A Conversation with Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20

On the quartet's new album and eventually fading from view

Music Features Matchbox Twenty
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A Conversation with Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20

For Matchbox Twenty frontman and occasional solo artist Rob Thomas, nothing beats the telling of a really good story. It’s what guided his songwriting throughout Where the Light Goes, his quartet’s anthemic new outing, and what animates relatable everyday characters in “Rebels,” “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” “Queen of New York City,” and an edgy teenage reminiscence dubbed “Wild Dogs (Running in a Slow Dream).” And a good part of his protagonists’ allure is the man’s warm, neighborly singing voice, a friendly, familiar tone that has earned him three Grammys, 11 BMI Awards, a Hal David Starlight Award, and rare Diamond status for Yourself or Someone Like You, Matchbox 20’s unassuming debut, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. And riveting content is what Thomas seeks in TV, books and film, as well.

“I’m on the Slow Dream tour bus now, so I’ve got nothing but time,” says the 51-year old, who just finished Ling Ma’s quirky novel Severance and is still reeling from Soft & Quiet, Beth De Araujo’s jaw-dropping new Netflix horror flick. “I watched it two days ago, and Holy shit! Oh, My God!” He gasps, without giving the plot away. “And it was kind of shot in real time, so it’s so fucking scary, the way that that situation devolves. It’s kind of a metaphor for how the actual larger conversation is devolving over time. It happens there in that one situation, but that’s what feels like is actually happening out there right now. So that’s a frightening movie—it really is, because those are your fucking neighbors, man.”

Not that Thomas is trying to compete, creatively. He just has certain standards that he strives to maintain, all the way to non-Matchbox 20 pursuits like his 2021, Home-studio-recorded, seasonal solo set Something About Christmas Time and even Sidewalk Angels, a charity foundation he runs with his wife Marisol. And he takes his job quite seriously. ” Like for me, great songs are not about things that I’m going through as much as they are about the residual emotion of the thing,” explains the artist, who sought that same vibe in “Smooth,” his hit collaboration with Santana. “So if I have an argument with my wife, you don’t need to know about my wife and the fight, but if I write about how that made me feel, you relate to that, because you’ve had that same feeling from something else. So if you write about how a situation makes you feel, and not the situation itself, it becomes more universal.”

Bottom line? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, swears Thomas, who was just resoundingly cheered when Matchbox 20 took the comeback-tour stage in Vancouver. It was a pleasant surprise, he adds, “Because there’s a part of you that’s just like, ‘Are people still going to even care? We haven’t released anything since 2017—is anybody going to really give a shit?’ But we went out there, and there they were, giving a shit. So it looks like it’s going to be a great tour.”

Paste: Since I’ve met her with you a couple of times, I have to ask—How is Marisol?

Rob Thomas: She’s hanging in there. We’re touring, and between her health and her dog’s health, she couldn’t come out at the beginning of the tour. So now we’re hoping, or we’re still trying to navigate to get her out here. And Marisol is one of the sweetest, nicest people on the planet. Everybody thinks that they really like me, and then they meet my wife, and they’re like, ‘Oh, no—she’s the one!’ Every time. She elevates everything about me. My wife is the reason why we have kept so many friendships.

Paste: What’s wrong with your dog? And which dog is it?

Thomas: Well, we only have one now. We lost Sammy over Covid—he passed away after a long fight. So now we have Ollie, and he had cancer, but the chemo knocked him out, it’s kind of failing his system. So honestly, we just want to get him out here so we can have some last days with him. It’s heartbreaking.

Paste: How is your charity, Sidewalk Angels? And was it difficult to keep going during the pandemic, when people were more concerned with just staying alive?

Thomas: Yeah. I think the year, or the first half of the first year of the lockdown was really just about this weird feeling that there’s nothing you can do, so you do nothing, you know what I mean? And like a lot of people, we rediscovered board games, we ended up with weird new hobbies, and we totally got some serious puzzling going on. And then Ryan Tedder said, “”Dude—you know about these corporate Zoom gigs?” And I was like, “No.” So he turned me on, and so then I started doing all these corporate Zoom gigs.

Paste: Talk to me like I’m five. What, exactly is a corporate Zoom gig?

Thomas: Well, it’s just like, literally me, in my studio, with a guitar and piano, and there’s like a hundred people that work for, say, Bud Lite, and they’re all in their homes. But it’s just a live feed of me, playing songs. It’s like a little concert, and I did a bunch. And with some of them, it was really funny the way they would work it out, because you’d have these corporations, or these wineries, and they send you banners to put behind you, like you’re doing this officially sponsored gig. And then I was doing a lot of Zoom writing, not for me, but just writing for other artists. And there are none that have come out yet, and as soon as I start trying to think about them, I can’t. But it was just something to keep the muscle flexing, you know what I mean? And in that whole Zoom period, I learned how to play my songs again. Like, I haven’t had to play them, because the band plays them. So I haven’t had to sit down and play “If You’re Gone” on the piano by myself in years, so I became a better piano player and a better guitar player, just from being locked down.

