Interview by Bob Gulla
In the world of rock music, there's a fine line between success and failure, and an even finer one between fame and obscurity. That fact is never more evident than in the case of Matchbox 20, the upstart band from Florida who in just three short months together put out a record, Yourself or Someone Like You, that ended up selling an incredible 10 million copies. Had the stars been aligned differently, had the proper machinery not been in place, had the right piece of the puzzle been missing, writer Rob Thomas and guitarists Adam Gaynor and Kyle Cook could still be laboring away in utter obscurity, waiting for what the rest of us have had our sights set on for too long: a big break.
But that's no longer the case for Matchbox 20. Powered by the brilliance of Thomas's radio-friendly songs, Cook and Gaynor are well on their way to building extraordinary careers for themselves as marquee guitar players. To solidify their stature in the pop marketplace, the duo's performance on their highly anticipated follow-up casts an even more impressive light on the band's classic sound. Now, with three years of hard time, grueling road work, and vital hands-on experience under their belts, Matchbox 20 is poised to build on that mega-success. Thomas, Cook, and Gaynor, the noisemaking core of the band, sat down with GuitarOne to discuss the perils of fame, the rigors of hard work, and the wonders of success, along with some common-sense playing tips that the rest of us can really understand.
Is it your fear that you won't duplicate the same success of your debut with the new record?
Rob Thomas: I don't think so. I wasn't anxious at all until everyone started saying, "Hey, aren't you nervous? Aren't you nervous? Aren't you nervous?" and I'm like, "Hell, I am now!" The more we were in the studio and the more we listened to what we had, the more it felt like an album. I don't feel bad; I'm fine with this. Still, I think that when we were doing it last time, we had that feeling - like when you're doing it, you feel like it's really good and special. But then you know there are a lot of records out there that suck. And when those bands were making them, they thought it was really good, too, or else they wouldn't have made it. You can't just go on your own barometer.
How do you feel about the record now?
Rob: I couldn't be happier. It's like you never want to say anything because you don't want to pat yourself on the back. But as far as songwriting, it's some of the best stuff I've ever written. Lyrically and musically, I took everything up a notch just because I didn't want to fall into the same clichés that I used to as a writer or a lyricist. I didn't hit all the exact same themes over and over.
Adam Gaynor: What we've done, really, is matured as a band. We were a band for only about three months before we recorded our first album. There are people who have been playing together nine years and still sound like shit. We busted our ass for 14 hours a day for three weeks before recording. Our fingers were bleeding, and we were tired as hell, but we all believed in what we were doing and where we were going.
Kyle Cook: Each of us has grown immensely. I'm proud of this record - lyrically and musically. We've achieved a level of timelessness that I've always dreamed of. A lot of those same lyrical issues that were on the debut are here, but deeper. The arrangements have expanded a lot. There's a depth here that wasn't on the debut. I'm more excited about this.
How have you handled your fame?
Kyle: I was shocked by our success. All of a sudden I was somebody, you know? I had a point to make. But we tried really hard to put that out of our minds. You can't not feel a certain gratification, having 10 million people relate to you and buy your record.
Rob: I didn't wanna write that "Hey, I'm famous" song now, or that "Oh, woe is me, fame sucks" record. I hang out with the same four guys who I've always hung out with, and with my wife. It's very normal. So we try not to go out and chase anything just for the pure celebrity of it.
Kyle: It creates some awkward situations, even with family and friends. To them, it's like you're a huge thing rather than the individual you used to be. I was 19 when this band took off. I had never been involved in anything of this magnitude before, so it's new to me as well.
You must have been soaring for a while, feeling justified in all the hard work you did just to get to the top.
Rob: Let me tell you: There's a fine line between a successful musician and a loser without a job, and I was riding that line for a while in local bands, doing nothing but going nowhere. You get to that point where your mom goes, "Okay, listen. Get a job. It's not going to happen for you. You're getting older, and you need to get a life." I remember that night with my mom. I got the whole speech about how she had resigned herself to the fact that I was only going to be in a local band for the rest of my life.
You must have considered quitting at that point, right?
Rob: At some point, you're just spinning your wheels. Everyone asks, "How do you feel now that you've made it?" My only goal was to make a living at this, so I won't know for another 25 years whether or not I've made it. You never know. I could be anther MC Hammer!
Did that fame justify the hard work it took to get there?
Kyle: Growing up, I spent hours and hours - excruciatingly long hours - getting inside my instrument and learning how to find something unique about my style and my approach to the instrument. How can I not be justified? A lot of it has to be credited to Rob's songs. He wrote some brilliant songs, and a lot of people related to them. It was a privilege to be part of that and express my art as a part of those songs.
What was your pre-Matchbox 20 playing experience?
