We’ve Got A File On You: Rob Thomas
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Matchbox Twenty are one of those 1990s pop-rock acts that never should have lasted beyond their peak era. Think about their contemporaries — Fuel, Third Eye Blind, Blessid Union Of Souls, Bush, Three Doors Down, Tonic, Stroke 9, Vertical Horizon, to name just a few. You can catch most of these bands on the reunion tour circuit, maybe a themed cruise (I would be the first aboard that ship, to be clear).
But Matchbox Twenty are different. Their music, which at the start melded post-grunge and jangle-rock (a little bit Hootie, a little bit Eddie Vedder), eventually evolved to Maroon 5-type arena pop. There are a bunch of reasons for the band’s longevity: First, frontman Rob Thomas is a capital “T” talented pop songwriter, having created the 1999 #1 juggernaut “Smooth,” which re-introduced Woodstock relic Carlos Santana to younger audiences and unleashed a dam of elder A-listers such as Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger asking him to write them something.
Plus, Matchbox Twenty are consistent. Save for one name change (Matchbox 20 to Matchbox Twenty) and a shift in lineup (rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor left in 2004), the band have an arsenal of radio hits spanning three albums: 1996’s Yourself Or Someone Like You, 2000’s Mad Season, and 2002’s More Than You Think You Are.
And finally, Rob Thomas is a mensch. He clearly understands where Matchbox Twenty fall in the annals of music history and constantly voices gratitude for the fans who’ve stuck with them over three decades. He mentions therapy more than once, revealing a willingness to engage in tough discussions, be communicative, and self-reflect. Thomas also admits the sheer luck Matchbox Twenty enjoyed in the ’90s with a debut album that appealed to a wide swath of listeners, from the alt-rock kids watching 120 Minutes to non-commercial radio heads to mainstream pop fans.
Matchbox Twenty have also been careful about not relying too hard on Matchbox Twenty. Each of its members have individual careers apart from the band (Thomas has been releasing solo albums since 2005’s …Something To Be), though they always come back together to tour. This Friday, the band will release their fifth studio album, Where The Light Goes, which arrives more than a decade after their last record, 2012’s North.
Ahead of their new release, Thomas sat down with me over Zoom to look back on a lengthy music career (both solo and with Matchbox), why he never expected to make a new Matchbox Twenty album, his relationship with TikTok, and texting all night with Carlos Santana.
New Album Where The Light Goes (2023)
Where The Light Goes will be Matchbox Twenty’s first new album in more than a decade. Why did this feel like a good time to re-enter the album cycle?
ROB THOMAS: Ever since our third record, we always had this agreement that we would do Matchbox and we would do solo, and then we’d do Matchbox, and I would go solo. So when North came out in 2012, we were a touring band after that. There’s a year and a half where we were touring that record all over the world. Then we took a break, and I’m promoting [2015’s solo album The Great Unknown] and touring all over the world.
We were going to go out in 2020 [Matchbox Twenty’s tour with the Wallflowers]. By the time we decided to go out in 2020, we had come to this conclusion that we were going to stop making records. We didn’t know that we had it in us. We didn’t feel like we had enough to give. Paul [Doucette] was so busy film scoring, and I was really busy writing solo records. We thought maybe that would just be what we would do, [being a touring act]. Maybe every now and then we’d release a couple songs and just have a nice time touring together and just everybody going back and just reliving the last 30 years of music or whatever.
In 2020 and 2021, everybody was locked down. That was a universal place that everybody was in. Then we all learned to make sourdough bread. Then 2022 came along, and people started to go out again, touring started to happen. But because of things in our personal life, we had people at home in the band in my life with comorbidities, it wasn’t safe yet and we didn’t feel ready to go out. So we had to cancel in 2022, and that postponement was the only one where we felt we were letting people down because we weren’t out with our peers celebrating that the world was opening again.
That’s when Kyle [Cook] reached out and was like, “Well, maybe we should readdress the conversation that we said we weren’t going to make another record.” We started pooling together some songs that we had already had… “Where the Light Goes,” the title track, was going to be one of the songs that we were going to release when we weren’t going to put out a record. So when we were going to tour, we were going to release three songs, and that was one of those.
