Matchbox 20 Strikes Hard With 'Push'

Matchbox 20's breakthrough hit "Push" may be the most misunderstood song to fill the airwaves since the Police's "Every Breath You Take" topped the charts in 1983.

The latter tune was written by Sting, who took pains to point out that the sinister lyrics dealt with obsession and surveillance. Nonetheless, some people heard it as a love song. It's unlikely that anybody would make the same mistake in the case of "Push," not with lines like "I want to push you around" and "I want to take you for granted." The jangling power ballad has rubbed some listeners the wrong way, though. Matchbox 20 singer-songwriter Rob Thomas, 26, maintains that "Push" isn't as mean-spirited as it sounds.

"People who think it's misogynistic are just dead wrong," he said by phone last week from a tour stop in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"It's about manipulation and control and learning how to push people's buttons," he explained. "It's supposed to be about me."

Spurred by steady airplay of "Push" and another single, "3 A.M.," Matchbox 20's debut album, "Yourself or Someone like You" (Lava/Atlantic), has sold 5 million copies since it came out in 1996. Now it seems everyone with a connection to these pop rockers from Orlando, Fla., wants a piece of the action.

An ex-girlfriend who thought "Push" was inspired by her relationship with Thomas wound up in the news last year when she tried to get Matchbox 20 to fork over a share of the royalties. Thomas said nothing ever came of it.

"She said the right thing to the wrong people, I guess," he said. "I didn't know anything about it until I was watching MTV and Kurt Loder said something about it. She didn't sue me, though."

Some former bandmates also feel jilted. A lawsuit filed by two members of Tabitha's Secret - a group whose lineup once included Thomas as well as Matchbox 20's rhythm section - claims they were unfairly excluded from the record deal that Thomas and producer Matt Serletic (best known for his work with Collective Soul) allegedly pursued behind their backs. Thomas had little to say about the matter.

"You can't deal with madmen," he muttered. "We were in a band together. Some people were more ready to leave the band than others."

Besides Thomas, Matchbox 20 features Kyle Cook on lead guitar, Adam Gaynor on rhythm guitar, Brian Yale on bass and Paul Doucette on drums. Sitting in with them on their current tour is keyboard player Joey Huffman, who has also played with Soul Asylum.

Thomas has been writing songs for a new album, but Matchbox 20 is in no hurry to go back into the studio. The group plans to take a vacation after it gets off the road. "We're going to enjoy our lives for a while and let everyone get a break from Matchbox 20," Thomas said.

In the meantime, the band has a track on the forthcoming "Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' album, a collection of vintage Mac material covered by the likes of Elton John, Jewel and Shawn Colvin. Matchbox 20 reworked the acoustic ditty "Never Going Back Again."

"We liked that song because there was nothing on the original version except guitar and vocals, so we could do whatever we wanted to it," said Thomas, a self-professed "huge" Mac fan. Among his musical influences, he also cited Willie Nelson, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello.

Thomas became a vagabond musician when he was 17. "I wasn't happy with my home situation," he said, "so I thought the best thing for me was to try to figure things out on my own. Some nights I would stay with friends. Other nights I would sleep on park benches. I did that until I was 20 ... I had a little Casio keyboard with me. All kinds of songs that I'm really proud of date back to then, including '3 A.M.'

"I was a vampire gypsy. I still am with the job I have now. I love being on the road. I don't see me wanting to sit down anytime soon to write children's books, you know what I mean?" -- John Soeder