By Jennifer Mendelsohn
During a recent performance at the Baltimore Arena, Rob Thomas, lead singer and songwriter of Matchbox Twenty, addressed the cheering crowd. "We're not reinventing the wheel," announced Thomas, 29. "We have a couple songs and we're going to play them for you. You know the drill."
Although forthrightness is not typical rock-star shtick, it seems to be working in spades for Thomas and his bandmates, guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette. Without adopting flamboyant, larger-than-life personas or championing controversial political causes, Matchbox Twenty sold more than 11 million copies of its 1996 debut album, "Yourself or Someone Like You". Last year's follow-up, "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty", has gone triple platinum.
"We never put ourselves down as a member of the disenfranchised. We don't stick up for any certain group," Thomas explains pre-show. "We're a group that's about songs."
Indeed. Thomas has an uncanny ability to craft a can't-get-it-out-of-your-head hook. He has written a string of smash-hit radio staples like "Push" ("I wanna push you around/I will/I will"), 3 am ("She says baby/ It's 3 a.m. I must be lonely") and "Bent" ("Can you help me? I'm bent/I'm so scared that I'll never/get put back together"). Between albums, Thomas co-wrote and sang the Latin-flavored "Smooth" for Santana's "Supernatural", which went on to win three Grammys, including Record of the Year. Throw in his soulful, agreeably angst-tinged voice, put it all in an easy-on-the-eyes package, and you've spelled massive commercial appeal. Critical enthusiasm is another matter; the Chicago Sun-Times once likened Matchbox Twenty's "generic and familiar" sound to "a big glass of milk and some warm chocolate chip cookies."
But somewhere in between manufactured bubble-gum pop and hard-core obscenity, there's clearly a place for middle-of-the-road rock -- and for an Everyman star like Thomas, whose emotional, heartfelt songs resonate widely and who seems equally enthusiastic about classic novels by Franz Kafka and John Steinbeck and cheesy TV shows like "Pop Stars".
"He is very sincere, ingenuous and un-ironic, and I think people respond to something that doesn't seem to have any distancing masks or snide attitude attached," says Entertainment Weekly magazine's Chris Willman. "There's so much misogyny in music that someone as sensitive and female-friendly as he is is bound to strike a chord among women especially."
If Thomas seems female-friendly -- Willman's review called parts of "Mad Season" "the rock equivalent of a chick flick" -- it's no surprise. He and his sister were reared by their hard-working divorced mother in South Carolina and Florida and spent a lot of time with his eccentric grandmother. Though he's reconciled with his estranged father, Thomas says that "the best thing that ever happened to me was that I never learned the value of being a man. Because I'm not concerned with 'manly' things. I guess I've always been more sensitive or girly."
At 14, Thomas joined a cover band in which he sang and learned to play keyboards. He started staying up late, hovering over chord charts and teaching himself to write songs. Before long, he'd dropped out of high school and was roaming the Southeast from gig to gig, until he formed the Orlando-based band that eventually evolved into Matchbox Twenty.
The early days were typically heady. "We had our obligatory [period when] your job is to drink 24 hours a day and try to meet as many of the wrong girls as you possibly can," Thomas admits. "It just wasn't happening. I gained 50 pounds. I was miserable. I thought I was the happy, fun guy that everybody liked, but I didn't realize I wasn't. I was the annoying guy that would never go home."
Thomas, now back to his fighting weight, turned over a much healthier leaf when he met Marisol, a 25-year-old education student turned model who is now his wife. (She appears in the "Smooth" video.) Suddenly, "everything made sense," Thomas says. Doucette, who was his best man, says Marisol "has been amazing for him. She cleaned him up."
Marriage "has definitely changed my priorities," Thomas says. "Everything takes a back seat to my wife." Everything including Mick Jagger: Thomas initially turned down Jagger's request to write songs with him because he'd promised the time to Marisol. (The two rockers later rescheduled.)
Thomas, who also has collaborated with Willie Nelson, confesses that he made himself erase Jagger's phone message immediately, before he could be tempted to show off for friends. He laughs sheepishly: "I didn't want to be that guy."