In the time since Matchbox 20 became Matchbox Twenty, lead singer Rob Thomas has seen his band sell 10 million units in the U.S., picked up three Grammy awards for his collaboration with Carlos Santana, and released the band's follow-up, Mad Season.
Despite the band's name change and the megastardom of Thomas, Matchbox Twenty have somehow managed to keep their feet on the ground and their heads on straight (and without any band bickering!). Thomas and fellow MB20-mate Kyle Cook recently told LAUNCH executive editor Dave DiMartino about the pressure of avoiding the sophomore slump, the meaning behind the new album title, and the secret to their success. Video excerpts of their conversation can be viewed in Issue 40 of LAUNCH on CD-ROM. And our live LAUNCH exclusive of "Crutch" can also be seen on the same disc.
LAUNCH: Can you tell me what the difference is between your debut album and Mad Season?
ROB: The big difference between the two records is that when we made the first record, we had only been together for two years. We started this band, got these guitar players, and said, "What does Matchbox Twenty sound like?" We made the best record we could, but we were kind guessing about who we were collectively. After being on the road, living in a box together, sticking up for each other, fighting, laughing, and playing every night...When we made Mad Season, we said, "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.
KYLE: First of all, I'll discuss the similarities a little bit: The band is still the foundation of what we do, not just the songs. In that respect, it's still similar. We've matured. It may sound cliché, but that's what we've done. We're older. The music has matured. The arrangements...we've explored a bit more the art of arranging. We kept it fairly simplistic; that was the nature of the melodies on the first album. We kept it rock-band-oriented. On this one, we experimented with orchestration, horns, a lot of interesting guitar layers that are kind of exotic, things that weren't utilized on the first record. A lot of the lyrical ideas are similar to the first album. But overall, we've grown.
LAUNCH: What does the title Mad Season mean?
ROB: There's a song, also called "Mad Season," and I wanted to find a way to emotionally dictate what was going on in the last few years without referring to a tour bus, or the fans, or the road, or anything so obvious. I always hate when bands just sing about how terrible it is to be on the road, to be in a band. Oh, boo hoo. "Mad Season" was about documenting us and what we've been through, and how the more you learn, the less you know. The tag on the song is "I feel stupid, but it won't last for long." Because you feel like you know everything when you get started, and then the more you learn, you realize, oh my God, I don't know anything at all, I still have so much to learn! Once we put all the songs together and listened to what they said to us in sequence, Mad Season seemed like the one we should pick out as the title.
KYLE: What it means to me? Mad Season kind of sums up our lives in this kind of hurricane of media and all of this and the whole swirling process--the politics. Your life is not your own anymore.
LAUNCH: So were you nervous or intimidated to follow up such a huge debut?
ROB: When we started this record, we started off not thinking of it at all, until everyone started telling us how nervous we ought to be: "Aren't you nervous?" "Well, now I am! Thanks." With the freakish success of a first record like that, so many things were aligned in the right place that you couldn't repeat that kind of success. There's no formula, or everybody else would go out and do it. It just kind of happened. So it kind of takes the pressure off. You just have to make the best record in you, and hope that everything lines up the right way. It's up to everybody else. I can't believe anybody expects you to do that again. I think if you go through and work really hard to be successful and 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. There's got to be something more to talk about.
KYLE: How can you not feel that? "Oh, we're so oversaturated. My life sucks, we sold so many records..." I think in the commercial world, you can oversaturate something, and as far as longevity, there's a certain mystique that you lose, and I was concerned about that. But it all boils down to the music and the quality of it, and it stands on its own. The songs are great, the arrangements are great. But I think we all felt that pressure, to a certain extent, to follow it up.
LAUNCH: Compare the first Matchbox Twenty gig to a gig today.
ROB: If you had a video of us when we started and a video today, they would be remarkably similar, I'm sorry to say. I think it's kind of funny. We look back, and there were times we just thought we rocked. We would tape a lot of our shows and looking back, it's like, "Oh my God!" We've come so far. We taped a lot of our shows from a recent tour in Australia, we documented some of it, and watching that, just musically, it's like, "That's a good show, a good band. They're all playing the same song." Whereas when you start out, you want it to sound good, just learning how each other plays, and to play off of each other, you wind up sounding like a pretty good local band. The first couple years, it's just you sounding like a pretty good local band.