So we started pooling together what we’d been working on. I took some songs that I had from the solo record that I was [working on] and played them for the guys, and they liked a few of those. We started to get really excited and realized, we have something here that we want to put our name behind. Something that we like enough that it’s worth leaving home for a year and leaving your families behind and all the effort that goes into making a record. It all happened really naturally. And if it wasn’t for that 2022 cancellation, probably we would be having a much different conversation.
I find it interesting that Matchbox Twenty has this consistency and longevity when so many of your peers didn’t make it past album one or two. What do you think it is about the band and your relationship with one another that has kept you going with so few lineup changes?
THOMAS: I think that really says a lot right there. It’s the idea that we do enjoy each other. We really have a genuine love for each other. We’ve known each other for a very long time. We share a very particular experience. I think because we don’t have any expectations when we make a record, we’ve been really fortunate for 30 years. A lot of our longevity is really circumstance and happenstance. We were lucky that when we came out in ’96, it was a much different world. The world experienced music in a different way. The music that we were making was literally Top 40 radio at the time. It was the Katy Perry and Beyoncé of the time. We got lucky enough to come out at that time.
Then we got lucky enough to get a big enough fan base that they would go with us into these next couple records. When you get to the third record [2002’s More Than You Think You Are], that’s when you start to feel like, “Wow, this might be a career.” Also, that’s when you start to figure out who you are as a band.
We started to do more collaborative work, which is why I started to do more solo work. That way Matchbox Twenty could be a more collaborative place. But obviously that took a lot of time away [from the band]. We’ve put out less product than probably another band that’s been around as long as we have, but we’ve really liked everything that we’ve put out. We’ve never felt like, “Oh shit, we’ve got to put out a record now because we’re going to go on tour.” Or, “We need to finish this up and we’re just doing it because we have an arbitrary obligation.” We never had that obligation. We made [Where The Light Goes] because we wanted to make a record, and we don’t think that it’s going to be a giant pop record, so we don’t have to compromise any of what we’re doing — [we just] try and just what works for us.
It sounds like everybody has diversified their portfolios in one way or another, and that places much less pressure on Matchbox Twenty to be the one driver of income.
THOMAS: Yeah. I’ve been fortunate over time because of being a songwriter for the band over the years. When I go solo, I tour as well. I’ve done really, really well touring. So I have that touring income. I think everybody’s done well enough that if all they ever did was tour with Matchbox Twenty every three or four years, that would be [enough] for them. Nobody needs it in their life. Paul said something the other day when we were doing an interview together — he was saying it’s a problem sometimes for the band if they want to go out but they can’t because I’m [solo] touring. That is a bummer. We can’t say it’s not. We all have to address it, because if we don’t address it, then it’ll build up in us.
[Paul also said], “When we were young, this band was everything to everybody.” That’s what it has to be when you’re starting out. I compare it to if you’re dating us, it’s like being an Army wife because you’re married to the band, your family’s part of the band, your parents are pitching in for the band. You leave your life for years at a time and you don’t think twice about it because everything’s in service of that. And then you get older and you get married and you have children and you have other interests and other gardens that you’re tending to.
When that starts to happen, Matchbox Twenty stays important, but it stops being everything. We can’t ever fault anybody for doing something that’s really important to them. We’ve talked about this in an almost therapeutic way. We’re one step away from being the Metallica documentary, sitting in with an actual therapist [laughs]. We have a lot more of those conversations now… At this point, it’s like a family because we could divorce each other, but because of all we’ve been through, we would still feel like we were related.
Playing In Early Bands Tidal Wave, Fair Warning, & Tabitha’s Secret (1990-1995)
Before Matchbox Twenty took off and you were gigging around the Orlando area, did you have an end goal in mind? Did you have long-term goals of being a Billboard Hot 100 or MTV band, or was it more of a day-to-day type of existence?