Paste: And “3 a.m.” takes on a whole new significance when you’re up every night at 3 a.m.

Thomas: Well, with “3 a.m.”, it’s funny, because if I’m up at 3:00 a.m. now, there’s something horribly wrong—somebody’s sick, or something, you know what I mean? Except

For just now, I relearned that last night—you get offstage at 1:00, and you’re amped. And by the way, when you’re young and single? That’s where all the trouble comes in, that little space right there, with all that extra energy and you need to burn it off somehow, and it usually involves bad decisions.

Paste: What was the weirdest gig you accepted in that period, where even in the middle of it, you were thinking, “Well, this is certainly strange”?

Thomas: Well, I mean, honestly, the experience itself is weird, because you’ve got to imagine, you finish a song, but there’s no response, because you don’t see them. You don’t know who’s on there, so you play a song and you hit that last note, and you’re like, “Okay! Thank you! And this is ‘3:00 a.m.’!” It’s just a whole different experience, because you’re in a vacuum, and it’s not even like you see them on the screen or anything.

Paste: Are the “Wild Dogs” in your song real or metaphorical? Because during lockdown, the animals were emerging from the forest and reclaiming urban turf.

Thomas: I think the Wild Dogs were me and my misfit friends when I was a kid. When you’re in high school and you don’t find your others yet, and you don’t know where you belong, and then you run into that group? And for me, it was the other misfits—a lot of the older kids and the drama kids, and we were all sensitive and wore eyeliner and listened to Depeche Mode and The Cure. So there’s a literal moment there, where I say, “There’s a world outside that’s waiting—C’mon!” And that was a thought to me of my friends at midnight coming and knocking on my window, trying to sneak me out to go to some party that somebody was throwing. It was those kinds of moments, and taking advantage of them. Taking advantage of that time when you’re young, and making some good bad decisions for a minute.

Paste: Are you in a rural area? Like in upstate New York?

Thomas: I’m not upstate. I’m just an hour outside of the City. But it feels pretty rural, because it’s horse country up there, so it’s a lot of land and a lot of space up there. But it’s only 45 minutes to an hour from the City. And we have a family of wild turkeys on our property, a family of deer, foxes, raccoons. And there’s nothing like hearing a group of coyotes get a hold of something in the middle of the night—it’s blood-curdling. And everything about our whole system around our house is built around something that’s high enough that a coyote can’t jump over it. Like, all the fencing, everything around the pool, it’s all set up that way, because a coyote can apparently jump six feet. And we hear coyote horror stories all the time, and you know it works—you can’t blame the animal, because we’re encroaching on their space, so they’re just like, “Well, I was here. This is my spot!”

Paste: When it came to songwriting itself, how did the pandemic affect you?

Thomas: Well, you know what’s funny? I don’t think I wrote any pandemic songs. You know what I mean? And I mean, I didn’t write any songs about the pandemic, and with Matchbox, that was very important to us. We wanted a record that kind of had joy in it, and talked about being self-optimistic, in way. So it was important that we didn’t make a dour, angry record.

Paste: So where does the light go? Since you seem to know.

Thomas: I don’t know. The song is not the answer, my friend, the song is the question!

Paste: And going back to what you said about finally finding your tribe as a kid, as an adult composer, you still kind of haven’t. What musical genre would you even align yourself with? It’s indescribable.

Thomas: Yeah, and I appreciate you saying that. We’ve always kind of felt like, the sound of me singing with these guys is Matchbox 20, and so whatever we write, it sounds like us, right? And maybe with the exception of our first record, we’ve always existed in a space on our own. Like when we had “Unwell” out, there was nothing that sounded like “Unwell.” But for us, it was about writing a song that to us sounded like a song that people should hear and should be on the radio, but doesn’t really sound like anything that’s on the radio right now. And I think that’s something that we’ve always tried to do. And by doing that, we don’t look at what’s current and then try and duplicate that. We go back to our resources from the past, and try to make new versions of things that we grew up on.

Paste: What is “Selling Faith” about?’

Thomas: “Selling Faith” is about that moment when you’re at the end of your rope, and you don’t know if you have enough strength to get through whatever you’re about to do. So you’re talking to someone and saying, “Man, if you’ve got any extra strength that you can give me, I really could use that right now, because I don’t know that I’ve got enough in me.”

Paste: Did you find yourself returning to any one religion during the pandemic? Or was it a relatively spiritual experience?

Thomas: I’m not even sure that I believe that there is some sort of a plan out there, you know what I mean? I am severely suspect of any organized religion, but I also at the same time…well, here’s a good example. Years ago, Bill Maher, who’s a friend of mine, he did that movie Religulous, and he wanted me to be in it. And when he told me what it was about, I said, “Hey, listen—I can’t do it. I am with you, as far as being suspicious of organized religion, but I have seen the comfort that it’s brought to people that I love, and I would never shit on that.” One of my best friends in the world is Bebe Wynans—I’m not gonna go to Bebe Wynans and tell him that his faith is bunk, because if you’re around someone like Bebe, that faith comes off of him. It emits out of him, and it makes you feel better.

