Great songwriting the goal of matchbox twenty's Rob Thomas

Friday, March 30, 2001


The phrase "pop star" is right at the top of Rob Thomas' resume. But the affable lead singer for rock group matchbox twenty would be perfectly happy with a more modest title: songwriter.

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WHAT: Pop-rock concert.

WHEN: Tuesday night at 7.

WHERE: KeyArena

TICKETS: $32.50 at Ticketmaster

"That was always my goal, to try (to) be a good songwriter," Thomas said in a phone interview from a tour stop in Cincinnati.

"I wanted to be that guy who writes that really great song. To me, it carries so much more weight than pop star, so much more weight than celebrity ever can."

Thomas got his wish last year when "Smooth," his celebrated collaboration with Carlos Santana, topped the record charts and won three Grammy Awards -- song of the year, record of the year and best pop collaboration with vocals.

"I figure if the celebrity part of my career doesn't work out, I can always write songs," Thomas said with a chuckle.

"That's how I want people to look at me and this band. I want them to know that matchbox twenty (is) a band that plays great songs. And that songwriting (is) an integral part of what we do."

Thomas is busy playing pop star on matchbox twenty's current tour, which includes a show with Lifehouse and Portland's Everclear Tuesday night at KeyArena.

But "Smooth" has created other opportunities for Thomas, who last year was named songwriter of the year by American Songwriter and Performing Songwriter magazines. He also landed on Billboard's list of Hot 100 Songwriters of the Year .

Thomas has submitted songs to Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige and Tim McGraw, and has written others with Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger and country singer Phil Vassar.

"I'm writing constantly," said the good-natured singer-songwriter. "Me and Willie were hanging out one day and we said, 'Let's do something together.' But that song may actually wind up on a new Mandy Moore album."

Thomas also collaborated with Vassar on a song for McGraw, but Vassar may record it for his own album.

"That's great because he's a new country artist and I think it'll be fun to be on a country album."

But even Grammy-winning songwriters have to learn to deal with rejection. When Tina Turner turned down a song that Thomas thought was perfect for her, he wasn't sure what to think.

"I'm like, 'Why? What's wrong with it?'" he said with a laugh. "I've got enough rejection in my own band to deal with. I don't need outside rejection."

Matchbox twenty's current album, "Mad Season," features songwriting collaborations with drummer Paul Doucette ("Stop") and producer Matt Serletic ("Bed of Lies" and "Last Beautiful Girl").

In "Stop," Thomas sings, "Yes, it's true that I believe/ I'm weaker than I used to be/ I wear my heart out on my sleeve/ And I forget the rest of me."

"Paul came to me with just the chorus and the progression. And I had another progression and we just kind of put them together," Thomas said of his first-time collaboration with Doucette.

"We'd been friends for eight years and we never sat down and wrote until recently. And now we're in the back of the bus writing constantly."

It's strictly a coincidence that "Mad Season" was also the name of a Seattle band formed in the 1990s by Pearl Jam's Mike McCready and Alice in Chains' Layne Staley.

"We found out about that later on. I had no idea," Thomas said.

The new album is the follow-up to matchbox twenty's blockbuster 1996 debut album, "Yourself or Someone Like You," which earned the Recording Industry Association of America's Diamond Award for sales of more than 10 million copies and spawned the hit singles "Push," "3 a.m.," "Real World" and "Back 2 Good."

"Mad Season" is also selling well -- more than 3 million copies since its release last fall.

"Can you believe it? That that many people like our record?" Thomas said.

Thomas is still smarting from the backlash that followed the group's initial success.

"It's funny. People say, 'You're selling a lot of records. Is that revenge?' Actually, it's not. Because the people who hated us before still don't like us."

Matchbox twenty may ultimately go the way of Hootie and the Blowfish, but the group's current tour is one of the biggest so far this year.

"I'm still amazed every night when people come and see us," Thomas said. "We have the greatest fans in the world."

Working with Santana will surely be one of the highlights of Thomas' career. After Thomas wrote "Smooth" and submitted his "demo" of the song, he suggested that another singer record the final version for Santana's "Supernatural" album.

"When I sent it back, I included a little note saying, 'I'll bet George Michael would sound good on this.' I'm a big George Michael fan. I think he can do anything," Thomas said.

"It's funny. I don't think Carlos had any clue who matchbox twenty was. But two weeks later, he listens to my demo and says, 'I like this guy. Can he sing? Can he do it?'"

Thomas was surprised that "Smooth" became such a huge hit.

"It wasn't even my favorite song on the record," he said. "But when my wife first heard the demo, she was like, 'Oh, my God. This is huge, this is great.' She was playing it for all her friends."

The success of "Smooth" helped bridge the gap between the release of matchbox twenty's debut album and the current "Mad Season."

"The song gave us the freedom to take the kind of break we wanted to take. Record labels always want you to do another record right away.

"But we knew that if we went right back into the studio, there was no way we could make an honest record," Thomas said.

There was another benefit to working with an old master like Santana.

"Carlos taught me a lot about being a musician.

"But he also taught me a lot about being a human being and a musician at the same time. And making sure that one totally has to do with the other. And at no time are they separated.

"I think I can take that with me forever."

P-I pop music critic Gene Stout can be reached at 206-448-8383 or