by Jon Bream
Pink, Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana.
By the company he keeps, you'd think singer/songwriter Rob Thomas is one of the hippest guys in rock. But he's about as regular-guy as the music of Matchbox Twenty, the band he fronts.
For Matchbox and himself, Thomas thinks it's easier to be square.
"We're not there to attach ourselves to some sort of disenfranchised member of the teenage community. We're not selling you anything but songs - and hopefully good songs," says Thomas, 31.
"When we had our first record out, there was this thing on MTV about 'These guys have sold 6 million records, and no one knows what they look like.' Well, dude, we win. We didn't build an image. We've been allowed to not have to make our music fit to our 'hip image.' We've been able to be free."
The singer without an image has been free to collaborate with artists beyond his band. If hanging with Mick, Willie and Pink hasn't made him hip by association, at least Thomas has gotten richer and smarter by writing songs with and for these famous faces.
When Thomas wrote with Jagger, he not only learned about songwriting but also about wheeling and dealing in the music business.
They wrote two songs together for Jagger's 2001 disc, "Goddess in the Doorway," but the solo Stone used only one. Thomas later recorded the other tune with his own band and then called Jagger because he'd rewritten the verse that the Rolling Stone had penned.
"It read good, but it didn't sing well," Thomas said. "When I called him about the royalties, he called back at my house: 'Rob, are you sure? Did I really write any of that?' He didn't know if he wanted to take credit on it or not. I was amazed that Mick, who has his business degree and is very much a businessman in the world of rock, had no problem relinquishing whatever I thought was fair."
The song, MB20's winter single, "Disease," ended up 80 percent Thomas, 20 percent Jagger. It also will be more profitable as a Matchbox Twenty track - Jagger's "Doorway" was a dud.
After a string of Matchbox hits including "Bent" and "3 a.m." and the Grammy-winning smash "Smooth" with Santana, Thomas has been an in-demand songwriter. He collaborated with Nelson for three tunes, including the hit "Maria," on Nelson's 2002 CD, "The Great Divide."
He's writing with Pink for her next project. And he penned two tunes for Santana's "Shaman," the followup to the blockbuster "Supernatural."
But Thomas refused to sing on Santana's album - he wasn't interested in a "Smooth 2," he said - turning down "Game of Love," which became a hit for Santana and Michelle Branch.
Thomas seems to have his feet on the ground. Even though Matchbox's debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You," sold more than 12 million copies and its followup, "Mad Season," topped 4 million, he's not discouraged by the fact that album No. 3, "More Than You Think You Are," has sold only 1 million since its November release.
"We don't feel like anything's bad unless we didn't sell a million," he says, adding that the current U.S. tour will boost sales. "It's such a weird time now. We're still allowed to go out and tour, so we're still happy."
Thomas thinks "More Than You Think" rocks harder than its predecessors because of the instrumentation and production. But making the new album started out as a struggle.
During the pre-recording period, he said the band "just fought, because we all have more and more creative ideas. (But) when we went in to actually make the record, it was the easiest process ever. It seemed like the most well-thought-out Matchbox Twenty record. This is the first time that all five of us have walked away and said, 'We really love this record.' "
Thomas doesn't fear that MB20 will turn into the next Hootie & the Blowfish, which had a blockbuster, the 16-million-selling "Cracked Rear View," and then pretty much went bust.
"Hootie was such a high jump and such a high fall so quickly," he says. "We could be some other famous failure; but we can't be Hootie. Maybe we'll be Journey; we'll make 13 records and then people will think we're crap."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)