Matchbox Twenty's Thomas Teams With Nelson

The artists formerly known as Matchbox 20 say their latest album has just the right mix. Steve Morse reports

GRAMMY-O. That is what Rob Thomas's mates in Matchbox Twenty now kiddingly call him after he won three Grammys for his collaboration with Carlos Santana on Smooth, including song of the year. Thomas is now a celebrity, but a reluctant one whose band mates are merciless in their rib-tickling abuse. As Thomas observes, "Whenever I'll say to our drummer, Paul (Doucette), that I think you're rushing that drum fill, he'll answer, 'Oh, I'm sorry, Grammy-O. Excuse me.' But it's all in fun."

"Rob is our friend and this gives us something to use against him," says Doucette, laughing. "Throughout all of this, Rob has been like that wild-eyed kid who is thrown into his favourite toy store."

The Grammy focus, while on singer Thomas, rather than on the band, has actually been a way for Matchbox Twenty to grow closer.

That became clear when Thomas, who dropped out of high school and hitchhiked around before forming the Florida-based Matchbox, turned down the cover of Rolling Stone because the editors wanted him on the front without the band.

"We know who we are. And I know that without one member of this band, we wouldn't be Matchbox Twenty," Thomas says of the musicians formerly known as Matchbox 20. They spell their name out fully, because that was their original tag before Atlantic Records changed it. But that was before they sold 10 million copies of their 1996 debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, which spun off the hits Real World, 3am and Push. It gave the band the freedom to do what they wanted. Such freedom, coupled with a larger studio budget that enabled the band to hire orchestral string players on several tracks, led to more studio experimentation and caused some of "the big, catchy, poppy numbers to get left off the record this time", says Thomas.

"They just didn't fit what we were trying to say with this album."

Still, Matchbox Twenty has too much of a pop sensibility to suddenly make an esoteric album. The new disc gambles with some arrangements -- lovers of the first record may not like everything here, especially the gushy Last Beautiful Girl and moody Rest Stop -- but there remain enough radio-friendly pop hooks to assure maximum mainstream appeal, as on the midtempo Bed of Lies ("I don't want to be somewhere I don't belong") and the ballad If You're Gone. And the mainstream is right where Matchbox Twenty wants to be. They don't fit in with manufactured teen idols like Britney, Christina and the Backstreet Boys, nor do they fit with the opposite extreme -- the aggressive bad boys from Korn to Kid Rock. They have their own niche.

"The world needs a left and a right -- and a right down the middle," says Thomas. "And we're right down that middle.

"No one wanted to make the same record again, though.

"When we sat down this time, we said, 'Wow, we sold a lot of records. Let's pat ourselves on the back and let's move on and see who we are now.' We had to start all over."

Mad Season is out now through Warner.

- Steve Morse