by Kevin C. Johnson Post-Dispatch Pop Music Critic

Rock band matchbox twenty should have been well settled into its live groove by Friday night, when the group launches its North American tour in New Orleans. The show, which comes to Savvis Center on Sunday, was supposed to be a well-oiled machine by this point, thanks to its European dates scheduled for last month and early April.

That all changed, however, when war broke out in Iraq. The band was scheduled to tour overseas in Germany, England, Scotland, France and Holland to support its third CD, "More Than You Think You Are," but with the advent of war, matchbox twenty called off the European tour, citing safety concerns for itself, its crew and its fans.

"That sucked," says drummer Paul Doucette. "We were incredibly excited about the tour. We were going to play (London's) Wembley Arena, which was a first for us. It was going to be a really big tour for us over there, and it was going to be the first time touring live off this record. We were ready to go."

But as the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces became imminent, the band debated whether it should embark on the European tour or stay home. "We were deciding what we were going to do up until the last minute," says Doucette. "Then we decided we couldn't wait anymore, and we were like, 'We're going to go.' And the day we made that decision, they started bombing."

The band, which includes frontman Rob Thomas of Grammy-winning "Smooth" fame, doesn't regret its decision, especially with all the tension and apprehension in the air. The group didn't want to be responsible for putting thousands of people in the same space at the same time in case something tragic took place in one of the cities where they were touring. "We only regret that we weren't able to play," says Doucette.

Now that the sounds of war have quieted, matchbox twenty can get back to the business of selling "More Than You Think You Are," which includes the single "Disease." The CD's release follows 1996's breakthrough "Yourself or Someone Like You" and 2000's "Mad Season." The band believes the new disc features the players at their most accomplished.

"We're more comfortable in the studio and as musicians," says Doucette. "We're a much better band. There are more songwriters in the band now, so overall it's more of a band effort than the previous two. We made a much more alive-sounding record. The first and second records have a bit of timidness and sterile feeling to them, where this one doesn't. It's more natural sounding."

Doucette says matchbox twenty had a difficult time pinpointing its true sound because singer Thomas, guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and Doucette weren't allowing their individual personalities to come out through the music.

"It was just natural getting to that point," the drummer says. "It came from playing together for several years. We're a lot more confident and less afraid to be ourselves. We asked ourselves, 'What do we really want to play here?' Not, 'What do you think people want to hear?' A lot of it was that."

"More Than You Think You Are" features a back-to-basics sound. The band felt it went sonically overboard with "Mad Season." As a result, when matchbox twenty performed "Mad Season" songs live, it had to use samples to cover some of the parts.

"The guys were playing, but they only have two hands," says Doucette. "Almost every song on that record had a 70-piece orchestra on it. It was a little over the top. We said, 'This is getting out of hand.' We said, 'Let's get back to being a band -- five guys in a room.'"

Instead of each player going into the studio and recording his parts separately and at his leisure, which made the band's recording process resemble an assembly line, the members sat together in a circle in the studio, feeding off each other's energy.

Though the band believes "More Than You Think You Are," produced by Matt Serletic, represents the best matchbox twenty has to offer, the CD continues the group's downward trend in sales. Its debut CD, "Yourself or Someone Like You," sold a whopping 12 million copies, making it a through-the-roof blockbuster. "Mad Season" came and went with 4 million in sales -- still a blockbuster, but of much lesser proportions.

The new CD, which has been out for five months, has sold 1 million copies so far and is at No. 56 on the Billboard 200 (it could receive a boost thanks to the new single, "Unwell").

Although there was some pressure to duplicate those outlandish sales when making the second CD, Doucette says matchbox twenty no longer measures itself against that initial success. "We understand we're never going to sell that again," he says. "That's an insane amount of records. That's very rare. It has more to do with time and place than it does with us.

"There were a lot of songs on that record that people really liked," Doucette says, referring to such hits as "Push," "3 AM" and "Real World." "It was a lot of luck and being at the right place at the right time. We can't expect that to happen again. But if it does happen again, we're not going to complain."