A Group With 20-Twenty Vision

Rob Thomas does not understand the hubbub. Ever since news broke of his band tweaking its name from Matchbox 20 to Matchbox Twenty for its new album, "Mad Season," he has endured nothing but talk about "name change."

"There was no name change," Thomas says, laughing to control his exasperation. "No matter how you spell it, the name is still Matchbox Twenty. We had no idea it was going to be a big deal." The big deal is that after selling 10 million copies of the debut album Yourself or Someone Like You, the world no longer considers Thomas and Matchbox Twenty a faceless post-grunge start-up.

This group is now distinguishable from Third Eye Blind, Marcy Playground and other bands of the same era. After taking home an armful of golden gramophones at the Grammy Awards early this year Thomas, 28, is no longer just a young guy with a knack for guitar hooks.

He is an artiste considered by many to be one of the best rock songwriters currently in the business.

Don't believe it? Ask the legendary Carlos Santana. Spurred by the Thomas-penned hit single Smooth, the Latin rock legend earned nine Grammys for his album Supernatural. Thomas won awards for song of the year, record of the year and best pop collaboration with vocal.

Or maybe check with Bernie Taupin, who gave Thomas a call not long ago seeking assistance on a song. As the man who wrote a large majority of Elton John's revered catalog, Taupin is no slouch at penning melodies.

The only person who's likely not to talk about his raised artistic status is Thomas. "I really don't know what celebrity feels like," Thomas says. "I still get excited when I'm at an event and I see famous people I like or admire. Four years ago I was happy to get tickets to a concert. It was just such a short period of time ago."

There are many definitions of celebrity. Having a debut album that couldn't get sniffed by a mutt when it was first released in October 1996, then watching it become the soundtrack to the summer of 1997 is star power. Getting the Late Show With David Letterman show to close down a street in midtown Manhattan during rush hour so Matchbox Twenty could perform outside the studio also isn't a bad trick.

The best indicator, however, is the rabid fan interest there is for a band that was an opening act and festival staple not long ago. The group has just started touring in support of Mad Season in small venues all over the United States, but don't be surprised if that turns into arenas in the near future.

According to local concert promoters Pace Entertainment, Matchbox Twenty sold out its Friday show at the 850-capacity Numbers in three minutes. Thomas is near-speechless when he hears this and is reminded how different the release of Mad Season is compared with Yourself or Someone Like You.

"The day our first record came out, Lava (the Atlantic sublabel that Matchbox Twenty recorded for) folded. We were really freaked," Thomas recalls. "Luckily, Push had gotten just enough play in places like Birmingham (Ala.) to keep us from getting dropped."

Push led to other singles, such as 3 a.m. and Real World, that became Top 10 hits on modern rock and pop radio across the country.

At the time everyone from the Wallflowers to Sugar Ray to New Orleans'-based Better Than Ezra was putting out smart-boy rock, making it difficult to distinguish survivors from pretenders. In retrospect, Thomas' easy style with a hook should have made it clear the hits would just keep on coming.

"It took us a long time to become overnight successes," Thomas jokes. "I learned that it's a fine line between getting a record deal and being 35 years old and a loser."

It would be unfair to hold Thomas to near-impossible creative standards on Mad Season just because he's rock's songwriter of the moment. He is aware, though, that his compositions are being more heavily scrutinized than in the past, and he welcomes it.

Holed up in a cabin in North Carolina with producers Matt Serletic and the band - bassist Brian Yale, drummer Paul Doucette and guitarists Adam Gaynor and Kyle Cook - Thomas composed Mad Season primarily on piano. Thomas chose piano over guitar because of his lack of proficiency on the keys, which forced different approaches to the songwriting.

The result is a moody body of work that moves from the symphonic accompaniment of You Won't Be Mine to the light romance of Last Beautiful Girl. Thomas' mind is filled with hopelessly catchy choruses, however, ensuring that the first single, Bent, and future hit Crutch will stay on rock radio well into next year.

"You know what I noticed about Rob," says Serletic, who produced and pinch-hit on keyboard on both Matchbox Twenty releases. "(On the first album) he had the passion and artistry; he just needed a little push inside that framework. Now he gets to the musical meaning he's searching for very succinctly."

Unfortunately, Thomas may never get the media outcry about his band's (non-) name change.

"This makes me more frustrated than a bad album review," Thomas says. "Just tell everyone that it's a six-album cycle. Next album we'll call the band The Matchbox Twenty and after that, The Matchbox.

"In the end," now Thomas is laughing, "we just want the name of the band to be Eddie."

By Michael D. Clark