Rob Thomas photographed at Clive Davis&#39&#x3B; Pre-Grammy Gala at The Beverly Hilton on Feb. 9, 2019 in Beverly Hills.
Rob Thomas photographed at Clive Davis' Pre-Grammy Gala at The Beverly Hilton on Feb. 9, 2019 in Beverly Hills.
Kwaku Alston

Rob Thomas Has Never Been Less Cool, And He's Fine With That

The Matchbox Twenty frontman survived a reckless childhood, then impossible fame. As he prepares to release a new solo album, he’s now trying to avoid death, embrace the “Smooth” memes and contribute to a rarely considered legacy.

Rob Thomas leans forward and holds up an Instagram shot of his son cradling a guitar. “He’ll be 21 in July,” he says of Maison Thomas-Eudy, who’s sitting in a chair barefoot in a Rhode Island recording studio in the photo, half-smiling, hair mussed up, his hand contorted into what looks like an F chord as two of his bandmates gaze at him. The photo was posted on the Instagram account of Maison’s band, Hand Made House. When asked what type of music Maison’s band makes, Thomas answers, “Almost like… ‘90s alternative music.”

He laughs a little, fully aware of the happy accident: the only child of Rob Thomas, Matchbox Twenty frontman, platinum solo artist, alt-rock hero, picking up a guitar to make ‘90s alternative music, a sound that hasn’t been popular for years. Thomas sneaks another glance at the photo of Maison before pocketing his phone.

When he was 21 himself, Thomas explains, he was still a year away from signing his first record deal with Matchbox Twenty. At that point, he had already hitchhiked through the southeast to escape his home life in Orlando -- his mother drank too much, “and she was abusive, just like her mother was abusive,” he says. He’d climb into friends’ bedrooms at night to use their showers and sleep in their closets. He couldn’t keep a job, and stole at least one car. When Thomas started playing in local cover bands -- after high school, as all of his friends started going to college and thinking about careers -- he realized that he was either going to become a successful musician, or spend his life performing manual labor.

Sitting in the basement of his Westchester mansion as a lean 47-year-old, with a Pomeranian named Samy curled up against his black Adidas sweatpants and a sleek hoodie with the words “Be Good To People” scrawled across its center, Thomas is more than half a life removed from the borderline homelessness of his early adulthood. After Matchbox Twenty signed to Atlantic Records in 1994, Thomas spent the majority of his twenties as an inescapable radio presence, harnessing his talent as a pop craftsman to become one of the most successful songwriters of all time. Beginning with Matchbox’s 1996 debut Yourself or Someone Like You, Thomas has sold over 18 million albums as the band’s frontman and as a solo artist, according to Nielsen Music, with more than a dozen Billboard Hot 100 hits.

Like any father who begins an anecdote with an eye-roll and a “Back in my day,” Thomas now uses his origin story primarily to wave away whatever mild concerns Maison, a junior at Berklee College of Music in Boston, has about making it as an artist. His son’s a good guitarist, Thomas insists, much better than he was at his age. “I just don’t think he’s found the songs just yet,” Thomas shrugs -- and that’s okay, because he’s got the skills, and the infrastructure. “I’ll be like, ‘Son, I just want you to remember that when I was your age, I was sleeping in a car, or on a park bench. Whatever you’re doing now, you’re winning.’”

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It’s in this basement that Thomas recorded much of Chip Tooth Smile, his fourth solo album, out April 26 on Atlantic Records; there’s a full band setup tucked away near the door, where Thomas can stumble downstairs to record vocals or work through a piano line. A narrower room adjacent to the main basement area is brimming with prized memorabilia -- Grammy awards, framed gold records, magazine covers, live show posters -- that Thomas says will remind him what he’s capable of whenever he gets stuck on a song. There’s a photo of Thomas posing in between Barack and Michelle Obama, and another where he’s side-by-side with Mick Jagger. Thomas laments how ugly his shirts are in both snapshots, even though they look ordinary enough.

