Matchbox Twenty Q&A: 'We Had This No-Fear Rule'
Walking down the halls of Calabasas' Emblem Studios, surrounded by platinum records from Matchbox Twenty and frontman Rob Thomas, it's easy to forget the band's been gone for a very long time. Putting aside 2007's "Exile on Mainstream" - a mix of new material and greatest hits -- the quartet's new album, "North," will be its first new studio set since 2002's "More Than You Think You Are." In the decade since, Napster and the iTunes store took music digital and a Canadian kid named Justin Bieber conquered YouTube; the U.S. even elected a president who listens to Young Jeezy. But amid this ongoing sea change, Matchbox Twenty haven't sunken from memory. They've stayed current with social networking, amassing over a million Facebook likes, and continue to make a mark on pop culture: in March 2011, the band was a punch line on episodes of NBC's "Parks and Recreation" and Fox's "The Simpsons" that aired within days of each other. "We still exist for some people," Paul Doucette says. "That's kind of awesome."
The last decade appears to have been kind to the band: several spent the '00s settling into married life, and age has yet to take a toll on Thomas' stubble-free face. The clean-cut singer, who will join "The Voice" as a celebrity mentor this fall, has stayed a visible pop presence, finding time to release a pair of solo albums in recent years even as Matchbox Twenty's extensive touring has dwarfed its studio output. On "North," it's a nervy, energetic group that emerges. Many of the new songs step confidently into 2012, embracing dance-driven grooves and a rawer, indie-influenced sound - the result of a series of productive sessions that left the band with a diverse, difficult glut of material to wade through. With enough left for a possible second helping, Matchbox Twenty fans should prepare their plates for a feast. The band sat down with Billboard.com to discuss their lengthy recording process, drinking in the studio and why they're skipping '90s nostalgia.
This is the first time you've all been in the studio working on new material in quite some time. Tell us about the process.
Paul Doucette: Long, incredibly long? We had a large amount of material when we started. We would do a week every few weeks. We would get together at my studio or Rob's place or Kyle's place --
Rob Thomas: We all live in different places, Paul's in L.A., I'm in New York, Kyle [Cook]'s in Nashville, Brian [Yale]'s down in Miami. When we go away to each other's place, it's like a full mind-shift. This is the L.A. sessions, these are the Nashville sessions, these are the New York sessions. Each one had a different vibe to it.
Doucette: We realized, wow, we have about 60 things, 60-plus things here that we liked.
Thomas: And six different albums. Here's our "Devils and Dust" album, here's our super dance-y '80s record.
Doucette: So [we] decided we were going to go to Nashville, and we rented a house that has a studio in the basement. And we all lived there.
Thomas: And we just drank for three months.
Doucette: And we basically drank for three months. We did a lot of stuff and we'd work every day, but we sort of got lost in a pile of material.
Thomas: [Producer] Matt [Serletic] came to Nashville, just as a friend, to come and listen to what we were doing. It was like 3 in the morning and he had some great ideas for a couple songs and Paul was just like, "Dude, Matt, why don't you just produce this record, let's just start now."
Doucette: We needed some help. We had gone as far as we could go and we needed someone to come in and go, "O.K., you guys have a lot of shit, we need to focus this."
It sounds like you didn't have any deadlines for this one.
Thomas: Yeah, our first time.
Doucette: That was great. It was a little bit of a double-edged sword, I thought. It was so great because we were free to do whatever we wanted.
Thomas: We didn't even tell the record company, really, when we started the writing process. We just got together on our own and were like, let's start thinking about a record now, but just not tell anybody yet because as soon as you tell 'em, it's like, when's it coming, when's it coming?
Doucette: So we were just doing it kind of on the down low. But it got to the point where we had so much material because we had no constraints. And when we got Matt on board and came out here, we sat down and really went through everything and were like… "What is the record that we really want to make right now?" And once we got that, we were golden.
With so much material, would you want to turn around and put out another album in the next year?
Thomas: Some of them have their own thread, the feel of another record. So we've talked about that.
Doucette: We're a band with two very big conflicting sides. One of which is, we're big fans of a well-crafted pop record, where every part is in its right place. But we also have the side of us that wants to thrash it out really quickly and let it be loose. So I think there is a companion record that we're tossing around that's basically that element.
It's not like you've been the world's most prolific studio band.
