Matchbox Twenty strikes a balance

By Marian Liu
Mercury News

One of the quintessential pop stars of the '90s, Matchbox Twenty hope to transcend pop.

``Pop music as a whole kills its own soil,'' says Rob Thomas, lead singer of Matchbox Twenty, which performs Saturday at the HP Pavilion. ``You can't control it. It's constantly coming up with something. It's very image-conscious, about whatever is hot at the moment.

``But I'm still a songwriter, and I'll always make music. It's not about my behind still fitting in leather pants or not, or doing something hip -- not that it doesn't fit in leather pants. I mean years from now.''

Matchbox Twenty thrives on its anonymity, Thomas says, not its looks. The band lets the 3 1/2 or four minutes of the songs speak for themselves.

``We have no super-hip place to fall from, so we never have to worry about that,'' says Thomas, 31. ``We've never attached ourselves to anything. . . . Some bands out there are the hippest thing with the right look and the right timing. They're exactly what America wants to fill that void, but they're partly a band and partly a way to sell advertising.

``But we're still here. We don't have to worry about losing that rock cred. We just make good songs and leave it at that. We never claim to be something we're not, and we're always honest.''

Matchbox Twenty made its debut with its 1997 radio hit, ``Push.'' Its multi-platinum debut album, ``Yourself or Someone Like You'' was followed by two more hit albums, ``Mad Season'' and ``More Than You Think You Are.''

``We came right in the middle of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains and Nirvana and the boy bands and ska,'' says Thomas, who's back home in New York during a break in the tour. ``And out of all the things on the radar, we quietly made it on the road and found fans.''

He hopes the performance on Saturday will leave the audience feeling great. Every song, he says, will set a different mood, with changing sets and screen lights.

Rough start to tour

The tour didn't begin well. The day before the tour opened in April, after designing the concert's light show, drummer Paul Doucette broke his hand when he punched a trash can in frustration. Then, Thomas got sick. But he assures fans that now everything is OK.

In the past few years, Thomas has been in demand as both a singer and a writer. His 1999 collaboration with Santana, ``Smooth,'' helped sell 10 million albums and won Grammys for song of the year, record of the year and best pop collaboration with vocals. He's also written with Willie Nelson, Pink, Mick Jagger and Marc Anthony.

``There must be something in my vocal rhythm they want, and I only work with people I'm familiar with and a fan of,'' says Thomas. Nelson has been his idol since the age of 10, Thomas says. ``He was the original outlaw and yet is the nicest, sweetest guy in the world I know. At the same time, he is the fightingest, womanizingest, drinkingest, and still finds times to write `Crazy.' ''

Finding their sound

Matchbox Twenty, he says, is finally making music the members would listen to on their time off.

When the band began recording, Thomas says, ``We were really timid. We were just learning how to make a record, and with our group of songs, we would play them as safe as we could.

``But now, I would like this song, even if I didn't know who we were. It sounds sonically like the records we listen to,'' he says, rattling off a list that includes Coldplay, Miles Davis, Indigo Girls, Nelly and Jeff Buckley.

Some of the songs on last year's ``More Than You Think You Are'' were inspired by beating on the steering wheel or mimicking the ``boom da da boom'' of the dryer, says Thomas, a self-proclaimed music geek.

Thomas adds, ``You only feel as good as the last song you wrote. When you start, you play the first note, and get a little melody. It's like an open road. You keep traveling, you turn the corner, and when you finish, the rush is gone. And, no matter how good or how much you like it, the success you had has past, and you're worthless until you write another song.''

Matchbox Twenty
Sugar Ray and American Hi-Fi
Where: HP Pavilion, 525 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $37.50-$47.50; (408) 998-8497, (415) 421-8497 or
Listen to tracks from the band's latest album at