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Rob Thomas Interview: Talking Matchbox Twenty, Santana and "The Song"

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Image attributed to Randall Slavin

Rob Thomas

Singer, songwriter and musician Rob Thomas is best known for being the lead singer of the rock band Matchbox Twenty which was formed in Orlando, Florida, in 1995. In addition to Thomas, the group also currently consists of Brian Yale (bass guitar), Paul Doucette (drums, rhythm guitar, backing vocals) and Kyle Cook (lead guitar, vocals). Thomas received three Grammy Awards for co-writing and singing on the 1999 hit “Smooth” by Santana. He has also written songs for many other artists.

Something About Christmas Time is Thomas’ fifth solo album release, and the debut holiday record came out October 22, 2021. He appears on the new season of The Song, which features iconic artists performing legendary songs in some of the most scenic locations in America. The third season premiered nationwide January 8, 2022, and episodes can be seen on AXS TV.

"I’ve never been really, really comfortable around a lot of people, but at least before, I had more experience with it."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Rob, tell me about The Song.

Rob Thomas: Well, The Song is just as the name suggests. It’s like an interview show with live music, but it kind of focuses on the engine behind everything, which is the song. I’m looking back now, and some of these songs are from 25 years ago when they were released. It’s a unique experience, I think, to go back because you’re revisiting who you were when you wrote them as well and also the journey you’ve taken if you’ve been lucky enough to be playing for that long. So doing the show turned out to be really a cathartic experience. I really enjoyed it. They do it really, really well.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are these Matchbox Twenty songs or from your solo catalogue that you are performing?

Rob Thomas: It’s a little bit of everything actually. It’s the songs I’ve written through the years. There’s some Matchbox, some solo, I definitely have “Smooth” in there. I have a solo band I’ve had that’s basically the same members since 2004/2005, so I’m playing with those guys. What we did was, we kind of created new versions of these songs that are a hybrid between the versions we did on the record and maybe an acoustic, really stripped down version, somewhere in the middle. So that was something in itself just to recreate these songs on the fly.

We did this, I want to say, like at the end of the summer. It was all done under really strange COVID rules. We shot the episodes in this barn that was owned by a friend of a friend up in Connecticut. It turned out to be perfect because we could control the whole environment. The acoustics were amazing.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You also appeared on Carlos Santana’s new album Blessings and Miracles, which came out last October, for a song called “Move.” How did the reunion come about?

Rob Thomas: Carlos and I have stayed incredibly close. We speak all the time. We always try and get together when we can. Our families are close. We’ve worked together over the years. After “Smooth,” we had such a great time, and it was such a success, it felt really natural that ever since, we’ve been trying to recreate that. So I would just write songs for Carlos and other people. Carlos and I would just get together and play music live, but we never really thought about recording something else.

Then me and Zac, the lead singer from American Authors, and Dave, the bass player from American Authors, were working on a song for American Authors. At the end of the session, they sent me the track. I  reached out to Carlos just to see if he might want to put some guitars on it because it had such a great Latin feel. I decided it would be fun if he just played on it. He explained to me how close he was to finishing his record, but he felt like he was missing one song and felt like “Move” was the one he was missing. So everything happened the way we always thought that it would if we worked together again, which was very naturally.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Thus, the reunion after 22 years. Carlos is 74 now, and you’re 49. So is there still the same rapport between you two, or is it different now?

Rob Thomas: I think it’s better now than it ever was. With “Smooth,” we got to go through this whole experience together with the Grammys and all the different shows. But the years that followed really created this friendship that we have. Like, when we go through things in our lives, we talk about them. He’s been a mentor to me, and I’ve been there as a friend to him. We’re basically old friends when we get together now.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you spoken to him since his heart surgery?

Rob Thomas: I have. I spoke to him literally the day after. I sent him this box set. It was like the 100 greatest DVDs in Warner Bros. history (laughs). It was all these movies from the 1930s until today. It was like 100 DVDs. So I sent him that to help him recuperate.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Some songwriters say when they write a song, they can really feel if it is the one. Did you ever feel that way while you were writing “Smooth”?

Rob Thomas: You know, I didn’t. My wife did, oddly enough. She said, “This is going to be really, really big.” I was living in downtown New York. I didn’t even know it was the single, honestly. I didn’t know whether they were going to pick it. I was standing on the street, and this car stopped at a red light. It was a convertible, and “Smooth” was on the radio. I thought, “That sounds really good.” (laughs)

Carlos hadn’t had a really big hit in a while, so I just wanted to do something for him because I was such a really big fan. I grew up on his music, and I thought it was going to be one of those things where I’d say, “By the way, did you get a chance to check out this new song I did with Carlos”? So I think we were all taken aback. It was funny. You know, Melissa, if you talk to anybody retroactively about things, everybody will tell you that they all knew it was going to be a big hit. But really, we just throw everything out there and hope it does well.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You wrote “Unwell” during the time you started to have panic attacks. How have your anxiety issues been during the pandemic?

