Despite selling thirteen million copies of their debut album, it wasn't until singer Rob Thomas teamed up with Carlos Santana for the smash hit, 'Smooth', that matchbox twenty achieved recognition outside the United States. Now with their new album Mad Season..., that's all about to change - they hope.
When Rob Thomas talks about it now, he says the first thing he can remember is the colour blue as the light from the radio lit up the car. As she roused him from his sleep, first with a shake and then a silent kiss, he noticed that the sun had faded and that night was falling along the shore. He sat up in a daze as she handed him his clothes wrapped up in a bundle and gently pushed him out the door. She kissed him again as he got out of the car, spoke in a low, soft voice, and then he says he remembers standing there alone as the car headlights rose up over him and out of sight and then there was only silence, broken by the lapping waves as the red buttons of her rear lights were swallowed up in the dark...
Matchbox Twenty's second album, their first in four years, Mad Season, is an evocative and beguiling record; no more so than on the haunting and desolate 'Rest Stop'. A vivid account of a love gone decisively cold in what seems like a matter of moments, it's a picturesque and quite modern fable set over one act in the front seat of a second hand car. Built on a haunting refrain that bears repeating, it typifies what's best about a revamped, almost forgotten band. Matchbox Twenty's singer and primary songwriter, Rob Thomas, 28, is less surprised by its strength.
"That happened, actually, just like that." He fiddles with the large gold hoop in his left ear and lights another Marlboro before settling back into the overstuffed sofa in his Dorchester Hotel suite.
"I was around 18 and still going through my hitchhiking phase and I'd met this girl while I was hitching a ride to the beach and we'd hung out for a week or so. And she lived in Tampa and the idea was that we were going to head back there and then she changed her mind about the whole deal. She was like, 'This isn't a good idea, it isn't going to work' and it wasn't. I was a loser, I didn't have a job, I was hitchhiking to the fucking beach for Christ's sake! But the whole thing stayed with me and I wrote the song about a week or so after that. That was about eight years ago. I've always liked it, but when we did the first record we didn't quite know what to do with it yet."
Robert Kelly Thomas was born on Valentine's Day, 1972, on a United States military base, in Germany. His parents separated when he was two years old and he and his sister moved back to the United States to stay at his grandmother's house in South Carolina. The house, which doubled as a store, was also a thinly veiled front for his grandmother to shift bootleg liquor and marijuana.
"She was a crazy lady, she was a lot of fun," says Thomas with a chuckle. "We had like a kitchen, bedrooms and a bathroom, but there was no actual living room, that was a store. She actually used to bootleg the liquor in a room under the stairs; it was just totally fucked. It was cool though, because to me that seemed perfectly normal. I think because of that I started off, without really having anything to do with it, with more character than I would have."
By the time he was 12, Thomas had moved to Florida with his sister and mother. An experience he now likens to falling out of the frying pan and into the fire. His mother, still a relatively young woman, had, in Thomas's own words, 'Started to kind of relive her own childhood'. Alienated and threatened and desperate to salvage their relationship, he left home in an attempt to come to terms with his own circumstances. He was 16. He spent three years drifting and homeless, though he's loath to use the term himself, simply insisting that he's seen life from a lot of different angles. He neglects to mention the fact that a lot of that time was spent sleeping rough on the beaches or the occasional park bench in and around the southern states. Otherwise, friends and peers would put him up; he played the piano at their parties in exchange for a place to stay. Tellingly, to this day the band actively support the Children Of The Night charity organization which helps provide aid for homeless children, even going so far as to encourage their fans to bring clothes, sleeping bags and shoes to one of their winter tours.
Utterly self-motivated, Thomas cites acclaimed children's poet Shel Silverstein's, The Missing Piece Meets The Big 0 as a constant source of inspiration (in a nutshell, the wedge-shaped piece finds it can only round itself out through unique diligence and personal endeavour - draw your own conclusions). Whatever the source, Thomas is an enigmatic and slight figure with no sense of swagger who seems mildly alarmed by the attention, accolades and plaudits his band have received. The fact that their debut album, Yourself Or Someone Like You has sold over 13 million copies seems to unsettle rather than satisfy him.
