With a sound that’s equal parts ‘70s rock and ‘90s alternative, Matchbox Twenty’s 1996 debut You Or Someone Like You [sic] served up a steady stream of radio hits and sold more than ten million records. (Having singer Rob Thomas on 1999’s song of the year—Santana’s ‘Smooth’— certainly didn’t hurt either.)
The latest MB20 release, Mad Season[Atlantic], seems destined to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor. Jangly electrics, ringing acoustics, and a healthy dose of anthem-approved power chords – courtesy of guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor – are all over the album. In addition, the Matchboxers also added strings and horns into the mix.
"We wanted to expand the arrangements for this record," says Cook, "and in order to make room for the horns and strings, we had to spread the guitar ideas out a little more – both in terms of playing less and careful panning of the instruments in the mix. So there are more layers, but there’s also more space."
Fleshing out Thomas’ song ideas is primarily how Cook and Gaynor view their roles in the band. "Our job," says Cook, "is to arrange the songs. Rob will give us the chords and the vocal melody, and Adam and I will come up with counterpoint melodies and chord substitutions."
"Rob did more writing on piano this time around," adds Gaynor, "and the voicings he played allowed us to stretch out on the chords and melodies more. But Kyle and I also work really hard to make sure that our parts complement each other. If we have one part that’s high and jangly, we’ll usually write another that’s lower and heavier. The verse in ‘Bent’ is a good example."
‘Bent,’ the album’s lead-off single and band’s live opener, provides an insight into the recording techniques on Mad Season. "I used a Music Man Axis Sport with really old Gibson pickups into Budda and Fender amps," recalls Cook. "I played through two amps most of the time—that way we could switch between them or blend them. Matt [Serletic, the album’s producer] has a great ear for knowing what tones and frequencies will work when you’re layering guitars."
Gaynor—who was responsible for the power chords in ‘Bent’—also gleaned valuable information about stacking guitar parts in the studio. "We really tried to find tones that wouldn’t get in the way of anything else but could still be heard," he says. "I learned a lot about creating depth and dimension."
Cook played the clean parts in the verse, as well as blending melody in the intro—a part that came about purely by accident. "I was just screwing around when the rolled the tape," he says. "For some reason I couldn’t hear the click, which is why the first bend sounds the way it does—it comes out of nowhere. It was a mistake that we liked and couldn’t duplicate, so we kept it."
To take their Mad Season show on the road, Gaynor and Cook will stay true to the recorded versions, but with an added edge. "We naturally get a little heavier live," says Gaynor. "We can emulate the record accurately, but with a louder, more energetic vibe."
"There are certain sounds on the record that need to be there," elaborates Cook. "For example, I’m bringing a PRS hollowbody with a piezo bridge for ‘If You’re Gone,’ because that tune has a fast transition from an acoustic pickling pattern to an electric wall of sound. On other songs though, we just rock them out."
From a gear standpoint, much of what Cook used on the album will be pressed into service. "I have a PRS Singlecut, a Music Man Silhouette, a Gibson Les Paul, and my current favorite – a Fender Danny Gatton Telecaster," he explains. "That guitar has a great bluesy tone – we used it all over the record." For the more acoustic based songs, Gaynor will bring Taylors. "We recorded with Martins," he says, "but these Taylors are the best acoustics I’ve ever tried. I used one on ‘Angry’ and ‘Rest Stop’ from Mad Season, and ‘3AM’ from the first album. We don’t do anything special. We just plug the guitar into a direct box, and it sounds like an angel."
With their seemingly overnight success, it’s interesting to see how Cook and Gaynor view their good fortune. "You’ve got to have songs, and you’ve got to have talent," offers Cook. "Even so, we got lucky with that first record. No one could have guessed that it would do so well, and we have to exist in its shadow. We’re proud of the new record, though. We stand behind it, and whatever happens happens."
For Gaynor, playing on this level has been a great learning experience. "Being in this band has taught me to lay back," he says, "Rob writes great melodies, and I don’t want to step all over them. That’s why we work on every level of the arrangement in rehearsal—we break down all the parts to make sure the bass and the drums are together. Then we’ll add my parts to see if I’m fitting in, and so on. It all adds up to a live show that grooves."