Adam: For me, it was very minimal; I mean really minimal. It was pretty much just a couple garage bands, about two shows with each of these bands. For one, we were a garage band for about two years. I'm gonna date myself, but, you know, we were playing AC/DC, Journey, .38 Special, and Judas Priest covers. We spent two years practicing for, like, two shows, and then I was in this pop band that did the same thing. We did one show after practicing a year with the band.
Did you take any lessons as a player?
Kyle: Yeah, I went to AIM (Atlanta Institute of Music), a one-year school in Atlanta. I studied classical music, with which I had already had help from my dad. That helped me get a wide view on the structure of harmony, melody, and music. Classical music definitely plays a huge part in my understanding the guitar as an instrument.
What about classical music is important to you as a guitarist?
Kyle: I had a real rigid classical teacher who hovered over me and turned me on to all kinds of great stuff, like Bach. Bach had an amazing sense of melody, and he helped me hear when it was okay not to play. That was important. Bach as a composer also influenced me a lot. I never got hung up on that '80's period with a flashy approach to guitar, that kind of "I'm dancing, look at me" approach to playing. Believe it or not, there are times when space is musical. Bach proved that. This band does as well.
Your jazz and classical background must have been hard to integrate into a pop band.
Kyle: A little. But because I was coming from the jazz and classic world where the playing was more diverse and more complex, it allowed me to listen better to what Rob was trying to say. I could find the spaces where countermelody would support whatever he was trying to do, and still not get in the way of it.
What is your background, Adam?
Adam: My family was into music. We always had the piano around, and my sister played the guitar. It's one of those stories where my sister was getting all this attention for playing guitar, and I got really jealous, so I started playing as well. I'd take her guitar, go down to school, and learn my chords. And then I realized I was picking it up much faster than most of the other kids, and I was really enjoying it. Next thing you know, I was playing "Tom Dooley," and old two-chord folk tune.
How did you make the leap from "Tom Dooley" to playing rock music?
Adam: I don't know. It was a gradual process where I realized that I just loved music, and I really enjoyed playing it. What kind f talent I had remained to be seen. I was enjoying playing for my family and friends, and I realized that if I was gonna be anything, it wasn't going to be a scholar. So I was asking myself, "Athlete or musician?" I liked to play sports, but I wanted to be able to walk when I was 40 years old, so I didn't want to take the hits that a ballplayer does. As a guitarist, I figured maybe I'd get a blister. So I said, "okay, I'll take the guitar player." That's kind of how it worked.
When did you learn what it took to be a successful guitarist?
Kyle: I'm not sure when that occurred. When I first started listening to the Beatles, I learned that melody was real important. That's when I could pick up an instrument and see a song through, make it real with my own hands. I started playing when I was 13, and I remember Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard as being real important to me. I played it beginning to end. My Dad listened to it all the time. Clapton's always been an inspiration. That's when I realized I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.
Did guitar play a role in your life besides just for music?
Kyle: Anytime I felt hopeless, I knew I could turn to it. Music in general helped me through. It goes back to the theory that music as art became something medicinal. I started playing violin when I was 8, so I've always had music in me. But the guitar seemed best suited to my hands.
Did you have hard times growing up?
Kyle: Everybody, at one time or another, feels that loneliness or that emptiness in life. For a long time, I wasn't sure of my own self-worth, what my value was, what my ultimate contribution would be. Finally, it was music that allowed me to find myself.
Rob: When I was 15 or 16, I took off and did a lot of hitchhiking. I lived on some benches at the beach for a while, and did a lot of things that sound pretty discouraging. When I was 8 or 9, we lied in a trailer in South Carolina. My mom was 16 when my sister was born, 21 when I was born, and she had to lie about her age so that she could work. And we went from the trailer to this tiny little house, to Florida, and up through the ranks. It makes you more well-rounded as a writer to have some stuff like that to draw from. These are the things that give you a point of view as a songwriter, and these are the things that give you angles that might be different from someone else's.
Then you find yourself jamming with Carlos Santana on "Smooth."
Rob: Amazing. I think next to getting married, it as the single most enriching experience in my life. I was a huge fan of Carlos to being with. One day, I get this phone call. This guy Itaal Shur had written a track that Carlos liked the feel of, but didn't like the song. So they wanted me to come in, change the melody and the lyrics, change the chorus around, and give it that "bomp, bomp, bomp." Originally, I wasn't supposed to sing it; I was just supposed to write it. But Carlos heard the demo and said, "Yeah, I believe this guy. I want him to do it."
That must have freaked you out.
Rob: I went there, and I was just in awe the entire time. First, I thought they were going to record the song, and I was just going to come in on my own and sing the vocal tracks. But when I went into the studio, here comes Carlos and his entire band! We just jammed it out, and it didn't hit me until the middle of it: "Wow, I'm jamming with Carlos Santana!"
