Fanning Flames; Matchbox Twenty brings its "stripped-down" sound to Peoria in support of its latest album "More Than You Think You Are."

By Dan Craft, The Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL) EVENT: Matchbox Twenty, with Sugar Ray and Maroon5
TIME AND DATE: 7 p.m. Wednesday
VENUE: Peoria Civic Center Carver Arena, Peoria
TICKETS: $33 and $43
BOX OFFICE NUMBER: (309) 673-3200

The nice thing about playing rock in Matchbox Twenty. says its guitarist, Kyle Cook, is the freedom to roam that it gives everyone.

Lead singer Rob Thomas can go off and collaborate with, oh, say, Carlos Santana, on, oh, say, "Smooth," and come home with three Grammy Awards.

Or Thomas and Cook can go off in tandem to lock creative horns with, oh, say, Mick Jagger on his solo album, "Goddess in the Doorway," with Thomas and Jagger working out the music and lyrics, and Cook adding his guitar licks.

Or Cook can go off alone, as he likely will later this year, and record an album with his sidelines project, The New Left, which he describes as "a bit more experimental" than Matchbox Twenty (editor's note: for the sake of story clarity, we are temporarily suspending the band's preferred, all-lower-case-letters spelling of "matchbox twenty").

In any event, Cook says, that freedom to roam may explain why, nearly eight years after the immensely popular band's formation, there have been no defections and/or additions, a stable condition that ought to become immediately apparent at Wednesday night's concert in the Peoria Civic Center Carver Arena (7 p.m., with special guest Sugar Ray and opening act Maroon5).

What Cook says surprises him most is not so much that the band is still intact, even in the formidable wake of Thomas' much-publicized outside collaborations.

No, it's the fact that, after eight years, Matchbox Twenty has only three albums to its name: 1997's mega-selling debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You"; 2000's "Mad Season"; and the current "More Than You Think You Are," released late last year.

"I find that more hard to believe than anything - that we've been able to stretch those eight years through just three records," Cook marvels. "We're really just getting started."

That limited resume has nothing to do with a lax work ethic or low creativity on the band's part, says Cook, who at 27 is the youngest man on the Matchbox totem pole. Rather, it demonstrates the members' uncanny commercial instincts when it comes to writing radio-friendly hits sporting mid-road rock beats and Top 40 hooks, all with a nod to the band's love of '70s-style rock.

"We have a very commercial writer (Thomas) who really understands how to write commercial songs. For that reason, the records have had long lives, and we've been able to tour extensively and keep the momentum going," says Cook. "Not many bands are that fortunate. They have to go right back in the studio and make another record so they don't lose the momentum."

When "Yourself or Someone Like You" arrived six years ago, few could have predicted that nearly half the songs on its lineup would become Top 40 hits, including "Push," "3 AM," "Real World" and two more.

At that point, Matchbox Twenty had been together all of a year, the result of a merger between an existing southeastern band (Tabitha's Secret) comprised of lead singer Rob Thomas, drummer Paul Doucette and bass player Brian Yale. Demo tapes brought the trio into alignment with its two future guitarists, Adam Gaynor, via Miami's Criteria Recording Studio, and the Indiana-born Cook, via the Atlanta Institute of Music.

Originally dubbed Matchbox20 before stretching the name out to its current rendition, the band aligned itself with commercially savvy producer Matt Serletic, who had recently helped produce a string of hits for the band Collective Soul.

Still in its infancy, the new band was signed by Atlantic Records, which didn't hurt either.

Then came "Yourself or Someone Like You" and its seemingly endless spawn of singles, something that neither Cook nor any of his band-mates could have foreseen.

Hence, Matchbox Twenty got by on that album's very good graces for nearly three years.

The peril of that, says Cook, is that "you can allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that there's a formula that you have to stick by - creating that prior hit over and over again. We could have done that."

Instead, he says, Matchbox Twenty waited three years to produce "Mad Season," a markedly different affair that sold a third the number of copies the debut album did and produced only two hit singles (albeit one of them, "Bent," the band's biggest to date).

The softer response wasn't unexpected, Cook says.

