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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Music > Feature Interviews P to T > Rob Thomas

rob thomas

this is how a solo album breaks

by jay s. jacobs

Copyright © 2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.  Posted: May 3, 2005.

Rob Thomas is still kind of surprised that he is a rock star.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he’s still an Army brat who grew up in such thriving metropolises as Turbeville, Lake City and Columbia, South Carolina.  As a teen he moved to Orlando, Florida and played in a bunch of local bands with his buddies, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette.  After a few years, they formed another group that they called Matchbox Twenty, adding guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor.

However even if he sometimes thinks of himself as being just a guy in a little bar band, it doesn’t change the fact that he is a rock star.  As the lead singer and main composer for Matchbox, he has sold over 25 million albums.  The band has been responsible for nine hit singles.  According to his bio, Matchbox Twenty has earned the distinction of having had more #1 hits and spending more weeks at #1 on both the national Modern AC and Adult Top 40 charts than any other artist in history. 

Yet, for all of his success, sometimes Rob Thomas has trouble being taken seriously.  For one thing, it’s not easy to build a rocking base when People magazine is naming you one of the “Fifty Sexiest People in the World.”  He is lead singer for a band that has a knack for a catchy hook in a time when catchiness is sometimes looked at as a sell-out.  However, even if he isn't always the hippest guy in the room, a whole lot of people love his three albums with his band, and now he has released a solo album which threatens to be even more huge. 

Things weren’t looking quite so bright when the band’s first album, Yourself or Someone Like You was released in 1996.  The album had been out for a while and seemed to have pretty much run its course when the first single, “Long Day,” didn’t exactly set the world on fire.  The band’s label released a song called “Push” as the second single, expecting it would be also be a modest success at best.  However the tune caught on and became a surprise hit.

“The funny thing about that time is, I remember, when you first get a record deal, you think you’re a giant rock star, anyway,” Thomas laughs.  “So, that high had just kind of gotten over when 'Push' came out.  Then, we had a song on MTV and on the radio.  And it only confirmed the fact that we thought we were giant rock stars.” 

If “Push” wasn’t enough, Yourself or Someone Like You ended up spawning three more hit singles, “3 A.M.,” “Real World” and “Back 2 Good.”  Thomas and the band didn’t have much time to let the new stardom go to their heads, though.  The hit singles and constant radio play had put them into a different arena.  Suddenly they were in the big leagues, and it had them feeling just a little overwhelmed. 

“It’s one thing when you’re the king of the local bands.  Then all of the sudden, you’re doing radio festivals and you’re there with Smashing Pumpkins and Beck.  And you’re just like, ‘oh my fucking God… these guys are great.’  Then you realize that however many records you sell, man, the only thing that’s going to make you a better band is time.  We would get up there with some of these guys and they would just blow us off the stage.  We would just stand there at the side of the stage, almost in tears, going, ‘well, that’s not us.’  It never really gets a chance to catch up with you.  You think you’re a rock star when you’re not.  By the time you actually have some success, it puts you in a whole arena where everything that you’ve compared yourself to is so much better than you.”  He chuckles.  “You’re like, (mumbles)   ‘Oh, okay, I’m still not a rock star…’”

Soon after Yourself or Someone Like You was running its course, Thomas’ name was suddenly thrust into the spotlight without the band in a totally unexpected way.  Legendary guitarist Carlos Santana had left his long-time record label and signed up with Arista Records.  Label head Clive Davis had a vision to resurrect Santana’s career, by hooking Carlos up with some upcoming rockers and R&B artists.  It made sense; Santana had always worked with different singers and songwriters on his album projects.  A variety of artists were approached to appear on Supernatural, including Dave Matthews, Wyclef Jean, Eagle Eye Cherry, Eric Clapton and Everlast.  Thomas was one of the acts approached, and he agreed to do it immediately. 

“I’ve always been a Carlos fan,” Thomas says.   “Like a lot of people, when I started working on that record, I thought that it was just going to be another Carlos record.  I kind of thought, okay, when it comes out, I’ll tell all my friends, and make sure they know.  I thought this was going to be something that quietly happened.” 

Quiet was not exactly how it worked out.  Thomas wrote and sang a song called “Smooth” for the project.  It was a love song for Thomas’ then-girlfriend (now wife), model Marisol Maldonado.  In interviews, Santana has said that he was hooked by the song when he heard the line “I could change my life to better suit your mood.”  This was obviously a man who loved a Latin woman, Santana has always laughed.  Thomas wasn’t so sure that his song would make the cut, though. 

“I had heard the rest of the record, and I was honestly so impressed that I wasn’t even sure that ‘Smooth’ was going to make it on the record,” Thomas admits.  “To me, the rest of that record was so Carlos.  ‘Smooth’ felt like I was bringing the bastard pop song in.  For the longest time, I didn’t even think that was going to happen.”

