More than you think he is

New Straits Times Features

Hafidah Samat

Feb 25: Rob Thomas of matchbox twenty is nothing like what his bad Press makes him out to be. HAFIDAH SAMAT was taken by the engagingly honest and unpretentious songwriter and singer.

"He's really moody," remarks a fellow journalist about Rob Thomas, the frontman of rock band matchbox twenty.

"He's difficult. He hates interviews and he despises journalists," whispers another, as members of the Press were getting ready to meet the award-winning band, in Singapore recently.

Unpredictable. Eccentric. Uninterested. Condescending. Seems like Rob has a lot of adjectives added to his name.

It was unfortunate that those who misjudged him did not have the opportunity to see the real Rob as they only got to interview his bandmates. Luckily for me and four other reporters, we managed to dispel the myth about his "difficult" personality.

The only adjective that REALLY fits Rob? ADORABLE!

"Am I in the right room?", asks Rob sheepishly, sounding like a boy on the first day of school, as he enters the room. Immediately, you know that this is no ordinary rocker with an ego problem. While his dynamic personality fills the room, his friendly self shines through too.

He settles down, pours himself a glass of water and fumbles for a cigarette.

"Do you mind if I smoke?" he politely asks us. He pops the cigarette into his mouth, lights up and takes a long drag as a journalist offers him a clove cigarette.

"Clove cigarettes? I haven't had those for a long time. I remember how I used to have holes in my shirts after smoking them. My mother, who never approved of me smoking, eventually found out I was hooked on them. She freaked out!" he says in almost rapid-fire tempo, as he tips the ash from his cigarette.

Rob is handsome and also one of the world's most-sought-after singers/songwriters.

But he came across not only as unpretentious, but also articulate, friendly and engagingly honest.

Clad casually in a simple T-shirt, faded jeans, trainers and micro-mini hoop earrings, Rob with his combed-down pixie hairdo looked absolutely wonderful.

He begins chatting about his karaoke session at one of the island republic's clubs the night before.

Rob says: "My name was listed as Bob Thomas instead of Rob Thomas in the karaoke song list. It was so funny. Nevertheless, I was impressed with this ordinary bloke who had one of the most wonderful voices I've ever heard. It was great fun.

"This is one thing I enjoy when travelling. You meet a lot of people with different personalities and what makes it more interesting is when you go out at night and no one notices you!" he continues.

With the amount of energy he displays on and off stage, one wonders if he ever feels washed out from travelling, giving interviews and all sorts of promotional activities.

"There's no time for the band to become lazy. You know, if we take time off, we just don't know what to do with ourselves. We're so accustomed to our routine - to be on the move and constantly on the road with concerts ahead of us.

"It grows on you, and you feel incomplete without it. At times, I wake up thinking about going on the road and then remember that it is time off," says the singer, who's married to the beautiful model, Marisol Madonado.

When Rob speaks of his wife of two years, his eyes sparkle.

"She's here in Singapore with me. She's out shopping at the moment. Women, you know how to make them happy," he says with impish delight.

Like his award-winning song Smooth (which he co-wrote and collaborated with legendary guitarist Carlos Santana), Rob admits that some of the new material from his latest effort More Than You Think You Are has been inspired by Madonado.

"Sometimes we'll have a fight, and I have to write about it." (Madonado played the "vixen" in the music video for Smooth, and is his "Spanish harlem Mona Lisa").

How does marriage affect him musically?

He pauses and says: "I think it's made me more analytical writing-wise. When you're married, you tend to take a situation, dissect it, enlarge and examine it.

"Take matchbox twenty songs like You Won't Be Mine or If You're Gone. Both are based on our relationship and were written during a turbulent period. So, instead of saying, 'Well, now I'm a happy guy, so my art is dead', there are emotional undercurrents, no matter what you do for a living," says Rob.

Personal life aside, Rob goes on to talk about his "baby", More Than You Think You Are, the band's third outing, which was released here earlier this month.

The album, says Rob, "is more experimental than usual but rich with matchbox twenty mannerisms".

As with its two previous albums - 2000's Mad Season and 1996's Yourself or Someone Like You - the album was helmed by Grammy Award-winning producer Matt Serletic.

Serletic took more of a hands-off approach to the recording this time around, allowing the band to find its voice and assisting it to filter its ideas into a cohesive vision.

"It's been way more collaborative," says Rob, "we had a lot more to bring to the table on this record. Matt was very encouraging, like 'go ahead, here are the reins. Take over'.

"Then when we were done, he'd listen and throw in suggestions - 'you may want to change that part'. That's cool'. Basically, he did what a producer should and it was great," says Rob.

Recording for the album began last June at the renowned Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York.

"The overall vibe definitely comes from what we did up there," Rob enthuses.

"There we were in this legendary studio out in the woods, away from civilisation. We'd stroll in, looking like barefoot mountain men, and jam each and every song into shape until we got all the parts the way we wanted them.

"It was all very natural, very spontaneous. The experience? It was mind-blowing," he says.

The album spawned its first single, Disease, a track co-written by Rob and Mick Jagger.

"The song," says Rob, "definitely rocks!

"It's also got strings and an almost disco melody going on and has become one of the most pop-ish songs we've ever done," he continues.

One of the undisputed high points of the album is Downfall, featuring a Gospel choir which takes the song onto a completely new level.

"Downfall makes you want to move your hips a bit. It's more sensual, sexier than anything we've ever done before. It has the right vibes and the band enjoyed doing it," says Rob.

Asked how he feels about still being labelled "the next big thing", he replies: "Somehow I think the music industry is always waiting for this so-called the 'Next Big Thing'.

"But matchbox twenty has been playing music for quite a while. I've been writing songs for longer than yesterday.

"I think the danger is that many bands are pushed by the industry. They have a good song and the industry pushes them. They become stars overnight and they end up being one-hit wonders.

He continues: "The music business is pretty fast paced and there is a lot of hype, but there are always people who like quality songs and if you're writing and performing quality songs I think you last longer. At least I hope so, what do you think?"

Frankly, Rob, we think you are a DARLING! Enough said.