'Smooth' move: Matchbox Twenty gets its act together in wake of `the song that ate the world'

by Sarah Rodman

Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Matchbox Twenty fans shouldn't expect a "Smooth" night tomorrow, when the Florida-bred quintet takes the stage at a sold-out Worcester Centrum.

According to drummer Paul Doucette, you won't be hearing the behemoth Santana hit he calls, "the song that ate the world."

"We've never played it, ever," says Doucette on the phone from his Los Angeles home on the day of the Grammy awards. (The group, nominated twice, was shut out.) Doucette says Matchbox Twenty has "no desire to play" the song that turned their frontman, Rob Thomas, the song's co-writer, into the man they teasingly refer to as "Mr. Grammy-O" for his multiple wins last year.

"We definitely get a lot of requests for it, and I know sometimes people leave the show a little disappointed," says Doucette, "but it's just not something we'd ever feel comfortable doing."

Although the group is obviously grateful that the ubiquitous ode to the "Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa" kept their leader - and by extension the band - in the spotlight between albums, Doucette says everyone, including Thomas, was sideswiped by the success of "Smooth."

"I think he was a little taken aback by how big that went," says Doucette, "because his priority was always the band. No one ever anticipated it being what it was, and I think if he would've known what was going to happen, I honestly don't think he would've done it. He gets a little tired of the fact that it's taken away from the band, because we've all worked really hard to get this band to where it is, him especially."

Indeed, on the way to selling 13 million records - 10 million of their 1996 debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You," and 3 million and counting of last year's follow-up "Mad Season" - the band has weathered litigation, lack of preparedness for big venue touring and a critical drubbing for its "middle of the road" pop-rock sound.

It's a sound that has proven to be popular with radio hits such as "Push" and "3 A.M.," which powered their debut album to its phenomenal commercial success. It's also a sound that the band has wisely spiced up with horns, strings, r & b grooves and all-around improved songwriting and harmonizing on "Mad Season."

"After that all started going," says Doucette of the first album's meteoric rise, "we were playing venues that we really weren't ready as a band to play." Although Doucette, Thomas and bassist Brian Yale had played together - with the litigious members of the band Tabitha's Secret - guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor came aboard as the record deal was being made.

"So we really had to learn quick how to be a theater band," says Doucette, "and just when we were getting that down, it was like, OK, now we have to be an arena band. And we were like 'oh wow, we've really got to step this up because there's 10,000 people coming to see us,' and you really shouldn't (stink) in front of 10,000 people."

As for the critics, Doucette says the band doesn't care about the slings and arrows anymore and proudly embraces the middle of the road. He says it lets people know where the fringe is.

"On a listening level, I probably would rather listen to the fringe," says Doucette, who is engaged to Moon Zappa. "I probably wouldn't listen to us if I wasn't in the band. But on a playing level, the songs are great to play."

"Everyone used to call us middle of the road and used that like an insult and we're always like, 'no that's exactly what we're trying to do,'" says Doucette, who points to common band influences such as Tom Petty and Elton John, who steered a similar course and "who consistently put out great records. That's the kind of band we are and we're proud of that."

Doucette expects the group will eventually experiment with their formula. "At some point in our lives, we're going to feel the need to make a fringe record, because we have those influences and we haven't tapped into them yet," he says. "We're going to want to make a record where we don't care if anyone likes it or not, we're going to make it because we want to make it." But, he adds, "I don't think we're ready as a band yet."

Matchbox Twenty plays the Worcester Centrum tomorrow night with Everclear and Lifehouse. The show is sold out.

The Boston Herald