Matchbox Twenty guitarist Paul Doucette admits there are times when even he can't stand his own gazillion-platinum-selling band. Like everybody else on the planet at one time or another, Doucette once despised everything the Mom rockers stood for. "We used to walk with our heads hung low," he says. "People would ask us, 'Hey, what band are you in?' '[Mumbles almost inaudibly] Matchbox Twenty. I know — you hate us.'
"We used to get knocked a lot. We still do," he goes on. "'These guys aren't an alternative-rock band — they're a bunch of pansies.' Yeah, we know, we're pansies. We get it."
But it's been more than five years since Matchbox Twenty has even really been a band. Its last album, More Than You Think You Are, came out in 2002, and the four members haven't played together since singer Rob Thomas began working on his hit solo album, Something to Be, which was released in 2005.
The years away from his bandmates have left Doucette — who is married to Frank Zappa's daughter, Moon, with whom he has a two-year-old daughter — in a happier place these days. "We're able to take ego out of things now," he says. "We're all doing this together now."
When Matchbox Twenty reunited last year to map out its next album, things were relatively stress-free. Original guitarist Adam Gaynor was gone — he was booted from the band in 2005. ("That was a relationship we needed to stop" is all Doucette will say about his departure.) Doucette, who used to be the group's drummer, switched to guitar. Then the guys all hit Thomas with their gripes about his solo career and incidental hogging of the spotlight — which, of course, is what always happens with singers, although the rest of the band never seems to catch on.
"None of us could feel attached to the music, because it wasn't our music — it was Rob's," says Doucette, who's uncharacteristically forthcoming and quick to run down the problems that go with being in a world-famous band. "But he always tells us, 'If you're just my backing band, how come the songs never turn out the way I want them to turn out?'"
So the four members of Matchbox Twenty decided to cap the first decade of their career with a greatest-h;its album, Exile on Mainstream. But they were all itching to make some new music too — mostly to see if they could still play together. But instead of padding the best-of CD with a new tune or two, the band recorded a six-song EP that's included with Mainstream.
"We completely changed the dynamic of how we did everything when we got back together," says Doucette. "When we left, we weren't in the best place. We didn't know whether or not we even wanted to be a band anymore. Every band cliché was happening to us. We wanted to test the waters with the [EP]."
The new songs were recorded with producer Steve Lillywhite, whose long career behind the boards includes gigs with everyone from Peter Gabriel and Morrissey to the Rolling Stones and U2. The band, Doucette says, immediately clicked under Lillywhite's direction. "We used to re-record the same part over and over again, till we got it right," he says. "The new stuff is a lot more off-the-cuff. We like that looseness."
Doucette is especially happy that the recent recordings reflect a more relaxed band at play. He admits that many of Matchbox Twenty's past chart-toppers — including "Push," "3AM," and "If You're Gone," all on Exile on Mainstream — sound "overproduced." "I like how [the new material] sounds like we're not even trying," he says. "We're just letting it do what it does."
As maddening as Matchbox Twenty can be — criticisms range from the band's pandering to the mainstream's blah tastes to the fact that people over 40 really like them — it's made some undeniably catchy radio fare over the past dozen years. Still, Doucette shakes his head in disbelief at his record company's initial attempts to sell Matchbox Twenty as an alt-rock act, back when its debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, came out in 1996. "It was easy for them to package us that way, because we didn't know what we were," he laughs. "If the big record label said we were an alternative-rock band, I guess that's what we were."
The album went on to sell more than 12 million copies and spawn five hit singles. A couple of years later, Thomas was recruited to co-write and sing "Smooth," the hit single from Santana's 1999 comeback CD, Supernatural. It gave Matchbox Twenty some cred — Thomas sang the hell out of it — but it also caused a rift between the singer (who snagged three Grammys for the song) and the rest of the band.
Mad Season, from 2000, followed the debut's successful pattern of melodic pop rock laced with the occasional chunky guitar riff. Two hit singles — "Bent" and "If You're Gone" — were pulled from the album. But by the time of More Than You Think You Are, Matchbox Twenty was even less adventurous. The disc managed to sell two million copies, but its highest-profile song, "Unwell," wasn't a smash. So Matchbox Twenty took a break. "When you start out, you're not running a business," says Doucette. "Then you turn around, and there are 50 people working for you."
Even though they've come to terms with Thomas' frontman/solo status, don't expect a new Matchbox Twenty record anytime soon. Doucette says the guys are writing songs for their fourth CD, but Thomas may record his second solo album first. "He's working, we're working," he says. "We're all going by what we're all feeling."
In a way, Exile on Mainstream is the closing of one chapter of Matchbox Twenty and the opening of another, in which they follow their instincts rather than the industry's idea of what Matchbox Twenty should sound like. "We're definitely saying 'bye to a certain way of thinking and working," says Doucette. "The formula for making records that worked for three albums, we're not using anymore. We're going to try something else. We don't want to put out 'Push' every single time."
The band is even at the point where it can poke fun at itself with the CD's winking title and get a bit self-referential in its first single, "How Far We've Come." "I no longer feel bad about making music that people like," says Doucette. "We do what we do. We're a pop band, and we like melodies. We're not trying to be anything we're not."
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