Wednesday, June 21, 2000
- And you, and you, and you....
SonicNet - On a sunny April afternoon, I head down Highway 101 from San Francisco to Buellton, Calif. The town is known chiefly for its landmark restaurant, Pea Soup Andersen's, but the rolling hills around the nearby Santa Ynez Valley are known for the celebrities who seek refuge there from the glitz and smog of nearby Los Angeles, as well as for a handful of wineries.
I am driving south because I am hot on the trail of pop phenoms Matchbox Twenty, who have planned a private show in Buellton for a group of radio and recording industry types. There they will preview songs from their much-anticipated sophomore release, Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty.
After five hours on the road, I arrive at Buellton's rustic Zaca Creek Inn, behind which sits the barnlike venue where the band will play. Inside the dim, wood-paneled hall, people dutifully dressed in black hover and drink, schmoozing their way through the small crowd. These folks, dressed to the nines in cocktail party wear, have spent the afternoon at the band's manager's Santa Ynez Valley ranch, enjoying a horse show and barbecue.
The scene is a strange mix — glamorous people in a down-to-earth setting — a mixture not unlike the band itself. On the one hand, Matchbox Twenty have sold a cool 11 million copies of their 1996 debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You. On the other hand, their lead singer, Rob Thomas — despite having won three Grammies for his work with Santana on the #1 hit "Smooth" — comes across as a pretty humble guy — a down-to-earth singer living an alluring life.
Humble or not, Thomas and company aren't just out to have fun tonight; as do all bands who sell millions of albums on their first outing, they've got something to prove. They've also got about 150 music-industry types all liquored up and ready to pass judgment.
Beneath the exposed oak beams and wrought-iron chandeliers in the hall, Elton John songwriting collaborator Bernie Taupin introduces Matchbox Twenty. Rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor plays sitarlike tones to launch into "Angry," from the new album. The songs they play from Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty are radio-friendly but more rock-oriented than those on their first disc. "Crutch" opens with heavy guitar riffs underscored by Brian Yale's dark bassline. Thomas, with artfully mussed hair and a rock star's requisite leather pants, sings, "I don't wanna be a crutch/ Yeah yeah/ One step away from down." "Bent" features heavy beats from drummer Paul Doucette and more chunky guitar riffs. Along with the new songs, the band obliges the crowd with a few favorites from Yourself or Someone Like You. The intimate crowd abandons scrutiny and responds enthusiastically.
After the show, I request an interview with Thomas, who politely asks if I would mind waiting a few minutes. Audience members have lined up to greet the singer and have their pictures taken with him, as his wife, Marisol (model and star of the video for "Smooth"), looks on.
I mill around for close to two hours as the newly crowned rock star greets his public. I talk with bassist Brian Yale, who is content outside the center of attention but admits it's pretty cool when 1970s film starlet Bo Derek walks up to tell you how great you are.
I spot Bo Derek #151; all smiles and platinum blond — and follow her, entranced, out the door and down the stairs, and I wind up at the wine bar, in an outdoor courtyard between the concert hall and the parking lot.
Suddenly, a skinny figure comes running down the wide, landscaped stairs behind me, nearly tripping over himself. "Hey, man!" Thomas says. "I was afraid you left!"
We find a bench and sit down to talk.
This album feels a bit more rock and roll than the first one.
Some of it, yeah. When we tried to go rock [on Yourself or Someone Like You], we went rock, and when we didn't, we just didn't. We didn't have as much in-between on this record, I think.
Of the songs you played tonight, what are your favorites?
Tonight? My favorite song on the record is one called "You Won't Be Mine." I like it because I got to play piano on the record, which is really cool, and we put a 68-piece orchestra to it, which is like a band dream. Tonight it felt a little rough around the edges, but it felt like it was getting there. We like it when it just all comes into place perfectly, and it won't for another few weeks, until we hammer it out live. You gotta go out there and make some mistakes live, so you can really pull it through.
Tonight was the first time playing the new songs live?
Yeah. It was my idea to do this for all the people, because I figured that with the length of time we've been gone, it'd be a good way to get people excited about the new record and let all the promotion people know that we're aware of what goes on and what makes it happen, because a lot of times, you feel so distant from the people who are selling your record, who are doin' it for you, and you're here doin' it, and you just don't even realize. It gave us a chance to meet a lot of people. It gave us a chance to say, 'OK, we're a team, let's go!'
You brought people here from all over the world to hear tunes you've never played live before. How do you feel it went over?
Everybody that came out, they were really nice. The radio stations seemed happy, which is part of what you're doing here, because you want everybody to like what you're doing. You want them to play your record, because you want to pay your bills, when you get down to the basics of it. The business of it.
How did your approach to making this album differ from the way you made the last one?