The erratic first part of his life, and the whirlwind international success that almost immediately followed, have given way to a calm, well-adjusted forties for Thomas. During an extended conversation at his home on a late March afternoon, he grows most excited when discussing his son’s first attempts at music; or his wife of 20 years, Marisol, and the new songs that she’s inspired; or his other dog, a skittish one-eyed terrier-dachshund named Ollie, who Thomas rescued from Puerto Rico. Thomas’ eyes widen when he talks about the “Threat Level Midnight” episode of The Office, of which he has a framed poster, and the vegetable soup at his favorite local diner.

Thomas understands that he is not cool, and that, by extension, his music is not cool. He brings this up on multiple occasions, unprompted. “This is just what I do, and it’s never been hip, cool or cutting-edge,” he asserts at one point about his songwriting. Later, he says, “If you ever followed Matchbox Twenty, we were obviously never too concerned about being cool. We were just… never cool. But even less so, now.”

Yet this self-awareness has provided a sense of peace. Thomas’ ability to write sturdy pop-rock sing-alongs made Matchbox Twenty one of the most consistent groups of the alternative boom of the 90’s back half, and his penchant for sizable hooks and sentimental lyrics resulted in crossovers to Top 40 and adult contemporary radio audiences. “Smooth,” his world-conquering Latin-pop smash alongside Carlos Santana in 1999, later paved the way for Thomas’ solo career, which began with the 2005 hit “Lonely No More” and has produced three top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

None of these accomplishments have ever earned Thomas’ music any type of critical acclaim, or even proper critical evaluation. He’s been a commercial giant and radio mainstay, but none of his albums, either on his own or with Matchbox Twenty, are considered particularly influential, outside of the PG-rated rock groups -- OneRepublic, Train, The Fray -- that followed in his adult-contemporary footsteps. He’s won three Grammys, all for “Smooth” in 2000, but that song became so ubiquitous during its 12-week run atop the Hot 100 that even Thomas understands why people got sick of it. “When it came out, it was a kind of fun summer jam,” he says. “And then there was a period where everyone was like, ‘I never want to hear this fucking song ever again!’”

Thomas grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel and Elton John on FM radio in the late 70s and early 80s; his favorite artists weren’t considered cool in their own time, but they were reliable hitmakers -- which is what Thomas admired, and ultimately what he discovered he could become with Matchbox Twenty.

“I think we’re a fucking great band, and I think I’m a really good songwriter,” he says. “I think there are certain other people out there whose job is to move the needle in a certain way. And that was never our designation.”

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Thomas admits that his last solo album, 2015’s The Great Unknown, was the first time that he felt like he was bending his songwriting formula to modern trends. Studio whizzes like Ryan Tedder and Ricky Reed contributed to the production, along with longtime collaborator Matt Serletic, but the party-pop of lead single “Trust You” and anthemic stomping of “One Shot” sounded too cloying to cross over, and the album became the first in Thomas’ career not to register a song on the Hot 100. “I wasn’t happy with it,” he says, “and it didn’t quite land in the way that I’m used to.”

For its follow-up, Thomas made a few choices that put him back in his comfort zone, starting with calling longtime friend Butch Walker to produce the entire project. Walker, a veteran singer-songwriter who recently contributed to full-lengths by Weezer and Fall Out Boy, worked on the album from his Santa Monica studio, with Thomas FaceTiming him from his basement studio in New York and sending him demos over GarageBand, in between the occasional in-person session on either coast.

“I didn’t want this to be a midlife crisis record for him or anything,” says the 49-year-old Walker. He knows that, for an aging radio fixture like Thomas, unspoken pressure -- from a label, or management, or the industry at large -- can result in overreaching in an effort to mine new hits. “They want you to keep delivering pop singles, hit after hit after hit,” he says. “And I don’t think that a lot of stuff that’s on pop radio really sits where Rob came from and what he is.”

