Out of the Box

The day, as Rob Thomas' most famous song says, is a hot one.

Thomas, the Matchbox Twenty frontman whose recent collaborative effort with Carlos Santana resulted in the Grammy-winning worldwide smash Smooth, is leading the band through rehearsal at a small sun-beaten venue near Santa Ynez, California.

"It feels like I'm in the local band," Thomas says. "People come by to watch you rehearse and jam. "Sometimes it just feels like it's our little camp and our private thing. You forget that anybody knows anything that's going on in the world."

As Thomas digs the solitude of the room, drummer Paul Douchette pounds his kit to introduce the song that has changed Thomas' life -- and the dynamic of Matchbox Twenty -- forever.

Thomas laughs as the band plods through a respectful version of Smooth with guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor taking the roles of Santana and Thomas.

The song, penned when the Santana camp requested a radio-savvy Thomas track, came during a year-long break for Matchbox Twenty, who had sold 10 million copies of their debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, and toured the world twice.

"Nobody thought it was really going to get my face out there," Thomas says. "I mean, you couldn't have planned it this way. Nobody knew it was going to be what it was."

Neither did Matchbox Twenty, for that matter.

"We have a band agreement, signed in blood, that we will never perform Smooth," Gaynor says smugly. "When I first heard it, Paul played it to me over the phone, and I was like, 'Oh my God! Rob thinks he's Ricky Martin now!'

"It was the height of the Latin craze, and suddenly Rob's in the middle of it with these rhythms and horns singing about a Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa."

The question now is can Matchbox Twenty emerge from the shadows of a mega debut and a songwriting project that has made Thomas even more famous?

Matchbox Twenty's new album, Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty, says they can.

With its FM radio-tailored hooks, new instrumental layers and a muscular delivery gleaned from three years on the road, Mad Season relies on the strength of the unit, not the individual.

"With the last record, we were young, we really didn't know what we were doing. It was like, 'Let's just support Rob's songs the best we can'," Douchette says.

"With the new record, we've been a band for three years, we're bolder, better musicians, and all the cliches about growth and development apply."

Certainly, it's a more settled and focused outfit. Thomas married last year; Gaynor and Douchette are both engaged.

"Once we all found what we needed and what we wanted, we didn't want to be alone any more," Thomas says. "The road can be a shallow existence if you don't have a centre somewhere.

"I was fortunate enough to find mine. I think marriage suits me. I think I'm good at being a husband."

Douchette: "From an outside perspective, he looks to be a good husband."

Thomas: "Yeah, I like the idea of that. I'm very happy."

So how is the group -- and Thomas in particular -- coping with the demands of fame?

"Every now and then I have to give up a little more of my time but that's about it," Thomas says of his increased celebrity. "But, you know, that's my part in this band. I'm like Ronald McDonald. I'm the hood ornament for Matchbox Twenty."

Of course, those around Thomas see it differently.

"From a band standpoint," Douchette says, "it's a wonderful thing to have this kind of success, to have this job and still be able to walk into a store to get a tube of toothpaste and not get hassled.

"I definitely don't envy Rob's position at all. And I've seen how crazy it gets.

"There was a moment earlier this year when I pulled him aside and asked, 'Are you okay with all this?'," Gaynor says.

"I knew it had got to the point where he couldn't go anywhere anymore. He was talking about being in a restaurant, going to the bathroom and hearing all this chatter, 'That's him, isn't it?' It creates this extremely uncomfortable awkwardness."

Cook, who was 19 and fresh out of school when Yourself took off, says each band member has had to deal with change.

"I wasn't ready for that kind of success," Cook says. "I wasn't ready to be thrust into that and have all that pressure. Suddenly you're not the friend or the son you used to be. You're this guy associated with this band."

Gaynor: "People from high school who were in your physical education class 20 years ago call up wanting to be your friend."

Cook: "It's a pretence. And it's weird because it creates this strange void within yourself. There's a lot of loneliness that comes with that."

Gaynor: "Exactly. We don't have enough time for our real friends or families as it is and, you know, David from fourth grade wants to be best friends again. I think I can speak for Kyle and myself by saying there's nothing more attractive than obscurity and wealth. I love the fact that I'm secure financially, but nobody knows who the hell I am when I go outside. That's a damn comforting feeling."

Thomas is growing restless.

"I just want to get it over with and release this album. The expectations, the criticism . . . good, bad. I just want it dropped, so the wave can come and go and we can get out on the road."

As a songwriter, he says he still has a long way to go.

"I listen to the Jayhawks and think where the f . . . did that come from? How did they arrive at a song like that? Or I listen to Paul Simon and think, how do you get from A to B and find that genius along the way?

"Everybody feels like they're a work in progress and I feel the same way." Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty (Warner) is out now.

-- Nui Te Koha