Drummer: It's cool to be unhip

Matchbox Twenty's happy to be popular

By G. Brown, Denver Post Popular Music Writer

Critics have always detested Matchbox Twenty. What does it take to surprise and silence the carpers?

With the monster 1996 debut "Yourself or Someone Like You," the Florida outfit was crowned the "it" rock band. Leader Rob Thomas proved a savvy and successful craftsman of radio hits like "Push" and "3am." Then he introduced a whole new generation to Santana with the 2000 Grammy-winning song "Smooth," and propelled the band's 2000 quadruple- platinum "Mad Season" release to chart topping heights on the strength of "If You're Gone."

None of this has made Matchbox Twenty critically revered - the group is still derided as lightweight. But it's kept the masses happy.

"Some of the coolest people I've met listen to modern country music, and I hate modern country music," drummer Paul Doucette said recently. "My point is, your personality isn't based entirely on the type of music you listen to. I think I have very, very good musical taste, and my wife is not a Beatles fan. Is she any less hip than am? No, I married her. What you listen to is your own personal choice."

Matchbox Twenty has kicked off a major North American tour and will perform at the Pepsi Center tonight.

"People who listen only to hip music are sad, because a lot of the unhip music is actually pretty cool - you're missing out," Doucette said. "And a lot of hip music is bad. ... You get to be that hip band or you don't. I'd rather be that band that gets better every time and is still putting out quality records that people enjoy."

At a decisive career juncture, Matchbox Twenty has delivered its third album, the platinum "More Than You Think You Are."

"This is the anti-'Mad Season' record," said Doucette, who broke his hand the day before the tour launched but continues playing.

"I think we all walked away from 'Mad Season' feeling that the songs were better than the record. People liked it and bought it, and I don't want to minimalize that. But we intended to make an overblown rock record, and at the end of the day, we were like, 'Why did we want to do that?'

"With this one, we wanted more of what we sound like live - take a lot of the gloss off, make it a little more raw. The songs aren't as accessible. I don't know if that's intentional, but we're going to stop trying to please everyone. We made a record we like to listen to."

On "Disease," co-written by Mick Jagger, the band explores the quasi-disco vibe and string parts that made INXS such an endearing funky-guitar-swagger rock band.

The catchy "Unwell" has captured the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Adult Top 40 Tracks radio chart; it shows an astute sense of songcraft in its loser-in-love disclosure ("I'm not crazy/I'm just a little unwell/I know/Right now, you can't tell").

And the expansive sentiment of "Bright Lights," the next single, imitates Foreigner's vintage melancholy pop balladry.

Thomas remains Matchbox Twenty's primary composer, but bandmates Doucette and Kyle Cook (lead guitar, background vocals) share the duties for the first time. "Could I Be You," written by Doucette, was initially intended as part of the drummer's extracurricular solo project, but Thomas wanted the song for "More Than You Think You Are."

"Rob's been writing a lot longer than I have," Doucette said. "My hope is the more I do it, the better I get and start to find my own style. ... I'm in a band with a great songwriter. I have a lot to work up to."

Matchbox Twenty with Sugar Ray and Maroon 5: 7:30 tonight, Pepsi Center, $35-$57.50, Ticketmaster