Matchbox 20 burning bright

Copyright 1998 Houston Chronicle 

Rob Thomas and the members of his band, matchbox 20, were back home in South Florida hanging out in a bar when they overheard a local rock critic talking loudly about how much he hated "bands like matchbox 20."

It seems this critic had such disdain for the hugely successful band that he failed to recognize them even when they were playing pool with him.

Thomas let the guy go on for a while before introducing himself. Of course, by the end of the night, they were all thick as thieves.

"We made a deal," says Thomas. "He said he wasn't going to tell his hard-core friends that he'd been hanging out with matchbox 20. I said, `Fine. We won't tell our fans that we've been hanging out with a music critic.' "

Selling 7 million albums -- which is how many the band's debut effort Yourself or Someone Like You had sold on last count -- will help you develop that sort of equanimity.

On Wednesday, matchbox 20 headlines a sold-out concert with Paula Cole at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands. And yes, the band's name is officially spelled with a lower-case "m."

The last couple of years have not been kind to guitar-driven rock 'n' roll bands. Grunge imploded in a spasm of angst, leaving the field littered with one-hit wannabes. Other pop genres moved to fill the void at the top of the charts.

Along with the Wallflowers and Third Eye Blind, matchbox 20 is one of the few new rock bands to successfully buck the trend. They've done it by relying on an old-fashioned virtue often forgotten in the brave new world of techno and hip-hop: songwriting.

"Regardless of what type of music people relate to, there's always room for that," says Thomas.

"That's why I admire Jakob (Dylan) and the Wallflowers so much. Those are great songs. Tom Petty, that is what I aspire to. Willie Nelson is one of my biggest influences. Van Morrison, Elvis Costello -- they're all songwriters."

Thomas, 26, was born on a military base in Germany and raised by his grandmother in South Carolina and his mother in Florida. By the time he dropped out of high school at age 17, he was on his own.

Yet he says he doesn't look back on his childhood as especially difficult.

"It didn't seem troubled to me until everybody told me I was troubled," says Thomas. "I hit the road at 17. I wouldn't recommend it to everybody, but it does give you a chance to build character."

At each of the concerts on the current tour, there is a drop site for fans to donate clothes, blankets and anything else that might make life a little easier for a homeless street kid.

"This is not the only cause we're involved in, but it's the one that seemed like the best way to invite people to help," Thomas says. "We've been out there and seen what it's like for kids on the street. What I went through, I wouldn't compare to the actual suffering of these kids."

Even when he was sleeping on the beach, Thomas remained focused on his music. His first band, Tabatha's Secret, built a local following around Orlando, Fla., but the anticipated national record deal didn't come through. He regrouped with lead guitarist Kyle Cook, rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette to form matchbox 20.

Yourself or Someone Like You was released in the fall of 1996. The first single, Long Day, was a solid hit on modern rock radio. But it was the next single, Push, that catapulted the band into the Top 10 of the national sales charts.

Two full years after its release, the album is still selling briskly. And while he'd like to think his songs have a lot to do with the album's runaway success, Thomas is honest enough to admit there were other factors at work: "Every link in the chain was there for us -- the management, the record label. We lucked out."

The durability of Yourself or Someone Like You has bought Thomas plenty of time to write songs for matchbox 20's next album. "I don't know what to do. Our next album could be a boxed set if we wanted it to be," he says.

While a number of recent rock bands -- Hootie & the Blowfish being the most obvious example -- have been unable to duplicate the success of their top-selling debuts, Thomas says he feels less pressure now than he did earlier in his career.

"I felt a lot of pressure when no one in the world knew who we were. Now, if we put out a good record with good songs, we have people who will want to hear it. Somewhere in there, we're not a bad band. This is what we do."

Some musicians blame their careers for playing havoc with their personal lives. Although he can understand how they feel, Thomas -- who is engaged to be married in the spring -- thinks that attitude eventually can become a cop-out.

"I'm with the girl I love. We're traveling around the world together," he said. "It feels really good right now."