Life not always smooth for matchbox twenty

By Rick Bird, Post staff reporter

You won't hear Rob Thomas sing his biggest hit when matchbox twenty takes the stage tonight at Firstar Center.

The band is adamant that the Grammy-winning "Smooth," which Thomas co-wrote and sang, is a Santana song. They won't perform it.

"That would be a cover song," Thomas said, saying the band prefers doing its own material. "Maybe if Carlos ever showed up at a gig we'd then cover him."

Matchbox twenty's lead singer spoke from Los Angeles on the eve of this year's Grammys, and reflected on the past year, since 1999's "Smooth" won Grammys for song and record of the year.

Thomas co-wrote the hit with Itaal Shur, the former Cincinnatian who moved to New York in the early '90s. While the tune proved to be a career maker for Shur - with songwriting offers pouring in the last year - the song was something of a mixed blessing for Thomas.

It became a distraction from his matchbox twenty career with his longtime bandmates from Orlando, Fla. - guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian "Pookie" Yale and drummer Paul Doucette. Their 1996 debut album, "Yourself or Someone Like You," had almost quietly sold 11 million copies, but, because of "Smooth," Thomas suddenly was the star, which led to a touch of good-natured bandmate jealousy.

"It was weird watching the Grammys, that the four of us weren't up there too," Doucette told Spin magazine last year. "Our careers started together, and he's having a pinnacle-of-a-career moment and he's doing it totally without us."

Thomas was also hearing it from Shur, who had grumbled that the media kept referring to "Smooth" as written by the better-known Thomas. Then Thomas suggested in Spin that Shur had wanted to turn the earthy tune into a dance number complete with drum machines.

The two say they are on friendly terms now, even though Shur says he hasn't seen Thomas in months. The unlikely songwriting team was a fluke. Shur submitted the song to Santana, who asked that Thomas work with Shur on the lyrics. As it turned out, they were Soho neighbors.

"We just happened to live two blocks from each other. I'm (expletive) lazy. I'm not going to lie to you, if he was in Midtown, it might not have happened," Thomas said with a laugh.

Like Shur, Thomas admits he was also taken by surprise when the tune became the No. 1 song for 13 weeks.

"Me and Itaal thought, 'Well, this is pretty good,'" Thomas said after they finished writing the song. "But nobody had any idea. There's so many factors. If 'Smooth' had been on a matchbox twenty record, it wouldn't have been what it was.... We sold 10 million records, but it didn't have the same plunk this one song with a legend like Carlos did."

Ultimately Thomas said his attitude about "Smooth" became, "Hopefully it puts some more focus on my day job."

Indeed, all has been well with his day job the past year. Matchbox twenty's "Mad Season" has sold 3 million copies since its release in June, including two Top 10 singles - "If You're Gone" and "Bent." It was nominated for best rock album, although it lost out to the Foo Fighters.

In the long run, many critics think the "Smooth" publicity helped put a face to a band that has made some great pop tunes, but perhaps has had image problems. It doesn't hurt to have a well-known frontman. For Thomas, the best part of the past year was to return to the Grammys with a nominated matchbox album.

"We are really proud of this record and it's doing well. Less people are coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, you're Rob with Santana. It's getting back to Rob with matchbox twenty."

The Cincinnati Post