The heroes of the moment: matchbox twenty.
The Orlando, Fla., quintet of singer Rob Thomas, guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette debuted in 1996 at the tail end of the alternative era with "Yourself or Someone Like You." They were Matchbox 20 at the time -- complete with a capital "M" and "20" as a numeral -- and against all odds, they eventually racked up sales of more than 10 million albums.
Propelled by the hummable hits "Push" and "3 A.M.," Thomas became an unlikely star -- People magazine named the pudgy former Army brat one of its 50 most beautiful people -- and he followed his band's initial success by writing and singing Carlos Santana's massive 1999 hit "Smooth." Now the group is touring behind its second album, "mad season." It has sold 3 million copies, largely on the strength of the single "Bent." I'll be damned if I can explain any of this, beyond the aforementioned Hootie Factor. I've seen the group twice and been profoundly unmoved both times. But I also found it impossible to dislike Thomas as we chatted.
Most Everyman schmoes are really nice guys, they just aren't particularly galvanizing rock stars. We wish them well in the midst of their unexpected success because, hey, if they can do it, anybody can! But they're probably not destined for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I mean, has anybody heard from Hootie lately?
Q. The singles have been so phenomenally successful. How important is the live experience to what matchbox twenty does?
A. I think that's what it's all about: You make a record so that you can go play it live. I come from the school of, "If I love your record but I go to see you and you can't pull it off live, I'm gonna have a hard time listening to your record now." To us, it's really important to go out there and have people leave and say, "Man, that sounded just like the record," or "That sounded better than the record."
Q. You're held up as one of the few "real" rock bands on the charts in these teen-pop-dominated times.
A. If you hold up everything else, the water level mark goes down. (Laughs.) We were making a joke, because when we go to Europe, there's so much pop there, we might as well be Zeppelin. It's like, "You play your own instruments?"
Q. Is it much different in America at this point?
A. It's not, but it is. Like last year at the Billboard Awards, that was the first time in a couple of years that I saw three bands play. And I'm not even a huge Creed fan, but they stole the show, and it was good to see that happening. And now, like watching the charts, it's starting to integrate more.
Q. How do you see matchbox twenty fitting into the current landscape?
A. I don't know. When our first record came out, it was Pearl Jam and Nirvana and everybody was saying our record wasn't going to make it because that was what was going on. We just kind of weathered it through and did OK. With this record, it was kind of the same thing. We came out in the middle of the pop thing, and it was like, "Nobody's listening to bands." We were like, "Well, we've got no choice."
Q. When you work with a guy like Carlos Santana and look at the arc of his career, what does that say to you about your future in this business?
A. It was before this second record came out, and it made us realize that if this second record doesn't do that great, it's not the end of the world. The whole idea is just going out there to keep making records and keep playing live. Carlos is a guy who plays music for all the right reasons. This is the first time since "Black Magic Woman" that he's had a huge hit, but he's never left (the) consciousness. Every festival season, he was always there playing to huge crowds. He's Carlos, man. He's one of the best traveling live bands in the world!
The pop success was just a bonus for him. It's loosely related, because you want to have an audience, because people listening to your music is the whole idea. At the same time, you don't want to compromise anything to make that happen. You don't want to change anything you do to head in that direction. To me, success only counts if you're doing what you were doing anyway.
Q. You guys got a fair amount of criticism along those lines from people who said, "They're not authentic. They're not real."
A. You can't really take a lot of stock in it. One of the biggest criticisms was we were a radio band. Man, I grew up when radio was the thing! Radio was Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty and Elton John and Billy Joel and Elvis Costello. That wasn't a bad thing to be a radio band. You can't even start to defend yourself when people are using that as a criticism. Most of our criticisms, we never defend ourselves because we agree with them. When this record came out, Rolling Stone said, "Each song is a mini-epic and there's not one definable style." And we were like, "Yeah! Right on! Thank you, that's what we were doing."
Q. In a different age, matchbox twenty's songs would have been called "power ballads."
A. I grew up with that. It's the way that I write. I'm glad it works that way because otherwise I would be screwed. Because I don't know how to turn it around.
