Matchbox Twenty's rock credibility is rising as it prepares to open its concert tour in New Orleans
Tuesday April 22, 2003
By Keith Spera
As the members of Matchbox Twenty finished their third album, "More Than You Think You Are," in a New York studio last fall, Carlos Santana stopped by for a sneak preview.
"When you get that moment when Carlos is sitting in the corner clapping, saying 'I love this!,' that makes you feel so good," Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas recalled recently. "There's always going to be people who don't like what you're doing. So you store these little things away and you'll be like, 'Well, Bob from Nantucket doesn't really like my record, but Carlos likes it.' I'll take Carlos' opinion."
Life is generally good for Thomas these days, with or without Santana's approval. He interrupts a phone interview to describe the idyllic scene beyond the window of his home outside New York City.
"All the snow is gone for a change, which is great," Thomas said. "And now there are squirrels and raccoons and birds and deer in my yard. It's like some cartoon dream where you wake up and the little Snow White birds are flying around. It's sickly cute."
But Matchbox Twenty didn't sell 20 million records because Thomas spends his time staring at squirrels and deer. The band broke out of Florida with its 1996 Atlantic Records debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You." Thanks to Thomas' knack for writing such radio-friendly anthems as "Push," "3am" and "Real World," the album sold more than 12 million copies. Still basking in the glow of that triumph, Thomas co-wrote and sang "Smooth," the song that launched Santana's 1999 "Supernatural" comeback and won Grammys as record and song of the year.
The band's second album, "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty," sold 4 million copies, enough to fend off charges that the first album was a fluke. "More Than You Think You Are," released late last year, has sold half that number so far. The tour that Matchbox Twenty launches Friday at the UNO Lakefront Arena -- the third time the band has opened a tour in New Orleans -- should push that total higher.
With each success, Matchbox Twenty extends its career a little further. The runaway success of "Yourself or Someone Like You" afforded a modicum of job security, ensuring that Atlantic would want to release at least two more albums.
"Even if 'Mad Season' had tanked, we still would have been able to make this (third) record," Thomas said. "Because 'Mad Season' was successful, it just bought us that much more. It's almost sad, but that's the way you look at the business. Because at any time, they can just go, 'I'm sorry, but fiscally you're not helping this label any more.'
"That happens to great artists. It happened to Wilco, for God's sake. If Wilco can get dropped, what hope is there for anybody?"
With quick profits at a premium, bands are no longer allowed the luxury of building momentum over multiple albums.
"Twenty or 30 years ago, when The Police and the Grateful Dead would come out, they would get signed and they would have two or three records to really find their sound," Thomas said. "U2 is another great example. Nowadays, you just don't have that kind of time. Labels don't give their artists the development time they need.
"We listen back to our first record and it sounds to us like a young band with some good songs. You need to make a couple of records, you have to go out and tour, you have to get comfortable in your skin. . . . Now for the first time we've made a record that we love everything about."
New album is best yet
"More Than You Think You Are" is easily Matchbox Twenty's most invigorated and consistent album. The band serves up swagger and groove to match the hooks and melodies, and even earned grudging admiration in critical quarters. A three-out-of-five star review in Rolling Stone allowed that "surprisingly, Rob Thomas and cohorts have managed to improve." Billboard compared them favorably to a young Foreigner.
"When the album came out," Thomas said, "even our bad reviews were better than they used to be."
To make it more closely resemble the band's live sound, Thomas, guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, drummer Paul Doucette and bassist Brian Yale ditched most of the ProTools computer gadgetry that went into the making of "Mad Season" in favor of a more organic approach. Recording at the remote Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York proved conducive to those intentions.
"By the third week, we were like 'Lord of the Flies' coming out of the woods," Thomas said. "There's a vibe that we took away from Bearsville. You hear it in songs like 'Soul' and 'Hand Me Down' that sound more like the Tom Petty records that we grew up with."
Thomas has described the first single, "Disease," as "Monsters of Rock meets Studio 54," given its marriage of bracing guitar chords and groove.
"This album came out as more of a rock record," he said. "On the last record, a song like 'Bent' could have been more of a rock song, but the way we recorded it, it came across as a pop-rock song. Everybody that has listened to this (latest) record has mentioned a 1970s rock vibe. That's because we limited ourselves in the production and the instrumentation. When it comes down to your guitars, your drums, an organ, then you're using the same things they had in the '70s."
Of course, expending so much energy and debate over the sonic details is, to some extent, wasted effort.
"Even if you're in a popular band, you realize that only 20 percent of the people are going to hear 80 percent of what you spend all your time on," Thomas said. "A lot of people know all the popular songs. From those people, there's a small percentage that listen to the whole record. And of those people, there's a small percentage that care that you used a mellotron on track 5. A lot of stuff you do, you only do it for other musicians."
Those musicians are listening, and not just Carlos Santana. Last April, Matchbox Twenty performed at a Willie Nelson all-star concert in Nashville. Ryan Adams, the notoriously cantankerous and critically acclaimed songwriter, was also on the bill.
On the sliding scale of pop culture credibility, Adams, only recently emerged from the underground, generally ranks much higher than a wildly successful, middle-of-the-road guitar pop band like Matchbox Twenty, and is not shy about sharing his opinions. Thomas admits to some apprehension before meeting Adams in Nashville.
"We thought if there was one candidate for somebody who would just come up and tell us to f -- off, it might be Ryan Adams," Thomas said. "But he came up and said, 'You know, man, I went and bought the single for (the Matchbox Twenty song) 'Bent.' I didn't get you guys at first, and now I get it. That solo in 'Bent,' it's just stupid! It doesn't belong there, and I love it!'
"Those are the kinds of things that make you happy," Thomas said. "Because we kind of thought it was silly, too, in a good way."
A songwriter and workaholic
Thomas maintains a thriving career as a songwriter outside of Matchbox Twenty. In addition to Santana, he has written for Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson and Marc Anthony, and is working with former Arista and current J Records honcho Clive Davis, the man who orchestrated Santana's comeback, on songs for the upcoming film "Havana Nights." He also hopes to schedule time to write with Pink.
Obviously, down time doesn't agree with Thomas. When he realized a canceled spring tour of Europe had left a 10-day gap in his schedule, he immediately got on the phone with his song publisher to inquire about work.
"I call him up and he lets me know who's in town and if there are any projects that I might be interested in," Thomas said. "I turn a lot of it down, but every now and then he says, 'Willie Nelson is working on a record.' Then I'm like, 'Tell him I'll meet him wherever he wants.'
"I always feel like if I have a day that I'm not doing something, then I'm a total failure. As a writer, you always feel like you're only as good as whatever you're writing right then. When you start writing a song, it has all these possibilities; it can be anything, and it leaves you wide open. Once you start to make it a song, you exhaust possibilities until it becomes a song. Then you're like a junkie out for a fix -- you need to find another idea that has all those possibilities."
After the upcoming Matchbox Twenty tour ends, Thomas may work on a solo album. But now that the band is firmly established with three successful albums, outside projects may no longer pose a threat to its identity.
"We all need to go out and do our own things, and that will make us a better band, and save us as a band," Thomas said. "We've all grown. When we were making this record, everybody had many more opinions than they had before. Opinions aren't a bad thing. That's why you play in a band together, because you trust everybody's instincts."
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Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3470.
MATCHBOX TWENTY IN CONCERT
With: Sugar Ray and Maroon 5.
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: UNO Lakefront Arena
Adam Gaynor, Brian Yale, Rob Thomas, Kyle Cook and Paul Doucette make up Matchbox Twenty.