Raise the Question: ROB THOMAS

Q&A:

Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty

(November 2003)

Q: What inspired the band to release a limited edition enhanced EP filled with alternate live versions and an unreleased studio song, not to mention live footage from your club show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles?

RT: Your fans only get pieces of you–little twelve-song increments–every couple of years when you put out an album.  So it’s nice to give them a little something extra.  I’m a real fan of music, so I love to hear live stuff, really bad crap, the original recordings of stuff.  The EP is for the fans and the music geeks out there.  We were talking about it last night–we have vaults and vaults of live stuff and covers and other things because we’ve recorded almost every show.  Brian (Yale, the band’s bassist) will be going through more recordings after this tour–maybe we’ll release more of this stuff to our fans.

Q: Tell us about the EP’s unreleased song “Suffer Me,” from the sessions for matchbox twenty’s second album Mad Season.

RT: It was one of the first songs I had written for Mad Season, but it didn’t make it on the album.  It’s funny that it works that way–you have so many songs and not every one can fit on a record.  As the writer, you feel kind of bad–you want people to hear it and know what went into it. I’m just glad it’s going to be heard.  I think it’s a great song.

Q: You guys are on tour now.  How you define the onstage chemistry of matchbox twenty?

RT: We try really hard to create an energy in the room, between us and everybody listening to the music.  And we don’t want to take it too seriously, but it is definitely an amped-up version of everything we do.  On a great night, we really want to connect with that last kid in the back of the arena, and that kid in the first row getting spit on.  On a good night, you can feel the energy back–you’re singing to the crowd, they’re singing back to you. It amazes me because I associate my whole life with music.  When I hear a certain song, it makes me think of a particular time in my life.  When we look out and see somebody singing every word of their favorite song of ours, I know the feeling of being that person.  Our audience ranges from the teens up into the fifties. They’re all singing every word, and I think it’s cool that we’re trying really hard to make music without regards to what the industry calls a “demographic.”

Q: What about the lighter side of Matchbox Twenty on the road?  Do you have any strange contract riders?

RT:  We used to ask [promoters] for a live goldfish every night, and give it to a fan, and sign the bowl.  But after awhile, we felt bad for the fish, because we didn’t know who the fuck we were giving it to!

Q: Ever trash a hotel room?

I’m dirty enough on my own without actually having to trash anything [laughs].

Q: On this tour, you invited Fountains of Wayne out on the road with you.  

RT: We really try to pick bands whose music we like–Soul Asylum, Jayhawks, Everclear, and Train.  A lot of people think Fountains of Wayne are new, but they’ve been around for a long time.  I remember knowing about them when we first started, around seven years ago.  They already had a record out.  We’ve been fans of them for awhile.

We’ve made so many friends with bands that we’ve played with.  It’s a fraternity, kinda like in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick.  You have these extended families.  We keep building on the people that we meet and the friends that we’ve made.  It’s nice to run into each other on the road.

Q: Earlier this year, you played and sold out Wembley Arena in London.  That has to be a great moment for any group, especially an American band.  

RT:  Definitely.  We did it by coming back a few times and working our way up from small venues.  It was amazing to look around and see 11,000 fans at Wembley.  We’re an American band that people want to come see live.  We’re not a trendy video band.

It’s funny, because over in England the music is so pop- and dance-oriented that we stand out as an American rock band.  It’s definitely something they’re not getting a lot of, and so when it comes over there, they’re really happy to see it.  Counting Crows are the same way. They can go over and sell out a nice, big arena.

Q: In the past, you’ve talked about wanting to be known as a songwriter, not as a “star.”  You said that pop stars are built and manufactured but songwriters aren’t.

RT:  You can make a pop star.  You can give someone the songs and the producers, and the stylist, and the exposure, and boom–they’re a star, automatically.  It doesn’t take a whole lot to be a star; it’s just takes a lot of money and a machine behind you.  It really is a kind of a sad, soulless thing.  I don’t think anybody can teach somebody how to be a songwriter.  You either write songs or you don’t write songs.

Q: When you perform “Unwell” (from MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE), you’re known to talk to the audience about how people deal with their demons.

RT: On certain nights, I talk about the idea that when you’re a kid and things are bothering you, you think it’s just you and you try to hide it–you know, to do the whole cool thing. As you get older, you realize that it’s everybody; everybody’s a little fucked up from time to time, and at their wit’s end, and they don’t know what they’re going to do. Once you realize that everybody’s that way, you’re enlightened and happy.

Q: In your songs, you write about people who’ve been broken down; they’ve lost things that mattered to them, but they’re still fighting.

RT: Yeah, I think there’s an element of hopefulness to everything that we do.  All of our songs follow that. Sometimes, you have hopeless lyrics with a hopeful melody and a hopeful arrangement that, in a way, infers that there’s hope. Songs like “Push.”  I think it’s weird when people come to me and are like, “Oh, that’s our song!”  You know, you’re high!  But I think it’s great, because people, if they aren’t catching the lyrics, you still want them to feel something.

