On the Run

They're inoffensive, they're straight and they're such fence-sitters that even their album, Yourself Or Someone Like You, can't make its mind up. TRACEY GRIMSON contends with Matchbox 20.

There are a few words or phrases that will never be used to describe a Matchbox 20 interview: incredulous, wry cynicism, irony. It's safe to say, too, that anger and disenchantment are pretty rare commodities in the Matchbox camp. Trying to get a rise out of any member of this American quintet will only lead to unnecessary Viagra jokes. Matchbox 20 are nice, polite, level-headed. Bassist Brian Yale's one wink at naughtiness, on the phone from yet-to-be-conquered Japan, is a fairly decent impersonation (if that's not an oxymoron) of Austin Powers: "Do I make you horny, baby?" (Just for the record, absolutely not.)

The band enjoys vast success in Australia ("down unda" is Yale's repeated description). Their album Yourself Or Someone Like You recently cracked the golden half-million mark here which means that close to 50 per cent of the band's international sales outside the US have been in Australia. Plus there's been a live graduation, over three tours, from modest theatre shows to two nights at the Entertainment Centre.

"The last tour was the first time we actually felt it necessary to travel with our own security," confides Yale on the demands of popularity, "so we've got our own guy now."

Matchbox 20's success is not an original story for Australia. There has been a procession of predecessors - faceless, verse-chorus rock that include Collective Soul, Live and Hootie And The Blowfish (a favourite of Friends' Ross, the king of all dags). All of these artists cite as influential: REM, a band that manages credibility in spite of massive commercial returns, thanks in large to the enigmatic Michael Stipe.

The most notable point about Matchbox 20's singer Rob Thomas (the one you've seen on TV striding through a bowling alley with a camel) is that he's, well, bulked up a bit recently. Little is revealed through his detached lyricism ("I wanna push you around/I will, I will"), but we do know that one of his old bands used to rework REM while also suffering a predilection for the odd Richard Marx cover.

In official biographies and on fan Web sites the word "universal" is a favoured description of Matchbox 20 and, while non-converts read that as mundanity, it's everyday tales that make the boys accessible, according to Yale. "We're all pretty down-to-earth guys, I don't think we've got a problem with ego in our band. We've really been blessed with an enormous amount of success and it's all stunning to us."

So stunning, apparently, that Yale is thrown by the suggestion that Japanese female fans might entertain romantic fantasies. "Gee, I don't know about that," he hesitantly laughs. "We can't really tell what they want - there's that language barrier."

No such problem here, with sales of Matchbox 20's "tour pack" (basically the album re-released with a poster and handful of extra tracks) expected to reach 50,000 by Christmas. The band's label, Warner Music, predicts that up to half of those will be re-sales to fans who already own the album. Clearly, "down unda" is a haven for Matchbox 20 and half-a-million someones like them.

By Tracey Grimson