THOMAS: I didn’t have a lot of options. I was a kid hitchhiking around the country when I was 17, and then sleeping on friends’ couches. [I met this] group of misfits – they were musicians, and that spoke to me. Ever since I was 14, if I was home, I would be playing music. I had cover bands playing ’80s songs. I dropped out of school as a sophomore for a while because I got a gig at a Sheraton in Vero Beach at the pool — it was a pool band. I thought I had fucking made it. I was like, “Oh, this is it. This is over. I’m gigging now. Look at me, I’m gigging.” And of course, that was not the big break that I thought it was going to be.
And so when Matchbox — well, Tabitha’s Secret, which is me, Paul, and Brian [Yale] before we were Matchbox — we had a very tight-knit community of writers and musicians, more than you would think for Orlando. Orlando has a different connotation. You think about Universal and boy bands and Lou Pearlman and those kinds of things. But in the heart of downtown Orlando were a lot of really good bands. We’re all friends. We all liked each other. We all supported each other, literally with gear or with a member of the band. If somebody gets sick, the other person would come in and play.
All of us wanted a record deal. We thought that was the goal. We never thought about what success meant. We never thought about going any further. To some degree, your naive version of success is [like a] quaint ’50s musical. It’s like Bye Bye Birdie. That’s what you think it’s going to be. And you don’t think about the work that’s going to go into it. You certainly don’t think about having a conversation 30 years later about still being around and making music. But you do have to have some sort of willful ignorance, because if you really thought about the daunting task, actually making it in the music world with everyone trying so hard to do it and all the talented people that are out there, the minute you turn on that part of your brain, you would just exhaust under the weight of it and then it would never happen.
The bands at the time were like, Live, Bush, and Counting Crows had just come out, and we were big Toad The Wet Sprocket fans. All those bands, a lot of them were just playing big club-sized rooms, 1,000, 2,000 people. That was our idea of success. And then when we got signed, all we wanted to do was make a gold record because we heard that if you made a gold record, you got to make another record. And that if you didn’t go gold, you might not get the record. And so we had these practical short-term goals that were laid out in front of us.
I call those early years in any creative field “the age of audacity.”
THOMAS: Yeah, and just enough narcissism that you believe that you have a vision that other people really should listen to. Like, “I have something to say and you need to hear it.” That’s preposterous. You know what I mean? Especially because I was in my early 20s at the time when we were first starting out and you’re singing these songs about love and loss, and you have no concept of any of these ideas. Every idea I had of love and loss was really just informed to me by previous musicians and other bands that I loved and listened to and poems that I had read and books that I had read.
When you think about your earliest Matchbox Twenty hits, what is your present-day relationship to those songs? Say, “Long Day,” “3AM,” or my personal favorite, “Real World”?
THOMAS: They always say that you have your whole life to write your first record. So the band that we were in before had a really horrible falling out, full of legal problems. It got really nasty and dirty with these two other guitar players from that band. I’ll back up: I was in a situation where I didn’t understand anything about the music business, and one of the guys that was in the band understood a lot about the music business. And so I wrote all of these songs and he came in one day with a copyright form and said, “Here, we’re all going to sign these.” So I just signed away my copyrights to everything that I had written. And when I got a record deal, they wanted to sue me for those songs because they said that, “No, we have the copyright to these songs.”
So, what I did was – except for “3AM” because “3AM” was an important song to me, it was my first song that I ever wrote that I thought was really good — I went and rewrote that entire first record in six months because I was like, “Fuck you guys. I’ll just go write another record so that you don’t have any claim to it whatsoever.”
Everything I had written before “3AM” was basically bad Lionel Richie songs and bad love songs. Then with “3AM,” I wrote about my mom having cancer and about being young and dealing with that, and that scratched an itch in me to want to write things that related into something about my life.
I started to draw on those particular personal moments in my life: problems I had at home, the problems I had in my family life, the problems that I had traveling and hitchhiking, the things that I had gone through. I always say: I’m okay if I never hear those songs again, but I still enjoy playing them. I like playing them every night, and I love the experience because there are some people at our shows. If you were my age, you’re almost 50 now. They’ve had “3AM” in their life for 30 years or so. Those things are special to me in that way.
