Pop-rock group matchbox twenty aims to elevate its level of music


Matchbox twenty sold 11 million copies of its 1996 debut disc, "Yourself or Someone Like You," and 3 million copies of its 1999 sophomore album, "mad season by matchbox twenty." But the pop-rockers, who will be in concert tomorrow at the University of Toledo, are not blinded by numbers.

"How many people bought the last Wilco record, 300,000 tops?" asked matchbox twenty drummer Paul Doucette. "To me, that’s better than any record we’ve ever made." (Actual sales of Wilco’s "Summerteeth," according to Soundscan, Inc., are 147,000.)

Doucette said he and his band mates - singer Rob Thomas, guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, and bassist Brian "Pookie" Yale - are all huge music fans who strive to create an album that can stand on its artistic merits. They envy the depth of statement and creative presentation of alternative country group Wilco, never mind the charts.

You can never predict what the public will buy or what the radio stations will play, Doucette said in an interview from his home in Los Angeles.

His overriding concern going into the studio to record "mad season" was to take matchbox twenty’s music to the next level. The last thing he wanted was for the band to become imprisoned by its own success and feel pressured to crank out a sequel just like its runaway hit debut.

"After we made the first record and were done touring, we took about nine months off, and during those nine months I spoke to the guys in the band maybe twice," Doucette said. "We all kind of jumped into our own personal lives. So I hadn’t seen these guys, hadn’t talked to them in a while, hadn’t known how the success of the record affected them. I didn’t know if they’d feel like, ‘I want to sell another 10 million records like we did the first time.’"

While matchbox twenty’s musical skills had grown and its artistic vision been sharpened by countless concerts, the band was not trying to avoid the basic ingredients that brought it fame in the first place. The new disc would be built with the same jangly rock guitars, driving rhythms, and Thomas’ distinctively throaty vocals that produced the first round of hits including "Push," "3am," "Real World," and "Back 2 Good."

"I didn’t expect us to make a record like [modern rock band ] Pavement," Doucette said. "There are certain things about the way we put songs together, and the way Rob writes songs, that remain the same. It’s just our style."

Between the two discs, Thomas participated in a side project that ended up boosting his profile and - indirectly and at times uncomfortably - that of matchbox twenty. His collaboration with guitar legend Carlos Santana on the song "Smooth" became an all-formats mega-hit and won Thomas three Grammy Awards in 1999.

"It was interesting because it actually helped," Doucette said of Thomas’ gig with Santana. "After that, there was more focus on Rob as a songwriter. But we found it odd that it took that, and not the 13 million records we’d sold previously, to make Rob famous.

"At the same time, we became known as, ‘Wow, we’re the band that had the lead singer that did the Santana song.’ It was frustrating for a lot of us. We had put a lot into this band. We had done a lot on our own and it was not getting recognized."

Thomas’ stardom was something that the rest of the band just resigned itself to accept. "You can’t control what people do and what people think," Doucette said.

The main thing was that Thomas remained committed to matchbox twenty and "Smooth" was just a diversion.

Before the release of "mad season," the group announced a small change in the way its name was written, going from matchbox 20 to matchbox twenty.

"We started spelling it out halfway through the last tour. We just liked the way it looked," Doucette said. "Then Entertainment Weekly called us the ‘loser of the week’ for changing it. But it’s the same word! We honestly thought nobody would ever notice."

When the five musicians met to begin recording their second disc, they were aware that their label, Atlantic Records, would essentially give them a blank check.

"We took advantage of the fact that the first record was so successful, because we didn’t know if that would happen again," Doucette said. "We realized this could be the only time we get to spend six months in the studio and do things like bring in a 75-piece orchestra."

The musicians knew that everybody else in the industry would be quick to compare the new recording with the debut, particularly the sales figures.

"I think everyone around us did feel a little more unsure than we did. We didn’t take it all that seriously. We knew it was a fluke," Doucette said.

A native of Pittsburgh, Doucette first hooked up with Thomas and Yale in Orlando, Fla., in 1993 when they had a band called Tabitha’s Secret.

"I answered an ad in the paper. They said in the ad that their influences were the Replacements, R.E.M., and Van Morrison. When I got there, Rob wasn’t there yet and I realized that these people had never heard a Replacements song in their life."

Just when he was about to leave, the band played him a tape with Thomas on lead vocals.

"When I heard Rob sing ‘3am,’ I thought, ‘Holy [cow], this guy has a voice on him!’"

That night, after his audition, Doucette and the group went to an after-hours bar and he discovered right away that Thomas has a quirky sense of humor.

"There was this big, huge guy playing pool, and he came up to me and said, ‘Oh, so you’re the kickboxing champion of Philadelphia?’ Rob had told him that I was."

The massive pool player looked like he wanted to take Doucette on. Thomas came over and whispered a plan to Doucette: Sneak out, get the truck started, Thomas would hit the guy and run, and they’d race off.

"I thought that was a great plan," Doucette said. "But then this guy kisses me on the forehead and buys me a drink! Now anytime we go to Philadelphia, Rob tells the crowd that that I’m the local kickboxing champ."

Doucette said he grew up wanting to play drums like Alex Van Halen. Later, his drum hero became Kenny Aronoff, the longtime drummer for John Mellencamp who is now one of the top session and touring players.

"Kenny speaks through his drums. He has his own feel that’s distinctly his. I love that. He always plays for the song, he never plays anything inappropriate. Everything he plays has a purpose."

Pop-rock drummers need to realize that the song comes first and the drums provide a supporting role, he said.

"It’s not about, ‘Hey, these are great drums!’ I don’t think anybody’s ever going to buy a matchbox twenty record because the drums are cool," Doucette said.

At that point in the phone interview, another voice is heard in the background.

"My fiancee disagrees," he said with a laugh, referring to Moon Zappa, the musician-daughter of late rock legend Frank Zappa.

Doucette said he isn’t bothered by criticism that the band is bland or unimaginative. He knows exactly where matchbox twenty fits into the big picture.

"We’re just a band that plays songs," Doucette said. "Critics always expect people to break new ground, and we weren’t trying to do that. We were just trying to make songs. And we just happen to be blessed with a really great songwriter and a bunch of guys who know how to put together a song that is radio friendly.

"We just keep doing what comes naturally to us," he said.

Thanks to ZenLaup20 for the article!