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Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas discusses the band's latest album, North.

Interview: Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas Discusses the Band’s New Album, North

It’s been 10 years since the multi-platinum selling band Matchbox Twenty (Rob Thomas, Paul Doucette, Kyle Cook, and Brian Yale) released a full-length studio record of new material, and on Tuesday, September 4, the band is set to release their latest endeavor, North.

Matchbox Twenty - credit: Randall SlavinIn between working on Matchbox Twenty records, lead singer Rob Thomas released two solo records; 2005’s …Something to Be, which spawned the Top 10 hit, “Lonely No More,” and 2009’s Cradlesong. Additionally, he was ranked #5 on Billboard’s Top 20 List of Hot 100 Songwriters 2000-2011.

Last week, Thomas and I spoke over the phone about Matchbox Twenty’s new record, including sharing songwriting duties with the band, the creative process for their current hit, “She’s So Mean,” and making records for people to listen to from beginning to end.

Being that North is the first full-length record that you guys have released in the last 10 years, what united you guys after all that time to get together to work on new music?

It was always in our plan. I had solo records that I wanted to make and being that we made a greatest hits record right in the middle. For both of us, me solo and us as a band, it always involves extensive touring. That’s just kind of the amount of time that past, but we always had the plan. When we finished the last tour up four or five years ago, I had already started recording my next solo record while we were on the road, so I just pushed right into that. The writing for this record probably started just as I was finishing up my last solo tour.

Did you guys approach the creative process for North any differently from your previous records?

Yeah, in the past it was always kind of my job to write a bunch of songs and the band’s job to arrange them. But everybody over the years had become more and more proficient writers. Collaboration was key on this record. There’s just a lot more variations on the writing; a lot of me, Paul, and Kyle. Some just Kyle, some just Paul, a couple just me, Paul/Kyle, you know, however you can arrange it. It wasn’t just going back to the same source over and over.

Did any challenges arise going from writing individually to writing with the band?

It’s a weird shift at first to get used to. For me, writing was just a solitary thing. It’s just what you do. Like, you go downstairs alone with the piano, you go into the studio and you fish about until you find a good song. Or you take an idea that you have and you write it.

But I think you start to find the narrative after you get the swing of it, because you start to realize that if you’re with people that you trust and that are really good writers, then you have this great sense of not knowing where it’s going to go, not knowing what they’re going to come up with, not knowing whether they’re going to take your ideas opposed to you being responsible for everything. That way you have these moments during the writing process where you’re surprised more than you would be if you were writing alone.

And also, I think, we have songs like, “She’s So Mean” and songs like “Put Your Hands Up” that kind of keep to this feeling that we were having of, when you have a bunch of guys that have been friends for 15 years or more and they’re all sitting around drinking a bunch of wine and playing guitar, sometimes you’re gonna have a little more fun songs than the melancholy that comes when you’re writing alone.

You guys had Matt Serletic return to produce this record; what’s the dynamic like while working with him?

Matt’s worked with us since record one. He did “Smooth” with me and the Willie Nelson record that I wrote songs for, he did that, and we did “Little Wonders” together. Matt’s like a brother. Even though we’ve always worked with him, with the exception of the one record we did with Steve Lillywhite, Matt’s just never made the same record twice.

He’s our age as well and he’s always trying to find a new direction that he wants to go in. Every time we came with him, he’s in a new place too, and wants try to try something different and wants to make a record that sounds different.

A lot of the times, people go for a producer because you want the sound, you know, that he makes records that sound like this. With Matt, you never know what you’re going to get. You simply go in for a record, and in the end, we still like that.

You mentioned in a recent interview that you guys don’t necessarily focus on what is considered Matchbox Twenty’s sound, and that you focus more on crafting a good song. At what point while you’re working on a record do you realize that you have a good song on your hands?

It’s impossible to know if you’ve got a good song on your hands. You just have no idea how the climate’s going to be or how it’s going to be received, you know, with that right amount luck kind of mixed in.

For us, it’s just when we find something that we would like. It’s kind of that simple. The only thing that makes it harder with a band is that it’s got to be something that all four of us would like. There’s a lot of places we converge on, but then we all also come from different kinds of music that we listen to ourselves. Like, I think Kyle was going through a Beyonce/Rihanna phase that I wasn’t going through at the time.

When you have that moment when we all listen to it and we all say, “Yeah, we really like this song,” and we would like it if we heard it, that’s the closest you come. Then you put it out there and that’s really all you can do.

Before we get into a couple of the tracks, where did the title of the record, North, come from?

North was just a directional thing. The idea of us trying to find our way and figure out who we are right now in our lives, in our careers as a band. North meant just that; when you’re lost, you find north.

How did the record’s first single, “She’s So Mean” come about and what was the inspiration behind the track?

Really, we just started out as kind of a melody exercise. We only had this one chord progression that ran through and then all these different kind of melodies that pop up around it that were completely different from each other. We had that for a long time; we never had a chorus, so it didn’t really mean anything. It was just kind of a fun ditty.

When we came up with the line of “She’s so mean,” then all of a sudden we started to have a story to tell, so then we could write the lyrics for it. We could actually sit down and tell this story of like an intervention that you’re having with your friend. You know, basically a metaphor of how intelligent people can make really, really bad decisions when it comes to the heart or sex. Seemingly really bright people can really make bad decisions. That’s kind of what we wanted it to be about.





One of my personal favorite tracks on the new record is “Overjoyed,” and it’s also set to be the band’s next single. What was the behind the decision to follow up “She’s So Mean” with this particular track?