Paste: So what lessons did you learn during the pandemic?

Thomas: Honestly, I don’t think I learned a Goddamned thing! I mean, I learned that if I have any one major fatal flaw as a character in this novel that is my life, it’s how much I missed the approval of strangers. To be honest, you know what I mean? Like, there’s a loop in creativity where you write, you record it, and it ends with you presenting it and sharing it in a group of people, and after three years of doing that and never having that loop never close off, and never being able to really share these moments with people? Like, my wife could live alone in a cabin somewhere. But I need people. I like people. I’m the guy on the plane making friends with strangers, and by the time I get off, I’ve got numbers of people that are all gonna come to the show, you know what I mean? If my wife and I were separated, on a plane, she would be sitting quietly, in the middle of people, just reading her book, and she’d look over at me, and I would be sharing beef jerky, and by the time the flight’s over I’m invited to somebody’s wedding. She calls me Ferris Bueller. So I realized that I really missed the comfort of new relationships and getting to meet new people and getting to experience those things.

Paste: Well, songwriting is an unusual career choice anyway. But on the upside, you do get the applause or the tomato—for want of better terminology—every time you perform a brand-new song.

Thomas: Right. And it’s weird, too, because the creation of it happens in a vacuum. It’s a little secret that you and your band have, and you are the only ones that have heard it, with maybe a few family members. So it just exists in a vacuum, and then it doesn’t. And it used to be, like in the ’90s, you could imagine that that point of entry was…well, I used to think of it like a funnel. You’d really time out who was gonna play it for the first time, you were really, really careful about nobody hearing it, so it was gonna debut on this video at this time, and this radio station was gonna play it first. And now that funnel is a colander—like, once it comes out, it’s just everywhere, and there’s no controlling it. So it’s just kind of there, and in the universe.

Paste: What’s this instant concert recording program you’re employing at shows called DiscLive?

Thomas: Oh, yeah—we’ve done that for years! It started off when it was burning CDs, so you’d get a CD after the show. And then we started with USB wristbands, and they would literally just zap it to the wristband, and you wouldn’t even have to do anything. And for fans, it was great, because fans started sharing. It was kind of like bootlegs, right? Like, “Oh, they played that in Phoenix? I didn’t hear that—can I get your version of that?” I was in Rio, and we were doing Rock in Rio, and of all people, Bruce Springsteen was there, and we’re sitting at the pool, and he was telling me about how he hated YouTube—he hated the fact that when he plays a show now, his show is out there, but it’s in bad quality. It’s like a phone, somebody’s holding it, and he thought it was really cringe-y. So I told him about these wristbands that we were doing, and how that’s become the conversation now, because you control the quality, it’s a board mix. And a month later, I saw an article where he credited me, and talking to me, because he was doing his own version of these—Bruce wristbands that were leather with USB, but they were really cool. And I was like, “Aww, look at me! Look at me, influencing the Boss!”

Paste: But can we talk about holidays for a minute? You’re born on Valentine’s Day. So was your birthday gift usually just a box of See’s candy?

Thomas: And do you know what’s funny? I don’t care about Valentine’s Day or birthdays, so it doesn’t really matter. For my wife and I, Valentine’s Day is spent with this other couple that we go out with, and every Valentine’s Day that we’re home, we just have a double date with this other couple. That’s just been our ritual.

Paste: And then during lockdown, you were suddenly motivated to do a solo Christmas album? Which you recorded in the summer?

Thomas: Yeah! That’s something that happened after the pandemic. And I was literally in my studio, and I had Christmas lights up, I had Christmas movies playing. I was living Christmas, so I could make this Christmas album. And for me, I was inspired by all the ’80s Christmas songs growing up, so the title of the record was from a Bryan Adams Christmas song, “Christmas Time,” and I covered that song with Ingrid Michaelson. There was some really great ’80s Christmas music, and when I was a kid, I grew up on that Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers Christmas album. They actually did a whole Christmas album together, and since I was a little kid, every year, that would come out along with Andy Williams albums.

Paste: What other projects have you got coming up?

Thomas: You know what? Something just came across my desk. It’s a new music show, so it looks like I might be doing a mentor segment. And one of my friends is producing it, a woman named Jan Smith, who is my vocal coach, and she works with a lot of singers. So she’s been one of my dear friends since literally before the first record, so she’s producing this thing and she called me up. So I’m not even sure, but that might be something I’ll be doing. Because other than that, I am definitely not doing reality TV. Because here’s the thing, man—if this music stops working for me, you definitely won’t see me. I’m not going to go on Dancing With the Stars, because it’s not fame and recognition unless it’s attached to something that I really care about. Like, I write music, and so it’s really important to me that I share that music with people. So that part of the career is what really drives me. And if that stops working, I’m not gonna be on Dancing With the Stars, I’m not gonna be on Big Brother or Celebrity House. I will promise everybody—I will just disappear.