Rob Thomas: They’ve probably completely gotten worse during the pandemic. I’ve never been really, really comfortable around a lot of people, but at least before, I had more experience with it. Like now, if I’m out in public sometimes, I feel myself having a hard time and panic attacky. A lot of people feel that way, and for a long time, there was this stigma about admitting that you were uncomfortable in situations or about admitting that you have phobias or fears or anxieties.

I think that now, it’s a completely different world as far as there’s no stigma around that feeling anymore, and it’s okay for people and kids, especially, to talk about having those feeling and to talk about not being okay. I think that’s a huge line between somebody saying, “Hey, you’re crazy,” and “You’re just a little unwell.” I think it’s more about that line.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You should be very proud of that song in that you may have helped someone out there who is struggling with those issues.

Rob Thomas: Thank you. I am proud of that one.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Matchbox Twenty has a tour beginning in May of this year. Have you written new songs?

Rob Thomas: No. Right before the holidays, the guys were in New York at the studio. None of us really had the time or emotional bandwidth to put together an entire album in the way we’d want to put together whole record. So we’re just going to put out probably just a four-song EP for some new music for fans and stuff to play live. It’s just not about going out to support a whole record right now like going out and doing all the TV shows and all that stuff. It seems like a lot more fun to have a song out and let the tour be the promotion for it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The last Matchbox Twenty tour was in 2017?

Rob Thomas: That sounds about right, and it was probably 2019 when I was out solo. We did America and Australia and then came back.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I understand you wrote one holiday song last year, then told the A&R rep with Atlantic about it, and he wanted you to do a Christmas record. Was that the motivation to do the album?

Rob Thomas: It was the kick I needed, I think. A lot of us musicians are notorious about procrastinating. I kept wanting to make a Christmas record. Then I was home that summer and could do that because I wasn’t working on Matchbox Twenty or solo songs, so I didn’t have that excuse. But I still think if I didn’t have someone light that fire under me, I would’ve just talked about it a lot and said, “Aw, shit. It’s too late.” (laughs) But it lit a fire under me, and I was really glad it did. I had that record in me and knew I wanted to make a Christmas record that was a little different than the ones I buy.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And one song is now the theme for a television show.

Rob Thomas: Well, yeah, what were the odds that somebody was working on a show called Small Town Christmas right when I was writing “Small Town Christmas”? I think that was kind of amazing. For all of us, whenever something succeeds, it’s all a suspension of disbelief because if you really thought about the odds of success, it would be so daunting that, I think, it would never happen. We really didn’t think much about the record. It was really surprising to my wife and I when we saw “Small Town Christmas” on the regular radio chart. It was like me, Michael Buble and Kelly Clarkson. Those were the three Christmas songs in the top 10.

The good thing is I didn’t even realize how many people last year were putting out Christmas records. Again, if I had known that, I think I would’ve jinxed it, like the “I’m never going to succeed” thing. I just thought I was the only one putting out a Christmas record last year, and we were really surprised.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You know, speaking of succeeding. It took a lot of courage and perseverance to escape your early family situation, the drugs, jail time, being homeless.

Rob Thomas: And a lot of willful ignorance. For some reason, I honestly thought, “Why wouldn’t I succeed as a musician?” Again, if you don’t look at the odds, that’s a really big help. Then there was a lack of options. When I was growing up, I thought, “This is kind of it.” I had to make it work.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you learn something about yourself during that time?

Rob Thomas: I think I finally got to a point where I felt worthy of success. Sometimes, you feel like you don’t deserve it. I feel like I worked for these things. I had a bit of talent, and I worked really, really hard at honing it. I spent more time doing that than I had on anything. Like, all of a sudden, I didn’t mind 25-hour days. I didn’t mind sleepless nights getting stuff done. It felt good to accomplish something. I don’t think I felt famous. I felt like I was succeeding at something that I was good at, and that’s a good feeling.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You and Marisol have been married over 20 years. What makes it work?

Rob Thomas: A patient wife, I would imagine (laughs). She’s my best friend. We’ve been through a lot together, obviously. We’ve had a couple of lifetimes together now. From the time we met in our mid-20s to now, we’ve become different people. We’re really lucky, I think, that we evolved together. We wanted the same things, and we wanted to find ourselves in the same situations as we got older. It’s the reason why 20 some odd years later, we can still sit on the couch today and get excited because we’re making dinner (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) I truly understand that. Any other projects coming up, Rob?

Rob Thomas: Well, for Matchbox Twenty, I’ve kind of put everything on the side for that. I have a full solo record done. I originally planned, and you know what happens when you make plans, but the plan was I’d be out with Matchbox in 2020, maybe a part of 2021. I would be sitting here with you having a conversation about this new solo record. But everything just got moved, and we were just kicking that can on down the road. So right now, that’s definitely on the back burner. But it’s good to know I’ve got stuff that I’m really excited about. That’s always a good feeling. But hopefully, by that time, I’d have written a whole new record anyway (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) And I look forward to chatting with you about it.

Rob Thomas: (laughs) I already hope you like it.

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