KYLE: I would kind of go overboard for the sake of doing it, for the sake of impact and shock: "I wanna be a rock star!" Jumping off the drums and kicking stuff. I'm probably a little tamer now. It's about the music, man, you don't have to sell it so hard. We're more relaxed, more confident in what we're doing.
LAUNCH: When you think about it, what's your rationale for why you sold so many records? How did that happen?
ROB: 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. 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, different direction. I would never want to say it had nothing to do with me or our band. At the basics, we made a good record, but that alone doesn't make you sell 10 million records, because a lot of bands make good records. The starting point is you have a good record--now what do you do with that? You would hope you get a record deal because you can make a good record. From there, you hope all these other things come into play. And once you're inside the business, you can see all these great bands are not making it, and you can see: "Oh, the management is slacking, I can't believe the label made them do that, can't believe they said yes to that. I can't believe that this is where they're taking their career." And you're watching it happen, and you just think, oohhhhhh. And you feel really bad.
KYLE: Nobody could have predicted this. I knew when I first got the demo, it wasn't the group I was looking to join, but I met the producer and he told me about it, I heard the song "3 A.M.," and even in simplicity, there was something about it that grabbed me, and I think Rob has a talent in that. Really, just the melodies, and the lyrics are brilliant, too. I think it's a little bit of both. Good songs will always capture people, and I think that's the core of what this band's about. The topics and the dialogue that's happening--the kinds of things he says speaks to people in a certain way, the way we speak to each other. "Wow, I've felt that, I've said that. Somebody's said that to me." Et cetera.
LAUNCH: Do you remember the moment when you realized that you were more than successful--that you were ultra-successful? What crystallized it for you?
ROB: I remember one time we were at the Grammys, and we had already lost. It was a pre-televised event...we showed up, did the press line, and we darted out the side to go out to dinner as a band. I'm standing there and somebody goes, "Hey, John Fogerty wants to meet you." And I was like, "What? What, does he want to hit me?" And this was the year that he won Best Rock Album for this comeback record he'd made. He shook my hand and said he thought we should have won Best Rock Album that year. And he said we were one of his favorite bands. And I was shocked that he even knew who I was! I was totally freaked out. You always feel that it's you and your friends and the people who surround you, and it still feels like you're that local band. It's an inclusive little world. John Fogerty knows who I am. That freaks me out. It blew my mind. And I was like, "All right, maybe I'm getting somewhere." It would also help me if I ever thought about critics and feeling bad, I would think, John Fogerty likes me, it can't be that bad...
KYLE: There were several of moments, and they kept getting bigger. I'll never forget being in Texas, and it was the first time we were all together hearing [our music] on the radio. It was this great awakening. [Our album] was out on the shelves--that was the first big feat. And now it was on the radio! The van was pumping. That doesn't mean we were huge at that point. It was just fun, because we were all there together.
LAUNCH: How has success affected how you guys behave? How do you relate to one another?
ROB: When we started off on the road, a couple of us didn't have homes; we were together for three years on the road, just back and forth, back and forth. When we took a break, it was for a while, and there was no need for us to be in the same city. When we have to make a record or to rehearse, we meet in some far-off city, like Atlanta, for instance--so we're all equally inconvenienced, we're all there for a purpose. We're no-nonsense. If I'm home, or in New York, we just run around. We have to go to one central location. It works really well. We've maintained a good friendship. We respect each other's space, take care of each other. It's the buddy system, nobody's more important than anybody else, from us to the crew. We all have a job, and if somebody doesn't do his job, it won't work that night. It's nice.
KYLE: There's still a sense of business. It just depends. I think Brian, Paul, and Rob may be closer, because they were the unit in the beginning. I think that's a negative thing; it's just the nature of now it works. We're all friends, but in the time off--you spend so much time together on the road as a family on top of each other, in vans, and then buses, and then it got better and better--but in time off, you want to be able to enjoy your own life. One's in Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Miami...
