From a fan's perspective, Matchbox Twenty's "Yourself or Someone Like You" was one of the most successful debuts of the '90s. Since its release in 1996, the album has sold more than 10 million copies, thanks to such hits as "Push" and "3 a.m."
But as singer Rob Thomas explains, he and his band-mates saw that first album primarily as an experiment.
"We made what we like to call a hypothetical record," he says during a telephone interview from the band's rehearsal studio in Atlanta. In fact, as Thomas sees it, "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty," the band's sophomore release, due in record stores Tuesday, is the first real Matchbox Twenty album. (The band plays a special "preview" show at the 9: 30 Club in Washington this evening).
"For us, this was the first legitimate time that we could say, 'This is what Matchbox Twenty sounds like,'" he says. "Since the first record, we've had time to become Matchbox Twenty."
To understand that statement, it helps to know a bit about the way this band came into being. Although Thomas had played with bassist Brian "Pookie" Yale and drummer Paul Doucette for several years in another band, the group we know as Matchbox Twenty started out more as an idea than as a playing and touring unit.
The three hooked up with Atlanta-based producer Matt Serletic and decided to put together a band to play the songs Thomas had been writing, often with Serletic's help. Eventually, they found guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, came up with the name "Matchbox Twenty" (more about that later) and spent several months rehearsing before finally heading into the studio to record "Yourself or Someone Like You."
That was the "hypothetical record" Thomas was talking about.
They thought: "If Matchbox Twenty were to make a record, what would it sound like?" Thomas says. "It had a real linear feel to us, but it sounded like 12 songs just put on a record." In other words, there was no band identity there -- just a set of well-recorded tunes.
But then Matchbox Twenty spent more than 600 nights on the road, touring behind "Yourself or Someone Like You," and the experience greatly changed the five young musicians.
"We really grew up in the last four years," Thomas says. "We had huge fights, but we became really good friends. We went out and actually became five people making one noise."
That camaraderie has also helped the band deal with the pressures of massive success.
"When we made the first record, we were just making a record," Thomas says. "And when that record was finished, we knew what it was -- it was the best record we could make at the time. We knew our shortcomings as a band, and they showed on the record. After it sold 10 million copies, it didn't become a better record. And it didn't make us a better band because we sold records. What made us a better band was traveling around."
Maybe that's why the band isn't worried about matching the mega-sales of its first album. "After the record got past 10 million, we were like, 'You know what? We're never going to do that again.' So the pressure was off. There's nowhere to go but down, and we could go down from there and still be really happy."
Of course, Thomas had the additional boost of having collaborated with songwriter Itaal Shur on the Grammy-winning Santana smash, "Smooth." But here, too, Thomas' take tends more toward modesty than self-aggrandizement.
"If you come in to the Grammys and you're rolling with Carlos Santana, chances are you're going to win it," he says. "So I didn't take too much credit for that, because it was Carlos' time."
In that sense, Thomas feels that what has most changed Matchbox Twenty hasn't been the money and fame, but the musical confidence that came with so much time playing live.
"When I listen to 'Crutch,' from the new record, I can hear some of Kyle's jazz influences on the guitar, just thrown in there," he says. "And you can hear, in Pookie's bass, some old soul influences coming out. And you're like, Wow! When did we have soul on a Matchbox Twenty record?"
Still, for some folks the biggest change is that the band's name has gone from "Matchbox 20" to the spelled-out Matchbox Twenty -- a move the music press made an absurdly large deal about when the change was announced.
"You know what's funny about that?" Thomas says. "It was supposed to be so un-noteworthy. It was so not a big deal. And then I made the mistake of making one joke."
Thomas told Billboard, "There were a lot of number bands out there -- Eve 6, Eiffel 65, Blink 182... We wanted to alleviate some of the confusion."
The singer thought it was an obvious joke. "I don't think we sound anything like Blink 182," he says. "And then, in Entertainment Weekly, I was their loser of the week.
"You've got to laugh, because it's just funny," he says. "I guess sarcasm just doesn't read well at all."
When: Tonight, 10 p.m.
Where: The 9: 30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., Washington
Tickets: Sold out