Q: On the song “Hand Me Down” (from MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE), there’s the lines: “You’re just one more hand me down/But no one’s tried to give you what you need.”  What inspired this song?

RT:  The whole idea of “Hand Me Down” came from being in Woodstock. Everyday, on the way to the studio, you passed through the little town of Woodstock. In the center of the town, there are all these homeless teens. It’s a total little community of their own. It’s really cool the way they look out for each other and the way they are family, but it’s really sad to see all these homeless teens in the square. There are twenty to fifty of them in the mornings when you go by. The idea of them opened up what the song was going to be about for me.

Q: What inspired the album title More Than You Think You Are?  There’s a lot of hope in the title for somebody who might feel worthless.  

RT:  It’s kind of funny, because it’s a phrase that happened by accident. We had so many different titles being thrown around, and no one said More Than You Think You Are.  But somebody said something that somebody thought was More Than You Think You Are.  And we really liked the idea of the phrase itself. Our first fear was that people were going to think that it was a self-reference and that we were trying to say that we’re more than you think we are. But it wasn’t that at all–it was meant for anyone holding the record or looking at it.

Q: Is that why you guys put your hands on your face for the cover shot?

RT: That was kind of a double thing. I love the image of something so open like More Than You Think You Are, and then you see these people–the band–concealing their identities. To me, I thought that was just a nice twist; it played really well together.  Also, our record company asked us to appear on the cover, but we never wanted to do that.  So this was a good middle ground, where we would appear on the cover, but you wouldn’t be able to see our faces.

Q: What would be the reason you guys don’t want to be seen on the cover?

RT: To me, I don’t mind seeing a solo artist on a cover, but when I see a band on a cover, it makes me think of seeing a local band poster, like a boy band or something. The album is supposed to be about the music, and we like to use the opportunity of an album cover to be another creative extension of what we do, to be able to give you a hint, and a feeling of what’s inside. Paul (Doucette, the band’s drummer) has a lot to do with that, too. He does a lot of that work of the art design. With this one, we were in the studio with Ria (Lewerke, the art director), just trying to figure out what the hell the thing was going to be.  Paul had taken a picture at an old photo shoot where his hands were over his face. I was just so moved by this picture that I thought, ‘Let’s just line everybody up right there in the studio.’ We took the picture with a little digital camera, and Ria took it back to her workshop and did it up.

Q: How did you feel when “Unwell” was the only rock song for a few weeks in the hip-hop dominated top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart?

RT: I felt good and sad at the same time. It’s kind of sad sometimes, when more music’s not being represented. But there was a time when the music right now that’s ruling the airwaves wasn’t being represented properly, either. It would be nice if, in the near future, we started to see a little more of a variety in what’s being played the radio. I like to hear hip-hop, but I’d also like to hear some great bands. I’d like to hear Wilco on the radio sometime.

Q: On the road, how do you guys pass the time when you’re not performing?

RT: There’s a lot of reading. Paul and I just burn through books.  Some recent favorites for me are Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, and The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.  We’re big on DVDs and movies, too.  We’re media junkies.

Q: Tell us about what’s next for Matchbox Twenty.  We hear there are various solo projects coming.

RT: In between records, that’s our time to have another musical identity than just the five of us together. In between records, everybody’s gone out and worked with other people and done something else. Whenever we came back, we brought those new experiences back with us, and we became a better band. I think that the next plateau for us is to see what we’ll do on our own.  It’s nice, because on our iPods, we’re all listening to each other’s demos, and we’re all big supporters of each other’s projects. We know that once it’s done, and once it’s out, and we get back to Matchbox, we’re going to have all these new ideas and all these new ways of doing things, and this whole new confidence that we didn’t have before.

Q: It keeps things interesting to change the scenery.

RT: I think you have to. I don’t think anybody in this band–and I’m glad for this–would be happy just stationed here. I think this is our jumping-off point for a lot of our talents, and our emotions, and all these things that we do.

Q: Tell us about some of these projects.

RT: I’m working on a solo album.  Kyle (Cook, the band’s lead guitartist) has a band called The New Left.  They’re working on an album.  Kyle’s also an amazing composer and arranger.  Paul’s working on his solo stuff too.  The song “Could I Be You” (from MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE) was supposed to be one of his solo record songs.  But I couldn’t get it out of my head when I heard it.  Adam (Gaynor, the band’s rhythm guitarist) has been talking to some people about writing. He’s really secret about what it is.  Brian just wants to take a break for a while and get his house and home studio together.

Q: Will Matchbox Twenty tour beyond this year for MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE?

RT:  Right around Christmas is when we’re going to wrap it up for awhile. We’ve been out of the country since last April. We’re all ready to step out of these shoes for awhile.

Q: Last question: any thoughts about California now having a movie star as its governor?

RT: Well, that’s nothing new.

Q: True, there was Ronald Reagan.

RT: And Minnesota had a wrestler.

 

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