Matchbox Twenty thrives despite side projects

By Rashod D. Ollison, The Baltimore Sun

For a minute, it looked as if he had eclipsed his buddies. Rob Thomas, the boyish-faced frontman of supergroup Matchbox Twenty, helped fuel Santana's meteoric 1999 comeback with "Smooth," the ubiquitous No. 1 single taken from the guitar legend's multi-Grammy-winning album Supernatural. Thomas wrote and pushed his idiosyncratic vocals across the festive hit. The man (and his love life) was splashed in magazines, on MTV. You almost forgot that he leads one of the most commercially successful rock bands of the last decade.

"Yeah, we were concerned that 'Smooth' would overshadow the group," says Thomas, who's calling from a tour stop in Virginia. "But it kept the public eye on us. I thought we would have a lot of requests for 'Smooth' at a show. But we didn't. People would come to hear Matchbox Twenty."

The quintet, which plays the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center in Salisbury on Tuesday, steadily climbed to platinum heights in the mid-'90s with Yourself Or Someone Like You, the band's debut that mixed hooky arena rock with grunge sensibilities. Extensive national touring gradually brought the band into the spotlight. And it didn't hurt that college and modern rock radio fell in love with "Push," MT's first hit, which featured lyrics relating to emotional and physical abuse: I wanna push you around / I will, I will / I wanna push you down / I will, I will / I wanna take you for granted ... / I will ...

Released in 1996, Yourself eventually sold 15 million copies and stayed on the charts for two years. It was a surprising feat, given that the band received minimal promotion from Atlantic Records. Basically, the album sold thanks to word-of-mouth and constant gigs.

"We sold all those records, and nobody knew who the hell we were," says Thomas, 33, "so we were like, 'We won!' We didn't need magazine covers to get successful. People bought the music because they liked it. That's a blessing."

The mega-sales also allowed the group to expand its musical scope in the studio.

"Selling that many records brought us the ability to keep making records," says the Florida-raised artist, who makes his home in New York. "We didn't want to jump on the next record right away. We wanted some time to grow and gather material, not rush anything."

During the interim, the band toured heavily around the world and dabbled in side projects. Of course, Thomas' appearance on Santana's record garnered the most attention. But there was strong demand from the label and fans for another Matchbox Twenty album. Mad Season finally dropped in 2000.

"That album was so produced," Thomas says with a little edge in his voice. "Everything was so programmed. There was not an inch to stretch."

The record sold half the units Yourself moved, but "the guys and I didn't think that we were gonna sell 10 million every time out," says the singer-songwriter. "Mad Season didn't do that, but it was still successful."

Critics were indifferent to it -- some calling the set accomplished, others saying it was too polished. But the record served its purpose: It made money and kept the band on the road, which is where MT gets the bulks of its inspiration. With its current album, More Than You Think You Are, the group wanted to reach back and recapture the feel of open, adventurous rock, a la Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac. High in the mix above angry guitars, Thomas emotes in that distinctive, clipped style of his.

"I think I ripped off of Elton John," Thomas says of his vocals. "There's some Tracy Chapman in there, too. Some Wilson Pickett, some Al Green. All of those great R&B singers have the power of rock singers. I try to get that in what I do."

The tour for the latest record will roll on through the fall and the winter. Thomas says he isn't sure when the band will get back into the studio to record another album. In the meantime, though, he and the guys will just enjoy the ride and stay open-minded artists.

"Everybody in the group has this itching to his own thing now," Thomas says. "So there will be some time between now and the next record. Which is a good thing, because that will make the next Matchbox Twenty record better. We have all done different things, learned more about ourselves. We'll bring all of that into the studio."