Rob Thomas has spent so much of his downtime from Matchbox Twenty writing for other people, from Santana to Marc Anthony to Willie Nelson, that he has a new predicament — how does he decide which material to keep, and which to give away?
“Disease” was such a dilemma. Though originally slated to appear on Mick Jagger’s solo album Goddess in the Doorway, “Disease” ended up becoming Matchbox Twenty’s first single off of their latest album, More Than You Think You Are.
“I had written 98 percent of it, and I was thinking it would sound great if Mick sang this,” Thomas said. “For the most part, I try to never let those two worlds come into each other. Any song I write that I’m really into, that’s a Matchbox song, and I want to let the guys have the first right of refusal. But it was the first time I’d written the majority of the song and it felt like, ’Oh, I don’t know if I want to give that away.’ Everything was serendipitous the way that it happened, the way [Jagger] didn’t think it fit on his record. He said, ’It sounds like you. It’s your song.’ ”
“Disease” — with its ’70s disco vibe and monster rock beat — may be a distinctly Matchbox Twenty song, but the rest of the album is much more difficult to pinpoint. This time around, the bandmembers shared more of the songwriting duties, with drummer Paul Doucette even penning a song on his own, “Could I Be You,” for the first time.
“It’s kind of like a great democracy,” guitarist Adam Gaynor said. “You have four people that are pretty good writers and there’s never going to be a lack of material. Everybody throws their songs in the middle and you get to pick. Paul and Rob will listen to different pieces of their songs and at some point, Rob will be like, ’I got this verse,’ and Paul’s like, ’I got this great chorus,’ and they start combining things. Usually the biggest problem is, what songs do you want to cut off? And that’s a great problem to have.”
“One of the things I like about this band,” Thomas added, “is that everybody’s a writer. Everybody. [Guitarist] Kyle [Cook], Adam, when they write guitar parts, they think like a songwriter, writing melodies that don’t step on the main melody. Every band worth their salt builds on that collaborative effort. All of our favorite bands, the Stones, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, it all kind of came out of everyone throwing something in.”
Because the members of Matchbox Twenty are spread around the country — Thomas in New York, Doucette in Los Angeles, Gaynor, Cook and bassist Brian Yale in various parts of Florida — they all came together in a series of transcontinental sessions to cement More Than You Think You Are, with the majority of their time spent in Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York. “Where you live is so arbitrary,” Thomas said. “We get together when we want to rehearse, when we go on the road, so it’s kind of nice we can all find a place where we’re all equally inconvenienced.
“A lot of our favorite records were made [at Bearsville],” Thomas added. “We knew the sound of that studio by listening to Jeff Buckley’s Grace, or some of our favorite R.E.M. records, or Patti Smith or the Band. There’s a difference between when the tone of the record is all about the space in between the notes, about the sound in a room. And getting a good sound on the snare is all about how it resonates in that room. The only preconceived idea we had was we were going to spend a lot of time just getting that perfect sound and use as much of the room as we can.”
An organic, stripped-down approach dominated the sessions and the style of More Than You Think You Are, a title the band cheerfully admits seems to suggest more self-help book than rock album. Intricate arrangements abound as well, though, especially in pained-relationship songs like “Disease” and “Downfall,” which comes complete with a gospel choir and hand claps. But the room did more than capture that perfect snare sound, the band said. It also helped the group get in touch with the less pleasurable things in life, which definitely shaped the album’s motifs of torment and longing.
“We had a lot of creepy things, a lot of deer, oppressive heat,” Gaynor said. “It’s a wonderful environment — no air conditioning. There’s a room that’s at 140 degrees, and then there’s a room at 97 degrees, and you’re eating lunch in that room and it’s really wonderful. It makes you feel as if you are suffering, and then you write these brilliant songs. We’re just like, ’Ow, I’m in pain.’ It’s everything conducive to writing and creating.”