Will you humor me with a question I could probably Google but I’d prefer to just ask you? What’s the story behind the camel in the video for “Real World”?
THOMAS: We had thrown a bunch of ideas at this director. There’s this one scene where Kyle’s in an ice cream truck and there’s all these kids around and he’s handing out ice cream, but he’s handing out raw meat instead of ice cream. These are just little vignettes that we had created in our mind because we thought: “Real World” = surreal world. All those shots, really they don’t tie in any main narrative. They’re all just these little surreal vignettes that we kind of crafted up.
So yours was, what if I had a camel?
THOMAS: Yeah. I just thought it’d be really fun. We actually wanted a zebra, but it turns out zebras are assholes and they wouldn’t let us physically be that close to the zebra the whole time. But [we were] talking to the animal people and the guy’s like, “Camels are sweethearts.” I was like, “Fuck yeah, camels. That is awesome.” And let me tell you, the camel was awesome. She loved me. While we’re sitting in between takes, she would just have her head here [Rob points to top of his head] rubbing on my head. That was beautiful.
If you look at the Wikipedia narrative of Matchbox Twenty’s rise, it looks very quick. First album, Yourself Or Someone Like You, bam, goes Diamond. Did Matchbox Twenty’s success feel quick to you as you lived it?
THOMAS: I’m not going to lie, Rachel, almost. It’s like an iceberg I think. Nobody saw the years in the van and trailer staying at Super 8s, just playing the local circuit and colleges and four-hour frat gigs and college bars and playing half covers and half originals.
Then when we get signed, we’re still in the van and trailer, only now we have to travel around the entire country. We put out “Long Day,” but “Long Day” actually didn’t do well when it came out. I remember being in a hotel in San Francisco because the video was about to come on 120 Minutes on MTV, and that was everything to us. When we first came out, we were played on college alt stations — we were an alt band. And then by the end of that record, the exact same record, it was like pop Top 40.
Once “Push” came out, which was the second single, our record company folded and we were about to get dropped. We lucked out that this one program director in Birmingham, Alabama was playing “Push.” Atlantic noticed that in Birmingham, Alabama, “Push” was the #1 song. So they were like, “Well, hold up. Right before we drop them, let’s give this song a chance.” From that moment on, we had that and then “Real World” and “Back 2 Good.” We did so well that we thought we were definitely a one-hit wonder record. Take the Presidents Of The United States Of America. They had that song “Lump” and “Peaches.” They were kind of a novelty band. They were really good, but they were kind of novelty and fun, and they sold 10 million records, right?
So we thought, “Well, that was nice. That was good. We had that moment.” Then our first number one single was “Bent” and I had just gotten off of doing “Smooth” with Carlos [Santana]. So there was just a little more gas in the engine. Then the next record did really well. Then my solo record did pretty well. So I think that if you’re lucky enough to have some sort of success, then you try and do your best to pull over some of the currency that you gained from that success into your next project and hope that the fans will come with you. We’ve been really fortunate that fans have done that. “3AM” doesn’t sound like the band that did “Unwell” or “Disease,” and it doesn’t sound like me who did “Lonely No More” or “Smooth.” I think one of the reasons why we’ve been so fortunate is because we have so many people that have just been willing to let us try things and be like, “Yeah, all right, we’ll go for it. Let’s do it.”
Making A FunnyOrDie Sketch About “Smooth” (2013)
I’m sure that you’ve talked about “Smooth” to death over the last 25 years, so I’ll just ask – do you have any personal favorite “Smooth” memes or sketches?
THOMAS: So I found this online and I bought it and showed it to Carlos.
Are those dolls??
THOMAS: “Smooth” action figures. I sent these to Carlos, and then Carlos bought 50 of them and gave them to people as Christmas presents. I think this was five years ago.
Carlos legitimately has become one of my best friends. We talk all the time. Our wives make fun of us because we’re always texting each other late at night, sending each other different videos and just stupid shit. Especially when we’re on the road, forget it. We just don’t go to sleep. We’re just talking all night. He’s a pretty special guy.