Walker is right: Top 40 radio, increasingly dominated by hip-hop and rhythmic pop, no longer makes room for the alternative rock that Thomas rode to fame in the 90s. It’s a reality that Thomas has faced before -- “When Matchbox Twenty had [2003 hit] ‘Unwell,’ everything else on the charts was like, Nelly and Ludacris,” he says with a laugh -- and accepts today. To that end, Thomas led Chip Tooth Smile with “One Less Day (Dying Young),” a single about the least youth-friendly subject imaginable: appreciating life as you gracefully age.

Reflective, unflinching and unabashedly earnest,  “One Less Day (Dying Young)” is one of the boldest singles released so far this year, simply for committing so completely to its lyrical bent. As the drums beneath him chug forward and the backing vocals swell into a chest-thumping cry, Thomas sings about praying to have the chance to see tomorrow, losing friends in their prime and fearing that he might be next to join them in the unknown of death. “I’m not afraid of getting older,” goes the first line of the chorus. “One Less Day” has reached No. 14 on the Adult Top 40 chart, but hasn’t cracked the Hot 100 yet, and likely never will. Thomas couldn’t be more proud of it.

“There are a lot of songs about being young forever, or never wanting to grow old,” he explains. “When I was in my 20s, I simultaneously thought that I was going to live forever, and I wasn’t going to make it past 25 -- somehow, both of those things made sense to me. It was this very romantic idea, not getting older. And then as you get older, you realize that the alternative to not getting older is really fucking bleak.”

Thomas credits longtime label home Atlantic for giving him enough rope to release what he describes as “grown man music” as the lead single of his new album, although much of Chip Tooth Smile -- a more compact and traditional rock affair than The Great Unknown, in part thanks to Walker’s streamlined approach --  follows the seasoned perspective of “One Less Day.” “It’s Only Love” offers a reminder that you’ll probably come out stronger on the other side of heartbreak, while “Breathe Out” is a fatherly message that you can’t control every detail of your life, so just do your best. If it sounds a little saccharine, that’s because it’s designed to be: Thomas wants his fans to attach this collection of songs to their lives and learn from their lessons, while singing along with the giant hooks that come as pre-requisites.

Walker puts it more bluntly: “I wanted to make sure [the album] was something that his fans would appreciate and love, and not just be like, ‘Here’s another track that’s trying to sound like it’s Chainsmokers or some shit.’”

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The 429,000 people that follow Thomas on Twitter know that he’s actually a pretty big fan of new music, based on his daily “song of the day” shout-outs to artists like The National, The Head and the Heart, Sara Bareilles and Snail Mail. Thomas’ tastes skew toward alt-rock and indie -- he’s become a big Father John Misty fan, and will ride for whatever My Morning Jacket puts out -- which he’s been exploring via personalized streaming playlists. “Spotify’s great because it tailors things towards you,” he says while, pulling out his phone and clicking around. “I don’t really listen to a lot of Top 40 as it is. I still haven’t seen A Star Is Born, and I haven’t heard that song in its entirety yet.”

“Shallow”? Thomas nods. “And part of it is because I want to wait to hear it when I watch the movie, because I want to see it in context, right? I saw some of the footage of them singing it, them at the Oscars. And that’s not how I want to see it, at the Oscars making out! I want to see the characters!”

Young artists have reached out to Thomas to express admiration, learn about his songwriting process and ask for advice -- although there are fewer now that pride themselves as directly influenced by his aesthetic than there were a decade ago. He’s also realized that many of them are under 21, which means they were born before Matchbox Twenty’s first album was released. Yourself or Someone Like You, with its twangy rock riffs and post-grunge production sheen, holds up as a touchstone of a bygone era, although a re-listen reveals the hurt and anger in Thomas’ voice even on crossover hits like “Real World” and “Push.” “3AM,” one of the band’s biggest singles (which Thomas carried over from his pre-Matchbox group Tabitha’s Secret), still contains one of his cleanest hooks and some of his most incisive lyrics, written about his mother discovering that she had cancer when Thomas was a pre-teen.

