Twenty-Twenty Vision

Despite sudden celebrity status, matchbox twenty never lost its focus.

In response to charges of facelessness leveled at his band, Matchbox Twenty, Rob Thomas once told Rolling Stone that he'd prefer people knowing his songs to knowing his face.

Thanks to Carlos Santana, millions now know both.

"It's funny, you can sell 12 million records, but you do one song with a legend ... ," Thomas says by telephone following sound check before a recent concert in Houston. Thomas co-wrote (with Itaal Shur) "Smooth," the tune which propelled Santana back to the top of the charts. The song and its video were all but inescapable throughout 1999.

A multiplatinum debut album (1996's "Yourself or Someone Like You") guaranteed celebrity status, but "Smooth" took it to another level.

"The conversations I wind up having - my wife will say, "I wanna go to the mall. Oh it's Saturday, we can't go. We'll get mobbed' - every now and then I realize how odd they are.

"But I don't harp on it," Thomas says. He's still in touch with "the 16-year-old looking in the mirror playing guitar with a tennis racket."

The dream-come-true of a hit first record inevitably is followed by the reality of having to follow it up. Matchbox Twenty responded with last year's "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty," a more diverse and ambitious effort.

The band, it seems, was intent on not making the same record twice.

"I don't think we could have," Thomas says. "The first album was our hypothetical record - "If you were Matchbox Twenty, what would you sound like?' "

The band that recorded "Yourself" was just getting to know itself. Thomas, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette had formed the band, originally called Tabitha's Secret, in Orlando in 1993. But guitarists Adam Gaynor and Kyle Cook joined just prior to the recording sessions.

"We're really proud of that record as our first record," Thomas says. "But it's a band backing up a songwriter."

The band was far more involved in the creation of "Mad Season."

"I took 20-plus songs - just me on piano or guitar - and put 'em on a CD and sent 'em to the guys," Thomas says. "Then we got together and said, "How do you hear this song?' And everyone had their version of it."

The band took its time with the album, a luxury afforded by the success of "Yourself."

"Quite honestly we didn't let anyone hear what we were doing until we wanted to, which was a nice freedom," Thomas says.

The album's ambitiousness reaches a peak on the final track, "You Won't Be Mine," a Thomas ballad for which producer Matt Serletic wrote an orchestral arrangement.

The band liked Serletic's work so much that it included a reprise of the song's orchestral section as a hidden bonus track at disc's end.

Serletic also is producing the upcoming album by a Thomas favorite, Willie Nelson.

Nelson, in fact, recorded three Thomas tunes for possible inclusion on the album. And Thomas got to hang out with his hero for a few days.

"That was exciting," Thomas says. "I put Willie above all others. I got a world of information out of that. He's got great stories. And he does a great Kris Kristofferson impersonation."

"Mad Season" has sold 3 million copies - respectable but not in the eight-figure range of "Yourself." Thomas is OK with that.

"We're not entirely responsible for the success of the first one, so we're not totally responsible" if "Mad Season" doesn't match it, Thomas says.

"We can't take as much credit because all the things were there (for "Yourself' to succeed)," Thomas says. "The right timing, right management, radio was great. "When (Mad Season) didn't tank, when it debuted at number three, we were like, "phew,' " Thomas says. "I mean, we got beat out by Britney and Eminem so what are you gonna do?

"We were the geniuses that put out a record the same day Eminem's record came out," Thomas says with a laugh. "And I went out and bought Eminem's record the day it came out. That should have been a sign."

By Curtis Ross