by Alan Sculley
MATCHBOX TWENTY's 1996 debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, may have sold 10 million copies, but along the way the group endured its share of critical sniping, as writers branded the band's type of guitar pop as bland, and the group itself, faceless.
Then Carlos Santana's mega-hit, Supernatural, hit stores. Its chart-topping lead single, "Smooth," (co-written and sung by Matchbox Twenty singer and chief songwriter Rob Thomas) not only brought Santana back into the music limelight but may have changed perceptions about Matchbox Twenty as well.
"I don't feel like a whipping boy now, that's for sure," Thomas says. "I think my low point emotionally was when I was reading an Everclear review. It went through this whole review about the last Everclear record, and then it said, 'But hell, they beat Matchbox Twenty any day.' That was when I felt like we were just being whipped for no reason. Now that doesn't happen. I feel like at least whatever we do is what defines us, and that's what people are going to look at us [for] now as opposed to just putting us down for the sake of it."
Now that Matchbox Twenty is back with its long-awaited second CD, Mad Season, the Florida-based quintet have seen their critical reputation get another boost. Mad Season has been widely received as a significant creative step forward. It's also proved to be a significant commercial success, having gone triple platinum and spawning the hit singles "Bent" and "If You're Gone." The band hits the Gorge on Saturday.
By the time Mad Season was released, though, the success of "Smooth," and the attention it brought to Thomas had lifted the singer out of anonymity and had begun to put a face on Matchbox Twenty. In the process, Thomas has begun to feel more like a celebrity.
"It's odd because when we sold 12 million records, we kind of thought, 'Wow, we're a big band.' It's funny what the power of someone like Carlos Santana can do. It was a whole other level. I think it's good because when you talk about the idea of [recognition], because we are mainstream and we fit right in with a lot of other bands, I think it's nice to have something that singles out a personality, something people can grab onto."
A situation where a lead singer gets acclaim and attention separate from the rest of the band, however, can create tensions. But apparently that hasn't happened in Matchbox Twenty.
"I mean, the guys have all said on more than one occasion that no one wants my job," Thomas says. "The other night [with drummer Paul Doucette and others] was a great example. We're sitting having dinner and there's like five drunk people hanging around our table. They were like, 'I'm sorry to bother you, hey can I get a picture?' 'Hey, can you hold my baby?' Paul looked horrified."
Although it's been reported (in Spin magazine) that Thomas has been writing songs for other artists (Tim McGraw, Tina Turner and Mary J. Blige reportedly among them), Thomas himself says he has no ambitions for a solo career or to have any outside songwriting overshadow Matchbox Twenty.
"I don't see it superseding anything," he says. "I mean, as far as I'm concerned, if I write something I like, it's a Matchbox song. I met up with Willie Nelson recently, and we talked about, when he gets off the road and I have some time, going over to his place and writing. That kind of thing I would always love to do because like, Willie Nelson is one of my biggest idols of all time. And if I sit and write with him -- what I could learn from writing with someone like him, what the two of us could come up with -- could be something great. But I don't want to be the guy who would just sit and write songs for people. When I write songs and they come from me, they're Matchbox songs. They're my songs. So I'm never against writing with someone, but I don't think I want to get into writing for someone. Then you start writing like a machine."
Matchbox Twenty plays the Gorge with Train on Saturday, Sept. 22,
at 7 pm. Tickets: $40.50. Call: (509) 735-0500.