“Smooth” is a funny thing because it’s taken a journey from being this really legitimately big song, part of this huge moment for Carlos and me, and then everybody was really sick of it. And then it became a walking lampoon of itself, and then reemerged on the other side as just like, “Oh, I remember that song. That’s a nice song.” It took a whole journey.
The amount of people [over the years] that have sent me text messages or emails that they’re at a party or a wedding and somebody’s playing “Smooth,” because every wedding band in the world plays “Smooth.” In fact, John Mayer and I, we’ve surmised that because he wrote “Daughters” and I wrote “Smooth,” for the rest of our lives we will be played at every wedding in America, without a doubt.
When you sat down with FunnyOrDie, how was it to brainstorm ways you could all lampoon “Smooth” as a band?
THOMAS: We actually sat in the room at their offices, me and Paul, some writers and producers, and started spit-balling ideas. When they brought up the “Smooth” idea, I thought the band wasn’t going to go for it. Because there has always been that [feeling of], [rolls eyes] “Oh, ‘Smooth,'” especially right at the beginning there. But one of the things that was really funny about our relationship with each other is right after “Smooth,” when we had “Bent,” that video for “Bent” is the band just kicking my ass for three minutes. Everywhere I go, I run into a band member who kicks my ass. That was our way of talking about this. Paul was going to find me in an alley with a Grammy and start beating me with a Grammy, but the Grammys won’t let you do that apparently.
Changing The Band’s Name From ’20’ To ‘Twenty’ (2000)
What was your thought behind the band’s name change?
THOMAS: We liked the aesthetic of it. We were just like, to our label, “Hey guys, from now on for packaging and stuff, we don’t want to use the 20 unless the 20’s alone. If you have a 20 by itself, we like that. Or the words ‘Matchbox Twenty’ written out.” Honestly, we were young and we just thought it looked classier.
I think our management was like, “Put out a press release.” Because you do anything you can to get something out there. It always struck us as funny because we realized that we had changed our name from Matchbox 20 to Matchbox Twenty, and we realized that we made a joke about how, “Oh, we did it because we were tired of getting compared to bands like Sum 41 and Blink-182,” which obviously never happens. But then even some press grabbed onto that and were like, “Well, these guys are delusional if they think that,” especially these rock magazines. And we’re like, “No, you fucking idiot. You know better than that. That was a joke.”
Writing For Willie Nelson (2002), Mick Jagger (2001), Marc Anthony (2002), Taylor Hicks (2006), Travis Tritt (2007), More
When did the industry begin to regard you as a go-to songwriter? I’m guessing it was after “Smooth”?
THOMAS: Early on when I first put out the first record, I had a guy who was working in my publishing company. His name is Evan Lambert, who’s become one of my best friends. We had a plan. Before the first record was really out for Matchbox, we were like, “Okay, the plan is we’re going to make Matchbox records. You’re going to write for other people, and eventually you’re going to make solo records too.” This was always the plan with no timeline in place.
I was on the road with the first Matchbox record, we were out for three years just everywhere, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. When we finally got off the road, I had met [my wife] Mari at that time. She had been on the road with me. It was literally like the bus just dropped us off in New York City, and we went and got an apartment in SoHo, and we were living the SoHo life. A guy around the corner from me had just written a track for this new Carlos Santana record. Carlos didn’t like the lyric and the melody; he just liked the vibe of the track. So they gave it to me to rewrite the lyrics and the melody.
I thought that that was going to be my first song that I wrote and didn’t sing. I’m glad that didn’t happen. But then later on because of “Smooth,” that’s when it opened the door and I started getting calls as a writer for other people. That was a really huge thing for me, to be able to work with idols, real people like Mick Jagger and Willie Nelson.
Guest Starring On It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2008)
THOMAS: Literally we were giant fans. We had a show coming up in LA at the Staples Center, and it was just a random thing we threw out. “Hey, call their production company, tell them that we’re big fans and we want them to come to the show.” Not only did they answer, but they came to the show a couple hours early and just hung out and pregamed with us in the dressing room. It was everybody but Charlie [Day].
