Instant Success Took Years Of Work

The promise of sudden stardom is one of the pop music industry's most cherished myths.

Here, according to a freshly minted press release, is the abbreviated story of an unknown U.S. band whose debut CD sold more than 10 million copies:

''In 1996, the spotlight dramatically turned to the Orlando, Florida music scene with the release of Matchbox Twenty's (Matt) Serletic-produced Yourself Or Someone Like You. The album quickly drew attention on the strength of its multi-format breakthrough single, 'Push.' The song - not to mention its striking companion video - pushed Matchbox Twenty well into the nation's popular consciousness." Funny, that's not how Matchbox Twenty frontman, singer/songwriter Rob Thomas, remembers it at all.

True, those sales figures, topped by the three Grammys Thomas won this year for his collaboration with Carlos Santana on the hit single ''Smooth," have put the band on the map. As a result, the sophomore outing Mad Season By Matchbox Twenty, out today, hits the stores with predictable fanfare.

But back in the spring of '96, unsung anonymity was the likelier prospect.

For starters, ''Long Day," not ''Push," was the first single off the album. And its quick fizzle seemed to confirm the pessimistic forecast of a record company bigwig who had bemoaned the CD's lack of radio-friendly material.

Thomas and his four bandmates hit the road, playing to club crowds of little more than 100. When a station in Birmingham, Ala., started playing ''Push," the response was strong enough to put it into rotation across the continent.

With the release of three subsequent singles, ''3 am," ''Real World" and ''Back 2 Good," the band's popularity rose. Three years later, and after more than 600 nights on the road, Matchbox Twenty drew 20,000 for a show in Pittsburgh.

''It was the slowest overnight success in history. It would start, it would hit a little plateau. We'd have time to digest that and then it would slowly move up to the next level," says Thomas, on the phone from Atlanta during rehearsals for a club tour that brings Matchbox Twenty to the Guvernment on Sunday.

In four years, the band has undergone some small alterations. While Thomas urges fans not to read too much into the slight brand change (from Matchbox 20 to Matchbox Twenty), he does hope people will notice the musical strides made by the group.

Mad Season, while sharing the middle-of-the-road tendencies of its predecessor, offers a fuller sound, with horns, strings and a hidden track that is entirely orchestral.

''On the last record, we were the 1990s version of the Little River Band," Thomas says. ''Now I think we're headed into Supertramp vein."

And while Thomas remains principal tunesmith, the new album is more of a collective effort: guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette all chipped in creatively.

''There is a feel to this record, if you listen to it from the beginning, that you don't get by singling out one song," Thomas explains. ''The last record was pretty much 12 singles. But this record takes you on a little journey. For us it was like a musical book."

Whether that book continues the story of Matchbox Twenty's conquest or sets in motion the tale of its rise and fall remains to be seen. Either way, Thomas can look to the example of Carlos Santana, whose stunning resurrection has its own myth-making potential.

''If you had never heard of Santana, you could sit next to him for hours and he would never mention what he does," Thomas says. ''Which is a good example for a lot of people.

''There's a guy who remained a legend, without the benefit of record sales or radio play. After 25 years, what are record sales and radio play? You don't necessarily need to maintain them. Your focus needs to be on the music, not your career." -- Vit Wagner