Back to the basics: Matchbox Twenty returns to its roots through a new album

By Paul Freeman, The Manila Times

SINCE making their 1996 debut, Matchbox Twenty has sold more than 20 million albums. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t feel pressure upon the release of their third CD, More Than You Think You Are (Melisma/Atlantic).

“When we did the second record (Mad Season), that was supposed to be the difficult, sophomore slump record,” says lead vocalist Rob Thomas. “When we were done with that, they were like, ‘Oh, no, it’s the third record that establishes you as an artist.’ So there was that instant of like, ‘Oh, my God!’ But we’ve always felt like, over the years, we’ve gotten to the place where we know who our fans are and people know who we are. So it’s not like we have to try to prove ourselves to anybody. We just need to make a good record.”

More Than You Think You Are is indeed a good record. “For all of us in the band, it feels like we finally got it right, by our barometer. When we did the first record (Yourself Or Someone Like You), we were just learning how to make a record. The second record was like, a little information is a dangerous thing. Before we recorded the first note, we said, “We’re going to make an overproduced record.” We wanted to make a record that had big eighties drums on it and huge orchestras and everything you could possibly imagine.

“We would spend hours and hours miking the drums, getting everything in that perfect spot, so you can get that sweet sound. Then when you finally record that great take, you run it on a computer and throw all these effects on it, so you can’t really tell that you spent all the time in the first place. So on the new record, it was about just getting that good sound on the instrument, recording it and letting that be it.”

The new CD’s back-to-basics approach makes the transition to touring an easy one. “When we went out on Mad Season, there were month-long rehearsals on, ‘OK, who’s going to pick up that string part?’ and ‘Out of these seven melodies, which one’s important?’ For this new record, we just strapped it on and started playing. It felt really good. A lot of these songs just seem like they were made to be arena rock stuff.”

Thomas relishes hitting the road. “I’m one of those rare people who not only likes the show, but likes to travel, the moving around from day to day. After being home for a few months, I get antsy. I just want to go out and live the gypsy lifestyle again.”

Their North American tour is underway. But a European excursion had to be postponed.

“We didn’t feel like it was appropriate, because it was scheduled to start on the same day that the war started. But next fall, it might be a good time to go over there and be artistic diplomats of sorts.”

Matchbox Twenty was on the road when the 9/11 tragedy struck. They canceled several shows. “Everybody in the country was so shaken up. We kind of felt like, maybe we should just cancel the tour. Who’s going to want to come to a show now?

“When we came back, I think St. Louis was our first show. It was amazing–the reaction of all these people who had been sitting in their houses for a week-and-a-half, just staring at television and seeing these images over and over, all these pictures of these ghosts of New York. It was important for them to go out, take a couple of hours, forget about everything, just listen to music and have a good time,” Thomas recalled.

“You realize that there is a non-selfish aspect to what you do. Most of it seems so self-serving. We’re so lucky, we get to travel around, play music and act like we’re 16 all the time. But times like that make you remember that there is something about lifting the human condition.”

The band, which established a Matchbox Twenty Foundation following 9/11, has always backed worthy causes, including Pets Alive, Save The Music, Doctors Without Borders and helping homeless teens. “Those are the kinds of things you have to do, to keep yourself balanced. If you’re not doing something where you’re giving back, I think you’d feel kind of bad,” Thomas said. “Sometimes it’s just setting up awareness booths at our shows, letting Amnesty International bring a booth along with us, so kids while they’re there can stop by, pick up a pamphlet and get informed. Out of all those kids, one or two may call back, check out their website, donate some of their time or money. We try to be a kind of conduit for these people to come and find something they can care about.”

Matchbox Twenty isn’t a political band, just a caring one.

“We’re just here to celebrate being human and have a good time. And we’re so different, the five of us, it’s hard for us to find one thing to get behind. So we find as many ways as we can to use the influence that we’ve gained as a whole and help out as many individual people as we can.”

The name of the new album, More Than You Think You Are, reflects the band’s upbeat attitude.

“Music itself is a positive thing. And we like the idea of having a blatantly positive album title. Our only fear is that it might confuse people, with them thinking we were saying, ‘We’re more than you think we are.’ It’s the opposite–‘You’re more than you think you are.’

“On this record there’s thematically, more positive subject matter. There are some depressing song titles, like “Unwell” and “Cold” and “Disease.” But it’s a surprisingly positive album, if you listen to the lyrical content.”

Thomas craves the chance to express himself through writing songs. “That’s everything to me. I’m not Roger Waters. I’m not going to go completely insane if I don’t write. But it’s such a high when you cross that bridge into a good song, from that melody idea that pops into your head. The first time you hear it become a song, it’s such a great rush. As soon as you write it, it’s old to you. The best part of the song is all the possibilities that can be when you start writing it. It could be anything.

“Once it starts to take shape, it becomes something of its own and then you’re already moving on to wanting to find that feeling again, finding a new melody with all the possibilities and diving into it, spending hours figuring out which is the best one.”

Growing up, Thomas admired such songwriters as Elton John, Paul Simon and Billy Joel. Later he drew inspiration from eclectic sources, including the Indigo Girls, the Cure, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson.

Thomas has had opportunities to collaborate with some of his heroes, including Nelson, Carlos Santana and Mick Jagger, who co-wrote “Disease” from the new CD. Thomas was awed by watching the supreme Stone sitting with a guitar, sifting through melody possibilities.

“You’re going, ‘Wow, I do that! I must be doing something right. That’s how “Wild Horses” came out!’ And that makes you feel good.

“I don’t know how you can learn to be a songwriter. You can build a pop star. But it seems so hard to build a songwriter. These are the kind of classes that you can’t sign up for, to sit in a room with Willie or Carlos and have them tell you what music is about.”

When the time comes for the band’s fourth album, they’ll continue to evolve. With Matchbox Twenty, it’s all about the song.

“That’s what our focus is on. We’re lucky, because we’re not an image-driven band. We don’t have to worry about any of our songs fitting our image. We’ve made three records that are all different from one another. If we were System Of A Down or Limp Bizkit–and I like these bands–then every time we made a record, we would have this rock credibility that we’d have to hold onto. Everything we did would have to fit into a certain kind of a box.

“When we go in, it’s just, ‘Where is our head right now? Let’s reinvent ourselves, not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Let’s sit down, just play and see what honestly comes out.’ Then, wow, that’s the new Matchbox sound.”

-- ENS