Rob Thomas: Santana's Smooth Sidekick

Though he hadn't had a bona fide hit in decades, Carlos Santana was doing just fine on his own before he met Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas. But, when the guitar sage hooked up with the multi-platinum Thomas, they did more than click, they created a song so "Smooth" it helped propel Santana's Supernatural album to sales of almost 25 million. Thomas explained to VH1 how he hooked up with Carlos and why the Latin guitar legend is as relevant as ever.

VH1: Were you a Santana fan growing up?

Rob Thomas: Yeah. Like a lot of people, it started on the radio, with "Black Magic Woman" and "Oye Como Va." Then, as my musical tastes started to grow, I became a blues fan, a jazz fan. If you're a fan of music, you're going to wind up stumbling onto Carlos sooner or later.

VH1: Where does his music take you emotionally?

Thomas: His shows and his music are all the same thing. You're listening to it and you become a part of the collective ... like a universal block party. It's all designed to make you feel better. Like Carlos says, the job of a musician is to change people's molecular structure through music.

VH1: Carlos said that you had a dream about working with him. Is that true?

Thomas: I had a dream of me standing next to Carlos screaming in his ear on the cover of Rolling Stone. It was really weird. That was a month before any of this happened. We were in Germany once at a festival and we were backstage while Sting was playing, and Carlos was on the other side. I'm just like, "I've got to see this guy." I'm jumping over equipment trying to get to him, busting my knees on Dave Matthews' drum set. By the time I made it over there, he was gone. I thought, "Man, I'm never going to get a chance to meet Carlos again!" So, maybe that was still in my subconscious ... that I missed my chance to meet Carlos.

VH1: Did he know who you were?

Thomas: No, I don't think he had any clue of who I was. When they were playing the demo for "Smooth" [they were trying to figure out] who was going to sing it. Carlos said, "I like this guy. Does he sing? I believe it when he sings." Instead of it being about, "Let's get this guy who had sold however many records," it was about, "I like this guy's voice, let's have him do the song." I can't imagine he would have any idea who the hell we were.

VH1: You were thinking George Michael for the vocals, weren't you?

Thomas: Yeah, I thought he would be great.

VH1: What was the process of you getting involved with "Smooth"?

Thomas: It happened so perfectly and naturally. My band had just gotten off the road after our first record. I just moved to New York and met my wife, who is this beautiful Spanish woman. I got a call, "Hey, there's a guy writing a song for the new Carlos record two blocks from you. Do you want to go over there and check it out?" At the time I was like, "Yeah, great, a Carlos record." No one thought it was going to be anything other than another Carlos record. I thought after all of this mainstream success, how great is it going to be on a jazz record? I didn't know what I was getting into. I took the demo back to my house and my wife left me for the afternoon and I came up with the majority of it, all the lyrics and the melody. After those two days it was a song. We handed it in and I thought that that was going to be the last I'd hear of it. I wasn't supposed to sing it, I was just supposed to be a writer on it. Thank God I met my wife! Had I not met her, I would've never been in New York. I would've never written "Smooth." Nobody had any idea what this was going to be. I didn't. My wife said she did. [She'd] listen to it and say, "This is huge, how do you not hear it?"

VH1: Did you feel pressure to make "Smooth" a "Santana" song?

Thomas: The track was so inherently Santana already that, if anything, my place was to take it away from there, not make it what you would expect Santana to be. My melody and my voice come from a rock place. Carlos says that it reminded him of back when he was singing with Gregg [Rolie] on "Black Magic Woman," back when they had a rock singer. That made me feel really good, like, "At least I have some purpose here." I went and recorded the track, but didn't know if I was even going to meet Carlos. I was in San Francisco and he walked in the door with this suit in his hand. He'd just been out to thrift stores and he ... wanted to show me his "Smooth" suit he'd just bought. Then, we all just started playing the song. I was in my room singing and to my right Carlos is jamming away. The whole band is in there playing and I had that one moment where it finally all came together. To me, this was my Grammy moment: I was in a room and Carlos is playing. I was like, "This is as good as it gets."

VH1: Was your wife the inspiration?

Thomas: Yeah, sure. Her being a beautiful Latin woman. Carlos had told me that he knew I was married to a Spanish woman, because in the song I wrote, "I could change my life to better suit your mood." And it's like, "That's got to be a Spanish wife."

VH1: "Smooth" took only took two days to record?

Thomas: I did my vocals after they did [the track]. Then, Carlos came in the next day and did an overdub on the solos and that was the track. It's pretty amazing. I think we spent two and a half days on the demo! [Laughs]

VH1: How did he put you at ease when you first met him?

Thomas: Carlos puts everyone at ease. The second you walk in the room with Carlos, there's a calm that surrounds him. And it's not B.S., it's not a put-on. Anybody else in this world, I wouldn't buy it. It is something about him that is mystical. For him, playing music is the way to create that energy, his spirituality. Ten seconds after I walked in the room, it was, "Oh my God, what do I do?" He's like, "Come here, I want you to hear this. It's gonna be a great song."

VH1: How did you feel when you first started hearing "Smooth" on the radio?

Thomas: It was pretty cool. We were living in SoHo at the time and it was coming out of somebody's car at a red light. I was walking down the street and they were blaring it. I was just like, "Yeah!" Because you're at that point where you put the song out and you don't hear it. You think, "Oh, okay, it just didn't do anything." But to look over and to see these cats in the car jamming out to it? The record wasn't out yet, so they had just been moved by the radio.

VH1: Why is Santana able to so easily move from genre to genre?

Thomas: Carlos is a musician's musician. If you listen to his first three records, you hear pop that actually more like what pop is now than it was then. At the time it was undefinable. He was a rock player, a jazz player, a blues player. This is a man that looks at music as one giant entity, not broken up into pop and rock and this and that.

VH1: What was going through his head at the Grammys?

Thomas: He just wanted to play. That's all I remember about that night. It was like when we did the video for "Smooth." We did it in Harlem, in the middle of the afternoon and it was 95 degrees. I'm sweating like a pig and Carlos is standing next to me in a full suit and a hat, without a bead of sweat on him. This is a man not affected by the elements. The only time I've ever seen him look even the slightest bit out of place is on the red carpet.

VH1: What do you think the ultimate legacy of the Supernatural record is going to be?

Thomas: You can't call it a comeback. Because Carlos never really went anywhere. It's going to be the reawakening of Carlos ... he's here and he's just as relevant as he's ever been. Supernatural is going to be the awakening ... of a new generation of 16 year-olds who are going to turn around and go, "Oh my God!"