Rob Thomas has a problem.
He can’t stop saying “we” when talking about his upcoming solo album, “Something To Be”: We’re going on tour. We just shot a video. We...
“I’m so used to being in a band,” he says.
No surprise there. Thomas’ biggest musical moments have come in the company of others, from fronting the multi-platinum matchbox twenty to working with Carlos Santana on the Grammy-winning “Smooth.”
But now Thomas is making music by himself. And he may be onto something: His first single, “Lonely No More,” is climbing the charts weeks ahead of the album’s April 19 release.
“When it first came out, we” — there’s that word again — “did really good with radio play,” Thomas said this past weekend. “But there’s that part of you where you think maybe over the last 10 years you’ve gained radio’s ‘We’ll play it when it comes out’ support, whether they like it or not.”
“But when it goes on like this, you’re almost afraid to think they really like it.”
Weeks earlier, in a Manhattan studio, Thomas was tapping his foot and nodding his head during an exclusive sneak peak of the album for The Associated Press. It was decidedly not rock ’n’ roll, blending drums, bass and keyboards to create danceable beats.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
Dropping the rock for a little dance
When I told him it didn’t sound very rock-like — from a guy who blew up thanks to guitar riffs and smashing drums — he smiled.
He’s been hearing that a lot. First from matchbox twenty. “Timberlake doing a rock number,” Paul Doucette told Thomas.
Then a few label people questioned his new musical direction. And now, the press.
“It’s different just because there are not two guitars, a drummer and a bass player anymore,” he said. “It allows me to go to different places musically.”
And oh, does he.
“Lonely No More” is about a guy warning his girl not to play with his emotions. The lyrics belong to a matchbox album, but the music makes it as likely to be heard in a pulsing dance club as well as a darkened bar.
During the listening session, Thomas provided a running monologue, stopping the music often to talk about the various musical styles, influences and, more importantly, artists he was able to work with — from producer Matt Serletic, who helmed the matchbox albums, to John Mayer and Robert Randolph.
As the songs continued, so did Thomas, delving into everything from his new music to his break from matchbox twenty to his marriage to model Marisol Thomas — all to the strains of his new music.
Thomas characterizes the ballad “Ever The Same” as his last five minutes of a John Hughes movie, thanks to its ’80s sound. He wrote it for his wife when she was battling a lingering illness, the story of a man promising to be there through the tough times.
“You build a life together and that becomes your muse,” said Thomas, 33. “It’s every fight that you have. It’s every time you make love. It’s every annoying thing about that person that you have.”
The title track, “Something To Be,” is about trying to find his own niche.
“At 17 or 18, I had my rock star attitude,” Thomas said. “You know, the parties and the girls. I probably would have hated me, if I had heard me talking about being a rock star. That was what rock ’n’ roll was to us then. Then things change.”
“You grow up, you get married and you build a life together. That is my new rock ’n’ roll.”
‘Bogged down by everyday life’
Thomas said the inspiration for the song “I Am An Illusion,” reminiscent of matchbox’s megahit “Mad Season” and featuring the band’s guitarist Kyle Cook, came from “that feeling of being bogged down by everyday life.” The song, he says, was actually written before the band recorded “Mad Season.”
As matchbox twenty, “we have done something really special and to abandon it wouldn’t make sense. I always want to be able to go back to matchbox twenty. But I don’t want to go back to matchbox because I have to. That’s different.”
“We were so burnt out on ourselves. It gets to a point where you’re like ’There’s something wrong with five grown men living together on a bus.’ At the end of the last tour, we had an understanding. We’re just taking a break.”
Thomas’ solo genre-bending includes a little country inspiration on “My, My, My” and the dark “Now Comes the Night.”
“I feel like matchbox is the best of what we do, the genre. That’s a feat,” he says. “But it also limits what you can do. Here, I’m doing something new. It sounds a little borrowed, a little pieced and a little glued together.”
It’s also darker than his previous work, best exemplified on the song “All That I Am,” written after he saw Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” The song opens with bells and an orchestra, which sounds like an army marching to war.
Thomas is auditioning a band to go out on the road, first with a club tour in late spring and then a more traditional tour. It’s been 10 years since he’s searched for a band, and hundreds have turned out for the opportunity to go on the road with Thomas. He’s enlisted matchbox’s keyboard player to check out the talent.
“He goes out through the first really bad 100 guitar players and then he sends me five to check out,” Thomas said. “I can’t go through the ‘American Idol’ audition process. This is not a rock record. It’s not about how fast you play. This record is about the drummer and the best player.”
“Yeah. And me.”