STUCK IN THE MIDDLE: ...of the road that is. They’ve sold 11 million records and have a triple-Grammy winner for a singer. Now MATCHBOX 20 are driving their solid Yank rock towards Blighty.
You join us 27 floors up in the clouds over Manhattan, greedily sipping complimentary major-label coffee with a bona fide superstar. A 28-year-old triple Grammy winner. The fringe flicking (or "hood ornaments" as he would have it) frontfellow in a band which has sold a staggering 11 million records in the United States.
Possessor of a face that legions of ladies lust after and a voice that both teenage boys and their middle-aged dads admire. Who is he? Well… you’ve probably never heard of him.
If the name Rob Thomas rings a bell, it probably has less to do with his ultra-successful unit-shifting band MB20 than it does with his appearance on last years award scooping Santana single "Smooth". Despite their fame Stateside, MB20 still trigger only vague glimmers of recognition in the UK and that’s when they aren’t confused with Blink 182. But things are set to change. A single (from their second album "Mad Season") "If You’re Gone" has aggressively infiltrated our airwaves – and, as Thomas rather sinisterly predicts, one they "work the songs into people’s unconscious minds", MB20 rarely strike out.
MB20’s straight-ahead rock is quintessentially American and unapologetically unimaginative. Still, the band’s two albums boast a flurry of fine lyrical turns and a few graceful ballads. For Rob Thomas, it’s all about the songs, man – and if you listen there is something savvy going on. MB20 have effectively taken the unchallenging user-friendly formula of the 70’s and 80’s radio hits and given them a gravelly, angst-ridden "grunge" twist. Like Hall & Oates sung by Eddie Vedder. And it works.
Thomas (birdlike, minute, exquisite nose) is possibly the most down-to-earth, aw-shucks-modest American superstar you’re ever (un)likely to meet. He describes fame and fortune as "so crazy you can't even conceive of it." He’s met most of his heroes, and they’ve turned out to be "really nice". Later this month he’s going to write with Jagger. His drummer Paul is engaged to Moon Unit Zappa. Even weirder. He doesn’t mind being called middle-of-the-road. In fact, he’s proud of it.
"That’s what we do, you know?" He shrugs and lights the first of many non-stop cigarettes. "For me, growing up, radio music was Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac – bands that just got together the best 12 songs they had and put them on a record. They weren’t speaking to any disenfranchised members of society; they weren’t standing on a soapbox. Their job was to translate feelings into a song and then let other people enjoy it."
"I have friends who spend all their time sitting in the studio and they come up with all kinds of sounds and new techniques. And the world needs that. Just like the world needs Limp Bizkit because the suburban white kids need to rage about nothing at all, and the world needs Christina Aguilerra so 13-year olds can shake their asses to a role model. And I think you need MB20 just so you can light up a smoke and put on a CD and find songs to be remorseful to, and also find songs that make you feel happy."
The band proved their dedication by touring their debut album "YOSLY" for three and a half years, moving gradually from toilet venues to enormodomes. This may sound like an unfeasible amount of time on the road, but for Thomas, who due to a troubled home life was itinerant for three years from the age of 17 ("hanging out with criminals, stealing beers and cars and stuff.") it was habit. It also meant there was plenty of time for the band to indulge their adolescent rock star fantasies.
"Before I got married," he laughs, deviously, "we did all that obligatory touring band stuff. That’s also when I gained, like, 45 pounds, because I was drinking like a f-ing fish. Those were the days when we’d go to some bar and take it over and get in some fight so that we’d have something to talk about the next day on the radio. We’d be up for three days in a row and we’d do some pretty sh*t shows as a result. It’s funny, you get to the point where there are people who want to hear you play and then you piss all over it by getting messed up and playing badly." So now it's different. Instead of losing themselves in a chemical haze, the band are up early working out at a gym. They’ve realised that when they’re sitting in the charts next to bands like U2, they’ve got to work hard in order to "feel worthy".
Thomas grins. "Anyway, it doesn’t matter. People are going to think whatever they want. I was hanging out backstage at the TV show Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and you have to go behind the prop room to smoke cigarettes, so my wife and I kept popping back there. Three weeks later, our drummer is at the Viper Room and Janeane Garofalo (US comedy actress) comes up to him and says ‘Hey! Didn’t your singer get caught at Conan O’Brien having sex in the prop room?’ And once, we overheard these workers outside our hotel room talking about us. They were going ‘Yeah, that Rob Thomas, he’s a talented guy. Too bad he’s a heroin addict. That’s how he lost all that weight’" The patently smack-free Thomas shakes his head "Its kind of great! I can be good to myself and still maintain a rock star image."
If there’s one thing that riles Thomas now, it's rock stars who don’t take what they do seriously. In true Robbie vs. Liam fashion, he recently enacted a war of words with Stephen Jenkins, lead singer of the band’s American "competition", Third Eye Blind.
"He called me a fat guy and I didn’t like it. I don’t like that guy anyway; every time we run into him, he’s been a jerk. He’s like "I’m a rock star"… that kinda guy. I hate that attitude. Anyway, I made the mistake of mentioning it in some interview and it all blew up."
"I also had something happen with Eddie Van Halen", he adds sheepishly. "I thought he had said something bad about us, so I trashed him and then I found out later that he didn’t actually say it. So I went to one of their soundchecks and apologised. I’m 26, I don’t want Eddie Van Halen to hate me. They were cool. It doesn’t really pay off to talk badly about anyone, because nine times out of ten, you may not like their music, but you meet them and they’re good people."
Rob Thomas smiles, knowing that he’s liable to come across a few people who don’t like his music. Equally, however, he’s a man who’s sold a mountain of albums, and who is determined to sell more. Over here, "It’s all about sticking around", he vows "getting better…"
It’s the difference between hastily burnt lighter fluid and single matches lit one by one.