By CHELSEA J. CARTER, Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Rob Thomas stepped off an airplane feeling like a bona fide rock star, with nearly 12 million copies of his band's freshman album sold and the follow-up effort following closely behind.
But when he handed his passport over 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 1999 smash "Smooth," which earned Santana record and song of the year at last year's Grammy Awards, has gained him more celebrity than the success he's had with his own band. It has proven to be a double-edge sword of sorts for the 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 already spawned three hit singles, including the title track, "Bent" and the ballad "If You're Gone." Yet a fourth single is climbing the charts.
The band hopes the success of "Mad Season," in addition to the nationwide tour they are beginning later this month, should help them step out of the shadow of Thomas' success with Carlos 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 gets the most attention as lead singer, he downplays his growing fame and tries to keep the attention on his fellow band members. In fact, Thomas turned down the cover of Rolling Stone twice when the magazine offered to put the singer and not the band on the cover.
"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 its first album "Yourself or Someone Like You," which netted four Top 5 hits.
Then they were called Matchbox 20, a name the band says they came up with after they got their recording deal. The inspiration: A matchbox car and a child's No. 20 baseball jersey. It just sounded like a band name, Thomas says.
Playing the club scene, the band - made up of Thomas, Doucette and Yale - caught the attention of producer Matt Serletic with its performance of "3 A.M." The song would go on to be one of its 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. But just as the band believed it was about 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 there.
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 the band perceived by many 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 has since lost.
"Not everybody can be Poison," Thomas said, referring to the 1980s heavy metal band known as much for its over-the-top 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 features 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 band 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."
Chances of that happening appear to be slim. Even as they prepare to go on tour, they eschew the more decadent on-the-road-behavior that they admit to partaking in when they first became famous. They say they are more aware of their performances, their fans and their health.
"When we started, you could see everybody at a 9 o'clock bus call with a drink still in their hand and they hadn't slept in a couple of days, or they were bringing a new friend on the bus for a couple of days," Thomas said. "You don't realize looking back on it that it got hard to play night after night like that. Now everybody is concentrated on the show."
In keeping with their low-key image, Matchbox is scheduled to begin its U.S. tour in July in Fargo, N.D.
"The heart of rock n' roll, I do believe, might be in Fargo. So we're going to go look for it," Thomas said. "Along the way, we might find it in a few other places too."