By the end of the day, they were just like, “Oh, you gotta be on the show.” And I was like, “Okay listen. I want to be on the show, but I want you to make me just look all fucked up.” And they did. True to their word, they invited me back, they did have me on, and I did get to look really fucked up. And then later on, it’s funny because I became friends with Jimmi Simpson. I thought that was all very fortuitous.
Getting Involved With Holograms, Charity NFTs, And TikTok
In more recent years, I’ve seen you get involved with things like holograms and charity NFTs, and you’ve talked about how you like to look ahead in terms of technology. Is that still an accurate statement?
THOMAS: I think that you have to keep up with technology. It’s a delicate dance. In your 50s, you could use something as ubiquitous as TikTok; it’s a silly notion for a 50-year-old musician to be on TikTok trying to create trends and dances and things like that. But when we were working in the studio, we’re making videos, and we do have someone that’s filming fly-on-the-wall content to exist in that space, but on our own terms. We love whenever there’s something that we can do, but also something that doesn’t compromise anything.
There are some things that are just not for us. We’ve aged out of certain concepts. But whenever we can do something, like the hologram was a gas. We didn’t really have anything to do with it. It’s a company and they come and we shoot the video. When we’re doing these outdoor venues and there’s all these little kiosks where people are doing things and there’s a little hologram kiosk, fans can come by and they would share that.
One of the first bands to ever record their show was I think Peter Gabriel back when there was a CD truck in the back. After the show, you would bring a slip and they’d burn your CD of that show and you’d get it that night. We were one of the first bands to do it with a USB wristband.
I even talked Bruce Springsteen into it. We were in Rio together and he was talking about how he hated YouTube because he hated the idea that all this bad quality video of him and his shows is out there. I told him about this: how you can control the quality, you control how it sounds, and how people are sharing it in the same way that they’re sharing those videos. Literally a month later, there’s an article in Forbes with Springsteen giving me credit for talking him into doing this. And so that made me feel really good.
I think we love these technologies only if they’re age-appropriate for us. Our manager we’ve had forever [Michael Lippman] — before us, he managed George Michael and David Bowie — he’s a legend. And now he’s still our manager, but also his son [Nick Lippman] is our manager. And his son is 1,000% on top of what’s about to happen at any time. And so we have a really good in-house kind of sleuth to help us find the right things for us.
I would’ve never thought of doing [TikTok] reaction videos. To me it just seemed like the silliest thing in the world, but the response of people watching those reaction videos has been so strong that I’m like, “Okay, I guess it wasn’t a waste of our time.” I don’t understand media, and it’s not my job to understand media.
You and Matchbox Twenty still have Blue Twitter checks. What was the thinking behind that decision to pay for verification?
THOMAS: I think the blue check mark, it means a lot more than an ego status verification. I’ve had fans who have fake Rob Thomas accounts asking for money. I’ve had people who are a little unstable think that they’ve been having romantic conversations with me because somebody created a [fake] account. Because of that, I’ve had people show up at my door at 3:00 in the morning driving from Alabama to New York and then trying to beat my door down because I told them on my site that I needed to talk to them and they were the only ones that could save me. There are people out there using other people’s status for whatever that’s worth to manipulate other people who are in a position to be manipulated. That is a dangerous situation, and I think it’s irresponsible for anyone that has that kind of an ability to regulate it, to not regulate it in some way.
It’s not a conversation I have publicly, because nobody cares. Like, [sarcastic tone] Elon Musk is going to be like, “Holy shit everybody, Rob Thomas is hopping off. Hold on, we gotta rethink this.” With my Twitter, it’s funny because there’s nothing that’s going on in the world that I’ve ever thought, “You know what this is missing? My opinion. I think that’s what’s going to bring some clarity to this whole race situation. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.” For me, Twitter is just musings and a way to connect with some fans and let them know what’s going on.
But I’m sure that there are other formats for that, and there’s going to be better formats for that. And I can feel people packing their suitcases and starting to head towards them for sure.
Matchbox Twenty’s Where The Light Goes is out 5/26 via Atlantic.