By Sandy MacDonald, The Halifax Daily News (Nova Scotia)
OK, just what is a Matchbox Twenty anyway? "The story is there is no story," shrugs guitarist Kyle Cook. "(Drummer) Paul Doucette just came up with the name. When you come up with a band, you're not necessarily looking for some literal meaning. You just want something memorable or something that just sounds cool."
Matchbox Twenty is certainly the coolest thing to come out of Orlando, the central Florida tourist trap that's home to Disneyworld, N'Sync, and Shamu the killer whale. The band rocketed through the roof with its 1996 debut album, Yourself Or Someone Like You.
"The other Matchbox guys are from Florida. I'm the only one who was imported," says Cook, who grew up in Indiana, "... playing Little Pink Houses and Hurts So Good way more than I should have."
Cook was enticed by producer Matt Serletic to come south to Orlando to hook up with singer Rob Thomas and the band. Ironically, he's the only one now left in Florida.
"The other guys were all ready to get out of there," laughs Cook, on the phone with HFX from South Carolina, where the band's tour started rolling.
It was a fortuitous move for the guitar player. Matchbox Twenty has since sold more than 20 million albums, making it one of the most commercially successful bands through the turn of the millennium. The band was a fresh breeze when it blew out of Florida: singer Rob Thomas could deliver the heartfelt ballad that touched an audience, and then turn on a dime to rock like a hurricane. It was a winning combo.
The band was named best new band in Rolling Stone's 1997 reader's poll, and have remained a fan's favourite with hits including Push, Real World, If You're Gone and Bent.
Now, it has just unwrapped its third album, More Than You Think You Are. And it cooks with the same gas -- great songwriting and strong performances without the indulgent frills that bogged down the last outing, Mad Season. (It still managed to sell more than four million copies in the U.S. alone.)
The new disc was recorded partly in the legendary Bearsville studio near Woodstock in upstate New York. The bucolic environment, with herds of deer strolling the grounds and a relaxed sleep-in-late vibe, was established in the early 1970s by Albert Grossman, manager of Bob Dylan. Historic albums by REM, the Band, Jeff Buckley, Phish and Rush have all been recorded there in recent years.
The place seemed a natural for Matchbox Twenty to get centred again.
"We wanted to get back to an organic band sound, with just the five key (musicians)," explains Cook. "We might have overproduced Mad Season a bit -- that's natural coming off a 12 times platinum-selling album with an endless budget to go in the studio and put symphonies and horn sections on it. We felt we could just spend all the time in the world experimenting.
"Sometimes that's right thing to do, and sometimes simplicity is the answer.
"Going to Bearsville allowed us to get back to the intimacy of us playing in one room together. The idea was to get everybody back in one room, and recapture the live energy. When you can see the stick about to hit the drum, or the guitar being strummed or Rob singing in the vocal booth, something special happens."
After a couple of months in Woodstock, though, the band was ready to bust loose and headed into Manhattan for more tracking.
"At that point, everyone was ready for it," says Cook. "There was no air conditioning in Woodstock for some ungodly reason -- so the big city was embraced for sure."
One of the strengths of the band is the distinctive vocals of singer/songwriter Thomas. His frequent moonlighting projects, including the Grammy-winning Smooth with Carlos Santana and other projects with Willie Nelson, has helped raise the profile of Matchbox Twenty.
As much as the Matchbox sound is built round Thomas's voice, Cook's guitar hooks and solos spark the songs to life. And his guitar work is all over More Than You Think You Are.
With his custom-shop Telecaster (he bought it in downtown Disneyworld) and an array of amps, Cook has dialed in some heavy guitars for this album.
Cook is also working on side-projects, including a band called The New Left. He also wrote a tune about his young daughter, which will be included on a Sony Music compilation album for Valentine's day. (Other artists slated for that Sony project include Richie Sambora, Slash and Mark Knopfler.)
Cook says the side projects don't take focus away from the band.
"I think it's colourful. It brings colour back to Matchbox Twenty. As a writer and a musician, after you've played together a while, you tend to fall into a framework. You always reach for the same chords or melody when you write, and the arrangements start sounding very identifiable with past material.
"So I think it's nice to branch out."
Now, with the new album in the stores and a new single, Unwell, on the charts, Matchbox Twenty has back-burnered the side projects to focus on the band. It's loaded up six semitrucks full of production and is rolling into Halifax for Friday night's concert.
"It's a pretty large production," says Cook. "We've got some big video screens and a large light setup -- it's very futuristic. Yeah, it's cool."
With more than a thousand shows under their belt, the boys of Matchbox Twenty have the live show nailed.
"We've always done good touring business. And we've remained a band that people still want to see live," says Cook. "That has bled into the making of this record and why it sounds a bit grittier and less synthetic sounding."
Though the band hasn't landed in Nova Scotia before, drummer Paul Doucette is excited about the trip to the East Coast, says Cook.
"It's like one of his childhood dreams to go to Nova Scotia, it's like this magical place he always wanted to go -- he's so stoked."