By Chris Nixon, The San Diego Union-Tribune
With his work as a top-flight songwriter and matchbox twenty's vocal stylist, Rob Thomas has climbed into the top echelons of rock demigods. Penning tunes for Santana and Willie Nelson, the 31-year-old musician is one of his genre's most-respected songwriters. But he doesn't let his household-name status fog his perspective.
"If you look at the whole list of musical celebrities, I'm pretty low on the list," said Thomas during a recent concert stop in Maryland. "You just keep trying to make good records, and not worry too much about that stuff. My private time is spent with my wife, hanging out at our house and being pretty normal. I just get to be a rock star the rest of the time, which is fun. I just have this really great day job."
After selling 20 million albums in just over seven years, Thomas and matchbox twenty won't be quitting their day jobs anytime soon.
But after a meteoric rise to mainstream stardom, what does a band do for an encore? Since 1996's breakthrough album, "Yourself or Someone Like You," matchbox twenty continues to strive toward answering the question.
"Yourself" sold a ton of records, going 12-times platinum. With hits like "Push" and "Real World," the band's debut disc redefined rock's poppy side with clever lyrics and Thomas' heartfelt vocal style.
"It was a complete change," said Thomas, who performs with his band Sunday at Cox Arena. "It was weird for us because it was one record. We had so much more that we wanted to say. All of a sudden, it was a pretty big microscope that you feel like you have to be under."
After "Yourself" propelled the Orlando-based quintet to instant fame, the band toured extensively. Thomas also took time to work with a hero of his: Carlos Santana. The matchbox twenty lead singer wrote and sang on "Smooth," a breakout hit for the Latino guitarist in 1999.
"You only have the chance to go in little 12-song increments at a time every couple of years (with matchbox twenty)," said Thomas, who has also written songs for Nelson and Marc Anthony. "So, it's nice to be able to find a home for these songs, give them a voice and hear what they sound like when people put their touches on them, people who you respect."
In 2000, matchbox twenty followed "Yourself" with "Mad Season" and Thomas and his crew managed to walk a fine line between self-absorbed rock and accessible pop. The sophomore album went quadruple platinum, a step down from the success from the debut, but nevertheless impressive numbers.
"More Than You Think You Are," released in November 2002, turns up the arena rock quotient ("Feel") while staying true to its anthem-oriented pop roots ("Bright Lights").
Matchbox twenty recorded that album at Bearsville Studios outside of Woodstock in upstate New York. The final touches were done in New York City, giving "More Than You Think You Are" an organic yet urban feel.
"Being (in Woodstock) in the summer, it's pretty amazing; it's definitely a vibe," said Thomas. "By the time we were done in Bearsville, we were like 'Lord of the Flies.' We were communing with the deer. Then, we did a total swerve and went into the city -- in the middle of New York to the Hit Factory -- and finished everything up there. It was great to switch gears like that."
On the third album, Thomas again teamed with a rock legend, co-writing "Disease" with Mick Jagger. The matchbox twenty lead singer learned a few tricks from Jagger, but he also learned there is no secret formula to great songwriting.
"Sometimes you think there's some sort of magical thing they're doing: some magical mantra or a special notebook they've got that they're writing all these great songs in," said Thomas on working with Jagger. "It's just inspiration. It's just being in the right place at the right time. In every square foot of the world, there's a song and somebody's going to find it."
What's next for matchbox twenty now?
More touring, more sincere songs and more success: "We focus on coming up with the best songs we can, every time we put out a record. Hopefully, we'll just be able to keep making records and our fans will keep buying them. And if not, we'll still be doing them, just nobody will be buying them."
To listen to sound clips from the Rob Thomas interview, log onto SignOnSanDiego.com, the Web site of the Union-Tribune, at entertainment.signonsandiego.com.