There's a certain thrill when you think you're going to be meeting up with Matchbox Twenty at New York's storied Hit Factory. This, after all, is the recording studio where Stevie Wonder set down his Songs in the Key of Life, Bruce Springsteen birthed Born in the USA, and John Lennon concocted his Double Fantasy.
In reality Thomas is far from depressed. He's giddy with enthusiasm for his band's new album More Than You Think You Are. It's heralded by "Disease," an infectious airwave-friendly shuffle that Thomas describes as "disco-rock" - hence his Travolta crack. Thomas, one of America's most savvy and successful songwriters, should be right at home in the Hit Factory. He introduced a whole new generation to Santana with his song "Smooth," and with Matchbox Twenty, has proven a reliable craftsman of radio hits like "Push," "3 AM" and "If You're Gone."
As he, Gaynor and Doucette revealed in a chat with VH1, however, the band is more dedicated to making a record that will rank with Born in the USA then it is providing the legendary studio with more platinum wallpaper. The trio spoke about the gestation of More Than You Think You Are, the reason Mick Jagger doesn't need to carry a wallet, and the prospect of each new Matchbox disc being the last.
VH1: How do you know when an album is finished?
Rob Thomas: Before we started the record, we had a release date, so we knew when it had to be done. We couldn't spend seven months second-guessing ourselves in the studio. If you think about things too long, you can wind up with lots of sh*t all over your record. For Mad Season, we had nothing to do but sit in the studio. We'd pile stuff on [the songs] all day: "Oh, let's bring the string section in!" Sometimes it worked out for the better, and sometimes not. This time we didn't have the luxury to make those mistakes.
VH1: When Mad Season came out, everyone wondered if it would prove Yourself or Someone Like You wasn't a fluke. Are there different expectations going into album No. 3?
Thomas: You always think the next one's going to be that record where you don't have to worry about it, but that doesn't happen. When you're looking for a record deal, people say, "It'll never happen." When you get a record deal, they say, "Well, you'll never have a hit single." When that happens, they say, "Well, you're a one-hit wonder." You have more hits and it's like, "Well, now you have to worry about the sophomore slump." Finally you think, "Now we're just going to make a record," and they say, "Well, the third album is the one that establishes you as an artist - or not." You can't just make records anymore!
VH1: Why did you record in New York instead of Atlanta and Nashville like you did last time?
Adam Gaynor: Because our producer Matt Serletic has a new job [as boss of Virgin Records] and Rob lives around the corner. As a band we wanted a change and come to a couple of great facilities.
Thomas: We recorded at Bearsville studios because it's f*cking Bearsville. Jeff Buckley recorded Grace there and the Band recorded there. There's so much of the Bearsville sound on this record. Paul Doucette's drums are just soaked in Bearsville. We got high on the idea of personalizing the studio. We ran out the first day and bought two bags of candles and brought them in. But once they were gone, we were like, "Okay, that's enough with the f*cking candles." There was a guy working in the studio that had to come around and light them all day!
VH1: What music were you listening to when you were making the record?
Paul Doucette: Wilco! Wilco! I'll say it again - Wilco!
VH1: Was the influence overt? Were you like, "Let's do a Wilco?"
Doucette: We're not Wilco and we never will be, but it's underlying it, at least for me.
Thomas: We're a pop band that likes Wilco, as opposed to the one that doesn't know who they are, so they become an influence.
Doucette: It definitely makes you go, "What's a non-obvious way to get our point across but still be us?" They made us think a little wider.
Thomas: As a writer, I use Jeff Tweedy as a benchmark. You can't use success as a benchmark, because the f*cking "Macarena" was successful. When you come across a line like "She's a jar with a heavy lid" [from Wilco's "She's a Jar"] you're just like, "Ah!" So that's what you want to do as a writer. We don't want to sound like Wilco or have their image or vibe, but I want to be able to write a line that crystal clear. Those are the things that keep me thinking, "I gotta keep writing." I love what I write, but that's why I keep going. I want to write that song. I want to write "The Boys of Summer." I want to write "Purple Rain."
VH1: How did Mick Jagger come to co-write the single "Disease?"
Thomas: I wrote "Disease" for him. He wrote some of the second verse, then we changed what he wrote, but kept some of his lines. He still gets his name on the single. He called me at my house and said, "Listen, I don't feel like I wrote any of this song. I really feel bad." I reminded him, "Well, you wrote the second verse." He was like, "Oh, yeah! Okay, we'll do whatever you think then!"
VH1: Mick is said to be notoriously stingy and won't tip cab drivers. Did he ever leave you with the bill?
Thomas: He didn't tip me once! [Laughs.] It's great. If you go out partying with Mick Jagger, he has a group of people around him and one of them pays for it.
VH1: The album features song titles like "Disease," "Cold," "Downfall," and "Unwell." It sounds like you've gone through a rough patch. Explain yourselves.
Adam Gaynor: Don't let the titles mislead you! "Cold" is about a refrigeration plant that Rob owned back in Philly! [Laughs.]
