On October 1, 1996, Matchbox Twenty, led by singer-songwriter Rob Thomas, released its debut album, Yourself Or Someone Like You, which went on to sell over 15 million copies worldwide. The band was a mainstream staple of the mid- to late-’90s with its light rock songs about loneliness, depression, anger, and alcoholism, and successful followup albums like Mad Season and More Than You Think You Are, reuniting in 2012 for North. Almost 20 years after that debut, Thomas has continued to find success, but more so as a solo artist, putting out three albums with Atlantic Records—the same label that signed Matchbox Twenty—and currently touring with the Counting Crows. He caught up with The A.V. Club to reflect on how it all started.
The A.V. Club: Can you talk about how Yourself Or Someone Like You came together and how Matchbox Twenty ended up with Atlantic Records?
Rob Thomas: We were in a band called Tabitha’s Secret, me and Brian [Yale] and Paul [Doucette] from Matchbox Twenty. This was a day when the record company was a much more traditional type of thing—they had A&R guys that would just travel the country and check out live bands they were hearing about. So, this guy Kim Stephens was there to see another band, wound up seeing us, and then every few months would come back and check on us to see if we were getting better. Then, when the band broke up, Atlantic came to me and said they liked my songs and asked me if I wanted to sign a record deal, so I brought in me and Brian and Paul, and that was kind of the beginning of Matchbox Twenty.
AVC: Did you go into this contract with a ton of songs you were already playing, or did you start from scratch with a certain concept in mind?
RT: Well, usually you have your first record, and that’s the record where you have your whole life to make it, right? But I had been in a really contentious relationship with the other members of the band that we left, and I was also really naive, so at the time all these songs that I had written were included in publishing papers with all of our names on them, and I signed the papers not knowing what the hell I was doing. So, when I realized that I was getting signed and that these guys were going to get pieces of these songs even though they had nothing to do with it, I went and wrote the whole first record, Yourself Or Someone Like You, in the five- or six-month period before we recorded it. So that was kind of like my second record in a way, and it was just a writing spree, like get it out, get it out, get it out, get it out, and get it all down. Then we as a band went into a storage shed and brought our gear in there. For a month we just played it over and over and over and over, so that when we went in the studio we were ready and prepared, because it was a whole different world for us.
AVC: After 20 years making music and probably a few more mistakes like signing papers you maybe shouldn’t have, is there any advice you would have liked to give your younger self?
RT: It’s kind of hard because there’s so many mistakes like that that led to a much bigger opening for me. If I had not done that, I would have used [that first set of] songs and thought they were really great, and they weren’t, and these songs are much better, and maybe that first record wouldn’t have sold 15 million records. So, I should really thank those guys for taking advantage of me, because it put me in a position where I had to work harder.
AVC: You mentioned in a recent interview on Larry King Now that you experienced a “really long overnight success,” but was there a moment early on where you realized things had changed?
RT: Yes, at the very beginning we were opening for The Lemonheads and we pulled into Five Points Music Hall in Birmingham, Alabama. It was maybe a thousand-seater club and there was this line outside the door and people clamoring to get in. We thought, “Wow, The Lemonheads are having a good night.” Then we found out it was because that town was the only one playing “Push” on the radio and it was the biggest hit in Birmingham, and they were all there for us. It was a huge change. We were so used to playing to 20 people, or sometimes to six people and most of the time they were people from the other band [that was playing] that night; we would just play for each other. So, it was a really big change that all of a sudden, people we didn’t know were lining up to see us.
AVC: What about your personal life; did that change come more abruptly?
RT: No, that was more gradual. We stayed on the road for like three years on that record. We started off in a van and trailer when nobody knew who the hell we were. Then we had a hit, so we were playing small clubs on our own. Then we were playing theaters on our own. Then we were playing arenas all over the world and we just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I didn’t really know what a personal life was, until we finished the last tour, and my wife—then fiancée—and I got off our bus and we were at our hotel in New York looking for an apartment and actually trying to figure out who I was outside of living on the road all the time.
AVC: Did you have any sort of backup plan?
RT: No, no. I actually took every shitty job that couldn’t become a career and had no danger of becoming a career, and that I could quit on Friday if they wouldn’t let me gig, so then on Monday I could get another one. I took every restaurant job, every construction job. I made futons and delivered beds. I did possibly everything I could to not have a backup plan. It’s really funny, because I think it’s a very thin line between, “Hey, look at me, I’m a tenacious successful musician, and my tenacity worked out,” and “Hey, look at me, I’m 44 and I’m living in my mom’s house and still trying to get my band to work out.” You realize how lucky you are.
AVC: Well, it worked. You’re still touring. Right now you’re with the Counting Crows, right?
RT: Yes, we also have this great artist, K Phillips, who’s playing before both of us and he is really amazing and I would like more people to check out his stuff. But touring with the Counting Crows is a funny thing, because [August And Everything After] came out three years before Matchbox Twenty’s [record]. So when we first started out, we were playing half-covers and half-originals and three of the songs were probably Counting Crows songs, and now I’m sitting here watching Adam [Duritz] pull up in his bus.
AVC: Do you remember which songs you were covering?
RT: “Mr. Jones” and “Rain King” for sure.
AVC: Other than K Phillips, what current artists do you enjoy?
RT: Right now it’s all about the newest My Morning Jacket record [The Waterfall]. I’m a little obsessed. Be warned, I’m a complete freak about My Morning Jacket. Just all of it.
AVC: Is there a song from Yourself Or Someone Like You that you revisit the most on tour?
RT: “3 AM” is always more personal to me because I wrote that about my mom having cancer. I think that when we play live, “Back 2 Good” holds up. It’s one of those things where after 20 years I don’t listen to any of the record. I mean, who would? Who would listen to themselves 20 years later? But at live shows, there’s always a really great thing there, because there’s a connection with people, that some people have had for 20 years. If someone is at my show and they were my age when our first record came out, they’re in their sixties now and they’ve been coming to our shows for 20 years. So, all of them have a special place when we play them live, but I think “Back 2 Good,” for me, still holds up as a song.
AVC: That song was actually the fifth single released out of six off that album. Do you think it was underrated during the recording/marketing process?
RT: It was a really big hit, so I can’t whine and say it was underrated. I think it’s one of those ones that when we play live, every night you’ve got to put that song in. The next thing that Matchbox does, we’ll probably do something where we wind up playing that entire record in a night, because there’s so many songs that we stopped playing after that first record, so we haven’t played them in 15 years or so.
AVC: Do you have any plans for playing them again, or maybe reissuing the album for its anniversary later in the year?
RT: We would really like to have it remastered, maybe remixed, because even if the songs hold up, I think the sound quality doesn’t quite hold up the way that new records do, and it would be nice to hear them reimagined in that way. It’s really weird, though, because the idea of physical releases—they just don’t seem to mean as much anymore. The idea of a box set doesn’t really matter, because the box set is out there, all you have to do is go online and find anything you want and it just exists. So I think it’s more about fans coming out next year and seeing the live experience.