One out of the box

Matchbox Twenty is willing to fight to defend its music, Rob Thomas tells LAUREN McMENEMY.

ONCE upon a time, in a music industry far removed from the one we now know, musicians were allowed to build followings, tour constantly, release a few albums, then, on about disc No 4 or 5, they'd become stars.

But those days are long gone. Bands must nail it on their debut or they might not get a second chance.

This is a world Rob Thomas knows well. Luckily for Thomas, his band became one of the world's biggest with the release of its debut album in 1996. That band is Matchbox Twenty. Yourself or Someone Like You sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, producing hits like 3am and Push, still staples of commercial rock radio. Over three albums and eight years, the band has sold more than 20 million records. But Thomas says the success has been a "double-edged sword".

"These days, if you don't have your first or second record hit, your label's probably going to drop you," Thomas says. "So we were really lucky in that we bought ourselves that by the first record being so successful.

"And we were also a pretty well-grounded group of guys through the whole thing, and realised that we were works in progress and how much more we had to learn to be the kind of band we wanted to be.

"We have to be our own watermark, and let our watermark be, we've got to be a better band - every record, we just have to be a better band.

"We have to become a better live band, a better studio band, get better at working together.

"And so I just think (success) really put us on track. It gave us the opportunity to keep doing it, and it put us in a position to realise our faults."

Those faults have been readily pointed out since MB20 was let loose on the music world - too middle-of-the-road, not enough edge, too nice.

Thomas pays no attention.

"I've always thought we were pretty cool guys, we've just never been hip guys.

"And being hip takes so much effort, I just don't have that much time to be on top of all the latest trends and the greatest new bands and the best new polka techno.

"But in the end, we sat on the sidelines and watched as hip thing after hip thing has risen to the top and gone back to the bottom, and something new has been the new hip thing to be.

"We started off through grunge and we've gone through boy bands and rap metal and ska and we've managed to still just be a band, which is all we ever wanted to do in the first place."

Learning seems to be a common theme in conversation with Thomas. He's learning to deal with fame - "the more popular you get, the more people while you're at the mall want to take their picture with you, so now I just say, well, I don't want to go to the mall anymore" - with the rigours of the road, and with what it means to be in Matchbox Twenty.

"I think each record we made was honest to who we were," he says. "When we made the first record, we were trying to learn how to make a record.

"It's just that now, we feel that where we are, we like. We made the best record we could (with the latest album, More Than You Think You Are), but it's a lot more, I think, the direction we're going to want to take in the future.

"We loved this record so much when we finished it that we figured everybody was going to hate it.

"We thought this must be it, because we like it so much, this is obviously the one that everybody's just going to think is awful.

"We're the worst critics of ourselves and the most self-deprecating group of guys in the world, so it's hard to say something about us that we haven't already said about ourselves. But this is a record that, hell, we might even get into a bar fight over it." And with more converts every time the band plays live, it's clear people are tuning in to that passion. Thomas may be uncool, but a lot of people love him for it.

"I just hope that we all just get to be left alone to make music," he says about his hopes for the future.

"It's nice that we've been able to run in the race without feeling like we're running the race. We've managed to be major players without ever feeling like we're playing the game.

"We always have this mentality that if we just keep our mouths shut and heads down, then next thing you know we'll be 60 years old and still making music, and we'll be OK."

Matchbox Twenty plays at the Entertainment Centre on July 27.