Modern Classics: Matchbox Twenty Likes A Contradiction In Terms

Rob Thomas, lead singer of matchbox twenty, chuckles when he hears the story, because he's heard so many like it. There's this guy, see, who likes only the most low-budget independent movies, listens only to bands that no one has ever heard of, rolls his own cigarettes and ...

And despite himself, he loves matchbox twenty's catchy songs, the same way the housewives and bankers do.

"It tears him up, doesn't it?" Thomas says gleefully.

It's the odd place Thomas finds himself in as the frontman and only recognizable face in a band that people either love (fans bought 10 million copies of their debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You) or hate (most rock critics). "We're a radio band, and I come from a time when that wasn't a bad word," Thomas says from a tour stop in Indiana. "I come from a time when it was Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac and Elton John. So that's what I'd always kind of set out to be.

"All of it is singer-songwriter material. It's all honest music. And we're a radio band, but I think we write honest music. There are no smoke and mirrors. We're not driven by an image. We're not driven by anything but our records and our live shows." matchbox twenty brings that show to a long-sold- out concert tonight at Magness Arena.

So Thomas can understand the frustrated fans, and he can even understand the malicious critics.

Before getting ready to record their follow-up, mad season by matchbox twenty, Thomas and drummer Paul Doucette were in a bar one night when Thomas went to the piano and played You Won't Be Mine for him.

"Why haven't I heard that song yet?" Doucette demanded.

"I said 'It's not really a matchbox twenty song,' and he smacked me in the head," Thomas says. "We have one record out - why isn't it? It can be if we make it. We can define ourselves as we go. And I realized that I was guilty of doing what I was so mad about other people doing, which was pigeonholing us and marking our destiny."

The band's music has been praised for having a classic-yet-modern sound, a contradiction Thomas likes.

"You can lay down two lines of criticism and praise, and sometimes they're the same," he says. "I've seen bad criticism of our record that nailed it dead on, but the things they criticized were the goals that we had when we started out."

To make sure they were recording the right songs in the right way, the band members took a long break before recording mad season. They toured incessantly on their 1996 debut as hit single followed hit single. They then shut everything down to take some time off, but Thomas got pulled into what looked to be a little one-song, one-time side project.

"It didn't feel like a break for me, because of the Santana thing," Thomas says.

The "Santana thing," of course, is Smooth, the song Thomas wrote for Carlos Santana that became a huge smash and propelled Santana's Supernatural to multiplatinum sales and an armload of Grammys, including the one for album of the year. Thomas got his own Grammy for writing the song, which he refuses to perform without Santana by his side.

"Besides my wedding day, that's definitely my biggest moment," Thomas says of the Grammy win.

"When I can do it with him, it's a blast, but I feel so dirty doing it on my own," he says of the song. "It was his time, his record. I was moonlighting as a singer in Carlos' band, not the other way around."

So fans will have to settle for matchbox twenty's own hits, ranging from Push to 3 A.M. to the ubiquitous Bent.

When he finally did get to writing songs for his own album, he did it mostly on piano, a change for Thomas.

"I am much more proficient on the piano than I am on the guitar," he says. "With a guitar, I would have fallen back on a lot of the same crutches; I had no other choices, I have nowhere to go. Drums were actually my first instrument, but I'm not a great drummer. I'm half-assed at everything."

Of the 20 songs he demoed for the band, 13 made the record. Critics who bashed the first album were surprised to find mad season more thoughtful, more seasoned and down to earth, grudgingly giving good reviews.

"If you go out and you sell 10 million records, and then you make a record and all you've got to write about is the fact that you sold 10 million records, what were you before?" Thomas says. "What else makes you up? I think you'd have to be some kind of (jerk)."

He hit the road in his teens, moving around the country and depending on himself.

"I felt like I got an influx of character at a young age that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise," the 28-year-old Thomas says of those days. "It has a lot to do with what I write. I started off being a spectator at an early age."

That, he says, is what has kept him somewhat grounded despite the wealth and the Grammys.

"It's almost like people have given you this success and they're going to see what you do with it," Thomas says.

And so far they've used their success for good, using buddy Peter Stuart (formerly of Dog's Eye View) for backing vocals and having two of their favorite artists - The Jayhawks and Shelby Lynne - open shows for them.

"This is totally the 'Make Ourselves Happy Tour,' " Thomas says.

The band's latest adventures include having a favorite guitar of guitarist Adam Gaynor stolen from a Florida show. After putting out the word that they just wanted it back, no questions asked, the overzealous fan who'd swiped it dropped it off at a radio station.

"We finally got it back and you know what? It sounds like a piece of (crap) ," Thomas says with a laugh. "Now we're thinking, 'Man, if we can get hold of him, we'll give it back to him.' " -- Mark Brown