Home > News & Reviews > Rob Thomas

Let The Journey Be The Experience: Rob Thomas Discusses The Remarkable Ride To 'Chip Tooth Smile'

Tuesday, 23 April 2019 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Randall Slavin

Calling Rob Thomas the modern day embodiment of the American dream is, admittedly, overly saccharine, a little old fashioned and not necessarily congruent with the undercurrent of emotional angst that’s always fuelled much of his music. Yet he’s certainly travelled a great distance to where he finds himself today, having risen from an extremely dysfunctional background to earn a reputation as one of the finest songwriters of his generation.

After growing up in an abusive, sometimes terrifying, environment and spending much of his early adulthood as something of a nomad, Thomas shot to prominence in the mid-‘90s fronting post-grunge giants Matchbox Twenty. The band’s debut album ‘Yourself or Someone Like You’, which married darker narratives to deceptively slick and sharp mainstream melodies, went diamond in the US and spawned a succession of hit singles that dominated radio waves and opened the floodgates for similar acts such as the Goo Goo Dolls and Lifehouse.

Matchbox Twenty then took bold steps forward on both their epic sophomore outing ‘Mad Season’ and 2002’s ‘More Than You Think You Are’. Thomas’s songwriting grew more inventive, emotionally rich and impossible to mimic. Try as they might, no one has sounded like them before or since.

Given the group’s level of popularity, it’s perhaps ironic that it took a collaboration with veteran Latin rocker Carlos Santana to make Thomas a household name. Smooth, a monster hit from Santana’s 1999 LP ‘Supernatural’, may have been played to death, but it saw the songwriter transcend his band—who were seen as quite a faceless outfit—and establish himself as a major artistic force in his own right.

Pulling double duty between Matchbox Twenty and a more pop oriented solo career, Thomas hasn’t just picked up accolades aplenty along the way, but also found himself in demand as songwriter for hire, collaborating with a genre-melding cast of characters from music’s past and present such as Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Daughtry, Marc Anthony and many more.  

Considering his tough youth, it’s hard not to see Thomas's story as some sort of Spielberg-esque rags to riches tale. Albeit one with an 18 certificate. We caught up with Thomas to hear about his fourth solo album, the Butch Walker-produced ‘Chip Tooth Smile’, and also got an update on Matchbox Twenty’s future plans.

After 2015’s ‘The Great Unknown’ you said your next solo record would be an acoustic, stripped down effort. Aside from a couple of tracks like that on this album, what happened to those best laid plans?

Songs like Man To Hold The Water and Breathe Out were among the first I wrote when I thought it was gonna be the whole record. But the way I write has to be visceral. I have to write all the time and, whatever I like most, it has to be that. If I didn’t, I don’t think I’d be making a true record. I’d be fabricating that because I wanted a certain aesthetic and would write songs to fit that, as opposed to just accepting what was coming out of me.

So, when played all the stuff I’d been writing for Butch, and we’re talking about four records’ worth of songs we sat through over a couple of days, those were the ones that caught his ear.  Butch has his own aesthetic as well and a lot of it was about not knowing exactly what you’re going to come out with. You just start making a record and you’re as surprised as anybody else. So I made the record, worked it out and when I heard it realised that was where I’m at right now.

It’s interesting that you’ve said you feel personally connected to these new songs in a way you haven’t done for a while. Why wasn’t that feeling there on your rather divisive last album?

‘The Great Unknown’, in a lot of ways, was an experiment. There’s a few songs I really connected with, like Heaven Help Me, Pieces and The Great Unknown. If I could, I would have extracted them and brought them onto this record because, for 20 years, I’ve always made records the same way. I go in the studio with a producer, make the record, bring it to my label. This was the one time I turned it on its end and was sitting with the label from the get go playing them demos. They were sending me different producers and tracks, and I was writing with Ryan Tedder and Ricky Reed.  

It was a different approach and a fun experience, being able to work with that calibre of producer and look at things from a new angle. Those things I had an appreciation for, but didn’t feel the connection I do when a song comes from me sitting down at a piano, or with a guitar, and finding moments of my life and writing about them. It’s not a diss on the record but it felt like a suit that didn’t quite fit me as well as this record, and my first two solo records, does. I don’t feel everybody enjoyed it and I didn’t enjoy it the whole time either.

‘Chip Tooth Smile’ has a very reflective, philosophical and, ultimately, uplifting vibe about it, so what’s been going on in your world that created that feeling?

There’s just a general understanding of yourself you get as you get older. At 47 you have a different mindset about you and your surroundings than at 37 and 27. You start off when you’re writing, you’re really really young, and writing about love and loss and all those things is pretty much speculation because you haven’t really loved or lost anything of value. As you get older and have a son, a marriage and relationships that matter, you start to think about your place in those things.

There’s a lot of moments on the record that are autobiographical in that way. You write songs about yourself and your condition but, ultimately, you want something that feels completely personal but somebody else can take into their lives and make it a part of theirs as well. That’s the duality when trying to write.