It most certainly did happen.  “Smooth” was released as the single from the album and became ubiquitous on the radio in 1999.  You literally couldn’t go an hour listening without the song popping up at least once.  Thomas filmed a video for the song with Santana and Marisol, which was quickly on saturation rotation on MTV and VH1.  All of this was wonderful and amazing for Thomas; however that was not the nicest shock.  “I think the thing that I’m most surprised by has been just the continuing relationship that me and my wife have with Carlos and Deborah,” Thomas says, proudly, “how much a part of our lives they’ve become.”  

After this smash hit, a lot of industry observers expected Thomas to test the solo waters, however he went back into the studio with Matchbox Twenty to record their follow-up album, Mad Season.  This album became an even bigger hit than Yourself or Someone Like You, giving the band their first pop chart topper with “Bent” and a huge AC hit with “If You’re Gone.” 

Then Thomas got another chance to work with another one of his idols and he leapt at the chance, writing three songs for Willie Nelson’s 2001 CD The Great Divide.  “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)" became a rather big country hit, but the real stunner there was the heartbreaking ballad “Recollection Phoenix,” the best song that Jimmy Webb never wrote. 

“Those were moments that to me meant the world,” Thomas says.  “I went for two days to write with Willie Nelson, who is my idol.  Unequivocally, he’s it.  And then, to sit with him and he wound up playing three songs that I had written.  I can’t imagine a bigger complement in my life than my favorite songwriter doing three of my songs.  These are the things along the way that, on one hand kind of shape who you’re going to be, and also teach you so much.  And, humble the shit out of you.”

In 2002, Matchbox released their third CD, More Than You Think You Are.  Again the hits came in a rush, the stabbing rock of “Disease,”  the moody mid-tempo “Unwell” and the gorgeous ballad “Bright Lights” were all quickly radio standards.  After a long time on the road, the band started talking about what was to come next.  They decided maybe it was time to try seeing what they could do on their own for a while.  It was time to experiment with some new projects.

“Paul, our drummer, just finished his record now.  And Kyle has a band that he travels with,” Thomas explains.  “We knew that sooner or later there was going to be a time that we would separate for a little while, to follow these other roads that we had started on.  I think we chose now just because this is the first time that we went in to make a record that we weren’t just completely excited…  I mean, it’s ten years and we only made three records, but every time we stepped in to make a record, as soon as we got off the road we couldn’t wait to get back in.  Because we had a new direction, we had a new idea, we had new songs. 

“This was the first time when we were… not inspired.  We thought how awful it would be if we wound up going into the studio and try to paint-by-numbers a Matchbox record.  We would be guilty of any bad thing any critic has ever said about us.  Because, up until now, our ace in the hole was that we were earnest.  No matter what anybody said about us, we made the music that we loved and we loved the music that we made.  We were making these albums and speaking from our heart, and so you could never take us down if we were starting from that point.  But, if we went and made a record now, then we probably would, you know?  We’d try and write some Radiohead.  It would sound like a bad Vertical Horizon song.”

So Thomas started working on some of his own music as well.  His first attempt came with the 2003 holiday single “A New York Christmas.” However that was just a teaser.  Now Thomas’ solo debut album has become a smash out of the box, debuting at the top of the Billboard album charts.  That is a higher debut than any of his Matchbox Twenty albums.  Thomas is very pleasantly surprised and flattered by the popular acceptance of Something To Be, though he refuses to allow himself to get a big head about it. 

“That made me feel great.  For one week I got to be King Shit.  Now [this interview took place the week after] I’m back down again, because the Boss is out,” Thomas laughs.  “It’s pretty amazing.  You know, it’s hard sometimes, because you want to be humble and you realize that you’re not the only person in the world to write a good song.  You’re not the only person in the world to sell some records.  But, you also have to kind of be good to yourself and say for that week, nobody else was number one.  Throughout history, for that week I was number one and nobody got to be.  My whole new process of life is trying to remind myself that it’s okay to pat myself on the back.  It doesn’t mean that I become an egotistical dickhead if I say, hey, good job.”  

It was particularly gratifying because on Something to Be, Thomas was able to explore musical styles that would not really feel comfortable on a band album.  This is especially noticeable on the first single, the smash hit “Lonely No More,” a dance-pop jam that sounds more like Justin Timberlake than Rob Thomas. 

“Once you don’t have two guitar players, a drummer and a bass player,” Thomas says, “it kind of opens you wide to do whatever you want.  A song like ‘Lonely No More’ would have never happened on a Matchbox record.  And I don’t think it should.  That’s not what kind of a band we are.  Over the years that has just kind of incorporated itself into my songwriting, with all the different kinds of people that I work with.  But just because I would write it doesn’t mean Matchbox would play it.”

