Rob Thomas' Night To Howl

Tuesday, February 22, 2000

Rock Daily - Rob Thomas can't stop apologizing for talking so fast. Even after consuming three glasses of wine in the trendy upstairs lounge of Moomba, Thomas keeps "babbling uncontrollably," in his words.

You can't really blame him.

These days, Thomas feels as much like a winner on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" as he does a musician, having had one of the most unlikely career windfalls in history. In one fell swoop, the 27-year-old entertainer has gone from being a critically questionable pop contender to a key agent in the comeback of the 52-year-old Carlos Santana having served as both vocalist and co-writer on the legend's smash single "Smooth."

In Thomas' day job as frontman for the alterna-pop band Matchbox 20 he sold a whopping 10 million copies of the group's debut LP, "Yourself or Someone Like You." That was in 1997-98. Yet even those sales figures couldn't buy the band much critical respect.

That began to change last summer when Thomas stepped up as frontman for the song that first shot Santana's album, "Supernatural," to the top of the charts.

"Smooth" a slinky, Latin-laced pop concoction became the most played single and video of 1999. Now it's the can't-miss pick to snag this year's Song of the Year prize at Wednesday night's Grammy Award.

"I gotta tell ya," Thomas says, grinning between sips of wine, "there's something about rolling into the Grammys with Carlos Santana. I mean, how cool can you get?"

Especially for a guy who had previously been seen as the furthest thing from cool. Even now, Thomas jokes, "It's not so much that I get more respect. It's that I get less flak."

But things probably wouldn't have even begun to turn around if Thomas hadn't been thinking of a career beyond Matchbox for quite some time.

"My goal has been to keep Matchbox going for as long as I can, but at the same time to start to write [for other people]," the singer explains. "In the end that's the thing that could give me longevity. As a writer, you don't have to keep up an image. And you don't have to be popular."

Unrestful Sabbatical

Thomas got started on outside writing in 1999, during some downtime in the band's career. After three years of nonstop touring, Matchbox took nine months off to gather steam and pen material for its second LP (which is being finished up for a May 2 release).

The singer had been lolling around in the SoHo loft he bought for himself and his wife after moving here from his native Orlando, Fla. Early last year, Thomas' song publisher told him about a writer, Itaal Shur, who was having trouble finishing a number he had been commissioned to write for the new Santana record. Turns out Shur lived just two blocks from Thomas. In order to get into the right frame of mind to write for Santana, Thomas took inspiration from his wife, Marisol, who is a Latina.

Initially, Thomas wasn't supposed to sing on the final song, just help write it. He did, however, croon on the rough demo. According to the singer, once Santana heard the result he said: "I believe this guy. Can we get him to sing for us on the album?"

Thomas doesn't recall his exact response, but he knows it was something in the vicinity of "F--- yeah!!!" But even then, the singer kept his hopes in check.

"For the longest time I didn't believe they were going to put it on the record," he says. "And, then, I didn't believe it was going to be the single."

It's telling that Thomas doesn't mention the commercial clout his own presence lent the song. After all, at his age, Santana needed a young face and voice to help him get the song onto current radio and video outlets.

Either way, in working with Santana, Thomas found himself intimidated and eager to soak up every lesson he could.

"The whole time I was enamored [of the star]," he gushes. "Carlos knows the amount of experience he has. And he's generous enough to share it."

It was all heady stuff for a self-described "geek" from Orlando.

"Being from Orlando is weird ever since it's become synonymous with all the boy groups," Thomas explains. "Now when they ask 'Where are you from?' I say, uh, 'Central Florida.'"

A Region to Believe

Matchbox rose as part of a wave from the South that pre-dated the Backstreet Boys. After Hootie and the Blowfish broke out of South Carolina in the early '90s, their label, Atlantic, began scouring the lower States for additional talent. From Florida, they scooped up Ed McCain and Matchbox then broke them both.

Initially, Matchbox rose on an alterna-pop wave that swelled after grunge crashed. The new movement included acts like Counting Crows and the Wallflowers. Critics came to resent those bands for softening the edge of alterna-rock. Worse, some saw Matchbox as riding the Counting Crows' coattails.

"If Counting Crows were the Backstreet Boys, then we were, like, 'N Sync, the next generation," says Thomas. The criticism "hurt really bad," Thomas admits.

While on the road, Thomas even caught flak for his ballooning weight, which has since greatly deflated and now he can laugh about it.

"God, I was a fat bastard for a while," the singer says with a smile. "I'll give them that."

Thomas, likewise, agrees with some critics who say that his group isn't innovative. "My record isn't changing the shape of music. But it has its place. Music critics have an agenda when they're listening to music. I'm not writing for them. I'm writing for that 14-year-old kid who's in the car wanting to turn up the radio for a song he digs."

Yet Thomas still feels his band has received more negative feedback than other Top 40 acts and resents it.

"I see Lenny Kravitz doing a car commercial and say, 'God, that sucks.' Or I see The Goo Goo Dolls everywhere. I used to dig those guys. But now I'm not sure I buy it."

But today, audiences young and old finally seem to be buying Thomas as a more credible presence. Does his newly elevated status rankle the rest of the band?

"Everybody is happy with their place," the singer insists. "The guys didn't want to go through what I go through. They like to have the best of everything and at the same time be able to go to the mall."

Not that they've had much time for such things lately. For the past few months, Matchbox 20 has done nothing but polish up its new LP in Atlanta. Thomas says the band didn't set out to make the new work that different from their debut. They even used the same producer.

"I never heard a group who could pull off a brand new sound for each album, except for U2," he reasons.

Which means you shouldn't expect the band to suddenly throw in 10 Latin-flavored tracks on the new album. But you can expect Thomas to continue with his outside songwriting. He just penned a new track with Bernie Taupin.

Regardless of how it's received and regardless of whether Matchbox manages to sustain real respect in the wake of the Santana connection Thomas insists he won't carp.

"If I were ever to complain about anything at this point, I have friends in struggling bands that would just smack me across the face," he says while downing his last glass of wine. "'Look at you! What are you bitching about?' they'd say."