Matchbox Twenty's Thomas Navigates A 'Smooth' Path

These days, new hitmaking rock bands seem to have a limited shelf life. It's typically one smash album and the attendant arena tour _ and then it's back to modest sales and the theater or club circuit.

Witness No Doubt, the Wallflowers and Third Eye Blind. Who can name their most recent albums? What happened? Did these bands wait too long for the followup after the blockbuster? In this high-speed, Internet-fed, MTV-fueled rock world, do fans' tastes change faster than you can spell J-a-k-o-b D-y-l-a-n? Or did these groups suffer from overkill on their breakthrough CD?

"There seems to be a fine line between exposure and overexposure," says Tom Kay, who pitches singles to radio programmers at his Main Street Marketing, a Twin Cities company. "A few years ago, radio threw out Hootie [and the the Blowfish] as someone overexposed."

Matchbox Twenty got plenty of exposure for its 11-million-selling debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You," thanks to the hits "Push," "Real World," "Back 2 Good" and "3 a.m." And now the group has beaten the followup jinx. The new disc, "Mad Season," has topped 3 million in sales after the first single, "Bent," went to No. 1, and the current single, 'If You're Gone" has entered the Top 10.

While nearly four years passed between the releases of the first and second Matchbox albums, the Florida quintet figured out a super-smooth transition between discs. Lead singer Rob Thomas wrote a song for Carlos Santana called "Smooth." Featuring Thomas' voice and Santana's guitar, the chart-topping tune won Grammys for record and song of the year. It also kept Thomas' voice on the radio and his face on TV _ a perfect setup for Matchbox Twenty's sophomore CD.

"Smooth" wasn't overexposure for Matchbox Twenty because "it wasn't them," said Los Angeles radio consultant Jeff Pollack. "It was a left-field record by a guy in his '50s who wasn't in the pop business. In a sense, it gave Rob a cool image. He became a face, a voice and a name you got to know. Nobody knew what Matchbox Twenty looked like. He became a frontman. And with frontmen that you know, the band can have another life."

. No 'Smooth' live

Thomas himself regards "Smooth" as part of another life. He isn't likely to sing the smash Tuesday at Target Center when Matchbox Twenty kicks off its first arena headlining tour.

"Without Carlos, it just might as well be a cover song," Thomas said. "It's his record; I did it for him. I just don't feel like doing it without Carlos. I'd feel like Jennifer Warnes doing 'Up Where You Belong' without Joe Cocker."

When Thomas cowrote the song, he envisioned George Michael doing it. But Santana heard Thomas singing on the demo and, according to the singer, declared: 'I believe this guy when he sings; let's get him to do it.' "

Thomas credits his wife, model Marisol Maldonaldo, for inspiring the song. "If I hadn't married a Spanish woman, I don't think I would have ever gotten it out. With the original idea of the line 'you're so smooth,' I was thinking about Carlos. Then the whole other thing with Spanish Harlem popped in my head, and I started writing about this ethereal Spanish woman _ and it was my wife."

His current hit, the ballad "If You're Gone," was written as "a love letter to my wife," said Thomas, who turned 29 on Valentine's Day. "I'd just met her. I thought: 'this was the one I'm going to marry' the minute I met her. She felt the same way. But when I was on the road, she had this realization she was dating a musician and getting into that lifestyle. So I wrote this as a 'give us a chance' song. It wasn't supposed to be on the record. Then in the studio we were playing around with it, and it turned out to be one of our favorite songs."

Thomas, who now lives in New York (his bandmates live in Florida and California), writes rock songs with pop sensibilities, lyrics that are intimately emotional discussions of longing and self-searching.

"Our drummer was going through the songs and said, 'Gee, Rob, you're scared and lonely a lot.' "

Is he scared and lonely a lot?

"Only when I'm writing."

. Hardscrabble childhood

Born in Germany, where his father was stationed in the Army, Thomas moved to the United States as an infant, and his parents divorced when he was 2. He then lived in rural South Carolina with his grandmother, who sold moonshine and marijuana, and at 12, he moved back in with his mom in a trailer park in Orlando, Fla. His older sister moved out at 17 to get married, and Mom had Hodgkin's disease. Frustrated, Rob dropped out of school at 17 and hit the road.

"It helped build character at an early age that I wouldn't have had if I was playing Little League baseball," he said.

Three years later, the self-taught pianist/guitarist returned to Florida and started a succession of bands. The last one evolved into Matchbox Twenty, taking its name after Thomas saw a guy in a softball jersey with No. 20 and a patch for Matchbox cars. The band signed with Atlantic Records and worked with producer Matt Serletic of Collective Soul fame.

Matchbox Twenty is unabashedly a radio band, hoping to continue in the tradition of Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel. "I grew up on the radio. Somewhere along the line that became a bad thing," Thomas said. "I don't find any shame in being a radio band."

Because he's conscious about how a song will sound, he is demanding on himself. "When I'm writing a song, I sweat over the ifs and ands. When we're on the road, we'll spend a week rehearsing just to get the guitar tones right. The kicker is: If you don't have it live, you don't have it."

Since winning the songwriting Grammy for "Smooth," Thomas has been getting calls for songs. He wrote three _ "Maria," "Won't Catch Me Crying" and "Recollection Phoenix" _ that Willie Nelson has recorded for his new album. And he collaborated with Mick Jagger on two tunes _ "I Got a Disease" and "Visions of Paradise" _ for a solo Jagger album.

"You sit in a room with them and you realize damn, they're that good. Mick Jagger is the kind of guy who still, if he gets an idea, runs and grabs a guitar and notepad and runs in a room and starts playing for 20 minutes, writing stuff down."

"Smooth" has indeed given Thomas another life or two. -- Jon Bream