By Malcolm Mayhew
Knight Ridder Newspapers
A few months ago, Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas was flipping through a music-industry magazine when he came across an ad for the band's then-upcoming second disc.
In the ad, a picture of Thomas was prominently featured. A headline above it trumpeted him as the writer of "Smooth," Thomas' Grammy-winning duet with Carlos Santana, as well as Matchbox Twenty's string of hits from its debut CD, Yourself or Someone Like You, which has now sold more than 10 million copies.
The rest of Matchbox Twenty, though, was in the far bottom corner of the ad, separated from Thomas.
Needless to say, Thomas was not happy.
"The label did it without my knowledge," Thomas said in a recent telephone interview as the group was kicking off a tour to promote its second CD, Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty.
"I know what they were trying to do, to tie together 'Smooth' with our new record to help sell it. Even the guys (in Matchbox Twenty) were like, 'Yeah, man, let's tie them together.' But if we did that, we would be saying something about ourselves that we don't want to say."
It would say, for example, that Thomas IS the band; that he doesn't really need the other guys in Matchbox Twenty, that after "Smooth," he could go off and enjoy a successful solo career.
And why not? By winning three Grammys this year for his "Smooth" collaboration with Santana, Thomas has become a household name. Before "Smooth," only real Matchbox Twenty fans - those who looked at Yourself's liner notes, not just listened to the disc - knew who he was. Now, pretty much, everyone does.
"'Smooth' really opened the door for him, as the singer for Matchbox Twenty and as a potential solo artist,'' says Scott Strong, program director for Dallas-Fort Worth rock station Merge 93.3 FM (KKMR), which plays the band consistently. "If you look at the demographics breakdown, before 'Smooth,' Matchbox got played on alternative-rock radio and adult-alternative radio. But now you see Matchbox Twenty in a lot of different demographics."
But Thomas remains adamant about his role in the band. He says he has no intention of leaving the group to pursue a solo career.
"I never left in the first place," he says. "This is my home. I know for a fact that we wouldn't be what we are without the five of us. No matter what we do in our off time, this is what we do full time."
Melinda Newman, West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine, says Thomas really has no reason to leave.
"Why should he go off and do a solo career?" asks Newman, who recently profiled Thomas and the band for Billboard. "He's got these guys who've been with him for years. And they perfectly understand that he's the star, and they're fine with it. Right now, he has the best of both worlds."
And despite selling millions of records, Thomas genuinely seems oblivious to fame. He answers questions with friendly, earnest, don't-take-me-seriously laughs; he jokes often and makes casual conversation about his favorite bands these days and shares humorous anecdotes about Matchbox Twenty's popularity.
"We're pretty fortunate that we're all down-to-earth. We keep each other in check," Thomas says. "Like if we're in a restaurant and one of us is rude to our waitress, the rest of us are like, 'Hey, rock star, look at you.' We've kept everything within a small circle - our crew, our wives, our families. A lot around us has changed, but we're still a little group that has stayed the same."
Born on a military base in Germany, Thomas is an Army brat who floated back and forth between his mother's home in Florida and his grandmother's house in South Carolina. When he became stressed over his unstable home life, Thomas dropped out of high school at 17 and spent the next few years drifting between homes and in and out of various rock bands.
Eventually, he wound up back in Orlando, Fla., where he met bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette. The trio spent the next three years changing names until they decided on Matchbox Twenty. Guitarists Adam Gaynor and Kyle Cook, friends of the band members, then joined.
Through contacts in the music industry, the group managed to snag Collective Soul producer Matt Serletic to help produce a batch of demos. The songs wound up in the hands of Lava, a subsidiary of major label Atlantic. Lava signed Matchbox Twenty and, in October 1996, released its debut, Yourself or Someone Like You.
The disc sat in the bins for months as the group quietly toured the country, playing small clubs. "No one knew who we were," Thomas says. "It was great."
Eventually, Atlantic sniffed a success story and released "Long Day" as a single to several influential alternative-rock radio stations. The catchy, guitar-driven song quickly took off, paving the way for other singles: "3 a.m., Long Day" and the then-controversial "Push." One of Thomas' ex-girlfriends, who claimed "Push" was about her, threatened to sue for royalties. Anti-violence organizations trashed Thomas for the song's chorus: "I wanna push you around, and I will, I will."
The controversy blew over, but it fueled the band's burgeoning success. In 1997, Yourself went gold and, a year later, the group was named Best New Band by Rolling Stone magazine's Reader's Poll. A tour opening for the Rolling Stones gave them more exposure. The band capped '98 by playing its first headline show at Dallas' Reunion Arena, only two years after playing the Galaxy Club just down the street.
"We're gonna take some time off," drummer Doucette said in an interview then. "You can't turn on the radio without hearing one of our songs. We're gonna forget about being Matchbox Twenty for a while."
That cryptic remark was a sign of things to come - for Thomas, at least. As the band laid low throughout 1999, Thomas, who was living in New York, got a call from his song publisher.
"He said, 'Would you be interested in writing a song for the new Santana record?' I want to learn to be a better songwriter, so I figured, 'Why not?'" Thomas says. "I sent the song to Carlos and then it got back to me that he liked the song and that he liked my voice and that he wanted me to sing on it. The rest was just crazy fun - I went out to San Francisco, cut the track, they decided to make it the lead single, then they were, 'Hey, let's make a video.' Carlos wanted my wife to be in the video. He'd say, 'She's beautiful.' Everything's beautiful to Carlos."
Recording "Smooth" didn't bother the rest of Matchbox Twenty, Thomas says. And neither did the onslaught of attention the song brought the singer.
"I asked (drummer) Paul, one of my best friends in the world, if it was OK or if the guys would have a problem with it. "He said, 'Go do it.' By the same token, we try and offer that to everyone in the band. The worst thing a band could do is shackle you. We want everyone to have an opportunity to do different things. In the end, it (will) make us better."
That seems to have happened with "Mad Season," which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard chart the week it was released. The group has ditched Yourself's guitar-driven style for a much more orchestral sound. Strings and horns are sprinkled throughout. In other words, it sounds nothing like the Matchbox Twenty you're used to hearing.
"The first record was a good pop-rock record," Thomas says. "But now we're all better musicians and we didn't want to make the same record again. We set out to make a different kind of record, and that's what we did."
Thomas is proud of Mad Season musically, but he says he's more pleased with his lyrics.
"As a writer, I feel like such a work in progress," he says. "I listened to a lot of Jayhawks writing this, and they are so good. I'd like to think that with the new record, I'm one step closer to being that type of songwriter."
The Merge's Scott Strong thinks so.
"If you listen to that CD, you can tell Rob is gonna be around a while," he says. "Listen to his voice and read his lyrics, he has lasting power. And he's smart. He knew that "Smooth" was gonna expose him to a whole new audience, which means more CD sales to him."
Thomas doesn't necessarily see it like that.
"I got to work with Carlos, and that was phenomenal, but there was bittersweetness that I wasn't with my guys," he says. "I don't think I ever would leave them, unless we stopped having fun. And I don't see that happening for a long time."
(c) 2000, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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