You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need. And for MATCHBOX TWENTY, one of the most successful bands to emerge in the past decade, what they thought they wanted heading into 2007 turned out to be very different from what both they and their fans really needed… and are now happily getting via the band’s new collection, “EXILE ON MAINSTREAM.”
Nearly five years had elapsed since their last studio album, and in the interim, singer Rob Thomas had launched a chart-topping solo career. So, despite some 28 million records sold across three multi-platinum albums, a remarkable string of hit singles, and fan demand for the band’s return to active duty running hot, fully restarting the MATCHBOX engine nevertheless remained in question.
So the plan was to release a long-overdue greatest hits collection and to include a newly recorded track or two. And the truth is that when the members of MATCHBOX TWENTY first reconvened to write new material, they realized that it could have been the band’s swan song. “Paul [Doucette] and I had a sense going in that this was our last record,” says Thomas. “It seemed like a good one to go out on. We’d do a greatest hits album and put one new single on it.”
However, to quote one of the band’s biggest hits, they very quickly and surprisingly found their way “Back 2 Good.”
“We got together, we fought, we laid all our stuff out about what was important to us now, and we started to write,” Thomas says. “And suddenly it was like, ‘This is fun, maybe we should do a new album.’ So we ended up with the best of both worlds.”
The outstanding result is “EXILE ON MAINSTREAM”: six new songs overseen by Steve Lillywhite, marking the renowned Grammy-winning producer’s first work with the band, combined with a collection of 11 MATCHBOX TWENTY smashes. “We look at it as a new EP with a greatest hits attached to it,” Thomas says. “It was important to put the new songs on there,” agrees Doucette, “but we also wanted to make it so our fans are still paying the same as for a regular CD.”
The new songs represent a major shift for the band: on MATCHBOX TWENTY’s past three albums, Thomas wrote the lion’s share of the material, with the other group members usually adding their parts later. This time, drummer-turned-guitarist Doucette, guitarist Kyle Cook, and bassist Brian Yale were included from the start.
“I don’t think we could have gone on if we didn’t change the dynamic of the band,” Doucette says. “MATCHBOX TWENTY was a little bit Rob and his overly outspoken background band. Now it’s Rob, Kyle, Paul, and Brian. I’d become a writer over the years; Kyle had become a writer. It started to become an issue while making the last record. It got to a point where it was like, well, if we’re going to be a band, this needs to really be a band.”
Thomas, Doucette, Cook, and Yale gathered in Thomas’s New York home studio to write, each bringing with them the life and musical growth they’d experienced since the band’s last album, 2002’s “MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE.” Doucette, who shifted from drummer to guitarist after Adam Gaynor left the band in 2005, had made a solo album under the rubric The Break and Repair Method and had scored a film for Nickelodeon. Cook had released a CD via his other project, The New Left. And Thomas’s solo career took off with the multi-platinum “…SOMETHING TO BE.”
“We’d worked with different people, we’d really developed our own sounds, and they’re very different from each other,” Doucette says. “We just felt like we each have that separate space to get ourselves out, so why don’t we make Matchbox something where we all have an equal say.”
It turns out everyone had a lot on their minds. The ideas came pouring out, with the band writing 13 songs in four days. “We did this kind of round robin thing,” Doucette says. “Someone would have a progression, and someone would sing a melody, and the next person would sing a melody. It was just building on each other’s ideas.”
Just as the other band members felt they needed to add their voices, Thomas found it liberating to draw a distinction between his solo career and MATCHBOX TWENTY. “The stuff I’m writing for my solo records is about me and my own experiences,” he says. “We’re all older now and it doesn’t make sense any more for the guys in Matchbox to spend their lives trying to play my life.”
MATCHBOX TWENTY drew inspiration for the new material from an unlikely source: the 20th anniversary DVD of Live Aid. “We started watching it and got this crazy freak-out about these great simple songs that we just loved from the ‘80s,” Thomas says. “It kind of all switched on then, and we just started writing nonstop”
Inspired by the acts they saw on Live Aid like the Pretenders, Boomtown Rats, and the Police, they stripped songwriting elements down to their essence. “Lyrically, we decided to go with a lot less,” Doucette says. “To really just get to the point of what we’re trying to say and what’s the simplest way to say it.”
