Matchbox Men

It ainít easy selling 10 million albums, Rob Thomas tells Richard Jinman.

Not everyone loves Rob Thomas. It's his band Matchbox 20, that really pushes their buttons, but Thomas is the only member with a public profile, so the brickbats usually have his name on them.

The problem with Matchbox 20, argue the critics, is they're just not Radiohead. They're too slick, too FM radio-friendly, too successful, too ... Matchbox 20. With Hootie and the Blowfish missing in action and the Goo Goo Dolls no longer troubling the charts, the Florida five-piece stand accused as the poster boys of corporate rock. Reviewing the band's May 26 show at New York's Irving Plaza, Rolling Stone mocked Thomas's subdued performance and described his anonymous-looking colleagues as having "as much fire and energy as a Yellow Pages wedding band."

So, Mr Thomas. How do you plead?

"Well, most of the criticism has been about our image," says the disarmingly pleasant singer on the line from Texas. "They complain that we're not acting like rock stars and that's kinda funny. We just write songs and we don't want to fit a mould."

Thomas can afford to be amused. Things are going rather well for the kid who was born on a US military base in Germany and grew up listening to Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Al Green. In October last year he married his girlfriend Marisol on a ranch in California's Santa Ynez Valley. Four months later Smooth - a song Thomas co-wrote with New York songwriter Itaal Schur and recorded with the veteran guitarist Carlos Santana - won three Grammy awards including Song of the Year. All the while Matchbox 20's 1996 debut album Yourself Or Someone Like You was inching closer to jaw-dropping global sales of 10 million.

Now there's a new album, Mad Season, which adds some gloss (and a horn section) to the Matchbox sound, but doesn't mess with the basic blend of rock and soul. The songs are still radio-ready; catchy with just a whiff of contemporary angst. Standout tracks include Bent, Black and White People and the sublime Back to Good. Ah, the intelligence level just skyrocketed. That would be their debut album, not the second. Love how they did their research. As one of his bandmates once observed: "Rob just s---s hooks."

Thomas admits the success of the first album was two-edged. The band toured songs such as Push, 3am and Real World for almost three years, leaving relations at an all time low.

"We were definitely burned out and ready to kill each other," he says. "You have 12 songs on an album which is all your audience know about you. It starts to become a burden."

After a six-month hiatus they returned to studios in Atlanta and Nashville. Despite the success of the Latin-styled Smooth - which sent Thomas's solo profile into orbit - and the spectre of Difficult Second Album Syndrome, the Mad Season sessions were relaxed.

"We kept our minds off our career," says Thomas. "The record company were freaked out by our success, but selling so many records gave us the power to keep them out of the studio until we were ready to let them hear it." Thomas isn't fretting about the album's success saying "our commitment is to make a record and after that you don't worry about it". Australia was supportive. Mad Season spent five weeks at the top of the ARIA chart and is still in the Top 30.

One thing Thomas has little control over is his celebrity. Since the success of Smooth, the singer with the Caesar-cut hairstyle - "like a hipster version of Joaquin Phoenix's cocksure emperor in Gladiator" gushed one writer - has been upgraded to the A-list. Sure he's not confined to his house by screaming teens like the Backstreet Boys, but Saturday morning trips to the mall are no longer an option.

Fame, he explains, is all about geography. Take New York, for example.

"I can go downtown, because in SoHo no-one gives a f--- who I am," he explains. "But if I go uptown where the tourists are, someone will take a picture and then everyone takes a picture. People will come up and say 'I love you, man. I love the Goo Goo Dolls'."

Well, at least he's got a sense of humour.

Oh and he lurves (lurves?) Australia, listing it on one fan site as his favourite place in the world. Aw, gee Rob, do you really mean it?

"Oh yeah. We've been there four times and there just seems to be a friendly laid-back atmosphere going on," he says. "Everyone just lets people be."