You know, I don’t know. The record company, when we first started out, I think they really wanted to come out with “Overjoyed” first. And knowing that we had all these different flavors on the album, we didn’t want to come out with a ballad as our first single. We wanted to do something with a little bit more energy and excitement.

But “Overjoyed” has always been a band favorite, so we were always excited about getting it out there. We always knew it would be a single, so we were fine with it being second. It really didn’t matter at the end of the day if that was the first single, we just put out songs we like.

You mentioned the album being full of different flavors, and a track that stood out to me right away was “Put Your Hands Up.” After listening to that track, I immediately thought that that was a track that I wanted to hear live. When you’re recording, do you keep in mind what the songs will sound like live when you’re out touring on the record?

As you’re writing the song and recording it, that’s always in the back of your mind. Especially for us, because we’re a live band. Everything we do, we do so we can go out and tour it. The live aspect is really big to us. We’ll say to each other, “This is going to be really, really great live,” or “This one’s going to have this great energy live,” or you know, “I like this, but this is what we should do live- we should take this and kind of break this down instead.” We’re already having this conversation as we’re in the studio about how we’re going to transform the songs live.

Is there a specific track on the record that you’re looking forward to people hearing?

It’s all so new. There’s a lot of them, like “Parade,” “I Will,” “Like Sugar,” for different reasons.

We’re still kind of making records in the idea that people are still listening to them from beginning to end, because there’s a whole journey there. It’s not like once you’ve heard three songs you kind of get the gist of the record.

I like the fact that as you go through, when the next track starts, you don’t know where it’s going to go or where it’s going to take you, because we’re kind of jumping all over the place. For me, it’s more about the experience. And it’s funny too, because we realized it’s one of the shorter records we’ve made. I think it’s under 50 minutes or something as a whole record.

It’s really kind of a little moment in time that we wanted to create. For us, it works better if you sit and listen to it from beginning to end in the order that we have it arranged.

Speaking of the record’s song arrangement, how do you guys take the 50 or 60 tracks that you initially worked on and narrow them down to what makes the record?

It’s just kind of a process that happens on its own, in a way. We started out with 60 ideas and then we came to Nashville for the summer. And after we left Nashville, those 60 became 20. Then we came to L.A. to start recording, and you start to prioritize. “Okay, we want to do this, but these are the ones that we have to make sure we get done first.” And while you’re doing that, you’re writing new songs, as well.

As you go through, “This song that you just wrote is a lot better than this song than this one that I used to like, and these two kind of sound alike, but that one sounds like a better version of it, so I would go with this one instead of this one.”

And so, it’s kind of a democratic process with five guys, who all have a stake in this, and who all have tastes that we trust in music, just weighing in. And sometimes it would just come down to the vote. If four people really hated a song and one guy liked it, then the song doesn’t make it.

With the record currently streaming on iTunes, how have the responses and reactions been?

Oh, it’s been great. But also, you’ve got to understand I’m only on Twitter watching the responses, so it’s kind of a bubble of a fan base. I have to wait and try to see, like step outside of it, and find out what other people have to say about it.

So you’re going to be featured as a mentor on the third season of The Voice, what is your overall impression of these types of singing competitions as far as finding new talent?

It’s funny, we were having this conversation in the band the other day about American Idol. And the fact that all the years they’ve been on, there’s only been four, maybe, legitimate stars. You got your Kelly Clarkson, your Carrie Underwood, your Chris Daughtry…you get the idea.

To me, that lends some legitimacy to it, actually. You would think if it was arbitrary just because they had a season that would mean they’d have to have a big star. The currency of what makes a big star really wouldn’t mean anything.

I look at like the fact 10 or 12 years later the show’s been on, and they’ve managed to find four legitimate musicians and stars; I think that’s amazing. I think just because you get the opportunity to be on that show, even if you win, some people do great, some people don’t win and they do better, but that opportunity is just that.

It’s kind of a sign of the times that now the record companies don’t have the money they used to have for A&R and for marketing, and to actually have a guy in every region kind of hanging out and checking out musicians. This is like one A&R chance. Here you go, this is your talent show, you can show up, do your best, and even if you get that opportunity; you get that record deal, something happens from that show, that’s when the real work really begins, anyway. There’s no guarantee that because 30 million people saw you kill it in one performance, that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a career out of it. That’s still up to you to do.

I don’t have that cynical point of view of like, “Well, in my day, we went out and we had to play all the time. These guys do it on TV and they just wind up being stars.” I think they wind up being celebrities, but it doesn’t give them a career right away.

Being part of a band that has remained relevant throughout the years, what is some key advice that you would give newer bands that are looking to have the same type of longevity in their careers?

For us, the whole thing, I guess, we never really thought about it. We still don’t. There’s so little that you can control over the outcome of a record or of your successes or your failures. We can go out and try to write the best songs we can write and make the best records you can make, and go out and put on the best show that you can put on. Beyond that, there’s so very little that you can do.

You can’t say, “Well, I’m ready to be successful now, so I’m going to make that successful record,” or “I’m tired of being successful, so I’m going to make this not so successful record.” It just doesn’t work that way.

You have to come into this business wanting to do it, because you love to do it, because you really physically can’t see yourself doing anything else.

Matchbox Twenty’s latest album, North, will be available Tuesday, September 4.

For more information on the band, please check out their official website.

Photo credit: Randall Slavin

About Kirsten Coachman

Kirsten Coachman is a writer and editor from the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit her long-running music blog, Wait...WHAT, at Follow Kirsten Coachman on Twitter: @KirsCoachman

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