitha's Secret. Drummer Paul Doucette (also interviewed here) ultimately coined the Matchbox 20 moniker, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since achieving pop stardom, the band members have experienced everything from an attempted radio boycott of their hit single, "Push"--which was wrongly interpreted as an anthem supporting domestic abuse--to scandals on the Internet, as wishful fans lovingly detail their imaginary trysts with band members. "The email scares me," says the baby-faced Thomas. "You read about what you did, and none of it is true." Oh, the price of fame.
LAUNCH: Well, for a debut album, you guys scored! To what do you attribute the fact that your album sold so many units right out of the box?
ROB: Luck. Well, actually there's three things. There's luck. And there's luck. And then there's LUCK!!! And somewhere on the fringe some talent plays into it. I have like four million records at home and they're all great, they're all my faves, and no one's ever heard of any of them. I don't know why any of them aren't huge. I just feel like, "Oh no! We're gonna fail!" The bigger it gets, we just try to keep our heads down and not think about it.
LAUNCH: What were you doing before this band?
ROB: Well, before we started Matchbox 20, three of us were in another band called Tabitha's Secret. The only thing was--it wasn't a good band. That was the only thing that was holding us back. We could have gone all the way if we'd had any talent. We did it for three years, and then we just got tired of it, bored.
PAUL: Before we started Matchbox 20, we did the whole regional thing, and it was kind of like working at a job that never ended--and we never got a paycheck for it! We kind of hung out in Florida and did the whole local band thing and talked about, "Hey, someday we'll be big stars."
ROB: Then we hooked up with Adam [Gaynor] at Criterion Studios. We'd heard all these tapes of Eddie Van Halen clones and then we got his tape and he was playing an acoustic guitar to some Babyface song. It was perfect.
LAUNCH: So, it's not exactly "overnight success" that we're talking about?
ROB: Oh yeah, I love those stories you hear where some kid walks into the wrong warehouse one day and somebody goes, "Hey, come here and sing. I'll give you a record deal!" Everyone who [makes music] spends time learning their craft, playing in local bands at parties and frat gigs. And you do it for years and years and years. Then people start to hear about you, and if you're lucky enough to make it, people think you just came out of nowhere. You think, "Yeah, to you it may be nowhere!" But it can't get you mad. You shouldn't care. People think it happened too fast, and you have to say, "Yeah, okay, you're right. We're just a flash in the pan and we're totally untalented. Thank you."
LAUNCH: Yeah, but while it may seem like a long time to you guys, you must admit things have happened pretty fast for you.
PAUL: I don't think things have happened too fast, but they're definitely faster than things have happened for other people. Take Soul Asylum, who for years and years have been working, and then they have one album and everyone finally knows who they are. A lot of people think we came out of nowhere, like we were an overnight sensation. Our album had been out for a while, and it wasn't the one thing that blew up right off the bat, like [Joan Osborne's] "What If God Was One Of Us." I'm glad we had time to grow naturally.
LAUNCH: With all of your newfound success a lot of stuff has been written about you guys. What is one thing people don't know about Matchbox 20?
PAUL: I think the one thing that no one's ever asked us or written about us, is that we're huge Neil Diamond fans and that has a big impact on the band.
LAUNCH: Very good. In reading about yourselves, do you ever come across stuff that people write and you just think, 'man, they just don't get it?'"
ROB: I'm not sure if I feel like there's stuff people don't get about us that I wish they did. It's more like things people think they know about us, when they don't. It's easy to write us off as a pop band: "Yeah, I've seen the videos, I know everything." But all they're getting is little slices. Even with interviews, you do a great interview, and later you realize what you didn't talk about. People don't know anything about you at all. When "Push" came out, people thought it was a song about beating women. This guy came up to me and goes, "Man, I know what you mean. I love her, but sometimes..." And I was like, "You're an asshole, man!" That freaked me out for a few weeks. And I know there's not just one guy who thinks that. There's never just one guy. I'm sure there were people all over who were beating their wives and wanted to talk to me. And all I could think was, "Get these people away from me. They're crazy!" I don't know if you'd call them rednecks...but I think they were.
LAUNCH: That reaction must have caught you off guard.
PAUL: Yeah, you could say we ran into a little problem with "Push," and it's weird because when Rob wrote the song and played it for me, it never crossed my mind, but apparently, some people seem to listen to the song and only hear a couple words, "I want to push you around, I want to drag you down." And they think, "Oh my God! That song is about domestic violence!" People started this campaign to ban "Push" from the radio. Guess what? It was unsuccessful. It's kind of sad in a way, because it's entirely wrong. I can see if you just listen to that line, I can see how you'd see that. But if you continue to listen, "I want to take you for granted..." That says it all right there. It's about manipulating people. It's sad that people are that quick to judge off of first impressions instead of listening to what we're saying. But it's happened before and it will happen again.
LAUNCH: What kind of music influences you? Do you have idols?
