Magic Matchbox

Hobart Mercury (Australia)

They would meet eventually.

However, Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas wasn't counting on a showdown with his sworn enemies, the Backstreet Boys, at the American music industry's night of nights.

But there they were at the American Music Awards, staring one another down. Backstreet was back. All right.

"Brian Yale, our bass player, swears they were ready to come over and hit us," laughs Matchbox 20 drummer Paul Doucette.

"We were touring through Europe doing promotions," explains Thomas, "and the Backstreet Boys were huge. It was only while we were in Europe that I learned they are from our home town of Orlando, Florida. "So everybody's asking us, 'You're from Orlando . . . do you know the Backstreet Boys?' And I'm like, 'Who?' I'd never heard of them. "Then," Thomas says, disgusted, "I heard their song (Backstreet's Back) and I was like, 'Bring me the heads of the Backstreet Boys!' "We were just being mean and I thought I could get away with it, because you never think you're actually going to see them in person. "So there we are at the American Music Awards standing behind a curtain ready to go on and perform, and standing in the wings _ because they're on next to present an award _ are the Backstreet Boys. They're just standing there looking at us.

"Then they go out on stage," Thomas says, "Going 'Backstreet's back! All right!'"

"They've got to be idiots. If you're in a band and use the name of the band in a song, you're just a jerk. What if I started singing, 'Matchbox 20 is here! All right!'"

Oddly enough, Matchbox 20 is here. And to paraphrase their hometown colleagues, they're doing more than all right.

The band's debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, a diverse and textured rock album coupled with Thomas's oblique narratives, has sold three million copies and loitered inside the Australian top 10 for months.

With Matchbox 20's runaway success, US music analysts have heaped praise on Thomas's interpretive songwriting skills. On Yourself or Someone Like You, lives unravel as characters struggle with difficult relationships and circumstances, themes inspired by Thomas's teens that included a homeless period.

"But the album is not depressing," he says. "It was meant to be a celebration of getting through, surviving. For me, these are happy songs."

Homelessness did not equal hopelessness, Thomas says. "The record company wanted me to work the homeless angle," Thomas told USA Today newspaper, "but it was just a character-building time. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

"Girls could come up to me in a Burger King and say, 'Do you want to go to the beach for a week?' and I'd say yeah, without even thinking about it. I wasn't sleeping on the street every night thinking about my horrible situation.

"Today, when I see a homeless person, I think 'that could have been me but that will never be me'.

"The homelessness I went through was so much less desperate. I had friends who looked after me. I had avenues, even if they weren't traditional avenues. True homelessness is a life crisis and an epidemic, and it minimises what I went through."

There is something inside the new high-profile Thomas that longs for the anonymity of the old days. But that's all.

"I like the money we are getting," he smiles. "Cold hard cash, baby."

He is bemused at the reaction to his songs, particularly community anger at the hit single Push which was misread by some as advocating violence towards women.

"We were watching MTV and there was a story about us," Doucette says. "And this girl comes on the screen and says, 'Matchbox 20 should be enjoying their success. But they're not! They're tortured, they're this and that . . .' "

Thomas adds: "It was ridiculous. We're having the time of our lives. "It's difficult," he says. "I had no problem writing the kind of songs I write, saying the things I wanted to say. And I was all right with that - until I put out this f. . . . record.

"You have to deal with not only what people think about you but also the misconceptions."

He cuts to a story about a fan who hangs around the band a little too closely.

She recently made each member a hat with a special nickname embroidered on each one. Doucette's reads "Bongo Boy" and Thomas's, for some unfathomable reason, says "Towel Boy".

"She pulled me aside one night and said: 'I'm really worried about you'," Thomas said.

"And I'm like: 'Worried about me? You don't even know me!' "I'm very flattered that people want to know me through my music but you get to a point where you have to draw the line.

"I did an interview with a US magazine recently and they called me back to recap on a few things. This reporter says: 'I'm just calling to check that you are not going to give me information on your girlfriend, her name and where she lives.

"I'm like: 'Why would I agree to that? She didn't write a goddamn thing!'

"She's a sweet, beautiful girl . . . she's not sucked up by the media and she does not need to be. It's stupid. She had nothing to do with this record. There is no reason you should know about her." Thomas is restless. He is ready to record a new album.

"We put together some ideas for a new song at soundcheck yesterday. I like those ones," he says. "It's a band effort then.

"I think we are ready to do a new record soon. There will be some out there who think we haven't got another record in us but I'm aiming on something a lot better.

"I don't wanna be a one-hit wonder but, you know," Thomas laughs, "maybe we are."

ADD Matchbox 20 to the ranks of Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane and Smashing Pumpkins - bands whose names have humble, meaningless and illogical origins.

The rising rock band took its moniker from a softball jersey bearing the number 20 and a variety of patches, including one that read "matchbox".

"The two parts weren't even related," says Rob Thomas. The name stuck, partly because a rash of earlier names barely registered in the band's collective consciousness. Among those adopted and quickly rejected: Big Shoe Spider, Tindersockets and Joanie Loves Chachi.

The quest for the perfect tag exasperated Thomas, who says: "People would ask, 'What's the name of your band?' and I'd say, 'Larry'. We went through entire books of names."

And then a shirt caught their eye, inspiration struck and the band rallied around its new identity.

"Oh, my God, no, we could not stand that name," Thomas grumbles. "Matchbox 20 was the stupidest name we had ever heard. But a couple of months later, it was the only name that stuck in our heads. We said 'all right, what the hell, we'll take it'."