Rob Thomas

One of the guys

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By Gary Graff  

Rob Thomas is a band guy who goes to great lengths to portray himself as just another member of Matchbox Twenty. As the frontman, however, it's hard to avoid being set apart -- especially with the success he's experienced when he has worked outside of the band. Co-writing and singing the Grammy-winning smash "Smooth" for Santana in 1999 made Thomas, who's also written for Mick Jagger and Marc Anthony and dueted with Willie Nelson, a first among equals in his band, and a star in his own right.

The latter was particularly confirmed when his first solo album, Something to Be, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in its first week of release. Thomas' trip started overseas. He was a Valentine's Day baby born on a military base in Germany where his father was stationed. Thomas' parents divorced when he was young, and he returned to the U.S. where he spent his childhood hopping between his mother's home in Florida and his grandmother's residence in South Carolina.

He met drummer Paul Doucette and bassist Brian Yale in Florida, and the three formed the group Tabitha's Secret -- which morphed into Matchbox Twenty after a meeting with producer Matt Serletic, who helped recruit guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor to join the band. The group's 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, got off to a slow start but eventually took off thanks to a passel of hits -- "Push," "Real World," "3 a.m.," "Back to Good" -- and eventually sold 10 million copies. Its two successors have also reached multi-platinum levels, despite Thomas' considerable solo success. For now at least, Thomas says he still plans to remain a band guy in the future.

Q: Why a solo album?

Thomas: I've always wanted to do it. When you make a record, even the records that we're the most happy with in matchbox, there's always a piece of it that somebody's not happy with because there are concessions that have to be made to make five people happy. And after ten years all of us were at that point of, "Well, what would we sound like if we did it the way we wanted to do it?" We are all so solidified with our roles in matchbox, that it just won't happen in the band. We can all write. We can all have an input. But it's always going to be a split. So our drummer, Paul, went to make a record, and Kyle's touring with his band (the New Left), so it wasn't even like me going off to make a solo record. This is just the time that we all chose to do our own thing.

Q: How did you approach the idea of a solo album differently than you might a Matchbox Twenty record?

Thomas: It was interesting. When I started, I was overly concerned with making it sound like a cohesive album. When I looked at all the songs I had, they were all really similar. They all felt like the same vibe, the same intensity. I had all these songs that were in the vein of "Lonely No More," "This is How a Heart Breaks." I wanted those kinds of songs, but when I listened to all of them together, it didn't have any heart. So I started to subtract some songs and add some others. It didn't make it sound so much like one cohesive thing as it made it sound like a real album that takes you on a journey from the beginning to the end.

Q: So you embraced the diversity?

Thomas: Yeah. My favorite albums are the ones that you're not leaving on 'cause you're listening to all the songs. You just leave it on and you forget that it's on. Then, somewhere in the middle, that real nice slow song pops on and makes you feel kind of depressed for a minute. But then another song comes on after it and brings your spirit back up. Music is supposed to change your molecules through the entire album, make you both happy and sad. That's what I really wanted to do.

Q: Because it was a step outside of the band, did you consider using a producer other than Matt Serletic, who's produced Matchbox Twenty?

Thomas: I did. Matt and I actually talked about it, like "Is this a good idea? Should I use somebody else?" What I really thought at the end of the day was if I wanted to decide how much I had grown and if I wanted people to see how much I had grown, if I wanted people to see that I had done something different, it was important for me to kind of use the same producer that I was used to working with. If Matt and I did it, then it was the same people who did matchbox, the same people who did "Smooth," the same people that did Willie Nelson together. Because it was the same guy, no one could say "Oh, he went and got these hot producers who are the height of hipness and the height of technology and current beats." So Matt and I took ourselves to a different place as opposed to me finding songwriters and producers to kind of put a different sound on me.

Q: What's your perspective on "Smooth" these days?

Thomas: I think I'm a lucky guy. It was obviously Carlos' year, and it was an amazing album. I always liken it to a parade. It was like Carlos' parade, and I got to have a float right behind Carlos in it. It was good to be swept up in something like that. I find myself trying to constantly sieve Carlos and figure out how he does it, maintain being a musician for thirty-some-odd years and keep his integrity and never take any of the wrong roads and do everything for the right reason.

Q: Did that make it easier for you to adapt to your own fame?

Thomas: I really had a hard time being comfortable when I was in that position, and then I went through a period where I had a hard time being comfortable in my own skin, and not quite sure how to be normal or how I was supposed to act, or was I supposed to live up to some predetermined thing, you know? What do people do when they sell records? Should I check the rock 'n' roll handbook?

Q: How do these outside projects impact on Matchbox Twenty?

Thomas: It's nice for us to go away and have that time. We feel like when we come back to matchbox, we're new people. We've learned so much without being together that when we come back it helps matchbox grow each time we make a record.

Q: Is it harder to find things to write about when you're a married, successful guy than when you were hungry and looking for a break?

Thomas: It is. I'm a happy guy, generally, kind of goofy, like to have a good time. It feels like I can be that way 'cause songwriting for me is a drop-off point from that other stuff. I feel like one of the most self-analyzed people I've ever met. I'm constantly, like, "How do I feel about that? Where does it take me? What does she mean?" You hear about a lot of comedians and clowns and they're miserable most of their lives. I think it's the opposite for a songwriter. You get to spend time being happy, and it's the times when you've got a pit in your stomach that make you want to sit down and write. For me, I'm writing out of necessity. It's that need to express yourself and clear out all the shit so when you're happy you can just be happy.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.