Thomas: [ Laughs] No… I'd rather have like four records that we really enjoy playing every night that have songs that wind up over the years meaning something to somebody than having 13 records, like vanity projects that we have out there just so we can keep getting them out there. We're going to wait until we think we have something that you really should listen to. And I was busy doing the two solo records in between, too. Every time we put out a record, that's at least a year and a half or two years that's going to be on the road.
Doucette: We don't have a lot in the vault from earlier. There's a few we have laying around.
Thomas: But we never really revisited them. We're in different places now. Why would we bring it out now, it got better with age?
Doucette: I think we've never been in the position where we are now, where we set ourselves a goal to write as much material as we can, and ended up with a lot of material that we really, really liked.
And there was more collaboration on these songs than in the past.
Thomas: Yes. A lot more. It was great. It's funny, it sounds like a band -- there are songs that I wrote, songs that Paul wrote, songs that Kyle wrote and songs we all wrote together, and it's really hard for a listener to go through and be like, "Oh, must be one of yours." It just sounds like one cohesive piece.
What was the writing process like?
Doucette: There would be guitars and pianos lying around and someone would spark an idea and then someone else would go, oh that's great, try this. There's no real set pattern on how it worked. Whenever things really started to dive down and we weren't really coming up with anything, we'd think of a game to try to get it going again. One thing we did was, we got a little stuck, so we were like, "Let's start in the key of A," and we wrote a song in every single key.
Thomas: We had this no-fear rule. If Kyle's got a riff and we start playing it, it could sound like the Kinks, it could sound like Maroon 5, but follow that thread, follow it all the way through.
Doucette: You can't judge the idea as it comes out.
Thomas: Dare to be stupid, dare to be bad, dare to be great, any of those things.
Having had the time off before and after "Exile on Mainstream," what keeps you all coming back to this band?
Doucette: We feel we still have a lot more to do. We've been fortunate, we've done really well in our records and our touring and career and everything. But none of us are sitting here going, "Well, we did [it], we're done."
Thomas: We didn't have to come back together to pay our mortgages. There's something that we can do when the four of us are together that we can't do alone. We're proud of the things that we did when we were away from the band, but it wasn't the same thing.
Is there anything on this album you think will surprise your fans?
Doucette: Probably. I hope so. Hopefully they'll be surprised in a good way.
Thomas: There's some more traditional stuff from us, there's some pop-y stuff, there's more rhythmic stuff… I remember like years ago, No Doubt came out with that record, ["Rock Steady"]. "Hey Baby" was the first [single], when it first came out, I remember I called Paul, I was like, "I don't like this. Like, really?" Because I was expecting one thing but they were giving me something else.
After like a week and a half, two weeks, I was like, "I fucking love this, wow." I want to have a little bit of that when we do something, I don't want it to be like, "I know exactly what I'm going to hear when I press play and I'm not going to be disappointed." I want it to be like, "Oh, this is what they've been doing for these last 10 years," they haven't been sitting around writing a record that we could've written 10 years ago. That would seem like a waste of all of our time. And yours, as a listener.
Doucette: You can just listen to that.
It seems like there's been a lot of '90s nostalgia lately -
Doucette: Really? Wait till it gets to 1996.
Well, there's been a tour this summer with Everclear, Sugar Ray, the Gin Blossoms, Lit and Marcy Playground, there's a new Aaliyah track - is that a vibe that you've picked up on?
Doucette: We put one record out in the '90s.
Thomas: In the end. '96 was our first record. By the time I did "Smooth," we recorded it in '99, it came out right in 2000 and then everything we did from "Bent" on, all the solo stuff, "Unwell," "If You're Gone," it was all in the 2000s. So we never really considered ourselves a '90s band. We just started in the '90s.
The industry has changed so much from when you were getting started - all the way from Napster to Spotify. What's been the biggest change for you?
Thomas: I remember when our first record came out, when we were a local band, right before we got signed, nobody had a website. You had bumper stickers and cassettes. And you'd go to record companies with your folder with fliers with the gigs that you played and your cassette kind of taped to it. Every time that we've gone through a different [album] cycle, it's been almost a complete world shift. If I were 17 years old right now, how stoked would I be, the access that I would have to these artists and the access I would have to all this different music? How lucky are we to still be making music in that climate?
Doucette: Just the tools of making records [are] amazing… There are songs on this record that we're playing the iPad on. It opens up your mind in a way-even if you don't end up using it, that may spark another idea.
Thomas: But you still have the same job. The same job is still try to write a song that you like, that you think other people might like, try to record it in the way you think is the best way you could possibly present it to somebody, and then go out and try every night to put on the best show you can. And I think if you keep those goals, everything else is just gravy.