"I always hate when bands just sing about how terrible it is to be on the road, to be in a band. Oh, boo hoo."
LAUNCH: Rob, you're winning all these awards, working with Santana--it's like that set up Matchbox Twenty's second record to succeed!
ROB: Going into [the Santana project], I was fortunate that it was something special, it was something you really wanted to be a part of. Going out of it, it was tenfold. The beauty of all these people working together on one record, the idea of all the people it reached out to, the universality of this record, surpasses anything I've eve been a part of or had the chance to see with my own eyes. For Carlos, it was his year, his parade. I had a float, Wyclef had a float, et cetera. He was at the head, moving it down the road. Because of this, there will always be a piece of me that's synonymous with Santana, and that is the coolest thing for me. Santana knows who I am. That freaks me out. Blows me away.
LAUNCH: And what about Rob's success with Santana? Does that freak the other guys out that he's such a superstar now?
KYLE: We just tease him more than anything. I read something in Billboard: "Who would have thought Arista would be the company who would do the biggest set-up for an Atlantic record this year?" With Rob winning the Grammy, of course we were extremely proud of him, but we know, how could it not help this record? He's more visible than ever now. It's totally been in our court. We embrace it and joke about it, all in one.
LAUNCH: Well, I think your pop success helped him gain some new fans, too.
ROB: Yeah, but except for what Santana did with Dave Matthews, what we did was the garnish. The meat of it was Santana and his band doing those things. 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!"
LAUNCH: Was it weird to do that--I mean, you had just made your first album, and you're being asked to go record with this legend. Was the band threatened? Worried you were going to run off with Carlos?
ROB: You do something like that--out of your element--and it kind of makes you a little nervous and a little scared, especially when my element is such a....we were still building [Matchbox Twenty] when I stepped out of it. It was so fragile, but luckily it was done in such a tasteful way, and it was just me making music with another musician, and that's how it should have been.
LAUNCH: Have you ever read or heard anyone describe Matchbox Twenty and really "get it?"
ROB: I think that you can't expect too much when the people involved still feel like works in progress. For people to come across a band after one record to say, "Oh, I've got them pegged," is jumping the gun. Hopefully, we're evolving, and as we figure it out, we'll get a better hold on it. It's kind of like seeing one scene in the middle of a film and thinking you've got the whole film figured out, even though the whole film isn't even written yet. It just doesn't work that way. So with us, we always feel like the day we stop having fun and the day we're not friends, we'll stop. After we finished this record, it added another lease on to how long we want to do this, as a band, because we were really proud of it, and it's growing and it feels like a band and we feel like we made an album. After this, there will be a contrast, and it will be easier for someone to make a decision about who we are, what we are. I think after three or four records, then you can say, "This is what this person is about," because we've given them ample opportunity to speak in as many voices they want and to express as many different ideas that they want in as many different ways musically as they can. And I figure four albums seems like enough.
KYLE: We try to evade that question. Duck! [Critics are] pretty good to us...sometimes. They've 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. Get a little upset about it. When we first came out, we were [compared to the] Counting Crows and Gin Blossoms. When you're a new artist, sometimes a record company needs that--something to stand on. How to describe it to someone, attach it to something else that's familiar? That's the nature of the media and critics. We got all that in the beginning. Who knows what we're going to get now...what was the question?
LAUNCH: What are your reflections on the marketplace today--boy bands, teen sensations? Do you feel that it's good, or does it worry you?
