From their first hit, “Push,” to their latest singles “Disease” and “Unwell,” Matchbox Twenty have made a name for themselves by singing about troubled relationships.
In reality, the majority of the band is happily married, but singing about being stable and content doesn’t exactly make for dramatic material, so the band has learned the fine art of turning (mostly) good fortune into song fodder.
“We’re the Dr. Phil of rock,” frontman Rob Thomas said. “There’s hopeful themes on this record, even with some of the titles ‘Unwell’ and ‘Disease.’ But even songs like ‘Unwell,’ they have a positive undertone to them.”
Though the title of Matchbox Twenty’s More Than You Think You Are sounds like a self-help book, those positive undertones aren’t obvious given the dark song titles. “I had a lot of [alternative] titles,” guitarist Adam Gaynor joked, “like ‘Smile,’ ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘I’m a Really Happy Boy.’ ”
Then there’s the subject matter. The mid-tempo “Unwell,” their latest single, takes on paranoia and insecurity, while “Disease” and its corollary, “Downfall,” are more about dysfunctional relationships.
“The difference is, on ‘Disease’ it’s the woman who’s at fault,” Thomas explained, “and on ‘Downfall’ it would be me who is at fault. ‘Disease’ is just kind of a commentary on those bad relationships that you can’t get out of, even though you’re in it, and you know it’s wrong, you can’t seem to make that break. And on ‘Downfall,’ from the outside, it would seem like a really good relationship, but you always have that feeling in the back of your head that you’re going to f— it up somehow.”
So the songs aren’t that positive after all, Thomas acknowledged, but you don’t need to be in a bad place to be able to imagine less-than-perfect circumstances. Part of his job, he said, is to draw upon past experiences and document moments that can reveal larger meaning.
“Sometimes those moments last as long as a fight or a bad feeling about something in a part of a day, and it affects you,” he said. “And you want to sit down and get that out and dissect it. … Sometimes you follow it to another conclusion, sometimes you take just a minute of it and turn it into a whole other story, but it’s just a matter of taking fact and fiction and putting them together.
“When you write a novel, you have the luxury of … going into detail,” he continued. “In a song, you don’t. … You have the rhythm, you have the tone, and the lyrics become the synopsis, like Cliffs Notes of all you want to say.”
And just in case the band wasn’t affording its members enough room to express all they wanted to say, many of them are dabbling with side projects. Thomas, of course, keeps the highest profile, having lent his pipes as well as songwriting skills to Santana, Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson and, most recently, Enrique Iglesias. Now solo albums are in the works for Thomas, drummer Paul Doucette and guitarist Kyle Cook, who has a sideline band, the New Left.
“There’s a song on the record called ‘Could I Be You’ that Paul wrote for his solo thing,” Thomas said. “He played it on the bus while we were on tour, and I was like, ‘Oh, no, you’ve got to save that. That’s got to come over to our side.’ ”
Rather than solo ventures splintering the band apart, Matchbox Twenty’s members encourage each other to explore outside projects as a way to keep their skills sharp. “We look at that to be our strength in the future,” Thomas said. “It makes us want to make another record, to stay together longer, see what happens.”
It also keeps the pressure off a primary songwriter to come up with the majority of the songs, they said, having recently survived the sophomore curse with the success of More Than You Think You Are, which they jokingly refer to as their “difficult third record.” Still to come? “The hard-to-read fourth record, the transcendental fifth record and the murky sixth record,” Thomas joked.
“At this point, we’re making music for our fans,” Thomas said. “Our fans know who we are. We’re about songs, we’re about trying to give you an album of great songs that hopefully you can start at one and go all the way to 12 and not press ‘skip.’ You can drive to it and you can incorporate it into the soundtrack of your life, which is the great thing about music. We made a record that’s important to us, and somewhere … someone’s putting it into their car and it’s a part of their life now. And that really gets us off.”
“That’s the beauty of this band,” Gaynor explained. “I don’t worry about this band in that regard, because there are so many writers. It’s really about the overall production and sound we’re trying to achieve, that to me is the real tug of war, not, ‘OK, we need material. Rob, go lock yourself away. Paul, go figure something out. I’ll be here.’ The material is going to be there. There’s lots of things going on. There’s no peace for Matchbox Twenty.”