To understand Matchbox 20 one needs to understand the Rule of One. It is the cornerstone of the pop music philosophy that has seen Matchbox 20 sell 15.6 million albums and 7.9 million singles in its 17 years, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Almost as resolutely unfashionable as it is successful — not for nothing did the band name its 2007 greatest-hits set “Exile on Mainstream” — Matchbox 20 has weathered the changes during that time thanks to the Rule of One.
Here is the Rule of One as explained by Matt Serletic, the former chairman of Virgin Records and the band’s longtime producer, including on its new album, “North” (out Sept. 4): “There’s one of anything on the radio that rears its head and says, ‘Pay attention to me, check me out,’ from a musical standpoint. I think Matchbox wants to be that one at the right time. Who would’ve figured Gotye would be the monster that it was? Great songs do have that power to transcend, and hopefully we put a few of those on this album.”
Indeed, Matchbox 20 has had its fair share of Rule of One moments in a 15-year history on the charts, from 2000’s Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper “Bent” to 2003’s “Unwell,” a song that snuck banjo onto pop radio at a time when hip-hop and R&B ruled the airwaves.
“When we first came out we were an alt-rock radio and a top 40 band because at that time top 40 was alt-rock,” frontman Rob Thomas says from the Manhattan offices of longtime label Atlantic Records. “We were lucky enough to still exist through these different phases-we grew up out of the grunge phase, the boy band phase and when it was the Nelly/Ludacris phase to whatever it is now. Now it’s not like, ‘Oh, Beyonce is hot right now so this is what Matchbox 20 sounds like.’ We want to do what comes naturally so that we’re adding something to the landscape and not just mirroring what’s out there.”
In pop music terms, 10 years is an eternity. So when it came time for Thomas and company to determine the direction of Matchbox 20’s first full-length album since 2002’s “More Than You Think You Are”, they had to give serious consideration to their next steps.
“When you take 10 years off and come back — it’s almost like Rip Van Winkle,” Thomas says. “How do we take the tools that we have and apply them to this new world?”
To some, the answer to that question would be to hire the hottest Swedish pop songwriters of the moment, as top 40 peers like Train and Maroon 5 have done on their current albums to stay relevant on the charts.
But for Matchbox 20, the answer was to reunite with Serletic (who helmed the group’s 1996 debut, “Yourself or Someone Like You”) for a 12-track set that finds the band members sounding like, to borrow a phrase, themselves rather than someone like them.
“Our view was, ‘Let’s make the best record we can ourselves,’ and then go out and play it live-then at least we’d know we’d done the best we could possibly do,” says Paul Doucette, the band’s co-founder and former drummer-turned-guitarist. “We can’t go, ‘Oh, if only we had done a dance track. If only Skrillex would’ve come in.'”
While it’s certainly not Matchbox 20-gone-EDM, “North” has its share of rhythmic moments — most notably “Put Your Hands Up,” perhaps the closest the group has come to recording its own kind of party anthem. Lead single “She’s So Mean” is also backed by a foot-stomping beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a runway during Fashion Week. Elsewhere, tracks like “Our Song” ride a glitchy, new wave synth hook into a hand clap-heavy chorus, and album opener “Parade” features drum patterns and multilayered hooks reminiscent of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone.”
Perhaps that relative disregard of pop trends can explain why “She’s So Mean” has had a slower burn than many of Matchbox 20’s previous singles, rising to No. 49 on the Hot 100 this week in its eighth week on the chart — a ways away from the band’s last charting single, “How Far We’ve Come,” which reached No. 11 in 2007. But Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald isn’t sweating “North”‘s chart potential just yet.
“The good news about a Matchbox 20 album is you know it comes with plenty of singles — whatever order it’s going to be is going to be fine,” she says. “We went out the gate thinking we would just attack [adult top 40] first and cross into [mainstream] top 40, then we got a bunch of [the latter] stations on the record early. But to us, we don’t ever think about how quickly we need to move stuff up the charts. We just talk about the strategy and make sure we get the record in front of the right people.”
In addition to the seven tracks Matchbox 20 cut for “Exile on Mainstream” with Steve Lillywhite, Thomas issued two solo albums-2005’s “Something to Be”, which has sold 1.6 million copies, according to SoundScan, and 2009’s “Cradlesong”, which failed to produce a hit as big as “Something to Be”‘s “Lonely No More” and has sold 477,000. Thomas calls the latter experience “kind of gravy” coming after a decade-long streak of hits both solo and with Matchbox 20.
“You have this weird permission to fail if you come from a band that you can always run back to,” Thomas says. “For that album, it was just a creative exercise more than anything. Some of them were songs we did because I didn’t think the band would want to play them, some were songs I did because that’s what I wrote at the time. It was nice not to have an agenda coming into it.”
That focus on putting the songs first carried over to “North”, which reunited the band in Nashville for a series of sessions that produced dozens of songs before a producer like Serletic was even discussed. They also produced a fair deal of hangovers. “There were some songs that Paul and I wrote together but would appeal to one of us more. And after seven bottles of wine it would be like, ‘Well the band’s over again!'” Thomas says with a laugh.
“It sort of became evident that bringing someone new to the table was maybe not the best idea,” Doucette adds. “We have such a great shorthand with Matt, it was sort of like, ‘What are we waiting for?'”
With SoundScan sales of nearly 18 million albums between Matchbox 20 and Thomas in the United States alone, the band was able to call the shots on everything from producers to choosing the singles from “North”, a distinction that Atlantic Music Group chairman/CEO Craig Kallman told the band it had “earned the right” to do. “We can never be that band that goes, ‘The label made us do that song,'” Thomas says.
The band’s publishing catalog on EMI also clearly has enough value that Martin Bandier, chairman/CEO of the revamped Sony/ATV Music Publishing, was among the heavy-hitters at a July listening event for “North” at New York’s Mondrian Hotel. Other attendees included Clear Channel national programming chief Tom Poleman and VH1 executive VP of talent and music programming Rick Krim, a sign that Matchbox 20 still has major traditional media allure.
“We feel like they’re a core artist for us — from since they started through all the Matchbox records and Rob solo, we’ve done so much with them. They’re definitely friends of the channel,” says Krim, who put “She’s So Mean” into heavy rotation in July and has already featured the group in core franchise programs like “Storytellers” and “Behind the Music.”
“The single sounds very Matchbox but also sounds very 2012,” Krim adds. “It doesn’t sound like it’s a song that should’ve been on one of their older albums. They made it sound modernized without getting away from what they’re about.”
Up next, a song called “Overjoyed” has already been identified as the likely second single.
“It’s an unbelievable song, and getting a song with a title like that on top of the [year-end] holiday should do well for us,” Greenwald says. And an extensive promotional tour throughout the fall should keep the band visible, having already been preceded by Thomas’ guest-hosting stint on “Live With Kelly” in late July. An October tour of Australia with INXS will also help tee up demand for the band’s first U.S. tour since 2008 (in support of “Exile on Mainstream”), set to kick off in early 2013. It’s on the road where the band really proves its mettle — the group’s 2008 tour sold out 14 of 45 arena dates, with more than $23 million in grosses, according to Billboard Boxscore.
“In order to sustain, you have to learn how to be a live band,” Doucette says. “The amount of people who come out and have a hit song end up totally blowing it because they have no experience dong this stuff…You do live in a world where you’re only as good as the last thing you put out-everyone understands that. But I definitely feel this record’s really going to connect. Every song is one that I really, really like. Maybe we’ve had weaker ones in the past…”
“-And you can tell which ones those are,” Thomas says, finishing Doucette’s sentence, “because we don’t play them live.”