PAUL: I'm into drummers like Kenny Aronoff, Jim Keltner, Charlie Watts. And to some extent--actually to a major extent--Bill Berry from R.E.M., but it's not something I consciously thought of until I went back and listened to what he does and what I do, and I realized, "Hey, I do that!" It was like osmosis--I've been listening to R.E.M. so long. In general, things that have influenced me are singer-songwriters like Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, John Gorka. A lot of my favorite songs don't even have drums on them, which is kind of ironic.
ROB: Growing up, I listened to Van Morrison, Elton John, Jim Croce. I used to sit and play drums to the Grease record for some reason. Willie Nelson is a big influence. I get older and it doesn't seem to change a lot. I can go from Duke Ellington to Marilyn Manson. But I can't listen to music when other people are talking or if there's stuff going on in the room. I have to listen to all the words. It drives me crazy to be in the car listening to my favorite CD and everyone's talking. I keep turning it up until everyone in the whole van is yelling: "Turn that down!" So I bought headphones and I feel better about myself now. Everybody likes me again.
LAUNCH: Has all of this success changed your perceptions about the record industry? Are there certain drawbacks to being in a popular band?
PAUL: I personally don't think there is a bad part about this business. I think if I went into this thinking this is all about the music, the art, then I would have been severely disappointed. But there's enough people who've done this before me in the rock world that it's a pretty open thing: I mean, it is a business. They're called record companies. They're in there to make money, and the people running them are not musicians--they're business people. And I knew that going in. So when this whole "devil that is the music business" opened its arms to me, I was like, "Right on, I was expecting you." I think it's kind of fascinating in a way, like politics. It's like a game. How do you get your way without dickin' anybody over?
ROB: Ever since we've gotten signed, it's nothing like I thought it would be. Some days it's better and other days it's worse. I didn't know there would be these days. It's supposed to be cake and easy, and it is--it's wonderful. I love being on the road. But there's things you didn't know about, politics you had no clue about, things you have to do and butts you have to kiss that you didn't even know existed. Now, it's weird that it's become so second nature. And before, everything would freak me out. You go out, and play the best you can, get back on the bus and move on. If everything starts to fall apart and you lose 50 people at the record label, it won't change the fact that I have to go out and play another show tomorrow. I can't get wrapped up in that stuff. In fact, the day our record came out, our record company folded. Lava folded into Atlantic. It was scary, and we lost all these people. But when you start out like that, nothing phases you anymore.
LAUNCH: How do you feel about the phenomenal success of this debut album? Do you worry about having to follow it up with something equally, if not more successful?
ROB: Most first records are people's life work up until then. Everything that I had written from when I was 13 until my twenties was for that first band I was in--all the songs I loved and what I thought was my groundbreaking material went into that. When we broke up that band, in the six months between that band and Matchbox 20, I wrote this entire album. As far as I'm concerned, this is our second record because we put all our energy and effort into this local release that didn't do anything. People try to freak you out and say, "Are you worried that the second record will crash?" We're not worried, because we've already made it. We're ready for the next record now. We have all the songs.
LAUNCH: After living with the album for such a long time, do you ever get sick of those songs?
PAUL: I can't listen to our record. It drives me nuts because it's a hindsight thing, I guess. You listen to it and wish you could have done something differently. I'm very happy with it, very proud. I made that record, and wound up playing every song off that record every night for a year, two years. You realize there are things you could have done better or different that you didn't think of back then. But now, I can change it live, and then I go back and listen and go, "Oh wait, that part that I love now is not even in the song." But it's a damn good first record on our part. I don't want to sound egotistical, but I am proud of it.
LAUNCH: And I heard your first band was releasing some kind of disc with a bunch of music on it that you guys recorded before Matchbox 20. Are you into this? Or are they ripping you off?
ROB: I think that they're releasing some kind of a something. I don't know if it's illegal or not. They're using all of our old performances and stuff. It was just a demo, a five-song demo that we would sell at our shows. So these guys we used to play with started selling a CD with these live performances mixed in. I think it's called Don't Play With Matches. We were mad. They were using my voice and Paul's drums. We read this Orlando Weekly review of it. The whole piece was about how they were raping the past. The only good thing was that you could hear the songs I wrote before Matchbox 20. We don't endorse it.
LAUNCH: Matchbox 20 is an interesting name for a band. If you could change the name, what would you prefer?
ROB: "Larry" was one of my favorites. People would say, "What's the name of your band?" And you could go: "Larry." "Who you gonna go see?" "Larry." That just seemed like the coolest thing to me. "Hey, Larry's playing!"
LAUNCH: What's the deal with this name Matchbox 20 anyway?
PAUL: The biggest downside to the name Matchbox 20 is that from now on, every interview I do is, "How did you get the name Matchbox 20?" Quite honestly, I can't knock it, because I thought of it. It's my one proud moment. I can knock Rob's songs, but I can't knock the name. Ask me any song, and I'll knock it.
LAUNCH: How do you find the live shows these days? It must be a trip to go from clubs to bigger and bigger venues. Once you've sold this many records, it's not just your little fanbase anymore.
