The sweet taste of success

Copyright 2003 Wellington Newspapers Limited The Dominion Post (Wellington)

February 6, 2003, Thursday


LENGTH: 905 words


BODY: He's worked with Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger, is in a band that has sold 20 million albums, has sung on a Carlos Santana track and has won three Grammys. But Matchbox Twenty frontman/songwriter Rob Thomas sometimes still can't believe he's got this far.

IT'S the dream of many an aspiring rock musician -- to sit down and write songs with some of your biggest idols. But the chance of it happening is usually about the same as George W Bush converting to Islam.

That's unless you are Rob Thomas, frontman/songwriter for American rock band Matchbox Twenty. In the past few years, Thomas, 32 this month, has written tunes with Mick Jagger and for Willie Nelson. Two superstars that have had a big influence on his work.

Not bad for Thomas, whose band had only released two albums in seven years, and released its third, More Than You Think You Are, last Friday. Though his success must have helped. Matchbox Twenty has sold 20 million albums and Thomas has won a swag of awards, including three Grammys. He also sang on the track Smooth, on Carlos Santana's million-selling Supernatural album.

"Willie Nelson is my idol, man. I used to bust ass just to try to meet the guy at a show and to be able to hang out with him for a few days and just sit down and write," he says.

"And in the end he used songs I wrote. He really liked them a lot and said 'I really want to play your songs'. And I learned how to write from listening to Willie Nelson. For him to want to use my songs is such a big honour."

Thomas worked with Jagger in New York for songs on The Rolling Stones' frontman's solo album Goddess In The Doorway, which sold poorly when released in 2001.

"We spent a couple of days working with a really great musician who works with him called Matt Clifford. The three of us wrote Visions of Paradise."

Thomas admits there are times when even he can't believe he's got this far. "To sit for a little while and listen to The Heart and Soul of Why You Play Music by Carlos Santana and then listen to a seminar on What Song Writing Really Means to People by Willie Nelson. You can't beat that kind of school."

He owes a debt to Santana, he says. "It was pretty amazing experience, more so because nobody knew what that record was going to be. Carlos hadn't done a record in a long time and there was no expectation of a hit."

Matchbox Twenty's last album, 2000's Mad Season, was dominated by a rich, ornate production and opulent arrangements which included an orchestra. "We couldn't have made a more produced record," Thomas says. More Than You Think You Are sounds the opposite -- it's back-to-basics, stripped down performance with a 70s rock vibe.

"The good thing about 70s music is that they recorded all of it so we can listen to it later on," jokes Thomas, who was born in 1971.

The band even recorded it in typical 60s and 70s fashion -- the remote Bearsville Studios in rural Woodstock in New York state -- where Todd Rundgren, the Psychedelic Furs, REM and even Jeff Buckley have also recorded.

"All of those records have a certain sound to it and sonically it's a sound that Matchbox has never had before. The beauty of having a good engineer and great sounding room is that you are recording the room. It's like when you hit the snare (drum), it's not about the snare, it's about the room and the way it sounds."

Thomas says the band was happy with the previous albums but sonically "it was always missing that live feel to it".

The country atmosphere also helped. "We were hanging out with the deer. We were completely over-run with deer. It puts a different vibe in your head to when we were in some clinical studio in Atlanta."

Thomas wrote most of the songs when the band was completing Mad Season and while they were on tour. "And hanging out on the couch, quite frankly. That's what a record should be. A journal of your time spent between the last time you made a record and this time you make a record."

The first single Disease was partly written by Jagger, because Thomas meant it for him. He wrote it the night before he was about to spend his first day with the Stones. "I just wanted to write something Mick would sound cool singing. I brought it in to him with everything, except for a couple of lines in the second verse, and he wrote the lines in there. And then in the end he thought it didn't fit in Goddess In The Doorway. Since the majority of it was mine he said 'We should do it on a Matchbox record'."

The album does sound less dark than Mad Season. Thomas is blunt. "It was kind of depressing and in parts of it there is some sappyness in there. It wasn't even like a dark pensive kind of a longing, it's a kind of whiney longing," he admits.

"It's funny because as songs go, some of my favourite songs were on that record that I'd written -- You Won't Be Mine, If You're Gone, Bent, but for me as a writer on that record I feel that I swung and missed. But really feel like when I hit it, I really hit it."

As a songwriter, Thomas believes he's improved, but he's not reached his peak. "I do feel that I'm at my best so far. I just hope I'm not at my best and I'm heading back down."

More Than You Think You Are is out now.