"When your first album gets that big and goes that high, you really don't have a lot of places to go that point. Statistics will tell you - everybody will tell you - that few bands in history have followed up a record with that kind of success again. So you know that the odds are stacked against you. It's always in the back of your mind."

Also, he says, "I think everybody realized that our band had been splattered all over the place and there were millions of our records floating around. It was highly possible that people were tired of hearing the band."

So Matchbox Twenty went a different direction, opting for a bigger, more somber sound made possible by their newfound clout and fortune. "We could and did throw in the kitchen sink, just to see everything that we could do within the studio."

Cook has no regrets about the experiment per se, but understands why it may have taken some fans aback.

Now, with the new album, "More Than You Think You Are," the pendulum has swung the other way to "a fairly stripped-down" mode, sans "a lot of production," and "very simplistic songs" - very melodic and very natural.

One of the Thomas-Jagger collaborations, "Disease," was shifted from Jagger's solo album to the band's album, giving it a sizable radio hit earlier this year, followed by the currently charting "Unwell."

In addition, "More Than You Think You Are" sports two songs co-written by Cook, marking the first time Thomas has relinquished his full authorship of all the band's music.

"It takes away a load off of Rob for everything having to evolve in his mind and shows we've finally discovered we can do more of that kind of collaboration. So it's cool and kind of a landmark."

And doubtless another reason why the boys in Matchbox Twenty will still be in place for that fourth album when it comes around, right on schedule, in another three years.

Twenty tidbits from the Matchbox:

1. In 1997, it was correct to call them "matchbox20"; today, it is not.

2. In 2003, it is correct to call them "matchbox twenty"; in 1997, it was not.

3. The old man of the band is guitarist Adam Gaynor, age 39; the young pup of the band is guitarist Kyle Cook, age 27. In between: bass player Brian Yale, 34; lead singer Rob Thomas and drummer Paul Doucette, both 31.

4. Following his Grammy-winning collaboration with Carlos Santana on the hit "Smooth" (from Santana's "Supernatural" album), Thomas collaborated with more "geezers," including Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger.

5. Guitarist Kyle Cook has another band he works with, The New Left.

6. Thomas, Yale and Doucette played together as a threesome known as Tabitha's Secret before starting up matchbox20 in 1996 with the addition of guitarists Gaynor and Cook.

7. The band's first album, 1997's "Yourself or Someone Like You," produced five top 40 hits (including "3 AM," "Real World" and "Push") and sold more than 10 million copies.

8. The band's sophomore album, 2000's "Mad Season," sold under 3.8 million copies and produced two hits ("Bent," "If You're Gone").

9. The band's current, and third album, "More Than You Think You Are," is still on the charts, with two singles thus far: "Disease" (the Thomas-Jagger collaboration) and "Unwell."

10. Thomas' three Grammy Awards were won for his collaboration with Carlos Santana, not with his own band (which has received three nominations but no wins).

11. Thomas, born on a military base in Germany, ran away from home at age 12 and never turned back.

12. Quote of the week: "I'm a pretty big pothead. I smoke pot most days. It's not like I'm driving a school bus, y'know?" - Thomas, in Blender magazine.

13. Axiom of the week: "Our saving grace is that we're not hip. It's never been hip to be us." - Thomas, in Billboard magazine.

14. On "More Than You Think You Are," Thomas shares song-writing duties for the first time - with Cook and Doucette on two songs.

15. The recent hit "Disease" was written by Thomas and Mick Jagger for the latter's solo album. He decided it wasn't right for him and bequeathed it to Matchbox Twenty.

16. The first 1.3 million copies of "More Than You Think You Are" included a download card with a personal log-on number to the band's Web site, where a documentary and information on an exclusive bonus track awaited them.

17. Following the success of "Smooth," Thomas penned three of the songs on Santana's recent "Shaman" album, but declined the offer to vocally collaborate.

18. Band marriage scorecard: three yes (Thomas, Cook, Doucette), two no (Gaynor, Yale).

19. Though Thomas scored a No. 1 hit with Santana and "Smooth," his own band's only No. 1 single was "Bent."

20. Band member with closest roots to Bloomington-Normal: Kyle Cook, of Frankfort, Ind.