Maybe because they don’t play sardonic indie rock or trendy dance grooves, or because their first hit, “Push,” was widely (mis)interpreted as a batterer’s anthem, or maybe just because they’re from the south, Matchbox Twenty has never been embraced by the cultural elite. The masses, however, adore them. Their 1996 debut has sold over 11 million copies. The follow-up, Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty (Melisma/Lava/Atlantic), was nominated for two Grammys. The band – Rob Thomas, Kyle Cook, Adam Gaynor, Brian Yale and Paul Doucette – is currently on a tour that’s been selling out arenas across North America.
And then there are those three Grammys Thomas won for “Smooth,” his omnipresent single with Carlos Santana. For most guys, that collaboration would be celestial seasoning enough. But no: Thomas tracked down his hero, Willie Nelson, and wound up writing tracks for the country legend’s next album. The songwriters share an itinerant southern background. Thomas grew up bouncing between his mother’s and his grandmother’s homes in South Carolina and Florida. He dropped out of school and wound up in Orlando, where Matchbox Twenty was formed. Lately, some guy named Mick Jagger has been on the phone wanting to write songs . . .
WILLIE NELSON: So Rob, let’s start by telling folks how we met.
ROB THOMAS: I met up with you at one of your shows. You do these damn three-hour sets. By the time you’re done, I’m drunk. I get on your tour bus and I can’t get anything out of my mouth, except, “I love you!” In my head it’s all coherent, I want to talk about certain records, but instead I keep going, “You know the one with you on the cover? You know that song about the girl?”
WN: How’d you write your first song?
RT: I started writing just to pick up girls. [laughs] I was in high school, and I wasn’t playing football and I wasn’t extremely popular. So I thought I would be the guy at the party sitting at the piano, playing songs for girls. Then they would say, “Oh my God, look how sensitive he is.” You’ve told me that when you started, you wanted to be on the Grand Ole Opry.
WN: Yeah, I was listening to Hank Williams and all those guys on the radio. And I’d go to the movies and see Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. That’s what I wanted to do. You grew up in the south, too. How has that affected your songwriting?
RT: There’s something entirely different about growing up southern and having a southern mother. Especially coming into this business not from a country side, my biggest problem was getting over the geekiness of the fact I’m from the south. Like when I go to an awards show, the only thing different between me and everybody else is I really am happy to be there. And I am glad to meet ya. And everybody thinks you’re full of shit!
WN: In your late teens you were homeless. What was that like?
RT: That was more like a self-inflicted kind of romanticized hippiedom. I used to hitchhike around, up to South Carolina, or over to Daytona, so I could sit at the rest stops and have time to write songs. I thought I was trying to relive the Jack Kerouac days. The whole hitchhiking thing was just too damn scary after a while.
WN: I did that, too. I was about 20, hitchhiking through California and Oregon and Washington, riding freight trains, sleeping under bridges and viaducts. I didn’t like that at all.
RT: But it builds a certain character that you don’t get from playing Little League.
WN: It’s like picking cotton. It’s something you did, but never want to do again.
RT: Yeah, exactly. I was a roofer for six months, and I don’t care if I lose everything and no one ever wants to hear my songs; I’ll still never get on a roof again! But I’m glad to have that ‘cause now when I hang out with the roofers, I won’t get my ass kicked! [laughs] Did you ever write something and then afterwards look back on it and you’re like, “Man, I have no idea where it came from, but it explains everything”?
WN: It usually starts with a line that means really nothing. It proves the point that fortunately we’re not in control. There’s somebody dishing out ideas and if we’re dumb, we don’t get ‘em.
RT: It seems like that’s the time when you start losing your ideas, when you actually think, “OK, I’m gonna write something.” And then it’s like, “Oh no you’re not.”
WN: You never did and you never will.
RT: Have you ever been really heartbroken, written a bunch of songs about it, and then had to hear them over and over again later?
WN: It came be a sad experience to have to say those same sad words every night.
RT: “Right Now” wasn’t even going to be on the record originally. It was something I’d written when I’d first met my wife and she was just coming to the point where she realized she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to marry a musician.
WN: Sounds like a smart lady.
RT: I’d written a song pretty much just to talk her out of it. There are certain emotional things that go on regardless of what you’re doing as a job and where your station is in life. And I think a lot of stuff that you touch on has been these things that don’t change and are universal. You could make a butt-load of money but you still get your heart broken, you still have people let you down.
WN: I used to know a manager of a great writer. He would create problems between this guy and his wife, tell stories about this happening and that happening, just to keep him upset and writing songs.
RT: A lot of times what you’re expressing in the song is the worst of what you’re thinking about a situation. But then it frees you up to be a happy guy the rest of the time.
WN: Hopefully, that happens. There’s always occasions, incidences, where a guy comes along and he starts singing those negative songs every night of his life. And he gets on the bus, grabs a bottle . . .
RT: We had a couple of those keyboard players.
WN: You wrote a song that I recorded called “Maria.” It says it all: “OK, we’re fighting, we’re dumb and we’re crazy and we’re beating each other up, but let’s stop.”
RT: Sometimes, you could have a love song, but it just doesn’t seem like one. ‘Cause love takes on a lot of different emotions.
WN: Yeah, I wrote one called, “I’ve Gotta Get Drunk and I Sure Do Dread It.”