Striking Up the Band: Matchbox Twenty Tour Fanning Flames For New CD

Counting the four singles from Matchbox Twenty's 1996 debut and Santana's "Smooth," Rob Thomas has sung and co-written five of the most omnipresent rock songs of the past four years. In the process, Matchbox Twenty has gone from zero to 11 million in total albums sales, and Santana, one of rock's great guitarists, has found himself riding the crest of a remarkable commercial comeback.

Thomas is obviously doing something right. "It just tells you -- sooner or later something's going to (screw) up, right?" Thomas mused during a recent interview. "Things are going really well, so you just want to keep your head down and your mouth shut. You don't know where inspiration comes from -- you don't know where you get it, but you're so glad you do. Because I suck at everything else. I don't know anything about cars or sports or construction.

"And we're good about working it -- we work when we're supposed to work."

True enough. Thomas and company have spent nearly two weeks in New Orleans rehearsing for their upcoming arena tour in support of "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty," their second album; the tour kicks off at the UNO Lakefront Arena on Tuesday. New Orleans is familiar territory: The band also launched its debut arena headlining tour at the Lakefront Arena in 1998.

"We've started a tradition of starting our tours here," Thomas said. "We're not from Atlanta or New Orleans (the band came together in Orlando), but for some reason we've made all of our records in Atlanta and started our tours in New Orleans. I have no idea why. If the afternoon is not boiling you, (New Orleans) is a good, inspirational place to walk around and feel it."

By the time Matchbox Twenty wrapped up three years of touring in support of its smash debut, "Yourself Or Someone Like You," the band members felt in desperate need of a vacation. Thomas spent part of his break on the "Smooth" project, co-writing the song with Itaal Shur, singing it, and starring in the sweaty, dancing-in-the-streets video. Did he approach writing for Santana differently than writing for his own band?

"Unconsciously, I think I did," he said. "I was getting these people talking about how different my voice sounded, how it was a stretch from what I do. But when you have a track like that, it inspires that kind of mood. (Matchbox Twenty) is not a Latin dance band, so I don't get a lot of opportunities to pull that kind of thing off."

Thomas said his wife pegged "Smooth" as a massive hit long before he did. It turned out to be a convenient bridge between Matchbox Twenty albums.

"The Santana thing, in hindsight, helped out so much without realizing it, because it gave us more freedom to have that (off) time without going away (entirely)," Thomas said. "It always feels like, if you're into pop music, it eats its young -- you have to make sure you keep up with the pack. With the Santana thing, I was doing just enough to make me really crave getting back in the studio with my band and cutting some songs and putting together a record."

He and his bandmates were conscious of the "Hootie factor." Hootie & the Blowfish released a second album hot on the heels of a gazillion- selling debut; an oversaturated public couldn't stomach more music. How did Thomas and company know it was time to start recording again?

"Once your record does well, those 12 songs define you," he said. "We spent three and a half years playing 12 songs -- it starts to get to you after awhile. Anything that you've learned in that three and a half years -- and those three years feel like 10, because you absorb all this culture and you have to learn all this stuff on the fly -- regardless, those 12 songs are what people know about you, and that's it. So if nothing else, we just wanted a chance to tack up another dimension on there.

"We didn't want to make the same record. You can't expect to repeat (the success); that can't be your goal. The goal is, each time you make a record, to say, 'This is the best record we've made.' "

So what does he think they did right on "Mad Season"?

"Looking back, there's a dimension to this record that I didn't hear on the last record. I'm really proud of the songs, and everybody has stepped up so much as a player. It's a more musically interesting record. We wanted a record that, if you took the vocals out, it would still be an interesting piece to listen to. That's what I think we accomplished on this record more than the last one -- but without harming the songs at all."

The intention, says Thomas, is always to be "in service of the songs as much as we can." That goal renders one of the chief criticisms of Matchbox Twenty -- that its members are too anonymous -- moot.

"Everybody was saying, 'These guys have sold 5 million records, and nobody knows what they look like -- doesn't that piss you off?' No. That means we have famous songs. That's great. That's what we wanted. I think it's really cool if somebody is standing next to me singing one of my songs and doesn't know I'm the guy who sings it. I think I've done my job." -- Keith Spera