"It's kind of like this phantom guilt that follows you around. No one deserves to sell 13 million records - I can't imagine anyone saying, 'Yes, I deserve that and frankly I think we should have sold a few more!'" He laughs and rolls his eyes. "I feel like I'm trying to hustle people... I feel like I'm trying to compensate for the distance between what people are saying about me and where I feel I am."
By the time he was 20 Thomas was living in Orlando, where he'd joined a band called Tabitha's Secret (they're currently selling the demos Rob recorded with them as a full-blown album, much to his dismay). Thomas quit to form Matchbox 20, as they were then, with drummer Paul Doucette coining the name (Thomas wanted to call the band Larry), and the band signed a deal with the Atlantic imprint label Lava in a matter of months. They released their debut album, Yourself Or Someone Like You, and toured it heavily for the next three years. When the band finally got off the road none of them had anywhere to live, but the album had sold in its millions.
Thomas, typically, puts it down to sheer good luck, but that's to overlook and undermine a debut album with many touches of songwriting greatness, real emotion and an unassailable ear for a radio-friendly hit. The four singles from the album - 'Push', '3 a.m.', 'Real World' and 'Back 2 Good' - all became major US hits. It was on the album that Thomas' song writing skills really shone, though. The beautifully rendered, delicately constructed 'Kody' was written about a girlfriend's young nephew - one of twins - who had died at the age of two after a heart operation where the surgeon accidentally left a sponge inside his chest. A photograph of the boy waving happily at the camera sits inside the album sleeve.
"I actually wrote that song after I came back from his funeral and I'd never been to something like that, a child's funeral. It affected me like nothing else ever had or has. I didn't even really know the family that well, but I just bawled. And that was Kody, after he died you'd go into a room and his brother would be sitting there talking to him as if he was sitting there. I don't know, maybe he was..."
In America, it was the smash 'Push' that drew the band most attention, much of it unwanted. Thomas recalls sitting on the tour bus reflective and immensely satisfied with an album that was crawling toward the five million mark when MTV reporter Kurt Loder appeared on TV to announce that, "Matchbox 20 should be enjoying their success, but they can't."
"I remember looking across the bus at the guys and going, 'We can't?? Why not?' Suddenly, 'Push' was a song about domestic abuse and I was the one doing the abusing."
The song's chorus - 'I wanna push you around, I will, I will/ I wanna push you down, I will, I will' inflamed the only half-listening, easily offended and inflammatory moralists looking to hang something on the hook of rock music. In truth, Thomas had written the song about an ex-girlfriend who had emotionally abused him throughout their relationship. Finally deserting him with a flamboyant little stab that saw her giving all his clothes away to the local Goodwill charity shop, leaving him with, literally, the clothes on his back.
"It was amazing, she was the one doing all the abusing and suddenly I was the one being criticised for promoting domestic abuse. Some groups even tried to get radio stations to boycott the single."
He lets out a long, exasperated stream of air that momentarily lifts his fringe. "I was in this club once, the single was just starting to take off and we were still on that circuit and this guy came up to me and was like, 'Hey man, I understand how you feel, I love my girlfriend man, but sometimes you just lash out', and to me it was very weird to be misunderstood about what the song was about, weird but okay. But to have some guy trying to bond with you on that misunderstanding. I was like, 'no way, don't talk to me anymore because I'm going to fucking hit you'..."
He trails off, momentarily sideswiped by the memory. The band finally shook the controversy off ("Mainly we just kept our mouths shut and kept playing, we kept away from the whole circus..."), endured the road and sat awestruck as their debut album kept growing beyond their wildest dream: bolstered by a series of dramatic, nonsensical, black and white videos.
"Oh yeah, here's another shot of me looking fine," Thomas laughs. "And here's a girl in her apartment pulling her hair out, and here's the drummer, he looks pretty fine, too. That's all going to change with this album," he adds.
