Matchbox 20's road trip to stardom

By Steve Morse, The Boston Globe

Rob Thomas, singer for Matchbox 20, cites "a big batch of craziness" surrounding his band's overnight success. The group has merrily watched its debut album, "Yourself or Someone Like You," sell 5 million copies. The sales have been shoved along by the Thomas-penned, guitar-pop tunes, "Long Day," "Push," and "3 a.m.," which have been all over the radio dial.

It's quite a turnaround for Thomas, who, during his teenage years, was on his way to being "a loser," he says.

"There's a fine line between being a successful, tenacious songwriter and being a loser. It's just one record deal away," says Thomas, whose eclectic influences range from Joe Jackson and the Cure to Van Morrison and Willie Nelson.

Thomas, 26, describes himself as "the ringmaster" of Matchbox 20, the Orlando, Fla.-based band that headlines the Orpheum tomorrow (its second date there in the last few months). It will be broadcast live by WBCN-FM (104.1) at 8:45 p.m.

Matchbox 20 loves to perform, having paid its dues on the club circuit, versus the quick-hit-video path of many of today's breakthrough acts.

"We'll probably tour the rest of the year. We love the road," says Thomas, who did construction work and tended bar before his musical luck turned.

"Some people say, 'Well, maybe you should pull off the road now.' But if the record was doing badly, people would say, 'Hey, get out there and push it.' We'd be doing this either way. We really enjoy it," Thomas adds.

Strangely enough, the band's luck could easily have gone the other way. Matchbox 20's album came out the day that its label, Lava Records, was subsumed into Atlantic Records. That was 53 weeks ago and there was instant panic in the band. "But you can never tell how things are going to go," Thomas says of the album, which was saved by word-of-mouth popularity, before radio came aboard.

Matchbox 20 - named for patches seen on a stranger's jacket - has lit up radio with "Push," a song that Thomas has had to defend. The lyrics "I wanna push you around/I will, I will/I wanna push you down/I will" have ignited some controversy among narrow-minded listeners who assume the song is about physical violence toward women.

"That's ridiculous," says Thomas. "The lyrics are really about me and how I felt manipulated in a relationship. Since there's no sympathy for the man these days, I changed the lyrics so they would be from the woman's point of view. I write everything from the woman's point of view. I grew up with my mother and my sister."

For anyone thinking Thomas is an insensitive lout, listen to the song "3 a.m.," which is about the loneliness of his alcoholic mother. And then there's the aching "Kody," about an ex-girlfriend's nephew who died at age 2 after heart surgery.

"They're all personal songs," says Thomas. "And they're all relationship songs. They're just not all romantic."