Matchbox Twenty singer says it's time to indulge in side projects

By Ben Wener, The Orange County Register

Funny how much can change in a month or two, let alone from album to album. When in April I had a chance to speak with Rob Thomas - Matchbox Twenty frontman, "Smooth" operator, "Disease" spreader - much of our chat was about the band's decision to postpone its European tour and his feelings about a certain outspoken Dixie Chick. Oh, and Michael Moore's speech at the Oscars.

It was all so very important. At the time.

Now, it's all so very redundant, even meaningless. As far as most Americans are concerned, the war is over - and it went down without celebrity slayings here or abroad. The Dixie Chicks are back on most country radio stations, and their sales hardly slumped. Undoubtedly Michael Moore is still shooting his yap off somewhere.

Thomas' view then: "It just didn't seem like a good time to bring the band and crew and everyone with families on the road. ... I mean, why take that chance? To start a tour just as war is breaking out that didn't make a lot of sense to us." (The European leg now will start in September.)

Yet, in a way, M20's feel-good arena-rock is exactly the sort of thing that might have helped some people soldier through that rough spring. Thomas acknowledges that, though smashes like "Disease" and "Unwell" contain more heft than typical mainstream fare, their very pop nature is such that people often tune out their own issues while singing along to them with thousands of kindred spirits.

"We canceled on 9-11," he remembers, "and there was that whole week after where we didn't know if we were gonna go back and tour or not. A week later we played in St. Louis - it was our tester show to see if it would bring a weird vibe. And people were so glad to get out of their houses and away from television where all they were seeing were these ghosts of New York.

"At times like that, you realize that there is a piece of what you do that can be unselfish, because everything else is so self-serving. I was having a conversation with Carlos (Santana), and he said, 'You have to remember that no matter what it means to you, there's an element of what you do that is helping the human condition.' And it's those times ... when you realize that people have been inundated with bad vibes ... it just feels so great to be their good vibe for a change."

Yet, Thomas says, the time has come for the members of Matchbox to grow, expand beyond the parameters set forth by their 1996 international blockbuster debut "Yourself or Someone Like You," which has sold more than 10 million copies and established the Florida band as the benchmark of late -'90s post-grunge rock. "Mad Season," the quintet's 2000 follow-up, broadened that formula a bit with symphonic touches, while last November's "Become What You Are" combined the two approaches - leaner like the first but not without a few grandiose moves.

But the making of that third album brought acrimony - largely because it was the first time the rest of the band's contributions were given as much credence as Thomas' hook-mongering.

"We fight constantly," he says, "but as we get older, we realize we're all fighting for the same thing. We're just fighting to make a good record, so no one gets too uptight about it. We try not to, anyway."

He recalled something drummer Paul Doucette said during the making of "Become What You Are" - "that a Matchbox Twenty record is the result of an argument between five people. Everyone has their idea of which way it should go, and we just have to whittle it down. And I think because we're at that point where everyone has grown and has more opinions they want to share, it seems like the only way to help us continue to grow is to let everyone go out and do their own thing. Have that time, not always answer to five people's demands."

Fans surely sensed as much would happen once Thomas struck paydirt with Santana on "Smooth," for which the pair took home a clutch of Grammys. As the face of M20, he stands the best chance of a flourishing solo career, something he'll embark on after the band's current tour wraps.

Meanwhile, Doucette is working with a team of producers on a side project, and guitarist Kyle Cook has his own band, the New Left, prepped for take-off.

Some of this splintering actually began before the making of the last album, the weathering of which leaves Thomas feeling upbeat about Matchbox's future.

"I really think things like that will make us a better band. All that outside experience helped so much when we made this record. It was the first time where I'd walk in and (producer) Matt (Serletic) would be nowhere to be found, and Paul would be doing a guitar track, and Kyle would be running the Pro-Tools (recording equipment). It was like, 'Wow, we've got no producer. This is great.' We were proud of how we got through that.

"The next step is for everyone to go out and make their own record, then we 'll come back that much stronger - come back feeling like it's not so important that everyone gets every last idea in."

Obviously, Thomas realizes he's in the driver's seat; without him, there really is no Matchbox Twenty. "I think all the guys realize I've put in the time for that as well, having written so many of the songs and performed them. But even they are like ... 'OK, uh, you're coming back, right?'

"Of course, yeah. This is just something I have to do. When you're 30 years old all of a sudden you feel like an adult, and on the morbid side, you start doing the math and realize you've got to start doing all the (things) you want to do before you die. You start looking at actors and thinking, 'How old is he? He still looks good. And he was old when I was young! So, OK, I've still got time.'"

Naturally, he realizes that a solo venture is risky, even with VH1 puffing up his star-power daily. Though he's barely begun planning the solo album's overall tone (and has no idea when it will surface), he says it surely will be something different than Matchbox. Yet if he strays too far from what fans expect, their loyalty could turn and never return. Already, he says, it's noticeable how mainstream radio is leaving the band's sound behind ("these days it's all pop and hip-hop, and the rock you do hear is really heavy").

"There are millions of people who like us as a band," he says. "Clearly there 's something special that the five of us do together that we're not going to find elsewhere, no matter how much we like what we do solo. I have no intention of not wanting to come back. In a beautiful world, it would be that everybody would be able to do everything - go make a solo record, go make a Matchbox record, go back and forth.

"But you never know what's gonna happen to you. Next year Kyle could call and say, 'Man, I don't want to do this any more' - and you just have to play that from there. Right now this is home for us. We may take vacations, but we always come back home."