The album starts on a rousing note with with One Less Day (Dying Young). On that track you sing about making each moment count and how you’re grateful to get older because it means you can experience all life has to offer. Is that a mindset you’ve always possessed?

I’ve always had that thing where, when I hear somebody talk about how much getting older sucks, I’m like ‘Wait a minute, do you not know the alternative?’ If you’re not paying attention, that’s a win every day. And I’m not like a cup of sunshine, annoyingly positive guy. Sometimes I think the world is shit, but it doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s gonna be OK and it doesn’t mean I don’t want to stick around as long as I can to see how it turns out.

In terms of the world being shit and how divided America is politically, have you ever been tempted to explore your feelings about that through your songwriting?

I have. I’m a news and politics junkie. I’ve done Real Time with Bill Maher three or four times and have many opinions on the matter. But I feel what I write is more about the residual. If I’m upset about something in politics I’m, ultimately, concerned about the way it’s affecting my life and what’s happening in the world. Not to the point where I feel like writing a song that’s pointedly negative about our President just because I hate our President. That’s not a lane I would usually go into. My thing would just be ‘This is how we all feel right now.’  

On a very different note, how much fun did you have building the narrative of Modern Love from ‘80s song titles, and did you have to be careful to ensure it didn’t end up as some kind of cheeky gimmick?

Well if it’s not a cheeky gimmick that’s pure luck, because it’s the one song that’s definitely more craft than inspiration. Me and Butch wrote it together and it did have a point of view, in that I was writing an ‘80s song about listening to ‘80s songs that was completely made up of ‘80s song titles and lyrics. So me and Butch had it all mapped out and, instead of going to the studio with him, I did all the vocals in my studio at home.

I was literally downstairs working and my wife was upstairs texting me ‘80s records we grew up on and loved, saying ‘Don’t forget this Bowie song or this George Michael song.’ We stayed mostly in the lane of ‘80s alt tracks but there’s definitely some Phil Collins, even some Depeche Mode, moments in there. That was pure fun craft, man, to figure out a way to do that so I don’t have to explain it to somebody. When they hear the first In The Air Tonight and Sister Christian popping out they’re like ‘Wait a minute, I see what’s going on here.’ And if you don’t know those references it still stands up as a song about a relationship.  

We have to mention that this year is the 20th anniversary of a certain Santana collaboration. At the time, how did the rest of the guys in Matchbox Twenty feel about the success of Smooth?

I asked them if it was OK because, at first, I was just writing it and wasn’t supposed to perform. When Carlos asked me if I wanted to duet with him I came to Paul [Doucette, drums and guitar] and was like ‘Listen, is this gonna be something you’re cool with?’ We were off the road and weren’t doing anything new, just getting ready to start our second record. Paul asked me ‘So...is it like Living La Vida Loca?’ I was like ‘No, it’s a Carlos song. It’s a rock song but it’s just Latin music.’ He was like ‘Alright, I don’t give a fuck. Go ahead.’  

So, then the first single off our next record was Bent, and the whole video was going to focus around the guys resenting me because of this whole Smooth thing. There was a scene in the alley where Kyle [Cook, guitar] knocks me down and I’m lying in the mud, but in the version of the video we wanted to make they were gonna beat me with a Grammy and it turns out you can’t do that. The Grammys won’t let you use a Grammy in that way. So we all took it very very tongue in cheek.  

Everyone wants to know if there’s going to be a new Matchbox Twenty record as it’s been seven long years since ‘North’?

There’s going to be new music, without a doubt. We’re not done with whatever that journey looks like. The landscape is changing and I’m not sure it has to involve us sitting down and making a 12 song record any more. We’re going to be one foot in the future, one foot in the past. We want to have new music for people to hear but also have 20 years of music we want to make sure people get to revisit. That frees us up to maybe play fast and loose with the format. I’m looking forward to being able to do that and not have any more pressure than just ‘Hey, I think we have a good song. Let’s put it out and go tour.’

Many fans would love you guys to make a big, guitar-driven rock record again. Is that a possibility and do you still have that in you now you’re not angry kids any more?

That is very much a possibility. I think that we want to make our fucking Night Ranger record, you know what I’m saying? We want to make that big, arena rock record. We always had moments that touched on it but now we’re always in tune with the idea that, when we’re playing something, we want to play it live to giant crowds of people. So let’s make it big, let’s make it fun.

Finally, there’s a song on the new record titled Funny that sounds particularly autobiographical. How do you think the young Rob Thomas would have reacted if he’d known what kind of life and career he’d end up having?

If you’re starting out then it’s an amazing and storied career I’ve had, right? You have levels in life and realise one day, although you’re in a band and doing well, maybe you’re not too culturally relevant. You’re not going to move the needle in a way that changes the world like Zeppelin did when they first came out. But you realise that, on these micro levels, you’re getting into people’s homes and you’re a part of their Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.  You’re part of their heartache, their joy and that is the most you can ask for. Whatever level of success, I’m just really appreciative that a big focus over the years has been on the writing aspect. That when people think of me it’s ‘songwriter Rob Thomas.’ That’s all I could have asked for when I was young and trying to do this.

