Matchbox Twenty burns down its former image

LOS ANGELES — Rob Thomas sat down at a computer and typed out a message.

It was a missive to fans about the release of Matchbox Twenty’s first single in five years. He told them about a few changes in the band. He told them about their new greatest hits-with-a-twist album. And he told them what so many fans had waited to hear — he was happy to be back, making music again with his friends.

And then he signed off: “Death to Matchbox. Long Live Matchbox.”

With this week’s release of “Exile In Mainstream,” a greatest hits album that features six new songs, it is a rather curious statement.

But listen a little to the new tracks and something becomes very clear: This is not the Matchbox Twenty of old. First, the music is different, gyrating from rock to folk and back again. Then there’s the new lineup for the band, which dropped one band member and then had another drop the drums for the guitar. And finally, the band members say, there was the biggest change of all — a new work ethic, a team approach to writing music.

“I tell people that it’s a new band, a new Matchbox,” Thomas said recently.

What happened to the old band is nothing new: A group of friends start a band, struggle together, become successful together and then fall apart. But it’s what happened between the old and new incarnations of Matchbox Twenty that is, perhaps, something new in the story of music.

In 2004, Matchbox Twenty ended its world tour in support of its third studio album, “More Than You Think You Are,” and took a hiatus. They had been vocal about the discord during the making of the album, and their hiatus was billed as a chance for the band members to pursue independent projects and regroup later.

“We left after a long tour, and we left with all our burdens and all of our baggage about each other still on our shoulders,” Thomas said.

Within months, Thomas, drummer Paul Doucette and guitarist Kyle Cook were immersed in their respective solo projects. Then in February 2005, rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor announced his departure from the band — a decision made by the band. Doucette then swapped out playing the drums for the guitar.

Months later, Thomas released his solo album. During interviews to promote the album, he proclaimed repeatedly Matchbox was not finished.

Now, though, he and Doucette admit they had strong doubts.

“Me and Paul both kind of got that feeling, and we were the only two who would actually voice it: ‘Wow, we might not want to do this in the future.’ I was having a good time doing solo. And Paul was enjoying being solo,” Thomas said.

Doucette said the freedom to make his own musical decisions was enjoyable after years of having to make decisions as a part of a group.

“When you’re in a band, sometimes you would think it would be easier to ask things, suggest things because they are your friends. But it isn’t. It’s actually harder,” he said. “So I didn’t know if I wanted to come back. I didn’t know what was there anymore for me.”

Two years later, Doucette was in New York for a solo performance when he and Thomas finally sat down and talked.

“Paul and I were best friends, and it was like, ‘Forget about the band. Let’s talk about how to fix our friendship,’ ” Thomas said. “It was really intense. When it was over, we knew we were going to be friends no matter what happened to the band.”

A night later, Thomas and Matchbox bassist Brian Yale got together to watch Doucette’s performance.

“It was a great time,” Yale said. “Right there, you sort of knew it was going to be OK. We were going to be OK.”

At about the same time, Atlantic Records asked the band for a greatest hits album. It was a chance for the band to test the musical waters with one another, and the four reunited at Thomas’ New York home studio to write music to include on the greatest hits album.

“We definitely connected a little bit more as friends,” Cook said. “Maybe I’m reaching, but maybe in some ways, some of us watching Rob in Rob world may have aided the process about what was great about being in a group.”

This time, though, each came armed with songs and each had a say in the writing process on each song (Thomas wrote most of the lyrics in the past).

Out of those sessions came the six songs on the greatest hits album, including the current hit single “How Far We’ve Come,” an ironic ode that may say more about the band’s evolution than it does about the world.

For Thomas, the success of his solo album gave him another creative outlet that he says helped with the Matchbox writing process.

“I don’t know if I would be prepared for a life in Matchbox, if I hadn’t done the solo album,” he said. “There’s not this weird, creative ‘this is it’ feeling. It’s the same for Paul, too. He has his solo career.”

While the band says the album is not a statement about the band’s personal journey, it does reflect a subconscious understanding of what they have been through. Even the album’s title, “Exile in Mainstream,” is a reflection of the band’s critics, who have railed against the band for their soft mainstream sound.

With a U.S. tour scheduled for January, the band says it is looking forward to getting back on the road together for the first time in a long while.

“Hopefully this feeling will be infectious, and it will go on through into the tour,” Thomas said. “We just got to a point on the last tour where it was iffy. On some nights, if the crowd was great, we were having a good time. But as soon as we got offstage we weren’t having fun and right before we went onstage, we weren’t having a good time. This time, we want to enjoy it, enjoy hanging out on and off the stage.”

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