Nonsense-named pop and rock groups are a dime dozen (or should that be a Seven Mary Three?) these days -- for every straight-on Dave Matthews Band there's a Third Eye Blind or (what is it with these numbers?) a Matchbox 20. That last band's name may not trigger immediate understanding, but it now conjures up instant recognition for pop fans.
It's a long way from Matchbox 20's dicey debut: the day the band released their debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, their Atlantic Records subsidiary, Lava, folded. For the next nine months, it seemed the album, and Matchbox 20, were doomed to the obscurity bin. That all changed last summer when their first single, "Push," sprinted to the top of the charts.
It was a great break, though the hit spawned an even stickier misunderstanding when critics noted that the song's lyrics seemed to refer to abusing a lover. As it turns out, that interpretation wasn't wrong, just imprecise -- singer/songwriter Rob Thomas has explained that he wasn't talking about pushing women around, but, instead, his own emotional manipulation by a former girlfriend. Since that No. 1 debut, the hardworking Orlando, Fla.-based group has parlayed their post-grunge pop into heavy MTV rotation, a Grammy nod and (the inevitable) Hootie and the Blowfish comparisons.
Promoting their multi-platinum album, Yourself or Someone Like You, has kept Matchbox 20 on tour for more than two years. But their forever-on-the-road lifestyle is still cushier than Thomas's upbringing. Born on a military base in Germany, he grew up for a while with his grandmother in South Carolina, then with his divorced mother in Orlando. After dropping out of high school, Thomas slept frequently on park benches and friends' sofas, a semi-homeless existence the optimistic 26-year-old has expressed little angst over.
In fact, Matchbox 20 may cast a deep dark shadow in videos, but in person they're pure Florida sunshine (give or take some sunglasses indoors). The band recently found time to perform at Z-Day, a concert at Radio City Music Hall sponsored by radio station Z-100 to salute New York City's 100th anniversary and to benefit PAX, a non-profit anti-gun violence group that Thomas believes in passionately. PEOPLE Online chatted with the amiable Thomas and Matchbox 20's equally friendly drummer, Paul Doucette, after their sound check.
Rob, you were named on of PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful People this year. What was it like? Do your bandmates resent you?
Doucette: We do. I'll just tell you, speaking for the other bandmates point of view, it makes meeting women really hard. The competition is just [whistles].
Thomas: A lot of the bandmates rag on me quite a bit, but the novelty wears off. And it's definitely not a scientific thing. [PEOPLE] calls you, and you don't believe it 'til you see it, and then it's like [eagerly], "Oh wow, this is f---ed!" It's a weird thing. It doesn't really happen to you, it happens around you.
When will your non-stop touring end?
Thomas: We have some time off in November.
Is it hard to be on the road for so long?
Thomas: It doesn't feel like two years at all.
Doucette: You get into such a routine, it's like every day we wake up and have a piece of paper slid under our door that has what we're going to do that day, what time our soundcheck is. And when we're off, when we don't have that piece of paper anymore -- it sounds pathetic but it's true -- you get very used to that. And you get very used to living out of a suitcase. We've been doing it for so long, constantly with no breaks, that that's the only way of life we know now. So I'm actually scared to come off the road -- now I have to go find an apartment, go buy furniture. I have to start a whole new existence. We're the classic cases of, "I used to live with my girlfriends." [laughs]
Can you manage relationships like that on the road?
Doucette: Except for Kyle [Cook, guitarist], the rest of us are single.
You've said you wrote your single "Real World" when Matchbox 20 was poised to take off about trying not to let fame change you too -- how hard is it to handle success?
Thomas: It's not the success [that affects you], but all the craziness that goes on.
Doucette: The fame is not what kills you. A lot of people get into this business and they think, "I'm in a band, I'm gonna play music and that's all I'm gonna do." And then you realize no, that's not what you're gonna do, you have to run a business now. You're in an industry.
Thomas: It's not a make-all-the-money-you-can business. It's a make-sure-you're-watching-out-for-youself-becuase-no-one-else-will business. It's so not about the money, though there's all this money going around.
Doucette: It's money you're responsible for, whether you get it or not. And that's a lot of pressure to put on some 25-year-old kid. We have 15 people, more than that, who work for us.
Thomas: We're responsible for their salaries. Like when Hootie sold all those records, and the next record still sold like three million records -- which is a success -- but it was considered a flop. There was this focus that because [record label] Atlantic had sunk all this money into Hootie, this giant corporation was going to tumble. These guys are just guys who play music -- that's all they do, that's all they care about, all they wanted to do, and now they're held responsible for that.
How do you feel you've handled success so far?
Thomas: I feel that everyone in the band has held themselves together really, really well. No one's taking themselves too seriously. No one's been concerned with anything other than getting out there and trying to play as well as we can. We saw someone scalp a ticket to a show of ours for $200, and if I saw our show and we sucked, I would hate us forever. So the only thing we're really concerned with is every time we're on tour, trying to make a bigger and better tour.
Doucette: We're also our own worst critics. We will tear us apart more than anybody else. That's another thing that will constantly keep you grounded: You walk off, and even if it's one of the best shows you've ever played in months, there's still someone in that room who will say we could've done it better.
Thomas: Yeah, or just go read some bad press. That'll keep you going.
Doucette: We've got a lot of that to go around. [laughs]
What else do you do to keep your feet on the ground?
Doucette: Don't take yourself to seriously, that's our universal band thing. We don't take anything too seriously, except music. . . Of course, that works to our detriment too. We don't take anything seriously, [so] none of us have had successful relationships in our lives.
What's it like to make videos? How much control do you have over them?
Doucette: We're into clever videos. [simultaneously with Thomas] We don't have any. We didn't have a lot of control. We're not video directors, and that was always the stance we took. But we've always made videos that we weren't excited about, so we took more control of the "Real World" video, which didn't come out the way we wanted.
Thomas: But it's our favorite one so far. V I understand you have a particular passion for PAX, Rob. What's your connection?
Thomas: I think I'm connected in the same way everyone should be, when you look at the figures -- about 100 people die a day [from guns, according to PAX estimates]. If you go on stage and cut out a cross-section for 100 people you grasp how many 100 people are -- 100 mothers, fathers, grandchildren, children. Then 500 people wounded, it affects their entire life, their family. If you want to feel right about it, you have to give something back, these are real people. This sounds kind of cheesy, doesn't it? But it's true. These are actual people, they could be related to you. And with these numbers, one day they will be.
Are you interested in being a PAX spokesperson?
Thomas: This is the first chance, actually, we've had to get this close, just because our schedule has been too much. We don't want to seem arrogant and just say , "Hey, we played a show." That's what we do anyway.
-- LAURA SMITH KAY