Matchbox Twenty Strikes New Chords

Lead singer Rob Thomas knows the key to Matchbox Twenty's popularity: "Our saving grace has been that we're not hip," Thomas declares. "There are a lot of bands, and the best thing about them is they're them. It's never been hip to be us."

Hip? Maybe not. Successful? Without a doubt. Since its 1997 debut, with Yourself or Someone Like You, Matchbox Twenty has sold more than 21 million albums worldwide, according to its label, Melisma/Atlantic. With its third album, More Than You Think You Are, due Nov. 19, Matchbox Twenty is poised to expand its musical reach and commercial success.

While still unmistakably Matchbox Twenty, the new album pushes the band's boundaries by rocking harder than past efforts, as in crunchy first single "Disease," and by exploring different sounds, including the psychedelia of "You're So Real" and the gospel strains of "Downfall." "We wanted to get away from what we'd done before," Thomas says. "You're going into your third record, and we're either a certain sound or we're a band that evolves." He had added impetus to modify the band's sound: "I hate having people compare us to bands we hate."

Band manager Michael Lippman agrees with Thomas' assessment. "The third album is the most key album in an artist's career. Of course, it used to be that artists weren't even looked upon to have a commercially successful album until their third record. This album is setting the stage for where Matchbox Twenty is going to go as a band."

Atlantic hopes the group is going straight to the top of the Billboard charts. "This record is very important to us," label co-president Ron Shapiro says. The company's other big fourth-quarter releases are from Fat Joe, Phil Collins, Craig David, and Sean Paul, but, according to sources, Matchbox Twenty's album accounts for the largest initial shipment of the five, with more than 1 million units heading to stores.

More Than You Think You Are is expected to build on the success of Yourself or Someone Like You, which sold a staggering 7.7 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and the 2000 release Mad Season, which included the band's most successful Hot 100 tunes, "Bent" and "If You're Gone," and sold 3.7 million units.

"Mad Season did a lot better than we thought it would, considering we didn't come out with an in-your-face record," Thomas says. "It was a sleeper record. That was our head space at the time; everyone is so quick to tell you it's so hard to repeat the success."

Atlantic VP of marketing and product development Lee Stimmel says he is not concerned that the second album's sales did not match those of the first. "Yourself was a phenomenon. We'd be a fool to think it can be re-created every time. I'd be very happy doing 5 million-plus with this album."

Additionally, Mad Season propelled the band's touring career: Matchbox Twenty sold out New York's Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes following the release. "We want to get to the point where you don't have to have a radio hit to sustain you," Thomas says. "I don't think we're there yet, but we could tell we took it up a notch."

Lippman adds that Mad Season also sold more records in such key territories as England and Japan than its predecessor.

For his part, Shapiro would be thrilled if More Than You Think You Are sold "2 [million] or 3 million. In this marketplace, that's simply amazing. It's hard to dare to dream for any artist to sell 10 million these days."


The album, which was recorded at Bearsville (N.Y.) Studios and the Hit Factory in New York, reunites the band with producer Matt Serletic, to whose imprint Matchbox Twenty is signed. Serletic has a day job as president/CEO of Virgin Records, but his deal allows him the freedom to continue producing the band.

"He's like a mad genius," Thomas observes of Serletic. "He's the only guy I know who's been able to accomplish so much so young. He makes me feel like the proverbial rock guy: I sit around smoking pot and writing songs. He's working all the time."

To prepare for the album, Thomas cleansed his musical palate by turning off the radio. "I gave myself a blackout. I don't want to subconsciously write what's on the radio," he says. "This record was all about old Elton John, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel. This time it was all about getting the guitar sound we grew up on in the '70s."

Lyrically, the songs mine familiar Matchbox Twenty themes: loss of love, abandonment, and the hope of redemption, either human or divine. Even though happily married for a number of years, Thomas is still able to write from a place of romantic despair. "Writing [sad] songs comes from either before I met my wife-there's a lot to draw on-or me and my wife have an argument and that puts a pit in your stomach and your job is to go down to the basement to the piano," says Thomas, who was named BMI's 1999 pop songwriter of the year. "The job of a good writer is to stay focused on that . . . to be some sort of conduit for every experience and be heavy without being pretentious."

Thomas-who is signed to EMI Music Publishing-penned all but one of the songs on the album and, for the first time, shares co-writing credit on two of the tunes with bandmates Kyle Cook and Paul Doucette. "That worked out great," Thomas says. "It's always been a band of people who wanted to step up more but don't want to step up until it's the right thing."

