“We always say I was more famous than she thought I was, and less famous than I thought I was.”
It’s not your usual husband-wife chat, but then this is Rob Thomas describing the state of play when he met Marisol Maldonado at the onset of his career, one album along the road of three Grammy Awards and an exalted position on the high plinth of American popular rock.
Rob Thomas with his wife Marisol Maldonado
Today in London, Thomas is mock-angsting because his wife has texted him ‘good morning’ from the US and then promptly disappeared. “Why do women do that?” he asks the room. His Matchbox Twenty bandmate Paul Doucette offers sagely, “Because they have things to do?”
It’s immediately clear that, between these two parts of the band, there is no hierarchy, an achievement in itself, because Thomas – he of the legendary Carlos Santa collaboration on Smooth – is equally famous, arguably more so, on his own. The only concession to his superstardom is probably the fact that he’s the one wearing sunglasses, while Doucette contents himself with a woolly hat.
We’re all drinking strong black coffee – jet lag is their excuse, I don’t have one – and Rob Thomas is pouring. I haven’t met a friendlier pair of rock stars, curled up in a pair of big chairs, like a couple of purring housecats, and musing on their long-time friendship and collaboration and what’s new about North, their fourth album, already at number one on the US Billboard chart.
So... North – what does that mean and who came up with it?
The one in the hat speaks first. “It’s a mixture of stuff, it’s about keeping your bearings, about all of us heading in the same direction despite the different stuff we’ve been up to.”
Matchbox Twenty are Paul Thomas, Kyle Cook, Rob Thomas and Brian Yale
“It’s about finding that little sweet spot, where everything we all are separately crosses over, that…” he struggles, and I suggest Venn Diagram… “Yes,” he slaps his leg happily… “Exactly.”
A sweet spot it may have been but, after 30 million sales doing it the old way, with Thomas at the song-writing helm, they found creating the new album threw up a surprising, fresh dynamic, with Doucette and Brian Yale enjoying their own productive teamwork, while Rob was away doing something else.
“It was strange,” Thomas remembers now. “Because Paul and I had always written together, hung out together, and suddenly, they had this whole new thing going on. I felt a bit left out.
“I was texting them, ‘hey guys, what are you doing?’ It was like that term at school where your friends had made new friends at summer camp.
But both agree the growth of the band musically as a result of this fresh, collaborative approach. Thomas describes having the realisation that “I sometimes didn’t need to change stuff once I’d heard it, that I could be doing that for the sake of it” and that Doucette remains “my confidante, my partner for half my life, there isn’t a note I wouldn’t play to him, or something that he would say that I wouldn’t take on board.”
Messrs Thomas and Doucette - still having fun after two decades of musical partnership
Doucette meanwhile seems happy in this developing role, while not forgetting for one minute Thomas’s credentials as a songwriter of immense technical ability, as well as an uncanny ear for a commercial hook…
“I’m happy to write stuff by myself, and then show it to Rob. He has so much authority as a songwriter I’d be incredibly stupid to be too proud to run it past him. He sets the bar high.”
High indeed. 1999 was the summer defined by the licks of Carlos Santana’s guitar on his much-heralded comeback album Supernatural (12 Grammy Awards in total) and, although he collaborated with ten other artists on the different tracks, it was Thomas’s contribution, co-writing and singing on Smooth, that spearheaded its commercial triumph too, and brought the pair three special Grammy Awards for Record, Song and Collaboration of the Year. How does he view that earlier sweet spot now, alongside Santana, whom he describes as “family”?
“Smooth, wow, it was just one of those amazing moments in your life where everything came together.
“But if I’m honest, I think of it truthfully as a carnival procession for Carlos, and I was just lucky to be on the first float.
“These days, it’s almost become a bit of a running joke for all of us. We ask each other, ‘Is it like Smooth?’”
They can afford to joke. Already North has been to the top of the US Billboard charts, with its first single, She's So Mean. Who’s that about?
“No one,” they chorus. I don’t get it. One of them must have been suitably inspired by a heart-breaking woman, put pen to paper, walked into the studio, surely?
And what if the others don’t agree? They’ve all been so successful already, Thomas particularly, how can they possibly bring all that into the studio without a lot of aggro and bashing of heads?
They both smile. “You’ve hit the nail on the head,” explains Thomas. “That’s where North comes in. It sums up our intent to keep a check on all of that, and unite it. When I’m writing a song, it’s about my wife. When Paul writer, it’s about his girlfriend and his daughter, but it’s the same thing, it’s universal… love is love, right?”
So they’re the same but different, summed up by a story they tell about their performance at London's Roundhouse the night before. Doucette, who is apparently historically paranoid, and once again asked Thomas just before they went on, “What if everyone leaves?” Thomas put on his superstar hat and grinned, “They won’t, we’re f***ing awesome.”
But what if they had? Even Doucette relaxes. “As soon as we got out there, I spotted a guy in an old T-shirt, from the tour before. So I thought, even if everyone else leaves, we’ll just keep playing for him.”
Matchbox Twenty's North is out now. Watch the video for She's So Mean below...