Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty shuns superstar status but still enjoys getting out in front of the group's enthusiastic fans.
By ALAN K. STOUT
It's easy to talk to Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty. Despite the fact the talented singer is one of the biggest rock stars in the world, he's surprisingly grounded, polite and unpretentious. He seems to still enjoy talking about music and songwriting, and although he and his band mates have spent a good portion of the past year on tour supporting their second album, "Mad Season," he says he still highly enjoys taking the stage each night.
"I love to tour and I like to play in front of people," says Thomas in an interview with the Times Leader. "I've always had a theory that I never get paid to play music, ever. I get paid because I'm never home, to be in and out of hotels, to have a (crazy) schedule and to not get to see my family a lot. Those are the things I feel I'm getting paid for ...
"The music part, I feel I'd do it for free if everybody could just come and see me."
Though a centralized Matchbox Twenty mecca may not be possible, it does seem as if almost everybody has bought the band's first two albums. "Yourself or Someone Like You" from 1996 - which yielded the hits "Real World," "3 a.m." and "Push' - has sold more than 10 million copies. "Mad Season" from 2000 also has been a big seller, with tunes such as "Bent" and "If You're Gone" riding the charts. Throw in Thomas' chart-topping "Smooth" collaboration with Carlos Santana in 1999, and you've got a guy who's been a virtual radio mainstay for nearly five years.
Thomas says that despite the band's hefty debut and his Santana saga, the group felt no added pressure when beginning work on "Mad Season."
"We didn't feel the pressure until people started asking us about the pressure," he says with a laugh. "We thought we were in the clear. For the first couple of weeks there was just a lot of static, and we couldn't figure out why. We didn't know what we wanted to make - because we didn't know who it was that we had become at that time - but we all came to the conclusion that none of us wanted to make 'Yourself or Someone Like You II.'
"Once we realized that, it all seemed to come out."
Thomas, who won three Grammys for "Smooth" and was awarded the 1999 Pop Songwriter of The Year award from BMI, admits the group was surprised by its initial commercial breakthrough. (It was also voted "Best New Band" in Rolling Stone's 1998 Readers Poll.) He adds that the band was often too busy back in '97 to fully realize just how big it had become.
"For us, it was kind of surreal" says Thomas. "We were the same five guys with our camp of people, and we kept going out and playing to more and more people each time. We were just trying to become a better live band.
"It's odd. All of this stuff is going on around you, but within you, it doesn't change much. It's not like you have a lot of time off to go home. It's not like you're out enjoying feeling like a rock star. You're on the road constantly. It didn't really hit until after."
Although Matchbox Twenty's music comes with a somewhat traditional combination of pop and modern-rock, the band does offer songs with purpose and often clear story lines. "Thoughtful" - it is mentioned to Thomas - is perhaps the word that best describes the group's music.
"Thanks," he says. "I think so. It always starts with an initial spark. It always starts with either something that happens to me personally, or a melody you have in your head or a phrase that you have. ...
"When I'm writing. I'm sweating over the 'ands' and the 'ifs' to see if they make sense and everything's coherent. And when we're in the studio, everybody's trying to do something melodically interesting without stepping on the melody or stepping on the song. We try to do that all the way through - to be as respectful to the song as we possibly can - even when you're writing it."
In addition to a bevy of hits with his band, Thomas - although he wasn't working with his matchbox band mates at the time - also co-wrote one of the biggest songs to hit the charts in recent years. In 1999, "Smooth," which was recorded with Carlos Santana, was a chart-topper, Grammy winner and cemented Thomas' place as one of rock's most respected young songwriters. Despite the song's big hooks and catchy melody, Thomas says he never saw it coming and wasn't even sure Santana would like it.
"I had no idea," he says. "We wrote it, and I didn't even know who was going to sing it. ... My wife thought the song was huge right away, but when you're close to it, you really can't tell. My barometer is awful for that stuff, especially if I wrote it. I could pick another band and tell you whether I think they're going to be huge or not, but when it's our stuff, I don't know.
"To me, it wasn't even my favorite song on the record. When I listened to the Dave Matthews track, I just though 'Oh my God, that's so pretty and that's so Carlos.' When I listened to 'Smooth,' I didn't even think they were going to take it."
Thomas says that after band's current tour is complete, Matchbox Twenty will take some time off and then hope to enter the studio early next year. Coming up with material, he says, is never a problem for him, guitarist Kyle Cook, guitarist Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette. Making the album they still hope to make, however, remains a challenge.
"Everyone's always writing," says Thomas. "It's just a matter of throwing the songs in a pile and seeing what we think the best ones are. We don't want to make another record unless we're blown away. We want to make sure we take enough time on it. Everybody's goal - whatever you're doing - you want to make your 'Purple Rain' or your 'Rumors.'
"That's our goal - to keep going back and trying again."
CUT: Matchbox Twenty performs at Montage tonight.
WHO: Matchbox Twenty, with Train and Old 97's
WHERE: Coors Light Amphitheater at Montage Mountain, Scranton
WHEN: Tonight at 7:30
TICKETS: $45, $35 and $25, available at the Montage Box Office, Ticketmaster outlets or Ticketmaster charge-by-phone at 693-4100