"Disease" was co-written with Mick Jagger during a songwriting session initially scheduled for Jagger's last solo album, Goddess in the Doorway. "The day before I went to write with Mick, I wrote the first verse and chorus, and then Mick wrote the second verse," Thomas recalls. "And then as soon as I gave it to him, I felt bad." Ultimately Jagger decided the song wasn't right for him, much to Thomas' relief: "I couldn't ask him for it back. I hope he's kicking himself," Thomas adds with a laugh, "because it's a really great song."

Radio apparently agrees. "Disease" is getting played at a number of pop and rock formats, but it is especially strong with modern AC, adult top 40, and mainstream top 40 stations.

Despite Thomas' claims to the contrary, KQKQ Omaha, Neb., PD Tommy Austin believes the band's popularity is bolstered by its hip-to-be-square persona. "Matchbox Twenty has become the poppiest, hip, rock band out there," he says. "They are one of those bands that was huge with top 40 but have kept an element of plain coolness." He adds that his station is playing "Disease" because "it's Matchbox Twenty" but that he feels "their sound is almost too sophisticated for top 40 right now. I think the passion from those below 25 isn't what it used to be." OUT OF TIME

The band worked on More Than You Think You Are until the last possible minute, finally turning it in four weeks before its release. One benefit of finishing the album so late is that no copies were circulating that could be leaked to the Internet, Stimmel notes. "Piracy was clearly a concern," he says, "but because the band didn't finish the record, there was nothing to put anywhere, and we made a concerted effort to not have it floating around. When appropriate, we brought people into the studio."

Thomas figures it is inevitable that the album will still be illegally downloaded. "The side of me that wants people to hear my music doesn't suffer, but the side of me that wants to continue to do this does suffer," he says. "It could be five years from now and no one is buying records. What's the answer going to be? Are you going to have to release songs one at a time?"

The downside to the band finishing the album so close to its release is that it has not been available to do advance press. "That's the disadvantage," Stimmel says. "The monthlies will be a problem, but we'll get them in phase two in January or February with the second single. This isn't an album that we're worrying about getting everything on the first single."

To entice fans to stay interested in the release after the initial wave, the first 1.3 million albums shipped will include a Matchbox Twenty download card that gives the consumer a unique personal identification number to enter upon visiting a dedicated Web site.

There, fans can view a serialized documentary about the making of the album. In early 2003, card holders will be e-mailed information on an exclusive bonus track. "It's a way to increase interaction between the band and the fan. We're not selling them anything. The point is to build value in terms of your purchase," Stimmel says. "We wanted to give fans an everlasting experience. You're going to get bonus songs, you're going to get visuals that no one else is getting. It's a year-long plan." Additionally, when fans bring the card to a concert, they get a discount on Matchbox Twenty merchandise.

The band's TV-promotion plan includes appearances on Late Show With David Letterman (Nov. 18), Last Call With Carson Daly (Nov. 19), and Late Night With Conan O'Brien (Nov. 22). Matchbox Twenty is also VH1's November artist of the month, with a Behind the Music episode debuting Nov. 17.

A number of Internet specials are also planned, including live performances for AOL and Yahoo. The band is Yahoo/Launch's December artist of the month.

At retail, there is expectation that the album will be a strong seller into 2003. "We'll have the album featured and sale-priced in our front-end music department starting on street date through the holidays," says Andy Sibray, rock music buyer for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Borders Books & Music. "It will be in our listening stations around January or February. We're hoping it's one of our major releases for the holiday season. We had a lot of success with their previous releases, so we're hopeful that this will live up to the history they've created."

Prerelease posters at retail and elsewhere have focused on the album cover, which features the five band members with their hands covering their faces. "It's the closest we've ever gotten to their faces being on an album cover," Stimmel says. "Maybe for the fourth record, we'll have a beauty shot of the five guys. Everything is a progression."

Atlantic hopes More Than You Think You Are will further the band's growth internationally. It has made inroads in Australia, New Zealand, and some countries in Europe. "That's basically a whole new wall for us to back through. We go over to Europe, and we're just starting," Thomas says. "You can play to 30,000 here, and then you're opening for Bon Jovi in Europe and you've got 60,000 there, but they don't know who you are."

The album comes out in Canada, Australia, and Japan the same time as it does in the U.S. It's slated for release Jan. 6 in New Zealand and the rest of Pacific Asia; in Latin America and Europe it arrives in March.

That same month, the Creative Artists Agency-booked band will start a U.S. tour and will stay on the road until the end of the year.

After the album has run its course, Thomas expects to work on a solo album, as will Doucette and Cook. Then, Thomas says, the process will start over again in the same manner as it always does: "We have a meeting before each record and say, 'Who's in?' Once that's decided, then our only mission is the next record has to better than the last."

- Melinda Newman, Billboard Magazine