Matchbox Twenty Strikes New Chords

Excerpted from the magazine for

Lead singer Rob Thomas knows the key to matchbox twenty's popularity: "Our saving grace has been that we're not hip," Thomas declares. "There are a lot of bands, and the best thing about them is they're them. It's never been hip to be us."

Hip? Maybe not. Successful? Without a doubt. Since its 1997 debut, with "Yourself or Someone Like You," matchbox twenty has sold more than 21 million albums worldwide, according to its label, Melisma/Atlantic. With its third album, "More Than You Think You Are," due Nov. 19, matchbox twenty is poised to expand its musical reach and commercial success.

While still unmistakably matchbox twenty, the new album pushes the band's boundaries by rocking harder than past efforts, as in crunchy first single "Disease," and by exploring different sounds, including the psychedelia of "You're So Real" and the gospel strains of "Downfall."

"We wanted to get away from what we'd done before," Thomas says. "You're going into your third record, and we're either a certain sound or we're a band that evolves." He had added impetus to modify the band's sound: "I hate having people compare us to bands we hate."

"More Than You Think You Are" is expected to build on the success of "Yourself or Someone Like You," which sold a staggering 7.7 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and the 2000 release "Mad Season," which included the band's most successful Hot 100 tunes, "Bent" and "If You're Gone," and sold 3.7 million units.

"'Mad Season' did a lot better than we thought it would, considering we didn't come out with an in-your-face record," Thomas says. "It was a sleeper record. That was our head space at the time; everyone is so quick to tell you it's so hard to repeat the success."

Additionally, "Mad Season" propelled the band's touring career: matchbox twenty sold out New York's Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes following the release. "We want to get to the point where you don't have to have a radio hit to sustain you," Thomas says. "I don't think we're there yet, but we could tell we took it up a notch."

The album, which was recorded at Bearsville (N.Y.) Studios and the Hit Factory in New York, reunites the band with producer Matt Serletic, to whose imprint matchbox twenty is signed. Serletic has a day job as president/CEO of Virgin Records, but his deal allows him the freedom to continue producing the band.

"He's like a mad genius," Thomas observes of Serletic. "He's the only guy I know who's been able to accomplish so much so young. He makes me feel like the proverbial rock guy: I sit around smoking pot and writing songs. He's working all the time."

To prepare for the album, Thomas cleansed his musical palate by turning off the radio. "I gave myself a blackout. I don't want to subconsciously write what's on the radio," he says. "This record was all about old Elton John, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel. This time it was all about getting the guitar sound we grew up on in the '70s."

Lyrically, the songs mine familiar matchbox twenty themes: loss of love, abandonment, and the hope of redemption, either human or divine. Even though happily married for a number of years, Thomas is still able to write from a place of romantic despair. "Writing [sad] songs comes from either before I met my wife -- there's a lot to draw on -- or me and my wife have an argument and that puts a pit in your stomach and your job is to go down to the basement to the piano," says Thomas. "The job of a good writer is to stay focused on that... to be some sort of conduit for every experience and be heavy without being pretentious."

Thomas penned all but one of the songs on the album and, for the first time, shares co-writing credit on two of the tunes with bandmates Kyle Cook and Paul Doucette. "That worked out great," Thomas says. "It's always been a band of people who wanted to step up more but don't want to step up until it's the right thing."

"Disease" was co-written with Mick Jagger during a songwriting session initially scheduled for Jagger's last solo album, "Goddess in the Doorway." "The day before I went to write with Mick, I wrote the first verse and chorus, and then Mick wrote the second verse," Thomas recalls. "And then as soon as I gave it to him, I felt bad." Ultimately Jagger decided the song wasn't right for him, much to Thomas' relief: "I couldn't ask him for it back. I hope he's kicking himself," Thomas adds with a laugh, "because it's a really great song."

The first 1.3 million copies of the album shipped will include a matchbox twenty download card that gives the consumer a unique personal identification number to enter upon visiting a dedicated Web site. There, fans can view a serialized documentary about the making of the album. In early 2003, cardholders will be E-mailed information on an exclusive bonus track.

"It's a way to increase interaction between the band and the fan. We're not selling them anything. The point is to build value in terms of your purchase," Stimmel says. "We wanted to give fans an everlasting experience. You're going to get bonus songs, you're going to get visuals that no one else is getting. It's a year-long plan." Additionally, when fans bring the card to a concert, they get a discount on matchbox twenty merchandise.

The band's upcoming appearances on Late Show With David Letterman (Nov. 18), Last Call With Carson Daly (Nov. 19), and Late Night With Conan O'Brien (Nov. 22), will be followed by a "Behind the Music" episode debuting Nov. 17 on VH1.

A number of Internet specials are also planned, including live performances for AOL and Yahoo. The band is Yahoo/Launch's December artist of the month. A U.S. tour will kick off in March and keep matchbox twenty on the road until the end of the year.

After the album has run its course, Thomas expects to work on a solo album, as will Doucette and Cook. Then, Thomas says, the process will start over again in the same manner as it always does: "We have a meeting before each record and say, 'Who's in?' Once that's decided, then our only mission is the next record has to better than the last."

Excerpted from the Nov. 16, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the members section.

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