A lot of my friends that are musicians like this record a lot more. There's more music going on. When we made the first record, me and the bass player and the drummer had been together for a few years, and then we started this record. We went in, we found our guitar players, and we made the record, and it was like, 'OK, we're Matchbox Twenty, what does Matchbox Twenty sound like? Well, I don't know, this is what we think we sound like, so we made this record, you know?' And it was the best record that we could have made at that time. We were really happy with it. When we made this record, it was like, 'We've been out, the whole five of us, for like three and a half years straight, touring every night,' and it's like, 'Now we're a band.' So this record, to us, was the sound of five guys at one time, making the same noise. For us, this is what would be the first Matchbox Twenty record. Everyone's influences are in there, for better or for worse, and we walked away from it saying we like our record — which is the only thing we can do, because after that, it's up to everybody else.
So does this feel more legit to you, somehow, than the last one?
I can't say 'legit,' because, at the time, with our facilities and everything we were capable of doing, I think we topped ourselves out with that last record. We're young and we're works in progress, and we're trying to get better every time, so it felt legit to us then. Now, after being on the road, we all feel like we have so many more influences, and we got so many more things we want to do, and then after you have such a great success — which is such a good thing — and then you're playing it for so long, there's all these things you want to do. Like, 'God, gotta make another record now,' because when you're with a band and all of us are there, and this is where the drop-off point for all our creativity is. It's like, 'We gotta get to that next record soon, because we're loading up on stuff.' So, 'legit,' maybe not, but I think it's a better record.
There's a notorious pressure on bands who have had very successful debut albums to equal or top themselves with the second album. Matchbox Twenty is in that dubious situation, and you're also coming off this huge success with "Smooth."
Yeah, exactly. Two big successes, like one after the other. People are, like, waiting for me to fail.
Does that pressure affect how you think about your work, or are you just making music?
It feels like it would be pressure, except all the success has been so freakish that no one could expect you to duplicate that. So, it's kind of like a breath of fresh air. It's like, 'You know what? We're never gonna do that.' All we can do is make a good record. We put it out and, you know, it's not gonna do that. We know it's not. So that takes the edge off. We don't expect to do it. Our record company would love for us to do it, our manager would love for us to do it, but we're pretty grounded in reality. It just doesn't happen, but I think that if we play our cards right, and we take the success that people have given us and use it the right way, then we can be a part of the machine. We can just continue to make records and go and play, and people can come see us. It's not as important to be on top of the heap as much as it is just to be a part of the heap, you know? We want to be able to play and have people come see us. It doesn't have to be 10 million people buying our records, but as long as enough are buying them that we can make another one each time, then we're just putting new links in the chain every time we go.
What's your ultimate goal as a band?
Twenty-five years from now, to be able to get up and play music, and people give a fuck if I do or not, you know?
Is that something you're taking from Carlos Santana?
Working with Carlos shows you that. You take somebody like me, it shows you that numbers really don't mean a lot. Because you take someone like us and our band, you can sell a diamond-plus record, and what, really, they say put us over the edge was working with Carlos, and that's what got us the attention for this new record. I got a Grammy — three Grammys — because I worked with someone like Carlos, who didn't sell records, but he was a musician's musician, and he did everything for the right reasons. And the light at the end of his tunnel he'll never find — which is a good thing — because he's always pushing it, always trying to make things, just to be a better musician, and I hope I take something away from that. Because even if we sell a lot of records, it still isn't a mark of quality, it's a mark of quantity. I like this record, but hopefully I'll like our next record better, and hopefully I'll like our next record better. I listen to a band like the Jayhawks and I think, my god, I'm so far from being able to do that, just being able to come out with that kind of a lyric and that kind of a song, and just drop it out. That's what I'm trying to do each time is head towards that, trying to be better and do that.
Is this going to be full-on rock record?
The stuff we played live here, we picked one half of the record that was more of the upbeat half of the record, whereas the other half of the record was where we took a little more fun with it with our ballads, and we had instrumentations, and that's what we're hoping to do on our club tour. We're trying to get that together now, so I can play piano. We can't bring a 68-piece orchestra out, so we're trying to figure out the best way to sample it without sounding cheesy, or maybe just not do it at all, figure out the best way around that and do something different to it, you know?
You can go the Metallica route and play with different orchestras in every city ...
Yeah, right. Oh, we're gonna do it one day. If this record stays around long enough, we're gonna do it for sure. That's the reason you do something like that, is so one day you can be on "Storytellers" and have a big fucking orchestra. ... I think the ones that are upbeat and that are rock, we did try and focus more on that. When you listen to the whole record, it goes to so many different places, and we wanted to actually go to those places. We didn't want to hint at it, we didn't want to give the idea — if we made a rock song, we wanted to make a rock song. If we write a ballad, we want it to be a good ballad. We're a pop band, but we can try our best with each record to be an intelligent pop band. We can try our best to at least earn our money and earn the accolades, because we haven't yet. We kind of got 'em a little early. We sell a lot of records ... We earned that, but with that comes this whole stigma about, 'Oh my god, you guys are great! You guys must be ...,' and you're like, 'OK, shit, we're not that good. What are we gonna do now?' It pushes you to try and do something, you know?