Matchbox Twenty is No One's Whipping Boy

Tribune Correspondent

Over the years, critics have taken shots at Matchbox Twenty. But singer Rob Thomas’, left, success with Carlos Santana has dampened some of that criticism. Matchbox Twenty might have sold more than 10 million copies of their 1996 debut CD, "Yourself Or Someone Like You." The band might have reeled off a string of hits that included "3 a.m.," "Push" and "Real World."

But along the way Matchbox Twenty endured their share of critical sniping, as writers branded the band's style of guitar pop music as bland, and the group was often called faceless.

That all changed when Carlos Santana's mega-hit CD, "Supernatural," hit stores, and its lead single, "Smooth," started soaring up the charts. The song, with its tasty blend of blues, Latin rhythms and pop, was sung and co-written by Matchbox Twenty singer and chief songwriter Rob Thomas. One of the best songs on a critically acclaimed hit album, "Smooth" not only brought Santana back into the music limelight, Thomas feels it changed perceptions about Matchbox Twenty.

"With the 'Smooth' thing, I feel like we've kind of been left to our own devices," Thomas said. "I don't feel like a whipping boy, that's for sure. And after awhile you do feel that. And even though it isn't what consumes you and it isn't what you walk away from (feeling), it does affect you in a way. So it's nice to not be that."

And how much whipping have Thomas and his bandmates endured over the years? Enough to become a punchline for music writers.

"I really, I think my low point emotionally was I was reading an Everclear review," Thomas said. "It went through this whole review about the last Everclear record and then it said, 'But hell, they beat Matchbox Twenty any day.' I was like 'Jesus, we didn't even have anything to do with this, and they decided to throw us in there.' That was when I felt like we were just being whipped for no reason."

Now that Matchbox Twenty is back with its long-awaited second CD, "Mad Season," the Florida-based quintet--Thomas, guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette--have seen their critical reputation get another boost. "Mad Season" has been widely received as a significant creative step forward, a CD that shows considerably more depth and variety over "Yourself Or Someone Like You." The CD, meanwhile, is a significant commercial success, having gone double platinum and spawned the hit single "Bent."

Probably the biggest creative leap comes on the closing track of "Mad Season," the ballad "You Won't Be Mine." The song opens with a pretty and beguiling piano melody, and swells to a dramatic crescendo behind a lush orchestral arrangement created by producer Matt Serletic.

"That was like, you know you have these little breakthroughs as a writer as well," Thomas said of writing "You Won't Be Mine." "That was like, living in New York, sitting down in my apartment and (having) just a bad night. Then that song comes out of it, and as a writer you listen to it and you're like, to me it felt like a growth spurt. As a writer I was really proud of that song." By the time "Mad Season" was released, though, the success of "Smooth," and the attention it brought to Thomas has lifted the singer out of anonymity and begun to put a face on Matchbox Twenty. In the process Thomas has begun to feel more like a celebrity.

"It's different," he said. "It's odd because like when we sold 12 million records, we kind of thought 'Wow, we're a big band.' It's funny like what the power of someone like Carlos Santana can do. It was a whole other level." Although it's been reported in Spin magazine that Thomas has been writing songs with an eye toward placing them on CDs by other artists--Tim McGraw, Tina Turner and Mary J. Blige are mentioned in the article as artists who might be recording his songs--Thomas said he has no ambitions for a solo career or to have outside songwriting overshadow Matchbox Twenty.

"I don't see it superseding anything," Thomas said. "I mean, as far as I'm concerned, if I write something I like it's a Matchbox song. ... When I write songs and they just come from me, they're Matchbox songs. They're my songs. So I'm never against writing with someone, but I don't think I want to get into writing for someone. Because then you start writing like a machine."