The first single, “How Far We’ve Come,” merges apocalyptic lyrics and frenetic, building rhythms. Doomsday has never sounded so good. “There’s no reason it can’t be sexy,” laughs Thomas about the end of the world.
The other new tracks — including the darkly humorous “I’ll Believe You When,” the driving “All Your Reasons,” the R&B-leaning “I Can’t Let You Go,” the jangly “If I Fall,” and the heartbreaking ballad “These Hard Times” — share a lyrical leanness that allows them to cut quickly through the sonic atmosphere. One trait that remains? MATCHBOX’s fairly pessimistic view of life. “Not happy, not happy,” jokes Doucette when he reviews the lyrics. “But that’s always been this band. We’ve always done more uplifting melodies with really downer lyrics.”
The band traveled from Thomas’s home studio to Los Angeles to record the new songs with Lillywhite. “We each made a list of every producer that we liked, and Steve was the only person on everybody’s list,” Doucette says. “And he was on everyone’s list for different reasons.” To handle drum duty, MATCHBOX recruited the Push Star’s Ryan MacMillan.
Lillywhite worked in a free-form style that fostered creativity and freshness. “He was like, ‘Look, I want you guys to be as unprepared as you can be,’ Doucette says. “He’s a big believer in spur of the moment.”
“He’s the most brutally honest guy,” adds Thomas. “He’s like ‘that’s not very good, is it?’ But he does it in a way that doesn’t make you feel bad.”
When not working on the new material, the band selected the 11 songs for the greatest hits portion — which they decided to present in chronological order to trace the band’s musical evolution. The result is one of those rare greatest hits sets that really is all greatest hits — every song was a chart-topping single, and every one has a companion video. Included are such smashes as “Push,” “3am,” “If You’re Gone,” “Bent,” “Disease,” “Unwell,” “Real World,” “Back 2 Good,” “Mad Season,” and “Bright Lights.”
The album’s title pokes good-natured fun at the group’s tremendous popularity, while playing off of the classic Rolling Stones album “EXILE ON MAIN STREET.” “There’s a sense that somehow a band like us should be apologetic for making music for the masses,” Thomas says. “But I think it’s great that we can hit a chord that means something to us and means something to someone else. That’s really what it’s all about.”
Fittingly, 2007 marks the tenth anniversary of MATCHBOX’s breakthrough into the mainstream. Their debut album, “YOURSELF OR SOMEONE LIKE YOU,” was released in the fall of 1996 and began an initial slow burn with the rock radio success of “Long Day.” By the spring of 1997, the band’s momentum had become explosive and unstoppable. The album went gold in June, platinum in July… and that was only the beginning. In October 1999, three years after its release, “YOURSELF…” earned the RIAA’s Diamond Award for U.S. sales of over ten million, and has gone on to sell more than 15 million copies worldwide.
MATCHBOX TWENTY was named Best New Band in the 1997 Rolling Stone Readers Poll, and they followed the enormous success of “YOURSELF…” with two more multi-platinum sets — 2000’s “MAD SEASON BY MATCHBOX TWENTY” and 2002’s “MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE.” Among their many accolades are five Grammy nominations and three American Music Award nominations, while Rob Thomas has earned three Grammy Awards, 11 BMI Awards, and has been twice named Billboard’s Songwriter of the Year.
“I still hear ‘3am’ on the radio at an alarming rate,” says Thomas. And that suits him and his band mates just fine. “Listen, my goal in life is to be this weathered guy who everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I grew up listening to you.’ I think that’s the coolest thing in the world.”
So, unexpectedly but happily for everyone, the members of MATCHBOX TWENTY are now focused on their future together. The band is looking forward to its first tour in four years, along with the prospect of a full album of all-new material down the line.
“We’re all excited. It’s a good place to be,” Thomas says. “We feel more like a band than we’ve ever felt.”