Thin Line

Rob Thomas is a self-proclaimed geek who can't quite believe he's a rock star.

"The line between being a total loser and being a rock star is paper thin," Thomas said this week in a telephone interview. "It's like one record contract away."

All this from the lead singer of Matchbox Twenty, a band that sold 13 million copies of its past two albums. Thomas also teamed with Carlos Santana on the Grammy Award-winning song, "Smooth," one of the biggest hits of the past decade. The guy who grew up dirt poor in Florida is riding high, but never seems to take himself or his band too seriously.

"We've never been cool, that's one of our saving graces," said Thomas, 29, who performs with Matchbox Twenty, Everclear and Lifehouse in the HSBC Arena at 7 p.m. Tuesday. "We've never been anybody's darlings and we've never been a band that speaks to certain members of the disenfranchised.

"We offered no promises and we kept them all."

Matchbox Twenty burst on the record charts in 1996 with the album "Yourself or Someone Like You." Grunge was popular and Matchbox, with its radio-friendly blend of classic rock and pop, seemed out of fashion.

"We were doing the same, bland boring thing until everybody else stopped doing it," Thomas said. "So, we seemed original."

Somehow, though, the album sold 10 million copies.

"When it came out, everyone was talking about Pearl Jam and Nirvana," Thomas said. "We were told we were just a radio band."

Last year the band released "Mad Season," and once again seemed out of step with musical fashion. "People told us: You're not a radio band anymore. Radio is Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys," Thomas said.

The CD debuted at No. 3 and produced a smash-hit single, "Bent." Once again, Matchbox Twenty had found its audience.

"People want to hear this kind of music again," Thomas said. "We're giving them five minutes to hopefully want to turn up their radios and not think about anything but driving down the road.

"I had those kinds of bands when I was growing up. I would hear Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac and just freak out."

Growing up wasn't easy for Thomas. His father was in the Army and divorced his mother while Rob was still a baby. The family moved to South Carolina and then Orlando, and Thomas spent much of his teen life living in low-rent apartments and taking care of his mother, who suffered from Hodgkin's disease.

Eventually, he quit high school, bummed around the South and played in bar bands. The tough, early life left a mark on his music.

"My music has a character that I think was built up at an early age," Thomas said. "When you're younger and you're exposed to adult things and put in adult situations, you build a lot of character.

"I became a spectator at life. I noticed people and how they react to other people, and what makes them tick. That became a theme that ran through whatever I write."

Marisol, his wife of one and a half years and a former model, has had a profound affect on Thomas as an artist and a person.

"Marriage has totally changed me," he said. "Imagine being a kid coming out of Florida and you sell a lot of records. And all these people have this perception that you're this troubled, deep, dark songwriter.

"Then I met my wife who actually gives me this depth that I was putting on before. She gives me a sense of class and all the things I was missing."

Thomas claims he never acts cool, especially in front of his wife.

"It never works; she always laughs at me when I try to do that," he said. "I don't mind, it's easier to be a geek. Anyways, the coolest people are those who never try to act cool.

One musician Thomas admires is Santana. "Smooth," which Thomas co-wrote and sang, was the first single off Santana's "Supernatural" album that helped revitalize his career.

"Carlos taught me to play music just to play music, and not worry about the rest of the stuff in this business you have no control over," Thomas said. "He said, you've got to write a song and just let it come from inside of you and then play it like nobody will ever hear it but you."

- Anthony Violanti