Smooth Talkers

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Matchbox Twenty get intimate with their fans as they kick off the new season of VH1's rock and reveal series, Storytellers

And he calls himself a rock star? Chilling out in a Princeton, New Jersey, hotel suite, Rob Thomas is trying to hide his lit cigarette underneath a table. Apparently, the lead singer of Matchbox Twenty is afraid he's going to be scolded by a hovering hotel employee for smoking in a designated non-smoking room. When it's suggested to him that, 'Hey, you're a celebrity, you could get away with this,' he just doesn't get it. "We don't feel famous," says Thomas, 29, looking more like a Gap model in blue jeans, white T-shirt and flip-flops than a brooding musician-type. "We just can't understand why people get excited about us."

Oh, please. Since their 1996 debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, alterna-rockers Matchbox Twenty have gone from an Orlando, Florida-based bar band to multiplatinum musicians who sell out Madison Square Garden. As if that weren't enough to get excited about, Thomas became an even hotter commodity in 1999, when he collaborated with Carlos Santana on the guitar legend's chart-topping, Grammy-winning song "Smooth." (Now everyone from Bernie Taupin, Sir Elton John's longtime writing partner, to Willie Nelson wants to work with Thomas for some of that songwriting magic.) Then came another coup for Matchbox Twenty--their first No. 1 single, "Bent," off of their Grammy-nominated sophomore effort, mad season by matchbox twenty.

All in all, it's been one hell of a ride for the group. "There's good and bad to coming out of the box and selling 10 million records," says Thomas. "You've done that, and now you have to find another goal. We've been away from the scrutiny for a little bit. Now we're ready to be a band and play music." And that's exactly what Matchbox Twenty is doing, whether they're playing to an arena-sized crowd--as they are on this breezy April evening on the last leg of their North American tour in Trenton, New Jersey--or for a more intimate audience on VH1's Storytellers.

On June 1, Matchbox Twenty kick off the talk and rock series' sixth season by inviting viewers to listen to their music and the stories behind such songs as "Push" and "Real World." "we've been waiting to do Storytellers for such a long time," says drummer Paul Doucette, 28, who, along with Thomas, bassist Brian Yale, 30, lead guitarist Kyle Cook, 25, and rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor, 37, makes up the group. "It's a cool show because it's so up close and personal. You get inside the band and [find out] what they go through when they're writing songs."

Thomas revealed in the chance to come clean on Storytellers--which in future episodes this season will feature Billy Idol, E.L.O. and Brit-rockers Travis, among others. "Because everything's going so well with my career and my life--I just got married--I always get asked how I could write such depressing stuff," says Thomas, who wed model Marisol Maldonado, 25, in October 1999. "Storytellers gives you the chance to point out that as a writer, you just take moments and expand on them. The whole idea is you don't have to suffer consistently for your art."

That's not to say Thomas hasn't suffered. Storytellers closes with him singing a piano-only rendition of "3 A.M.," which he explains was inspired by his mother's battle with Hodgkin's disease. "I had no idea that's what the song was about," says the series executive producer, Bill Flanagan. "Hearing him play it in that very stripped-down way, people in the audience had tears rolling down their faces. You'd have to have a pretty hard heart not to."

While many fans think Matchbox Twenty's single "If You're Gone" is a breakup song, Thomas reveals on the show that it's actually a love letter to his wife, whom he met after a mutual friend introduced them at a concert the band played in Montreal in 1998. "That [song is about] me trying to convince her that it's not such a bad idea to marry a musician and it's not going to kill you," he says, "[But] I think she was smart to be hesitant about it."

Now that they're older and more settled, Thomas jokes that life on the road has changed for him and his four bandmates. "It's not liquor and whores. Now it's dinner and going to the gym," he says. On a more serious note, he adds, "It doesn't take a lot of effort for us to stay monogamous. Everybody thinks, 'Can you handle the road and the girls,' but after a while, you don't want to take that girl home, you don't want to spend a lot of time with that girl." Besides, when Thomas and Maldonado aren't enjoying down time in their suburban Westchester, New York, home, she can usually be found traveling with the band.

Matchbox Twenty resumes touring July 31. At the same time, they'll start writing new material for a third album, due next year. Doucette, for one, can't wait to get back in the studio. "We play these songs every single night and we're like, 'I'm so bored with this sound,'" he says. "We'll have to find something completely different."

Meanwhile, Thomas will continue to collaborate with other artists. He recently spent several days in a New York City studio with Mick Jagger--whom he first met when Matchbox Twenty opened for the Rolling Stones' 1997 Bridges to Babylon tour--writing material for Jagger's upcoming solo album. Thomas really got his kicks, however, working with his longtime idol Willie Nelson on three "country ballad-y sounding songs" for Nelson's September release, The Great Divine, which will feature duets with, among others, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow and Thomas. "We spent two days just sitting around, smoking and writing songs," says Thomas. "He was telling stories about Waylon [Jennings] and Merle Haggard, and he does a spoton Kris Kristofferson impersonation. To a musician that's invaluable, hearing about people that you love." Nelson, for his part, says he was thrilled to work with Thomas: "I really liked his writing and like everything he played for me. Songwriters have got to be honest with each other, and if I saw something that I felt I wanted changed, he didn't have any problem with it. But I didn't find anything other than a phrase [here or there.]"

Despite rumors that Thomas is gunning for a solo career, the singer says he has no intention of quitting the band. "The last thing I want is another job," he says, adding that he hopes Matchbox Twenty will be around 30 years from now--if they can keep evolving along the lines of groups like U2 and the Jayhawks. "We feel we have a purpose. We want to make this work, not the career part of it, but for ourselves," he says as he lights up another cigarette. "We really Want to do something we're proud of."

TV Guide.