Matchbox Twenty swims the mainstream

By Steve Morse, Globe Staff, 5/19/2000

Mr. Grammy Man.

That's 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 favorite toy store.''

The Grammy focus, while on singer Thomas rather than on the band, has actually been a way for Matchbox Twenty (whose new album, ''Mad Season,'' comes out Tuesday) to grow closer.

That became clear when Thomas, who dropped out of high school and hitchhiked around the South before the Orlando, Fla.-based Matchbox was formed, 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 now like the number written out because that was the original spelling before Atlantic Records asked to change it. 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,'' ''3 a.m.,'' and ''Push,'' while giving the band the freedom to do what it wanted this time around.

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.'' The group plays Avalon Thursday during a get-reacquainted tour.

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. But they've got 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,'' he adds. ''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. Because in the end, you look around and you see so many great bands who aren't selling records. It puts a perspective on what selling records means. You realize that that was then, and this is now and that you're starting over.

''It's not to make myself a place in the celebrity world, and it's not for us to try to get on the top of the heap. It's all about being able to stand up proud and say, `Listen to my record, I like my record.' Because in the end, I think when musicians make records, what they're really thinking about is that other musicians and songwriters are going to listen to that record. I want to know that the people I respect would listen to this and say, `This is a good record.' Nothing more. That's the reason you do it. I think you have to have a little bit of an ego just to have the audacity to think that people want to hear what you're doing. The ego's not a bad thing at all - everyone has it. It's what you do with it.''

What Matchbox did was to increase, not diminish, the democracy of the band.

''We'd go in and just jam. We would take a song and start playing it and everybody would throw in ideas on the direction they thought it should take,'' Thomas says. ''Let each person do what they do. That's why you're in a band.''

That's also why he's not interested in making a solo record, despite industry pressure to do so after his Grammy success.

''As of right now, I can't imagine playing music without these guys,'' he says. ''It's an unbelievable thing if you have five guys that you trust and it works like a machine. Everybody takes care of different things and everybody is watching each other's back. It's good to have that security, to know you're not in this alone.''

However, don't look for Matchbox Twenty to play 200-plus gigs a year anymore - a pace the group set while becoming successful. Lifestyle changes since the first record - Thomas has married and guitarist Kyle Cook has a new baby - mean Matchbox won't be quite the road warriors of old.

''We want to do something that makes everyone happy and comfortable,'' says Mr. Grammy Man. ''We're a family band and all of us are in this together.''