Q. There had to be pressure with "mad season." The first time, nobody expected anything. This time, they expected you to have a hit.
A. It didn't really hit us until after the record was done. When you're in it, you're making it and you're not really thinking about it. And then as soon as you're done and you give it over to the record company and you realize it's out of your hands, from that point on, that's when you start getting worried. It really is up to everyone else. If you're really successful, you have to remember that, too. So much of it has to do with timing and the right label and the right management. You can only take a certain percentage of the credit, whether you fail or succeed. Remembering that keeps you sane.
Q. There's a branch of the mainstream press that seized on you and turned you into this iconic sex-symbol rock star, but your persona onstage is that of a regular guy. I was always like, "What are they talking about?"
A. I don't get it either, actually. It was funny. Like when I met my wife, I never let her in on (being one of People's 50 sexiest people), and I wouldn't show it to her for months. Finally she had to go out somewhere and get a copy. It's just kind of funny, the whole idea of it. When you're in a band that was suffering the attacks we were getting anyway, and something like that happens, you just go, "Oh, (crap)!" On top of that, it happened when I was 50 pounds heavier than I am now. We were getting criticism as a band, then getting accolades for being attractive, then getting criticism for being fat. I don't think we really knew what the hell was going on. The first time we saw any mention of us in Rolling Stone, they were making fun of me for being heavy, and I was like, "That's not the point here, is it?"
Q. Did that influence you to lose the weight?
A. It did have something to do with it because I thought that was one more thing to take people's minds off the music. It's not flattering. Those are the kind of personal attacks that make you feel bad. If people don't get your records, you expect that. Not everybody is gonna like your band, and that's OK. But when people start getting personal, that kind of hurts.
Q. So how did you do it?
A. It's funny, man, and it sounds so cliched and easy, but it really is "eat right and exercise."
Q. But that's diametrically opposed to the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.
A. Not anymore; there's a new breed out there. It used to be when we first started you'd show up at 9 in the morning for the bus call with a drink still in your hand. Now I run into the guys in the gym before we hit the bus. It's the new rock star: We read Kafka, and we work out.
Q. What is it with the musical extremes that come from Florida? That state either produces the nastiest death metal or the most saccharine teen pop.
A. There's a lack of any discernible culture in that part of Florida. It's such a transplant area, with so many different people from New York and Colorado or wherever. The big joke in Florida is that nobody's from Florida. I always felt that living there, wherever I moved from there, I would instantly suck up the culture and become that. I was just like this clean slate waiting for something to be thrown on it. When I was growing up there, it was all bands; the Backstreet Boys weren't playing the local clubs.
Q. Is there a metaphor there for matchbox twenty's music? That rootlessness and taking a little bit of everything from all over the place?
A. Yeah, there's that, and the fact that I'm the only one from there. Kyle is from Indiana, and he went to the Atlanta Institute of Music; he's a big jazz head. Brian, our bass player, is the same way; he got a bachelor's in music from the University of Miami, and he went to the Berklee College of Music. Then you have me and Paul and Adam who just grew up as radio heads. You take all of these and put them together, and it creates this different style.
I get this a lot: People are like, "You were successful with 'Smooth.' Why isn't it the Rob Thomas show?" But I couldn't pull it off as the Rob Thomas show. I couldn't do it with any other group of guys than the guys I'm doing it with now. I have these demos for the songs that are just me on the guitar or me on the piano. I'm gonna take all of them and put them on the Web site so that kids can go on and check them out and see the difference between when I first wrote "Bent" and what the band brought to it. To me, that's the kind of behind the scenes I want. Like, I don't want to see your house, man. I don't want to watch you party. I want to know how you wrote the song!
Q. You're right; the heck with MTV's "Cribs." But I think a show about sharing diet tips wouldn't be a bad idea.
A. The diet show! Everybody's telling my wife she should do that, because ever since I got married, I've lost all this weight.
Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show, from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesday on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on the Web at www.jimdero.com.
By Jim DeRogatis