Although he likes to wear slick, open-collar shirts that show off plenty of chest, singer Rob Thomas is hardly trying to get anybody's attention. On the cover of "More Than You Think You Are," Matchbox Twenty's latest album, he and the band pose with their hands over their faces. In the largest CD-sleeve photo, he's a quarter-inch tall.
"As long as I can walk down the street and people say, 'Hey it's the guy from the Goo Goo Dolls!' then I'm still semi-anonymous," says Thomas, whose band performs Wednesday at the Continental Airlines Arena. "It's happened in such a nice, gradual way. We never had that period of time where it was really hip to be us, so we don't have to worry about 'we're not hip anymore.' We can stand on the sidelines."
Although Thomas sings for a band that has sold almost 12 million copies of three albums, he's the quintessential behind-the-scenes rock star. Formed eight years ago in Orlando, Fla., Matchbox Twenty was at first a nice-guy, basic- rock antidote to radio- dominant grunge and hip-hop. Then it was the harder antidote to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Now it's the antidote to heavy metal and garage bands.
The quintet's 2002 album, "More Than You Think You Are," is harder than 1996's mega-selling debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You," and more simply produced than 2000's "Mad Season." Thomas has a particular talent for writing upbeat hits about gloomy topics, and the album has a Pearl Jam feel on harder tracks, like the first single "Disease," and the reflective, about-to-break-up rocker "You're So Real."
Even radio listeners who instantly recognize the super-catchy "well, I will" chorus from Matchbox Twenty's first single, "Push," may be hard- pressed to name a band member aside from Thomas. (The other members are lead guitarist Kyle Cook, rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette.) That's because they haven't gone around hollering their names to the media, Thomas says.
"There was no hype machine we built. We were like, 'Here's this song, check it out,' as opposed to being on every magazine cover. That seems like what you're supposed to be doing anyway," he says by phone before a show in Chicago. "People like Madonna are geniuses - part of their success is building that image. For some people, it needs to be part of their art. For us, it's just making good records."
In the middle of all that anonymous fame, Thomas took a huge step toward not being the guy from the Goo Goo Dolls. He collaborated with classic rocker Carlos Santana in 1999, turning the single "Smooth" into a comeback smash and helping the guitarist win eight Grammy Awards and sell 11 million albums.
Suddenly, in addition to being a guest at Santana family dinners, Thomas was an in-demand songwriting partner. He originally wrote "Disease" for Rolling Stone Mick Jagger's "Goddess in the Doorway," but at the last minute Jagger passed on the song - so Thomas included it on "More Than You Think You Are." And he practically gushes over the phone about working with country hero Willie Nelson.
"All of a sudden, I wasn't just hearing my voice in my head as I wrote," Thomas says. "It became like a game, trying to write for different people. That has been a saving grace for me as a writer."
WHERE&WHEN Matchbox Twenty with Sugar Ray at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, N.J