Matchbox Twenty: Radio-Friendly, Anonymous, But Mega-Platinum

Ho hum. Another band that’s selling millions of records in America and means diddly squat over here. Meanwhile, our brightest hopes for an American breakthrough, the Manic Street Preachers, have struggled to get a record deal over there. Some kind of gulf looming here, maybe?

Over here, Matchbox 20 tend to get bracketed as one of those radio-friendly but faceless American bands, alongside Counting Crows, Cake, Live etc. Over there they’ve been lumped in the same category too. Except that seven million sales of their debut album, Yourself Or Someone Like You, suggests that people over there can tell the difference. Their choppy, energetic rock, distinguished by singer Rob Thomas’ taut, emotionally charged vocals, cut a swathe through the intricacies of “Active Rock”, “Alternative Radio” and “Adult Alternative” radio formats (don’t even think about it, X-FM fans). After two hit singles with ‘Long Day’ and ‘Push’, word spread that their album was full of good songs and the upward spiral began in earnest. The band have spent two years on the road, culminating in tonight’s homecoming gig at the 15,000-capacity Orlando Arena.

“Yeah, I used to hang out here,” says Rob between mouthfuls of meat and coleslaw in a locker room/sanctuary backstage after the soundcheck. “I saw Billy Idol here. I saw Sting here. I saw a basketball game or two. I even went to a high school graduation here. So if we suck tonight that’s pretty much it.”

Rob wrote most of the songs on Yourself Or Someone Like You growing up in Orlando. “They were about incidents that happened or frames of mind that I was in. They’re not specific geographically, but when I come back it puts me in mind of a lot of that. I can walk around downtown and remember where I had the idea to write this song, the friends’ houses I used to hang out.”

Rob did a lot of hanging out at friends’ houses, not least as a respite from having to deal with an alcoholic mother. His oblique but engaging lyrics include his own perspective on that and other acute angles. “A lot of it isn’t even about relationships; it’s more about interpretations and the emotions involved - the ties between you that you have to deal with before you can deal with the person behind that.”

After knocking around for a few years with local bands (one of whom, My Friend Steve, has been cordially invited to open tonight’s show) he made the break in 1995 with bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucett to Miami where they found a couple of guitarists - Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor - a similarly ambitious producer called Matt Serletic and an indie label, Lava, with distribution links to Atlantic. “We had this apartment that we all shared while we were going through this whole process of getting a record deal and making the record,” recalls Rob. “That made us bond together and then all the travelling in the mini van made us real close. Now we’re travelling in two coaches so we can move our arms around without smacking someone in the face.”

Any other major lifestyle changes? “Ha! It used to be my biggest fear that I would change and then I realised it was part of an inevitable process. It would have been the same if I’d gone off to New York to work for an advertising company or something. But the thing is, we’re basically pretty much the same, despite everything that’s happened to us. But people’s perception of us has changed and it alters the way they react to you.”

Onstage, the band revel in being good at what they do. Rob prowls the stage, losing himself in his songs, pulling one hand inside his black sweater sleeve. You can tell a lot about a band by its covers and Matchbox 20’s include an version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 You’ and Willie Nelson’s ‘Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’.

The crowd is mainly 15-35 - flanked at each end by excitable young girls and fashion-free parents. They may go to rock gigs a bit like we go to the cinema, but they are surprisingly knowledgeable - particularly in their appreciation of the early ‘80s English pop (Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Buggles) played during the interval.

Rob admits that he grew up listening to “old” radio, “which is probably why we’ve never been accused of being hip. People say we write good songs, that we’re a good live band, but they’ve never accused us of jumping on a bandwagon. My problem, I guess, is that even when I write something serious it just sounds like a radio song. I just can’t not write a radio song.”

Rob is looking forward to the follow-up album. Not only have the band been transformed by the last couple of years, but so has producer Matt Serletic who has also gone on to greater things with Aerosmith’s recent hit, ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’. Meanwhile, there’s one more single off Yourself Or Someone Like You, the brooding ‘Back 2 Good’, giving the radio merry-go-round another spin this month.