Thomas: Writing is like self-analysis. It's the place where everything bad about you - and the best of you, too - goes. You can drop it off at the f*cking doorstep and have a normal life as opposed to suffering 24 hours a day for your art. "Disease" is a happy song about an unhappy subject. It's one of those songs where if you don't listen to the lyrics, you might get a different idea about what the song is about. People did that with "Push." Because it sounded a certain way, I had couples coming up to me saying, "Well, that's our song." I was like, "Have you heard that f*cking song?"
VH1: Your songs are usually fuelled by rejection and tumultuous relationships. You recently celebrated your third wedding anniversary, so I guess your personal life is good. How does that affect the muse?
Thomas: I'm happier than I've ever been. On Mad Season there was a song called "You Won't Be Mine." That was written after me and my wife had one of our worst arguments. The hope is that you can extract that feeling you had in the pit of your stomach at that moment and follow it in your head out to another conclusion, like, "God, how much would it suck if this woman left me right now?" I'm lucky. I'm with a woman who can listen to our fights back on the radio and go, "Wow, I remember that!" and not take it personally. She realizes that these are passing thoughts. It's your job as a writer to extrapolate on them, or else you start becoming unattached to what you're writing.
VH1: What song on More Than You ... evolved the most from inception to completion?
Thomas: "Hand Me Down." We rewrote the chorus and everything changed about it. We had Greg Leeds come in and play steel guitar on it. It feels like a country song to me, because it has a nice country plodding-ness to it, but at the same time, it's more about the hybrid for us. To me, "Disease" is a hybrid of disco and rock. As a band, we're trying to take a little bit from everything you like. We're so diverse. We're five people listening to five completely different [things.] Like the guitarist Kyle Cook right now is probably sitting in his apartment listening to Count Basie. That's our guitar player, so that can't not affect us, you know what I mean?
Gaynor: This record is the first time where our influences have started to saturate and leak out of all the pores. The first record was all of us getting to know each other. The second record, we all tried to make a little mark. Now you're really starting to funnel in all the thoughts and ideas from everybody. That definitely shows here.
VH1: You wrote a song on Willie Nelson's The Great Divide album. Do you ever wish you had his freedom or the informality of his stage show?
Thomas: It goes on a day-by-day basis. One day I'm like, "I love everything we're doing!" The next day I'm like, "Oh, I wish we were Wilco." When you write, you don't want the issue of whether or not you're going to be successful to come into the picture. Once you start putting an album together, you want to make an honest record that sounds like where you are in your head at that time. But once you've had a past success, there is a standard that you've set. Maybe if we put out a record and it tanks, then we can say, "Okay, well there's our tanked record. Now we can keep on going."
VH1: When it comes to the material, who is the most critical member of the band?
VH1: Does he have final veto on what goes on the album?
Thomas: No. In fact, we just figured out how it works. I have veto - I'm president. But Paul has all the power - he's congress. Matt Serletic is law -the judiciary. I have the power of veto, but that's all I have. I can't abuse it.
VH1: What song on More Than You Think You Are caused the most trouble between the three branches of the Matchbox Twenty government?
Thomas: All of them at some point. When you've been in a band for a while, you hope that you keep going, "No, that's not good enough." We had those moments where it's three in the morning and we can't be diplomatic any more and we're like, "No, no. That sucks! Let's do it again! That's no good."
Gaynor: That's the beauty of the band. There are five people with totally different opinions that lend different reasons why they like a song or they don't like a song. By the time we all hash it out, hopefully we correct it or leave it or move on.
Thomas: Or you fight until you're the loudest person in the room and then everyone else stops! [Laughs.]
VH1: When was the last time the band had a fight?
Gaynor: We're not allowed to fight. Rob won't let us!
Doucette: Most fights occur between me and Rob. The last big fight we got in was before we started the record, pre-production in L.A. That was the last big blow-up. We didn't have any making the record, though.
Thomas: No. But I thought we were going to.
Doucette: I walked in f*cking armed!
Thomas: We thought this record was going to be the end of Matchbox Twenty! I thought we were going to get halfway through it and be like, "F*ck you!" and it would be over. As soon as we sat down and started playing the first song, "Soul," it was like, "Hey, what about this?" "That's pretty good! Let's try it!" "I don't think that works." "Okay, let's try something else." It was sooo calm.
VH1: Why did you think it was going to be the last Matchbox Twenty record?
Thomas: Because we always do. We're always beginning the last Matchbox record. On Mad Season we were done. Me and Paul would be so mad at each other that Paul would have a big billboard in the studio that said "Names for Rob's record." He was f*cking with me. The next day it would be turned around - "Paul's record is going to be called …" I had names like The Paul. I made these great names from old album titles and put Paul in there. The Paul of Summer.
VH1: So do you have anything left to prove?
Thomas: Just as much as anybody else. That we write good songs. That we make good records. We hope that once everybody stops trying to figure out what this is and is it going to last, people will just go, "Wow! These guys make great records. I can listen to the whole record and I like the songs." I want them to think, "Wow! You're right! They're really good!"