Man in a Box 

Rob Thomas escaped the confines of Matchbox 20. Now he wants back in.

Rob Thomas: He's no Usher -- just dressed as one.
  • Rob Thomas: He's no Usher -- just dressed as one.
The release last spring of Rob Thomas' solo debut, Something to Be, was seen by many as a sure sign that the days are numbered for Thomas' band, Matchbox Twenty.

As the group's primary songwriter and singer, Thomas, 33, was already the most visible member of the group, whose three CDs have sold a combined 25 million copies and spawned such chart-busting hits as "If You're Gone," "Push," and "3 A.M."

His songwriting and performing collaborations outside of the group -- most notably with "Smooth," the Grammy-winning smash single he co-wrote and sang for guitarist Carlos Santana -- have already established that Thomas can thrive outside of Matchbox Twenty.

But Thomas says that doing his solo CD has actually rekindled his enthusiasm for working with the band. "I'm really excited about the next time we step onstage together," he says.

That fervor wasn't there two years ago, when Matchbox Twenty finished touring behind its third release, the blockbuster hit More Than You Think You Are.

Up to that point, the band had always finished tours feeling fired up about going back into the studio to make its next album. This time, that excitement was nowhere to be found, and the five band members needed a break -- not just from recording and touring, but from each other.

"We all kind of got that feeling like okay, we've got to step out," Thomas says. "[It wasn't that I] just can't play with you anymore. It was more we were uninspired with each other."

Time has passed, and Thomas, in particular, has experienced a whole different situation working alone. He says he's come to appreciate even more how special it is to be in Matchbox Twenty.

"Now I think going out and really understanding what the strengths of the guys in the band are, also understanding what a special time it is when we go on the road and we're sharing that with the crowds every night -- that's a special thing we've created over the years."

So a new chapter for Matchbox Twenty is on the horizon. But before that happens, Thomas is giving Something to Be another moment in the sun by embarking on his second extensive tour of the United States as a solo artist.

The show will be markedly different from a Matchbox Twenty concert, he promises.

"It's definitely more of a soul band than Matchbox Twenty," he says of his backing group. "The drummer and the bass player, the singers, they're all a bunch of Philly and New York player-players. So it's -- I think -- more of a musical show. Matchbox Twenty is more of a straight-ahead rock show."

Of course, the show will feature songs from Something to Be, but Thomas says he will also touch on Matchbox Twenty's music, although he will present those songs in different ways.

"It was kind of a challenge to figure out how to do Matchbox Twenty songs, because I didn't want to put a lot of parts on Matchbox Twenty songs which are signature parts that are created by the members of the band," he says.

"So to go in and do a song like '3 A.M.' or 'If You're Gone,' I'd just bring the song to them as if they're hearing it for the first time and rewrite it. So we really are coming up with some special, unique versions of these old songs."

Thomas says that the solo shows have a unique character just because he's not performing with an established and successful band.

"What's weird, in a lot of places, is like when I come onstage with Matchbox, we're playing 10 years of history, and there are singles, and it's just your whole history," he explained. "And here, you have a couple of singles, but it's a lot of people kind of acquainting themselves with this material. So in a lot of ways, it seems like they're listening even harder."

Fans have clearly liked what they've heard. Upon its release in April 2005, Something to Be went straight to No. 1 on Billboard's album chart and has gone on to sell more than a million copies. The sales have been fueled by a trio of hit singles, "This Is How a Heart Breaks," "Lonely No More" (still a Top 10 hit on adult contemporary radio 16 months after it debuted on that chart), and now "Ever the Same," which has gone Top 10 on Billboard's adult Top 40 and adult contemporary charts.

In light of Thomas' track record, that success was predictable enough. With Matchbox Twenty, he has proved himself many times over as a songwriter who knows how to write crowd-pleasing, radio-ready, mainstream pop songs. This commercial success hasn't endeared Matchbox Twenty to a number of critics, who have found the group's music to be calculated and generic.

However, Thomas earned points even with his critics by co-writing "Smooth." The soulful rocker was a major departure from the Matchbox Twenty sound and a standout track on Santana's blockbuster CD, Supernatural. To an extent, "Smooth" seems like the starting point for Something to Be, which frequently explores the more soulful side of Thomas' writing.

Especially on songs like "Lonely No More," "I Am an Illusion," and "Fallin' to Pieces," Thomas' pop sense gets equal billing alongside danceable grooves and harmony vocals that draw from vintage soul and gospel. The CD's ballads (such as "Ever the Same" and "Problem Girl") fall closer to the Matchbox Twenty mold, but even these songs offer shades of difference in their use of more varied and rich instrumentation and more assertive rhythms.

Breaking away from the basic instrumental format of Matchbox Twenty helped bring out new facets in Thomas' writing.

"Matchbox Twenty, it's a guitar-based band. We come from the land of Tom Petty," he says. "Some of the writing that I did for this, I started with just the drums. Like I would start with a drum machine and piano. So I would start with a beat, the rhythm, and then I would let the rhythm give me a chord progression and an arrangement and a melody idea . . . Guitars are rock, and when you start with bass and drums, that kind of brings you into a much more soulful area."

The appeal of his old band rekindled, there's a good chance that Thomas really will be lonely no more.

More by Alan Sculley


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