Matchbox 20 criss-crossed through the media, snubbing the prestigious Rolling Stone magazine along the way, who wanted to feature Rob, not the band on their cover. "We'd sold four million albums by then so we said fuck you," Thomas shrugs. "I don't think that we're quite what they're looking for, we're not exactly pushing the boundaries of music, we're just a band playing songs."
Four hit singles, hundreds of shows and 13 million albums later, the band finally came off the road and, by Thomas' own admission, didn't really have a clue as to who they were anymore.
"That was me running away at 22, I've never really gone back. It was so weird, we'd been away three years and it felt like we'd grown ten. All those cultures, all those different people, all those different experiences. Outside of the band, it was suddenly difficult to define who we were as people. Ultimately, it seemed that the only way we could think of not remaking the first album again was to go home, relax and forget about it all for a while."
They finally returned to Tree Studios in Atlanta to start work on their follow up album, Mad Season, in August last year. "We kept turning on the TV and there'd be these reports going, 'Okay, any time now, the new Matchbox 20 record', you know, and then these rumours that we'd split up, the usual stuff. Of course, up until 'Smooth' I don't even think we had a face, that gave us something else."
He shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly. For its part, Mad Season reflects the band's change in perspective. Musically less austere, though it still has the dark punch found in their debut, it's more expansive and colourful, less wary experimentation and all the better for it. It may well be the album to give the band the identity and respect they deserve. Having said that, though, there's absolutely no guarantee that it will sell even half as well.
"Oh, there's no doubt that this album could well be a shit sandwich in some people's eyes," he admits cheerily. "No doubt at all. But you can never focus too much on your career, that's done for you. I'll try and make all my stars line up in the right place, but it's going to happen how it happens regardless. To be honest, over the last few years I feel that we've got so much more than we worked for anyway. Don't get me wrong; we worked very hard, but 13 million records... At least if it does go to shit now we feel that we've made a good record. That's the thing that keeps you grounded, when you realise that most of the song writers that I admire, who are here..." He raises his right up high to form a plateau and then puts his left considerably lower. "And I'm here, and that's important to me, that's my goal. You can't put as much stock in record sales."
Surely that's very easy to say when your debut album's been a multi-platinum success?
"I don't know, I said all of that before I'd sold all those records. Admittedly, it would be easier to say to myself that I've sold that many records so I must be writing those kind of great, storyteller songs. But I'm honest enough with myself to know that I'm not yet."
Mad Season goes some way to achieving Thomas' songwriting goals. Themes are less immediate, the tangible point of the lyrics less enforced, the sense of storytelling stronger. Lyrically he's moved up a notch and musically his appraisal of his band as now being, "five guys making one noise" is apparent; not just an idle boast or a new spin to sell another album. The title track is especially rich in metaphor, detailing the band's dramatic and rigorous rise to the top. Musically flamboyant, almost bubbly, it's a departure for a band who originally stared stony faced from the sleeve of their debut.
"We had a great time with that song, in a way it is about our recent past, but I wanted to do it without putting in anything about a tour bus or a crowd. I didn't want to do the, 'I've seen a million faces and I rocked them all' line [laughs]. Bon Jovi has that all covered. Instead, I focused on what it does to you personally and emotionally without mentioning the actual thing that does it. What it leaves behind - which is that feeling of the more you learn, the less you know. Just recently, I really, really thought I had it figured all out and now I really know that I don't at all."
For now Rob Thomas is coming to terms with the real price of fame: "I can't watch gigs from out front now, I just get hassled, I haven't seen a fucking show in forever. And if me and my wife are out walking and we see a gang of teenage girls, I just drop my head and she instinctively puts her arm around me and kinda hides me...it's the weirdest thing.
"You know, we had like this little baby Matchbox 20 and now it's like we've got the real deal. I like this album better than I did the last and hopefully I'll like the next one more. We're a work in progress and it's progressing pretty well."