Success has been smooth for Matchbox Twenty

Sunday, September 24, 2000

Aaron Beck
Dispatch Pop Music Critic

Ever walk into the grocery, bank or gas station, or flip on a "more music/less talk" radio station and not hear the song Smooth?

You know the song. There's Rob Thomas' voice singing "my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa" and Carlos Santana's crying guitar running an electric line right through the instantly catchy tune.

The song persuaded "the Academy" to bathe Thomas and Santana in Grammy gold this past February.

Thomas, lead singer of the Orlando, Fla., quintet Matchbox Twenty, laughed recently during a telephone interview from a stop in North Carolina when asked whether he, too, could do without ever again hearing Smooth.

"No, man, as you can imagine, I have a soft spot for that song."

The tune provided a legitimate reason for Thomas to remain in the public eye while he, Kyle Cook, Adam Gaynor, Brian Yale and Paul Doucette decided to spell out the 20 in their band name and record Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty, the follow-up to its 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You.

Remaining in the spotlight is crucial in this age, an age when we care how many people over the weekend paid to see Jim Carrey's latest yuk-yuk fest or how many "units" a blockbuster band "moved" last week.

Matchbox Twenty sold 10 million copies of its first record, but such statistics don't necessarily mean that someone will care in another four years.

Thomas, however, said he and the band felt no pressure to repeat its commercial success.

"We had such a freakish success with that first record," he said. "We didn't expect to repeat it regardless. . . . When you do something like that, it means that the band, the radio, your management, your record company -- everything in the chain is working exactly right. That doesn't happen all the time. So, when we realized that -- that it was out of our hands -- we only had the pressure on ourselves to feel comfortable with the record we gave to the record company. We knew that that was the only way our egos could survive not selling 10 million records."

To date, the band has sold more copies of Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty (2 million) than Columbus has residents. With a single, Bent, that radio has warmed to, the band's popularity doesn't seem to be waning.

Most commercially popular music today -- 'N Sync and its prefabbed smiling and dancing ilk -- pierces the heart and eardrums of a specific breed: the teen girl. Matchbox Twenty's pleasant rock, loathed by some, but loved by radio programmers and the people who request songs during lunch hours, appeals to a broader demographic.

"Right in the front row is like 13 to 40 all the way to the back. It's really integrated. It's not like the older folks are hanging in the back. I always think it's funny to see older cats in the front with their arms up in the air. They used to be rockers, man. They used to go to Zeppelin shows. They were rockers when there was actual rock going on."

"When we started the tour (Sept. 12), we were doing Modern Love as a cover, but we weren't having any fun doing it, so we changed it to American Girl. We realized that a large portion of our audience doesn't know David Bowie. It makes you realize, 'Damn, I'm almost 30 years old.' "

Thomas grew up in Orlando and South Carolina listening to singer-songwriters: Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul Simon. There was a "universality" to their music, he said.

"Even though a lot of it was really personal, it still came out. Just the Way You Are -- that was a personal moment for Billy Joel, but it just kind of translated really well to everyone else.

"Music is really interpersonal, but I guess once you put us on the radio, we're pretty much public property, and then its pretty much OK to say whatever you want. But at the same time, this is me and my best friends, and we've spent days and hours and years making records."

He then added with a laugh, "If anyone has anything to say to our face we'll punch ya. But we're not bitter or anything."