Just out of the box

By Alan Stout, Sunday Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia)

Matchbox Twenty has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide, but singer Rob Thomas believes some people think his band is "uncool".

Perhaps that's because of Thomas's nice-guy image or the fact the band's music, often heartfelt, is aimed at no particular audience and has remained fashion-free while maintaining artistic integrity.

But don't think the talented songwriter is worried about the image.

"We've never been synonymous with any perception, or any disenfranchised group of teens," he says.

"We've simply been about writing songs and sometimes that comes across as not hip, because it's not on every magazine cover. But, at the same time, we've managed not to be on the sidelines, but be in the game and see trend after trend go by us.

"When we started, it was like, 'Well, we're never going to be successful, because everybody's listening to nothing but grunge'.

"And then it was like, 'You'll never be successful, because everybody's listening to the Backstreet Boys.' And then it was all rap/metal. But I think that songs never go out of style."

For Thomas and his American band mates, life is good.

Matchbox Twenty recently started a US tour that rolls into Australia next month, and the group's most recent album, More Than You Think You Are, has been a hit across the world.

Nothing new, really.

Since 1997, when Rolling Stone readers voted it Best New Band, this group has been cruising.

Now, even some of the stodgier press types have come around. Many gave More Than You Think You Are glowing reviews.

"Any band needs time to figure out what you want to do and what your sound is . . . a lot of bands don't have that opportunity," Thomas says. "It's not like the days of the Police or U2 . . . where you had a few records that could be unsuccessful while you found your sound.

"We were lucky enough to have enough success with our first record that we could get to this third record, where we feel like, 'Wow, this is what we'd like to sound like as a band, forever. This is good.' "

Matchbox Twenty's 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, has sold a stunning 12 million copies around the world and its 2000 follow-up, Mad Season, went quadruple platinum in the US. In Australia, the band has sold more than 1 million albums.

Hits, anchored by Thomas's thoughtful lyrics and crafty melodies, include Push, 3am, Real World, Back 2 Good and If You're Gone.

For its latest album, the band again teamed with producer Matt Serletic, though this time he was asked to let the songs breathe a bit more.

"The last record was so produced, there were no moments of silence," Thomas says. "We filled everything we could . . . but this time we wanted to make a record that sounds a little more like we sound live, and a little more like a record we'd listen to.

"If you can get a good sound out of your drum kit or you can get a great vintage amp sound, there's no need to put in all these crazy effects with computers. In the end, you have a kind of '70s rock feel, because you limit yourself to the instrumentation."

Thomas, who collaborated with Carlos Santana on the 1999 smash Smooth, continues to grow as a songwriter. Since the Grammy-winning hit, he also has worked with Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger.

"I'm lucky enough now that this is my only job, so when I'm off I can spend my time writing," he says.

"Hopefully, it gets better, and I'll become more prolific. The more you write, the more you want to try to write other kinds of songs. You don't want to rewrite Push or If You're Gone over and over."

Thomas seems aware that, no matter how long Matchbox Twenty's commercial success lasts, he has secured his place as a talented songwriter. And that can make for a long career.

"That's always been my goal, to be recognised as a songwriter," he says. "I think it carries a lot more weight than a pop star. This part of the job, unless you're part of 2 per cent of the music world, can only last for so long. We want to keep it going for as long as we can, but we only want to do it as long as we 're still having a good time and we can make a record we feel is better than our last."

Rounding out the band's lineup are Kyle Cook on lead guitar, Adam Gaynor on rhythm guitar, Brian Yale on bass and Paul Doucette on drums. Despite a seven-year run, Thomas says some creative friction remains within the band. This helps, he says.

"We fight like dogs," he says. "Paul once said, and I thought it was a great quote, that 'A Matchbox Twenty album is the result of an argument between five people'.

"But we don't argue about personal things -- we all get along great."

Matchbox Twenty will perform at Rod Laver Arena on Friday, July 25. Bookings: 13 28 49.