'Chip Tooth Smile' is out on April 26 through Atlantic.

Rob Thomas Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue May 28 2019 - RED BANK New Jersey - Hackensack Meridian Health Theatre (USA)
Thu May 30 2019 - BATTLE CREEK Michigan - Firekeepers Casino (USA)
Fri May 31 2019 - NORTHFIELD Ohio - MGM Northfield Park - Center Stage (USA)
Sat June 01 2019 - ROCHESTER HILLS Michigan - Meadow Brook Amphitheatre (USA)
Mon June 03 2019 - CINCINNATI Ohio - PNC Pavilion At The Riverbend Music Center (USA)
Tue June 04 2019 - INDIANAPOLIS Indiana - Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River State Park (USA)
Thu June 06 2019 - HIGHLAND PARK Illinois - Ravinia Pavilion (USA)
Fri June 07 2019 - MADISON Wisconsin - Breese Stevens Field (USA)
Sat June 08 2019 - PRIOR LAKE Minnesota - Mystic Lake Showroom (USA)
Mon June 10 2019 - DENVER Colorado - Levitt Pavilion Denver (USA)
Tue June 11 2019 - SALT LAKE CITY Utah - Depot - Salt Lake City (USA)
Thu June 13 2019 - WOODINVILLE Washington - Chateau Ste Michelle Winery (USA)
Fri June 14 2019 - PORTLAND Oregon - Moda Center at the Rose Quarter (USA)
Sat June 15 2019 - RENO Nevada - Grand Sierra Theatre (USA)
Sun June 16 2019 - SARATOGA California - Mountain Winery (USA)
Tue June 18 2019 - LOS ANGELES California - Greek Theatre - Los Angeles CA (USA)
Wed June 19 2019 - LOS ANGELES California - Greek Theatre - Los Angeles (USA)
Thu June 20 2019 - SAN DIEGO California - Humphreys Concerts By the Bay (USA)
Fri June 21 2019 - LAS VEGAS Nevada - Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood (USA)
Sun June 23 2019 - PHOENIX Arizona - Comerica Theatre (USA)
Tue June 25 2019 - AUSTIN Texas - ACL Live At The Moody Theater (USA)
Wed June 26 2019 - IRVING Texas - Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory (USA)
Fri June 28 2019 - SUGAR LAND Texas - Smart Financial Centre (USA)
Sat June 29 2019 - NEW ORLEANS Louisiana - Saenger Theatre - New Orleans (USA)
Sun June 30 2019 - TUSCALOOSA Alabama - Tuscaloosa Amphitheater (USA)
Tue July 02 2019 - BOCA RATON Florida - Mizner Park Amphitheater (USA)
Wed July 03 2019 - ORLANDO Florida - Hard Rock Live - Orlando (USA)
Fri July 05 2019 - ST PETERSBURG Florida - Mahaffey Theater At The Progress Energy Center (USA)
Sat July 06 2019 - JACKSONVILLE Florida - Daily's Place Amphitheater (USA)
Mon July 08 2019 - ATLANTA Georgia - Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park (USA)
Tue July 09 2019 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Schermerhorn Symphony Center (USA)
Thu July 11 2019 - RALEIGH North Carolina - Red Hat Amphitheater (USA)
Fri July 12 2019 - WASHINGTON District Of Columbia - Anthem - D.C. (USA)
Sat July 13 2019 - PHILADELPHIA Pennsylvania - Met - Philadelphia (USA)
Mon July 15 2019 - BETHLEHEM Pennsylvania - Sands Bethlehem Event Center (USA)
Wed July 17 2019 - ENGLEWOOD New Jersey - Bergen Performing Arts Center (USA)
Thu July 18 2019 - BOSTON Massachusetts - Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion (USA)
Sat July 20 2019 - RAMA Ontario - Casino Rama Entertainment Centre (Canada)
Sun July 21 2019 - CANANDAIGUA New York - Constellation Brands Performing Arts Center (USA)
Tue July 23 2019 - SYRACUSE New York - St. Joseph's Health Amphitheater at Lakeview (USA)
Wed July 24 2019 - SARATOGA SPRINGS New York - Saratoga Performing Arts Center (USA)
Thu July 25 2019 - GILFORD New Hampshire - Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion (USA)
Sat July 27 2019 - ATLANTIC CITY New Jersey - Borgata Events Center (USA)
Mon July 29 2019 - NEW YORK New York - Beacon Theatre - NY (USA)
Tue July 30 2019 - NEW YORK New York - Beacon Theatre - NY (USA)
Fri August 02 2019 - PORT CHESTER New York - Capitol Theatre - Port Chester (USA)
Sat August 03 2019 - MORRISTOWN New Jersey - Community Theatre At Mayo Center For The Performing Arts (USA)
Sun August 04 2019 - UNCASVILLE Connecticut - Mohegan Sun Arena - CT (USA)

Click here to compare & buy Rob Thomas Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

Let Us Know What You Think - Leave A Comment!

Related News

No related news to show
< Prev   Next >