Thomas says he would change a ton of production details on each of his previous albums if he could, but thinks of them now as time capsules for the periods in which they were recorded. He doesn’t mind performing any of his songs when he’s on tour, if only to see the faces in the audience light up when he busts out one of the bigger hits, but whenever one of his singles comes on the radio, he turns it off. “I can never hear ‘Smooth’ again and I’m fine with that,” he professes. “But it’s fucking fun to play.”

He’s aware of the “Smooth” memes -- the “I’d rather be listening to 'Smooth'” t-shirts, the ‘Rob Thomas Weather’ tweets. He’s heard the ska cover, and loves the punk cover that went viral. “Now it almost has this world of its own,” he says with a wry smile about the Internet-ification of his biggest hit, which arrived adjacent to a Latin-pop crossover moment powered by smashes from Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez. “I don’t think it’s the best song that I’ve ever written, and it’s not the best song that Carlos has ever done, but it’s all about timing. It was the right song at the right moment.”

He and Santana had recently been discussing a joint tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the song, although conflicting schedules will likely limit the onstage collaborations to a handful of East Coast shows this year. (Thomas kicks off his solo tour behind Chip Tooth Smile in late May). Thomas considers the guitar legend a dear friend; the pair will meet for dinner or to take in a concert whenever they’re in the same city and have a shared night off. He also credits Santana for helping shape his worldview, in a way that allowed him to survive newfound fame as a young singer-songwriter, when they recorded “Smooth” in 1999.

“[Matchbox Twenty] had just had all of that success with the first record,” Thomas explains, his tone becoming more serious. “And we were on the road for three years. Then we get off the bus, and we were not the same people that we were when we got on it. When we got on it, we were opening for bands that would play to 10 people in these shitty little clubs. And we had just got off of a worldwide arena tour, and now you gotta take this whole new life that you just acquired and figure out how you put it into real life. How does this work for the way that you spend your days? Who the fuck are you as a real person, now?

“Carlos taught me the difference between being a successful musician and being a celebrity, and that being a celebrity means nothing at all,” he continues. “He says three things [define] you: your motive, your intention, and your purpose. Those are the only three things that you can control, and those are the things you hope that people see when they see you. Just keep your head down, do your fucking work and try to write good music.”

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Thomas will always keep writing new music and attempting to add to his legacy — he’s already working on new songs that he might send to Matchbox drummer Paul Doucette and guitarist Kyle Cook, for the band’s first project since 2012’s North. But he’s also aware that that legacy, as the voice that you hear when you’re out shopping somewhere, may very well be set in stone already.

“Smooth” is one of Thomas’ songs that plays the most often when he’s at the grocery store -- he describes his casually surreal experience of pushing a shopping cart, hearing that guitar solo and having another shopper bestow a knowing nod as they pass by in the aisle. His gravelly tone reverberates in a way that is both inspiring and inoffensive, making songs like “If You’re Gone,” “Her Diamonds,” “Disease” and “Bent” pristine for completing tasks in a retail environment. “If you go into a CVS, at some point, you’re gonna hear one of my songs,” Thomas deadpans.

And really, he’s okay with that. When Thomas was a young songwriter scooping up part-time jobs in southern Florida, he’d pray that his music would get heard, that he could turn his passion into a life. Now that he has, Thomas wants his music to endure, whether it’s as something “important” or as background noise, as long as it produces a spark of happiness. Does he hope that Matchbox Twenty and his solo music are someday reevaluated within the pop canon? Of course. But as Santana would tell him, those are interpretations he can’t control. It’s what he tries to teach his son about breaking into music. It’s what he tells himself about his own career.

“When people make their Top 10 lists of songs, albums, whatever, we usually don’t show up in those,” Thomas acknowledges. “But most of those people, if you said ‘What about [Matchbox],’ they’d go, ‘Oh yeah, they’re good, I like them.’

“Being a part of that fabric, of music out in the world — that, to me, is a legacy. People are still listening to your music, 20 years later. That’s more than most people could even want to ask for.”