How will this play in Peoria?: Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty has been through a few strange places on his way up

By Dan Rowe, The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia, Canada)

Poor Rob Thomas. You would think the lead singer of Matchbox Twenty and a Grammy winner for writing and singing Smooth, the hook-heavy hit that dredged the career of Latino guitar-god Carlos Santana out of classic rock radio heavy rotation and into the MuchMoreMusic spotlight, would be happy to finally have a day off.

In the middle of a long North American tour -- the band and Sugar Ray (apparently, they're still around) stop at GM Place on June 4 -- to spend with his wife, model Marisol Maldonado.

The problem is they were in Peoria, Ill. on Memorial Day, and what little there was to do, Thomas says, was shut down.

Plus, the hotel the band checked into was so nasty, he was actually going to retreat to the bus. There, at least, they knew the source of the dirt, Thomas says.

"It's pretty bad when you're saying, 'God, I wish we had have just stayed in Columbus [Ohio],' " he said during a phone interview with The Sun.

Listening to a rock star griping borders on insufferable for most mere mortals, but Thomas' road to the top was indeed a long one that included a lot of gigs at frat houses in the southeastern United States, a horrible fate that might only be topped by playing fraternities in the southwest part of the country.

He left home in South Carolina, pretty much for good, at the age of 17, in an effort to become a rock star. Thomas has alternatively referred to himself as a "vagabond musician" and a "vampire gypsy" during this stretch in the early 1990s.

Either way, he spent a lot of time writing songs and when Matchbox 20, as it was then expressed, was put together, it was purely a vehicle for Thomas' songwriting.

"The first record we did because I had a bunch of songs. There was never any question."

That 1996 release, Yourself or Someone Like You, was a huge hit and put Thomas' skills as a songwriter in demand. Beyond the famous Santana collaboration, he has since contributed a tune (Visions of Paradise) to Mick Jagger's lamented 2001 solo job, Goddess in the Doorway.

"With Mick Jagger, I knew I was going to work with Mick so I kind of started writing ideas based on him," Thomas said.

His collaboration with Willie Nelson happened more by chance.

"I didn't write it [Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)] for Willie, but as soon as I wrote it my wife said, 'You should call up Willie Nelson. This would be a great Willie Nelson song.'

"A year and a half later it wound up being on his record," he said.

Thomas even wrote a song that turned up on the latest record from popster Pink.

All this time to write for other people might be the result of the more collaborative effort of Matchbox Twenty on their new record, More Than You Think You Are.

"For the first time, there were a few songs that me and Paul [Doucette, the drummer] and Kyle [Cook, the guitarist] wrote. There's a song on here that our drummer wrote that he was working on for his solo album," Thomas said.

"In all honesty, the guys have become a lot better writers over the last few years."

Thomas concedes he, too, has been changing over the years, especially as a vocalist.

"Listening to the first record, I sound like this little southern guy. I never realized it," he said.

More troubling to him is that the people who approach him by singing his own songs back to him tend to sound horribly similar to Creed frontman Scott Stapp. And even Thomas doesn't want that.

Recorded at the famed Bearsville Studios in upstate New York, the band wanted their third release to have a different sound from the last release, Mad Season, which Thomas says was intended to sound over-produced.

"We liked the way Mad Season sounded live, as opposed to on the album. There was a raw quality, much more space to it. What we wanted to do was give [More Than You Think You Are] more space and sound a lot more live than anything we had done before," he said.

"I think this is the happiest we've been with the outcome of a record."

There is always more to do, though. With a day to kill in Peoria, Thomas will use the opportunity to get some writing done.

"It's hard to tap into your self-conscience while there's people running around talking to you. So days off are really good for that."

Chances are the songs he is writing now will play very well in Peoria in the near future.