ROB: Yeah, it's weirder now--and I can remember the exact show when it started to happen. It was in Ottawa, Canada and I realized I couldn't go out anymore into the club right after we were done and hang out and have a beer, because there were a lot of people there waiting around forever. There were so many people, and Paul went out to get a beer, and didn't get back for an hour. On the one hand you want that so bad, but you're just done with a show, your friends are there, and you want to hang out and have a beer. And you don't want people to think you're too cool to talk to everyone. It kind of makes you feel good because people are like, "I can't believe you're just sitting here and talking. I can't believe that you're soooo cool." If you take that and translate it, it means "I can't believe you're not a jerk! I expected you to be a jerk." What does that say? We do try and compensate, though; this one girl was a big fan and she wanted something personal. I ripped off the front page of my journal, and she was so blown away. Then when we came back, she gave me a new journal to write in.
LAUNCH: But it must be tough to satisfy everyone, huh?
PAUL: We make a real conscious effort to try to talk to our fans as much as we possibly can. We used to just go and hang out at the bar after shows. But now we're playing bigger places, and we can't really do that anymore. Plus we have to be places and we have to leave right after the show. A lot of people think that because people are listening to our record that we don't have time for people. We try to do it in other ways. We have our website, and we have our guestbook on there and we're starting to interact more with that. We've been bad about it in the past, but we're finally realizing that that's a good way to keep in touch with people. We've established our fan club so we can do things in print, because there was print, way back in the day...
LAUNCH: So do you spend much time on the Internet?
ROB: I've been on the Internet twice, maybe three times. As far as stuff like the LAUNCH CD-ROM, I think it's amazing. It takes this already great idea of Rolling Stone and Spin and brings it to life--mixes it with MTV and VH1. The email frightens me, though. The fact that you go in and find out what you've done is really scary, especially because none of it is true! I've read stuff like, "Me and Rob spent hours together after the show. It was the best night of my life!" And then my girlfriend at the time calls me up and goes, "Why does this girl on the Internet say you were together for hours?" And you're like, "I was never there, honey. I was never even in that town, just check my schedule..." It's a weird medium when people can jump into something personal and still have an anonymous cloak on it. It used to be that you had to call people on the phone or write a letter. Some girl called me and said she was mad because she had checked the Internet and found out that me and my girlfriend broke up. She called to tell me she was angry that I brought another girl to Birmingham after I broke up with my girlfriend. I was just like, "God!"
LAUNCH: All this attention must be wild. Did you ever expect you would be sitting here with a hit album on your hands?
ROB: When we started, our only goal was that we wanted to make another record. We wanted to do well enough that we could get another shot. So now we've passed that point. For us, it feels like the pressure is off. We went double-platinum and thought we'd never go double-platinum. [Editor's note: The album has now sold more than five million units.] We were No. 1 on MTV, and thought we'd never even get on MTV. Everything has exceeded our expectations. Anything that happens now is just extra. We're waiting for the first big thing to screw up. Like a plane crashes into our rehearsal space so we can go, "Oh, there you are."
LAUNCH: But you must be enjoying this. Have you met any of your idols yet? Gotten any advice from the veterans?
PAUL: The coolest moment in my life was meeting Michael Stipe in a bar. He didn't give me any advice because I didn't ask him for any. I didn't want to be "that guy." Everyone that I've ever met, we've just kind of talked....we don't really talk about the business. We talk about music or other musicians.
LAUNCH: So, you haven't indulged in the trappings of the rich and famous?
PAUL: I'm not rich and famous, so I don't know how it would affect me. I don't want to be a dick. I would hope it would enable me to not have to worry about things...to not have to worry about paying that phone bill and other distractions in life. It would be nice to give my parents money for once instead of them giving me money all the time.
ROB: I remember I wound up with a little bit of money and didn't even realize it. I was having a meeting with my accountant and found out I had money, and I was like, "Alright!" But, you know, I live in a van. Sure, it's a big van--a giant bus--with a bunch of guys. We worry about doing our laundry and we don't smell good all the time. You don't feel like you have anything at all. But recently I got to fly my mom to L.A. when we did Leno, and I had a car meet her and got her a room in a hotel. That was really cool. And this is her loser son who was homeless for a while and didn't know what he was going to do for a living. Now I'm setting her up...Something like that is really cool. That's what you want to do. It's fun buying your friends drinks. I spend a lot of time in L.A., and I'm always the least rich, the least popular guy in the room. If I ever get rich, I'll go back to L.A. to remind myself, "No you're not rich, you're not even that attractive. Go back to your hotel, which isn't even that nice."
LAUNCH: What do you guys think you would be doing if you weren't musicians?
PAUL: If I wasn't a musician? Rob and I have had this dream that we'd want to work on a fishing boat in South America. I hate fish and don't even like water but I think it would be cool to say, "Hey, I work on a fishing boat in South America."
ROB: If I wasn't playing music, I'd probably be in prison. If not, I'd be delivering flowers. If you're delivering flowers, every house you go to, everyone you meet, you're a good guy to them. All day, you're making people happy. Unless it's a funeral...