ROB: Pop music, the idea of it, has no boundaries. If you're alternative, or metal, you have certain things you have to adhere to. Pop, if you turn on the radio, it seems to adhere to everything from Celine Dion to Korn. I think everything is OK. Everything is good. I don't know any of them. When that Britney Spears song came on--"Oh, baby, baby"--I would turn it up, I couldn't hear enough. And that's because somebody wrote a great song. That's as important as a Joni Mitchell song. Somebody like the Backstreet Boys, they're really nice guys, they work extremely hard, have really nice voices. It's like a Broadway show--they have lights, they fly around, they have costumes. They're a traveling show. That's what they do. If you go and see all the people who go to see them, you see people dancing, they're happy. For a couple of hours, those people are worried about nothing, and that's because these guys did their routines, sang their songs, and there's nothing wrong with that. I think people take music too seriously. I think the whole idea of music was to alleviate some of that seriousness of life. I have a friend who says, "If they don't write their own music, I don't want to know about them." But look at Frank Sinatra. Who was cooler than Sinatra? And Elvis. Bernie Taupin wrote with Elton John. Does that mean one is more important than the other? They're both just two genius parts that work together, Without the Korns and Limp Bizkits, the Backstreet Boys and the 'N Syncs, the Third Eye Blinds and the Vertical Horizons, and without the Celine Dions and Mariah Careys, without that all working at the same time, then pop music would be in trouble. But the fact that we have all that to choose from, I think that means we're doing pretty OK.
KYLE: There's nothing I would really buy right now. Sometimes I put myself in that A&R position...you can get so personally involved, and you need to step back and think like a consumer. There's a lot of things I hear on the radio that I think are fun, but it's a different ball game when I decide to buy something. I'm not personally pleased with what's going on right now. The Beatles are just--they really summed up what this art of music should be, and that's the kind of no walls, no formulas. But I think sometimes commercial music has to have that formulaic foundation. Ever since the folk songs, in the renaissance days, there's a formula there and people need to follow it, so people have been rewriting it over and over and over. And that's how I feel about the boy bands: "Yeah, that's catchy, but I've heard it before."
LAUNCH: Tell me about the band's name change from Matchbox 20 to Matchbox Twenty.
ROB: We told our label, from now on, we wanted to write out the word "Twenty." We thought it looked cool. We didn't want to be in a band with a number in its name. When we wrote it out, it didn't seem so bad anymore. We didn't think anyone would go, "What's this band? Are there two Matchbox 20s?" And people keep asking us why we changed our name...
LAUNCH: How'd you decide on the first single? That must be a tough choice, huh?
ROB: Our first single was "Bent." You've got to start somewhere. Which is the only answer of why you chose this one. Hopefully the album doesn't depend on one song. The band was happy right away with "Bent." It sounded like a rock band. We wanted to start off with what we were, didn't want people to get scared. It seemed like the perfect one. It's the perfect song. If you listen to it, you would think it's degrading someone. It's a love song. Instead of writing really heavy tones with light music, I went for heavy music with light and friendly tones. So people would still think I'm angry, I guess. I don't know. The funny thing is, when I make a record, I never write for records, I'm just constantly writing and then throwing the bag down and picking what we want to work on, what we like, what will be fun. I thought we made a happier record this time. I listen to it now and it still sounds angry. But I didn't think we were angry at all when writing, recording...there it was, though, an angry-sounding record all of a sudden!
LAUNCH: Is there anything bad about being a successful rock star?
ROB: Right now, I'm going to leave here and go to Europe. I have a few interviews. I don't like being without my band, floating around in the abyss of Europe. The playing part is why you do it. Everything else is a necessary evil to get you to the stage. You can't do this if you don't have an ego. Of course, you think people want to hear it. The way you feed that ego is to play every night and have people tell you they like it. Writing and studio--you don't get that. Paul, our drummer, does everything just to be in the studio, creating sounds and making the record. I like playing the record. Ever since I started taking my wife on the road, there's nothing down to the road. I never have to make that call: "Not coming home yet." Now she's with me, and it makes things a lot more grounding.
LAUNCH: What's the one thing you feel people just don't get about your band?
KYLE: If there's one thing people just don't get about Matchbox Twenty, it's depth.
ROB: If there's one thing people don't get about Matchbox Twenty, it's that we're nice guys. 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." Then you're whole feeling is, "I know these people think I'm an a--hole, think I'm a jerk." I spend all my time apologizing for my behavior. For us, we're very much about playing our music. If you meet us, or see us play, you would know that. If you were just skimming through videos or radio, I would probably think [we're jerks], too.