Rob Thomas's soul

By Vit Wagner, Toronto Star

The first thing you notice about the Rob Thomas who is in Toronto promoting his debut solo album is that he looks almost nothing like the Rob Thomas who has spent the past decade fronting the popular mainstream rock band Matchbox Twenty.

In place of the familiar curly locks is a thick but severely cropped thatch of hair.

It's a dramatic enough makeover that Thomas's pal, country singer Tim McGraw, didn't even recognize him when they crossed paths earlier this year at the Grammy Awards.

"He gave me that look that I give people when I'm not quite sure who they are," Thomas says. "He said, 'Hey, how are you doing?' And walked off. I thought, 'He just blew me off.' I said, 'Tim, it's Rob.' And he said, 'Oh my God, I'm sorry man.'"

Thomas sports the same shorn look on the cover of Something to Be, which hits stores tomorrow. He insists the altered appearance is more coincidental than deliberate.

"In retrospect, I'm glad I did it," he says. "At first, it seemed odd how many people didn't recognize me when I cut my hair. And then I realized that I had become a haircut."

Something to Be, including the single "Lonely No More," doesn't offer quite as dramatic a departure from the singer's Matchbox Twenty persona, but it does shift the sonic emphasis from rock to something more in the neighbourhood of R&B.

"There is no way the songs would have sounded that way if Matchbox had done them," he says. "First off, you would have had two guitars, a bass player and a drummer. On Matchbox records, the focus is always guitar. And on this record, there is much more focus on the bass and the drums. It's not necessarily R&B, but hearing the bass and the drums is inherent to soul music."

Thomas has noticed a similar shift rehearsing with his new touring band.

"In Matchbox, when we're f--king around we might jump into a Zeppelin tune or a Tom Petty song. But with this band, it's Earth, Wind and Fire or Bill Withers. It's fun."

The Matchbox Twenty sabbatical is temporary. The band, formed in Florida a decade ago, took stock last year after touring to support its third album More Than You Think You Are.

"We felt that if we made another record now we'd be in danger of becoming any negative thing that any critic has ever said about us," says Thomas.

"Up until this point, nobody could really touch us because everything we did, we at least did sincerely. This is the music we enjoyed making. There was not pretense to anything we did.

"This would have been the first Matchbox record where we would have felt that we were trying to make a Matchbox record. So everyone agreed it was a good time to go and do something different."

Something to Be is actually the third musical guise for Thomas who, in addition to his work for Matchbox Twenty, wrote the Grammy Award-winning song "Smooth" with Carlos Santana and sung on albums by Mick Jagger and Willie Nelson.

"You can't work with people like that and not be humble - and not feel like, Oh, there's the destination," says Thomas, who turned 33 earlier this year.

"This is the journey. I'm not there. I'm not even close to that. I'm not a Willie Nelson or Mick Jagger or a Carlos Santana.

"Maybe I could be. I'm starting now. And I've had a great beginning to my career but I've got so much to learn and be before I can even touch that.

"I believe that when I'm old people will talk about a band like Wilco the way they now talk about Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. Commercial success doesn't buy you that.

"I don't want to be the Lovin' Spoonful. Nothing against the Lovin' Spoonful, but 20 years from now I just hope I'm still listening to my old stuff and my new stuff on the radio.

"I love the fact that U2 and Bruce Springsteen enter the Hall of Fame while they are still making noise in the world. They didn't just get dusted off for the ceremony."