Matchbox singer matures into role of songwriter

By Alan K. Stout

For singer Rob Thomas and his bandmates, life is good.

Matchbox Twenty is just a few days into its latest U.S. tour, but he says it's already clicking on stage. To make matters better, the group's most recent album, More Than You Think You Are, has been certified platinum and its current single, Unwell, sits at No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Top 40 chart.

Nothing new, really.

Since 1997, when Rolling Stone readers voted it "Best New Band," this group has been cruising. Now, however, even some of the stodgier press types have come around. Many gave More Than You Think You Are glowing reviews and proclaimed it the band's best album to date.

"Any band needs time to figure out what you want to do and what your sound is, and in this day and age, a lot of bands don't have that opportunity," says Thomas. "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 and its 2000 follow, Mad Season, is quadruple platinum. Hits, anchored by Thomas's thoughtful lyrics and crafty melodies, include Push, 3 a.m., Real World, Back 2 Good and If You're Gone.

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

"The last record was so produced, there were no moments of silence," he says. "We just 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 go back in and put in all these crazy effects with computers. In the end, you wind up this kind of '70s rock feel, because you limit yourself to the instrumentation."

Thomas, who collaborated with Carol Santana on the 1999 smash Smooth, continues to grow as a songwriter. Since the Grammy-winning hit, he's worked also with Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger and says he writes now more than ever.

"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 that you write, the more you want to try and write other kinds of songs, whether it be the subject matter, or the style, or feel of the song. You don't want to rewrite Push or If You're Gone over and over.

"That's always been my goal, to be recognized as a songwriter.

"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."

Despite the awards, hit videos and chart-topping songs, Thomas thinks Matchbox Twenty is viewed by some as uncool. Perhaps that's simply because of Thomas's nice-guy image and that the band's music, often heartfelt, is aimed at no particular target audience and has remained fashion-free while maintaining its artistic integrity.

"We've just 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 to be not on the sidelines, but be in the game and see trend after trend go by us."

Rounding out the band's lineup is Kyle Cook on lead guitar, Adam Gaynor on rhythm guitar, Brian Yale on bass and Paul Doucette on drums. Despite a successful seven-year run, Thomas says some creative friction remains within the band. Still, he says it only serves the group well.

"We fight like dogs. 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 never argue unless it has to do with the business or the music. We don't argue about personal things and we all get along great in our personal lives, but we have five people who have basically grown up together, and we all want to make the best record possible. Once you realize that's what you're arguing about, it's a lot easier."