Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas has a succinct opinion about sophomore success. "I think if you go out and sell 20 million records, and you come back and make another record and the only thing you have to talk about is how you sold 20 million records, you must be an a--hole. You probably have some deep-rooted problems," the singer says, a bit derisively.
Fair enough, but there's that old musical rule of thumb that Thomas can't deny. Emerge on the scene with a smash album such as Yourself Or Someone Like You, follow that up with an equally stylish turn collaborating with Santana on THE hottest single of 1999, win every Grammy award you are nominated for that year--and it should come as no surprise to Thomas that MB20's new set, Mad Season By Matchbox Twenty, is subsequently one of the highest-profile records of the new millennium.
So call us all a--holes; it's impossible not to speculate on the pressures this must bring to a hitherto-unknown 27-year-old Floridian singer who grew up fingering Jim Croce songs on a stringless guitar and drumming along to the Footloose soundtrack. Like it or not, Thomas, guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale, and drummer Paul Douchette are under a blazing spotlight thanks to their latest piece of work.
"When we started this record, we started off not thinking of [being nervous] at all until everyone started telling us how nervous we ought to be," says an upbeat Thomas, who is hanging out with guitarist Cook and gesturing animatedly to make his point. "'Aren't you nervous?' Well, now I am--thanks!"
Thomas is quick to note that the explosion of the band's first record was something of a phenomenon, which made it paradoxically helpful in avoiding follow-up stress. "With the freakish success of a first record like that, so many things were aligned in the right place. It just kind of happened. So it kind of takes the pressure off."
Cook admits he had some misgivings. "I think in the commercial world you can oversaturate something," he notes. "And as far as longevity, there's a certain mystique that you lose--I was concerned about that. It all boils down to the music and the quality of it, but I think we all felt that pressure to a certain extent to follow it up."
"When you put a record out, for it to do really well, there's the band, the record, the live show, the management, the label, the fans, the current trends, you hope to God that something doesn't come out in Spin that makes you look like a jerk," Thomas muses. "You just wake up in the morning and try to get through the day. It's amazing how many things could happen in the day that would take you down a different road. At the basics, we made a good record," he points out, "but that alone doesn't make you sell 10 million records--because a lot of bands make good records."
Still, it's clear that MB20's massive success was something more than just cosmic kismet or a good marketing plan. For a debut to produce such incredible results, the music must touch a chord within the general public. Which leads to the intense curiosity surrounding the new set--how does Mad Season compare musically to the band's first record? Cook is matter-of-fact: "We've matured. It may sound cliché, but that's what we've done. We're older. The music has matured. A lot of the lyrical ideas are similar to the first album. But overall, we've grown."
Thomas, however, is happy to elaborate. "The big difference between the two records is that when we made the first record, we said, 'What does Matchbox Twenty sound like? What would that band sound like if they made a record?'" he explains. "We made the best record we could, but we were kind of making guesswork on who we thought we were collectively. This [new] record--after being on the road, living in a box together, sticking up for each other, fighting, laughing, and playing every night-- this is what we sound like. It was five voices making one noise all at the same time, and when we were done we could say this is obviously what a Matchbox Twenty record sounds like because we've all put our pieces in."
Looking back at the band in its early days, Thomas laughs. "There were times we just thought we rocked," he admits. "We would tape a lot of our shows and looking back, it's like, 'Oh my God...' We've come so far. When you start out, you want it to sound good, [and] you wind up sounding like a pretty good local band."
One difference: most local bands don't end up winning multiple Grammys for their frontman's collaboration with a musical legend. Of his famous work with Santana, Thomas is forthright about his initial reservations: "You do something like that--out of your element--and it makes you a little nervous and a little scared, especially when my element is..." He pauses to think. "We were still building it when I stepped out of it. It was so fragile, but luckily it was done in such a tasteful way. It was just me making music with another musician, and that's how it should have been."
"Smooth" has been credited as the catalyst for reviving Santana's musical career, but Thomas balks at taking credit for this. "What we did was the garnish. The meat of it was Santana and his band doing those things," he says. "We were the front door, and you try to make it look good enough at the front door so people will come all the way into the house and go, 'Wow! Look at this! I can't believe the room in here!'"
Regarding the intense "Smooth"-related media attention that was focused on Thomas in the past year, Cook says the rest of Matchbox Twenty wasn't too perturbed or jealous. "If anything, we just tease him more than anything," the guitarist shrugs. "Of course, we were extremely proud of him, and how could it not help [Mad Season]? He's more visible than ever now. It's totally been in our court. We embrace it and joke about it all in one."
Extreme success for any band usually brings with it the classic double-edged sword of critical panning, and Thomas and Cook are well aware that some critics consider them to be just another lightweight pop band. "If there's one thing people just don't get about Matchbox Twenty, it's depth," insists Cook. "[Critics] have never really taken a liking to us. But that's the nature of being a successful pop band, I guess--when you build your success off these songs that are quote-unquote 'catchy,' you never get the prestige that a true innovator does. We get slammed sometimes and we don't understand that."
Thomas has a different summation: "If there's one thing people don't get about Matchbox Twenty, it's that we're nice guys," he stresses. "If you don't know us and never seen us, we've had all this success, it's easy to think we're jerks: 'You must think you're hot sh-t. You must be eating this up.'"
It's enough to make anyone paranoid, as Thomas notes. "I spend all my time apologizing for my behavior. If I were just skimming through videos or radio, I would probably think that, too."
However, he adds, "For us, we're very much about playing our music. If you meet us, or see us play, you would know that. The playing part is why you do it. Everything else is a necessary evil to get you to the stage." He pauses. "You can't do this if you don't have an ego."