By Chelsea J. Carter
Chicago Sun Times
LOS ANGELES--Rob Thomas stepped off an airplane feeling like a bona fide rock star, with almost 12 million copies of his band's freshman album sold and the follow-up effort close behind.
But when he handed his passport to a control officer, she asked: "Are you Rob Thomas of Santana? The guy who sang `Smooth?' " I was like `No! I'm Rob Thomas of matchbox twenty,' " he recalled during a recent interview.
Thomas' work on the 1999 smash "Smooth," which earned Carlos Santana record and song of the year at last year's Grammys, has gained him more celebrity than the success he has had with his own band. It has proved to be a double-edge sword of sorts for matchbox twenty.
"It was a little weird. More people probably checked us out because of it--you know, bought the album," said drummer Paul Doucette.
Their sophomore album, "Mad Season," was released last spring and has spawned three hit singles, including "Bent" and the ballad "If You're Gone."
The band says the success of "Mad Season," in addition to the nationwide tour they will start this month, should help them step out of the shadow of Thomas' success with Santana. Already, they have a moratorium of sorts on talking about him.
"As soon as we started making this record, we put a stop to it. We had spent all year talking about Carlos, and even Carlos is probably tired of talking about it," Thomas said. "So we made sure to keep that out as much as we could. We tried to keep the focus on the band."
Although Thomas, as lead singer, receives the most attention, he downplays his growing fame and tries to keep the focus on his fellow members.
In fact, Thomas turned down the cover of Rolling Stone twice when the magazine offered to put the singer and not the band out front.
"I'm sure [bassist Brian Yale's] mom wants to see him on the cover as well. . . . Each person has put their whole life into it, and you get to this point where you all did it together and you want to enjoy it together," Thomas said.
matchbox twenty, which started as a bar band in Orlando, Fla., officially arrived in 1996 with "Yourself or Someone Like You," which netted four top five hits. Then they were called matchbox 20, a name the band says they came up with after landing a recording deal.
The inspiration: A Matchbox car and a child's No. 20 baseball jersey. It just sounded like a band name, Thomas said.
On the club scene the band caught the attention of producer Matt Serletic with its performance of "3 A.M." The song would go on to be one of the band's first hits.
The group quickly signed up rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor and guitarist Kyle Cook and put out an album in three months on Lava Records. Just as the band thought it was going to strike gold, Lava Records was folded into Atlantic.
The band was in danger of being dropped from the label when matchbox's sales spiked in Birmingham, Ala.
A radio station had put the song "Push" into rotation, and albums there were selling at a brisk pace.
A year later, matchbox, as they are known to their fans, had a hit album. But the band received a lukewarm reception from the media, who were slow to write about members perceived as "nice guys." There were no drug or alcohol problems to fuel the tabloids. No sex scandals. No arrests. Their only true negative brush with the tabloids came when Thomas gained 40 pounds, which he since has lost.
"Not everybody can be Poison," Thomas said, referring to the 1980s heavy metal band known as much for its antics as its music.
But matchbox has embraced the "regular guys" label.
"People need to label you. That's just how the world is, and I'd rather be the regular guys than the coked-up guys or the hateful guys or the eccentric guys," Doucette said.
matchbox changed the "20" to the word "twenty" on its second album after a number of bands popped up with numeral names, such as Blink 182 and Eve 6.
They have even poked fun at their own success in the "Mad Season" music video, which shows the band getting off an airplane before a throng of screaming fans. The fans attack the band and yank off "rock star" labels worn by the members.
"Did you get the joke?," Doucette asked. "What do you do when all that stuff is gone? If you don't have anything to begin with, once they have the rock star card and they run with it, you have nothing. We never want that to be us."