So instead, Thomas called on some musicians that he really respected to work on the album, like John Mayer, Robert Randolph and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.  One of the most exciting new collaborators was guitarist Wendy Melvoin, a former member of Prince’s Revolution and her own duo with another former revolutionary Lisa Coleman called Wendy & Lisa.

“Wendy Melvoin was pretty much on every song on the record.  Just because she has a kind of a funk that is not about new hip-hop funk, she is total old school funk.  When I listen to ‘Lonely No More,’ it’s so dancy, but the thing I love about it is the organic side of it.  Using people like Mike Elizondo playing the bass or Gerald Heyward on the drums and not just building a track on a drum machine.  Then little things like Wendy playing that guitar part, to me that (mimics guitar line) is what makes the track to me.  I don’t think this record would happen without Wendy.  And you know what, even in the studio, she still looks just as fucking cool when she plays.”

Not all of the songs that ended up on Something to Be were things Thomas never bothered to show his band.  Some of the tunes had been written for More Than You Think You Are, but his bandmates had passed on them.   

“’I Am an Illusion’ actually did get turned down by Paul.  It’s funny; the misconception is that Matchbox Twenty is my band.  Like that I go in and I do the songs and the guys are like, ‘oh, thank you for that song!’  But, no.  I wish it were that way.  It’s really more like I come in and I play them ‘I Am an Illusion’ and Paul goes, ‘I don’t buy it,’” Thomas laughs.  “But, also, Paul calls me up and he’s like, he can’t believe that I didn’t save ‘Now Comes the Night’ for a Matchbox record.”  

“Now Comes the Night” is a gorgeous piano ballad in the vein of really early Billy Joel and Elton John.  Actually, according to Thomas, he was inspired for the lounge piano sound of the track by some of Tom Wait’s Elektra-era songs like “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”  It might be a tough-sell in the world of modern radio, but the song would make a lovely single.  Thomas admits that he hopes the song gets that chance.  “Wouldn’t that be great, to have a record [do well enough that] once it’s all over be able to put that out as a single?  That’s definitely a record closer.  Oh, I would love that.”

For now, the follow-up single is the hard-rockin’ “This Is How a Heart Breaks.”   Another potential single on the horizon is the sweetly melodic mid-tempo track, “Ever the Same,” although Thomas is holding off on that for a little while.    

“I think ‘Ever the Same’ is a great song,” Thomas explains.  “I think it’s going to be a really big song.  But I would hate to come out with that next.  I felt like there was this whole different side of me musically able to be out publicly.  I would hate to kind of go back to ‘Ever the Same,’ which kind of goes back to old territory again.”

The new territory goes to the marketing of the album as well.  Matchbox Twenty has been famous for not showing the band on the cover.  “I don’t like band covers with people on them,” Thomas admits.  “To me it always looks like a bad local band demo.  Or an eighties band record; you know, where they’re all on the cover?  It was to the point that our record company wanted it so bad with Matchbox that we as a joke put out More Than You Think You Are with our faces on the cover, with our hands over our faces, just because we thought it was funny.  Okay, now we’re on the cover.  There.”  He laughs.

He does appear on the cover of Something to Be, though, front and center.  “In the same breath, most of my favorite solo albums have the artist on the cover, whether it’s Peter Gabriel, or Madonna, or Rickie Lee Jones, or George Michael.  I called up Mark Seliger, the photographer, who’s a really good friend of mine.  We sat down and we went through all of our favorite portraits.  I wanted something that wasn’t just a picture.  Mark is an artist, so for him to kind of create the light and the right composition and create what I thought was hopefully a timeless portrait for an album, because I won’t do it again with Matchbox.”

Another thing he probably won’t do again anytime soon is do a tour of small clubs, like he has done to celebrate the release of the new album, hitting more atmospheric venues than the sheds he is used to playing with his band.  Instead, he hit clubs like the Irving Plaza in New York, the Electric Factory in Philadelphia and the Fillmore in San Francisco.

“I’m enjoying it too much,” Thomas enthuses.  “The tour just ended and we were all just getting started.  I’ve got this amazing new band and we’ve all become really tight and we’re excited about getting back on the road, but the day after tomorrow I’m headed off to Europe for most of the month.  It was so great that now I’m just like, well, fuck, that’s over.”

The mini-tour is over, but the road for Something to Be has just begun.  Thomas just loves doing his own shows, but he does plan on going back to his day job – well, at least relatively soon. 

“Well, I’ll go back quickly in the sense that the next thing I do will be that,” he says.  “I’m going to ride this record for as long as it will let me.  And then I’ll probably have to take a break.  I haven’t had a vacation in like three years.  But once that’s done I can’t wait.  We’re kind of excited now, because we’re a four-piece unit.  That’s new for us.  So we’re kind of excited to see what that’s going to yield.”    

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