Matchbox singer enjoys 'Smooth' life

Enquirer interview with Rob Thomas

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sometimes rock 'n' roll and real estate have a lot in common. Location, location, location. That's how “Smooth,” the Grammy-winning collaboration of former Cincinnatian Itaal Shur and matchbox twenty's Rob Thomas, got written.

“It was just all luck. My wife and I had moved to Soho and Itaal was living in Soho and it turned out he lived like two blocks from me,” says the singer, 29, who performs with his band Thursday at Firstar Center.

“I got a call that he was the guy working on the new Santana track and did I want to go write it with him, and I said, "Yeah.' So I walked over, stepped out of my door, turned around the corner and there he was.”

The combination of the Queen City-bred R&B composer/keyboardist and the Florida/South Carolina-raised rocker clicked from the start, Mr. Thomas says.

  • What: matchbox twenty, Everclear and Lifehouse
  • When: 7 p.m. Thursday
  • Where: Firstar Center
  • Tickets: $29.50-$36, at Ticketmaster outlets, by phone (562-4949) and online (
        “It was an easy thing, I was so into the track and we spent like two, three days changing "ifs' and "ands' and "buts,' moving things around.”

One of the song's most memorable lines, “my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa,” was inspired by Mr. Thomas' wife, Marisol Maldonado, who is of Puerto Rican and Spanish descent. But he thought he was just co-writing a song.

“We sent it in and I kinda thought that would do it. I didn't think that I would be the singer.”

But it turned out that Mr. Santana liked Mr. Thomas' gruff-voiced approach. A couple of weeks after sending in the demo tape he got a call asking if he'd sing “Smooth” on Supernatural.

In hindsight, it seems like a once-in-a-lifetime break. But before Supernatural, Mr. Santana hadn't had cracked the Top 10 in 30 years, since 1970's “Black Magic Woman” (No. 3) and “Evil Ways” (No. 9).

Matchbox twenty, by contrast, was riding high on its 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, which sold 10 million copies.

“I was just a huge Carlos fan and I kinda thought I was just doing it so I could tell all my friends that I was on the new Carlos record,” he says with a laugh. “I didn't realize that they wouldn't have to be told.”

Up from Orlando

Don't go to the arena expecting to hear “Smooth.” That's a Santana song, not a matchbox twenty song, and Mr. Thomas likes to keep the two separate.

Even though “Smooth” made him a celebrity (as well as a small fortune), matchbox twenty — Mr. Thomas, singer/guitarists Adam Gaynor and Kyle Cook, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette — comes first. He even called the guys to ask if it was OK for him to sing “Smooth” on the Santana album.

The band got its start in the Florida city once known for its theme parks, but now famed as the boy-band capital of the universe.

“We were from Orlando, but now you can't say that anymore, 'cause it's just got a bad thing attached to it now.

“But it's funny, 'cause when we were playing the (nothing) little clubs in Orlando, I don't remember seeing the Backstreet Boys. They weren't doing gigs at the Junkyard.”

Of course, after two big CDs (last year's Mad Season was a Grammy nominee for best rock album), matchbox twenty isn't playing those places either. Mr. Thomas and his wife no longer live in lower Manhattan's Soho section, having moved to “a place with a driveway” in suburban Westchester County.

"Who's he fighting?'

Along with success comes the usual backlash. Matchbox twenty has had to face its share of bad reviews and complaints about what some call its generic modern rock. But Mr. Thomas doesn't let it ruffle him.

“You can spend a lot of time defending yourself from your critics, but the people you're defending yourself to aren't the critics, they're your fans. They don't care. They don't want to hear you defending yourself from your critics.

“I remember reading once, an article, "Hootie Fights Back.' He's sold like 15 million records. Who's he fighting?”

Mr. Thomas is now collaborating with another rock veteran who could use another hit, Mick Jagger. The songs are for an upcoming solo album by the Rolling Stone.

Should any of those Jagger/Thomas songs become a hit, matchbox twenty promises not to play them, either.

“I think that's the way to keep everything smooth,” says Mr. Thomas, chuckling at his choice of words.

“Yeah,” he says, still laughing, “I try to get that word in whenever I can.”