Matchbox Twenty: Burning Bright

It's all smooth sailing for Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas, writes NEALA JOHNSON ROB Thomas is looking forward to returning to Australia in November.

"It'll start getting warm by then," he raves.

"Exactly how we planned."

But Matchbox Twenty's singer and songwriter knows that the weather is not the only warmth his band can expect in Australia.

Next to the US, Australia is Matchbox Twenty's biggest market. Their 1996 debut album Yourself or Someone Like You is eight times platinum (and counting) here.

In the US it has received a rare diamond award, signifying 10 million albums sold.

It also spawned a rash of hit singles -- Push, Real World, 3 AM, Back 2 Good -- and Matchbox Twenty toured Australia more times on that one album than many American bands do across an entire career.

Australians have so far pushed their second album, Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty, to No. 1 and platinum sales.

Between Matchbox Twenty's two albums, of course, there was a little song called Smooth, which Thomas wrote and sang with Santana.

The biggest rock single of last year, it sent Thomas's already burgeoning fame over the top.

Matchbox Twenty have since sold two million copies of Mad Season in the US, and achieved their first No. 1 single, Bent.

"But you don't care about that in Australia though, right?" asks Thomas, laughing.

"It's odd because we've never released a single before in America, until Bent, so it's a new thing for us.

"We did radio singles. We always thought releasing singles would deter people from buying the albums. Last time around people didn't even think about us, they just listened to our songs -- people knew the whole album. But now they know one song. It's increased the amount of people who come up and go: 'hey, what's the name of that song?' "

Thomas insists, however, that Matchbox Twenty's songs remain more famous than the band itself, and when he's interrupted by his wife's return from the supermarket and her offer of a glass of pineapple juice, it's easy to believe he's just an everyday guy.

Fame, it seems, has not turned life into a Spinal Tap-worthy tragi-comedy for Thomas.

"There are always Spinal Tap moments," he says, "but I don't think that has anything to do with music, it's just because this is such a weird job. After your record comes out, your whole life can be just a wait for fame, you know? You might get invited to parties and stuff, but we're not really into going to those anyway."

He pauses, then adds: "By the way, we get invited to a lot!

"I think that's the point, when you figure that the only thing that lasts or matters is the songs. Once you've gone to No. 1, where do you go from there? Once you've got all the money . . ."

Much has been made of the fact that the Grammy-winning success of Smooth has seen Thomas's fame and rewards far outweigh those of his Matchbox Twenty bandmates -- guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette.

But this now seems to be more of a sticking point in the media than within the band itself.

"The guys know they have it real good, they can walk in the mall and not have any problems, even after they've sold 10 million records," Thomas says.

This did not stop the band taking to Thomas with unrestrained glee in the video for Bent, where Thomas is mugged, abused, and run over by a car -- by his bandmates on each occasion.

Thomas gives a wry laugh. "They really, really enjoyed it."

His fate, he reveals, could have been worse.

"In our original draft, we were going to have Adam urinate on me in the alley, but we didn't do that," he laughs.

But no matter how much they play-fight, Thomas says the band members still lean on and learn from each other.

"That's my first hurdle. When I first write a song, I have to take it to the band, it has to impress the band.

"When I play it to the guys for the first time, and they all go, 'wow, man, I love that', I feel really good. I feel like that's my main purpose, that's what I'm aiming for. I still write to impress those guys, each time."

Are they getting harder to impress?

"Sure," he laughs. "But that makes it interesting, it builds it, and you should get better. Everyone in the band is getting older and better, it's like we all grew up together. We all grew in spite of each other."

Do the increased expectations create any tensions?

"No, I don't think so. But we tour together, live together, work together, and that much . . . togetherness in life, it makes it tough," Thomas chuckles.

"We have our screaming matches, but we know each other well enough to know that one of those fights is not going to be the be-all and end-all of our relationship."

The release of Mad Season has found Matchbox Twenty to be a far superior band than that which made and toured Yourself or Someone Like You. For example, this live show, Thomas claims, is better because, "we've improved as musicians".

Thomas has also come of age as a songwriter, daring to bare more of his soul in his lyrics.

In Rest Stop, he recounts the night a girlfriend dumped him at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

"That's the most literal," Thomas admits. "That's my love of country music coming through . . . I like the narratives and storytelling in country music.

"The country thing has always been with me. I grew up in South Carolina, so I was brought up on Willie (Nelson) and Waylon (Jennings), it's in my blood."

Smooth's success has inspired Thomas to stretch his talents further. He has offered songs to Tina Turner and several country singers.

"I met Mick Jagger to talk about writing songs," he reveals out of the blue. "He's putting a solo album together. But even then, I just have to write, I'm just constantly writing. I can't pick who they're for, they're all Matchbox Twenty songs."

Pointing out the casual manner with which Thomas dropped Jagger's name into the conversation, he laughs and cries defensively, "Well, it was like that!

"I couldn't sleep the night before, I was so nervous about it, but then I met him, and it was like, cool."

A long-time Rolling Stones fan, Thomas swears he did his best to avoid fawning over Jagger.

"I did that with Willie Nelson," he moans. "I was in the back of Willie Nelson's tour bus, and I'd smoked about three joints, and I was nervous as it was. I was just jelly, not because I was high, but because it was Willie Nelson, and no matter what I got in my head, all that came out was, 'oh, you're the greatest!' I'm never going to do that again.

"With Mick, he just called me up and said, let's get together and talk about stuff, about songwriting. He asked me about Smooth, and how I found that, whether I enjoyed it.

"Meeting Mick was the most nerve-racking thing, but for me as a writer, it's all about meeting people like that, and learning from people and getting better as a writer. Mick Jagger has written some of my favorite songs ever . . . the Rolling Stones are the soundtrack to my entire life."

Thomas admits to doing his best at times to avoid his record company so he doesn't get lumped with interviews.

"They've been trying to find me, and I've been hiding," he laughs.

When he is tracked down, however, Thomas is amiable and open, sometimes divulging information he reckons his bandmates would "slap" him for.

"I promise I won't be strangling any journalists in Australia," he jokes, adding, "it's journalists who have all the power, though."

But Rob, surely you have the power to do to journalists exactly what Mick Jagger did to you?

"What?" he cracks with lightning speed. "Make you question your sexuality?"

By Neala Johnson