Kyle and Adam, you had to try out for Matchbox 20. What was that like?
Kyle: I was living in Atlanta at the time, had finished school and was playing with so guys around town. Matt [Serletic, producer] had this band out of Orlando that was not a complete band, so he came to my school to search for guitarists. I met him, heard Rob's song "3 am," and really loved it. He flew me down; it was really loose. I stayed with Paul [Doucette, drums] in Orlando, rented a rehearsal space, went through the four songs on the demo, and played some covers. We all hit it off. It felt like there was a chemistry there; it was comfortable. I guess they auditioned several other talented guys, too. After that, they came back to Atlanta and did another audition, and that's when I got the call. It's been funny to watch it evolve, to watch all us average guys get thrust into the spotlight. In the beginning, I remember how our faces lit up and how excited we got. We watched it escalate everyday. We got incredibly lucky, brother. What else can I say? But we do love what we're doing. You gotta have the drive and desire.
Adam: I was answering phones in a recording studio for eight years, and I was fortunate enough to have run across a lot of people. Everybody from R.E.M. to David Bowie to Julio Iglesias to Miami Sound Machine. Then, we ran into Collective Soul, and that's kind of the whole connection I have here. I met Matt Serletic, the producer of Collective Soul, and now our producer, while doing that job. He asked me if I wanted to listen to a tape and maybe audition with these guys. I was sitting there answering phones thinking: "Rock band? Rock band with label interest? Or answering phones?"
Then what happened?
Adam: I sat down with Rob, and he played three of his songs - parts of "Push," parts of "Argue," and parts of "Girl Like That." After that, I went from not being sure to really wanting the job. I had my guitar with me, and they plugged me into their amps, and we just kind of hit it off. The stuff Robert was writing was right up my alley.
How did you choose your players, Rob?
Rob: When we started this band, we hired Kyle and Adam, which I think says something about them because they were actually chosen. I look for players who are melody-minded. That's important for us, especially when a lot of things that we do come from real melodic origins. When you have guitarists who think melody, that means they're thinking like songwriters. They're writing their own songs within the songs. Some of the best things on the old record, like "Real World," wouldn't have been there if it weren't for those guys. We chose Kyle because we got video demos from all these players, and most of them are just wanking on guitar. Then we saw Kyle, and he was just sitting there playing a Babyface song and singing.
Did you choose him on the basis of that?
Rob: That and a couple of times we jammed with him. Personality-wise, Adam and Kyle fit. I mean, our thing is that we're very much like a family. We keep everybody in check, too. If we're just out on the road somewhere, and someone's being rude to a waitress, we're like, "Hey, rock star ...Attitude check." Nobody lets anybody get away with anything.
Why do you think you were chosen, Adam? What did Matt and Rob see in your ability?
Adam: Maybe that I gelled right away, on the kind of level where we understood exactly what Rob was trying to say in his songs. I do know that he liked what he heard when the band played together. That's something that a lot of young players don't really understand. You can be the greatest guitar player in the world, but trying to fit in with three other people and making it sound right is a whole different ball game. They saw in me that I wasn't trying to be the guy playing over everybody else.
Did you really apply different playing styles on the new record?
Adam: We worked with a lot of different effects, and lots of different amps. We were going for a mature, timeless sound. We didn't want it to sound vintage or dated, you know? We were trying to come up with something that would still sound good in five years.
Kyle: There was a lot of interesting layering on the record, with a lot of different tracks that have slightly different tones. We used different amps and different tones, but the part would stay intact. The slight changes create this hugeness and give a part that might be one simple line a new identity with layering and texture. We've also been making use of a baritone guitar. Matt suggested it, and we ended up using it a lot. It doubles the bass and fattens it up. It's like an octave lower, so it definitely enhances the lower register. It wasn't different to play; it's the same notes. It's a little harder to fret, and it feels like a bass. I actually like playing bass - I wrote on bass.
So you stressed the low end. What about the high side, the treble?
Kyle: Yeah, we emphasized the higher parts, too. We used the Nashville tuning a lot, which provides a nice flipside to the baritone sound. It has higher, brighter strings. It's the same tuning, but the low E is a higher octave and everything else but the G and D are up an octave. You can get this tinny, almost chimey sound. You're playing the same chords, but the displacement gives everything a new life. Together, you're painting this entire picture. Instead of adding new parts, you pain the whole picture at once. Dynamically, that helps to make the new record worlds above the first one.
What about your other guitars on the record?
Kyle: We used a lot of guitars on this record, and it was amazing. For the most part, though, we used PRS and Danelectro guitars. Those are the two that stand out. It's kind of funny, because you've got these $150-$250 Danelectro guitars while you're making a multimillion-dollar record.
What did you like about the Danelectros? They seem to be in style lately.
Kyle: We especially like the tone; the whole tonal spectrum has a certain character to it. That's why it's been used a lot lately.
What about effects?
Kyle: It's hard to say because we still haven't decided what's ending up on the record, but we worked with a few different techniques. There's a lot of A/B switching between amps, miking one amp with a couple of effects and not the other. We used a lot of different delays and very tasteful effects like flanging and reverb. Nothing's overused. We're always searching for a nice balance between standard sounds and cool effects. The right balance leaves you with one great gigantic sound.
Who decides which effects will be used?
Kyle: Matt makes the call on the different effects. He's got an amazing ear. He'll let us try different voicings, and he knows right away when something's rhythmically not working. When we do all these delays, he knows how to make sure they sit perfectly in a song. We step back and allow him to do that. That's the way our partnership with him works.
What is it about the Matchbox 20 guitar sound that makes it so accessible and solid?
Adam: It's just really exciting, especially on this record. It was the first time we had recorded since that Fleetwood Mac tribute album two years ago, so just being in the studio was exciting for us. After three years on the road, everyone had a better idea of what we're capable of doing, and we wanted to transfer that onto tape. Guitar-wise, Kyle and I work really well together. I think we find pockets and places to complement each other. Kyle's a great guitarist, the little prodigy of the group, and a wonderful performer. Our main jobs are to focus on Rob's melodies and work within each other to make sure we don't lose sight of the song. We focus on adding musical qualities to the songs. We do that on acoustic, too, where we'll sit down and say, "Whad'ya have for this song?" And "Whad'ya have for that song?" We'll pick it around a bit and decide what works.
Tell me more about the writing process of the band.
Adam: Rob basically brings the core of the song - the shell of it and mot of the arrangement - and he and Matt decide what they want to work on, what they like and what they don't like. Then they bring it to the band, and we put our signatures on it - a chord progression, a rhythm part, a solo. I'll come up with 10 possible parts to a song, and Rob will pick three or so to try out. Basically, Rob brings these wonderful melodies into us, and it's our job not to screw them up. You know what I mean? Don't walk all over his crap.
What, in your mind, is the most important thing for guitarists to remember?
Adam: You know what the three most important things in the music business are? The answer is, "the song, the song, the song." You can work on your chops all day, but if you can't write songs, or you don't have someone who can write songs for you to play, you're only gonna go so far. You can have the most beautiful hair in the world, but I'm sorry, it's only gonna get you so far. The last album we did was a nice deep album. We didn't have much filler, and I think we did the same thing again. There's some real beautiful stuff, mellow acoustic numbers, and plenty of power for everybody. That's the strength of the band.
You got such a big backlash after the record got to be huge. It must have been difficult to experience that after being on such a high.
Rob: At first, it was really weird. All musicians have a sensitive nature to them, so for a while you take it really, really personal. But I learned to take certain comments and store them. I met John Fogerty one night. He said ours was his favorite record of the year, and he thought we should have won the rock Grammy. So you store that. Then Bernie Taupin said he was a big fan of my writing! When these people put stock in what you're doing, you can push all that negative stuff to the side. I don't like everything. I can't explain why I like some things and why I don't like others. But there is no cause to get personal, especially when they don't know you. For the most part, they were ragging on the band for being bland American music ...blah, blah, blah. But we wrote radio music that was universal for everyone to hear. That's what I wanted to do, to be with Tom Petty on the radio. I thought, "Wow, what could be a better fate?"
There have been a lot of compromises you've had to make as you climb to the top, wouldn't you say?
Kyle: In one sense, you're carrying a candle for the record company, and you're a commodity. How long can you be a valuable commodity in this business? There are a lot of different emotions that go along with getting involved in the corporate music business. But when you consider going from obscurity to becoming a household name, well ...But then there's no calling in sick, and the record company's pushing you, and you're playing Dallas for the fifth time in six months. You love what you're doing, but you're playing the same set every night. Then you get bored and realize that it's a show, and a part of you needs to understand that you come out every night in a new city to entertain. To the people who come to see you, it's fresh, so you have to portray the same emotions and intensity every night, which isn't easy.
Do you ever get to cut loose and have fun?
Kyle: Yeah, at soundcheck! It's the only time we can do something different. We'll do Stones, Bowie, anything. At the end of the last tour, it had become the most enjoyable part, sitting in the empty auditorium doing "Fame." There's no way to keep the boredom from seeping in. It's definitely not glamorous constantly moving from city to city where you know no one. To go from extreme excitement and rousing social experiences to complete boredom with nothing to do and hours of time to kill gets really frustrating. A lot of time, you don't even have an instrument because it's on the truck ...You and Jenny Jones in Buffalo, New York ...You just have to remind yourself that it's not just about glamour and that you're finally getting the chance to do this for a living.