Grammy-winning frontman Rob Thomas sheds light on his songwriting process, Matchbox Twenty's latest album, and the perks of being a stoner.
Rob Thomas has a story to tell. In an interview over Zoom, the prolific songwriter dives right in, sharing an anecdote about a high encounter with High Times years ago. “Two times in my life I’ve been the highest I’ve ever been, and one of them was at High Times for a photo shoot,” Thomas said. “I thought the set up was amazing because you had the door to High Times and then you had the door to High Times’ attorney right next to it. I figured that was pretty practical back then.”
While times have changed and legalization has expanded since Thomas’ 2005 High Times interview with Shirley Halperin, one thing has remained constant: The relevancy of Matchbox Twenty.
With their first new album in 11 years, Matchbox Twenty is still very much top-of-mind and has a slew of upcoming tour dates to flood audiences’ ears with new tracks—and older hits—which for many serve as beacons of past experiences. “Now we’re at a phase where we’re at a show and you see people who have known one of our songs for 27 years,” Thomas said. “They’re connecting with how they felt when they first heard that song and they’re connecting with who they were and where they were in their life at that time. It’s an entirely new experience. The song used to be a vitamin and now it’s a time capsule.”
For Thomas and Matchbox Twenty, Where The Light Goes presents an opportunity to create new time capsules for an entirely new audience and feed existing fans a new dish—one that feels more akin to seeing an old friend for the first time in a while, picking up right where you left off, and learning of all their new adventures. Whether the music is medicine or a portal to the past, Thomas is grateful for the opportunity to continue sharing himself with fans and hopes his experiences—through song—continue to resonate with them.
High Times: Growing up, what was your first exposure to music?
Rob Thomas: I was in a band in ninth grade—one of my first bands—and we’d play covers at pool parties for friends. We were also the house band at an 18 and under center, and I remember I quit school for a little bit in tenth grade because we got a gig at a Sheraton in Vero Beach by the pool and thought we’d “made it.” I don’t think there was ever a moment where I thought about being a successful musician because my idea of success was informed by 80s movies that I’d seen. I thought being successful meant one day I’d come back to my high school and play at the big talent show, and everyone would be like, “Oh, wow—he’s really good” [laughs]. It was a very small bar for what “making it” was going to be.
It wasn’t until my early twenties when we actually started jobbing and I started writing songs [that things started to shift]. Also at that time, you start to realize you’re letting other viable options for a future go by. I didn’t go to university, I almost—but didn’t—join the army, and I didn’t get in on the ground floor at a real “career” because every job I had needed to be a job I could quit on a Friday. If I had gigs and they wouldn’t let me off [I could quit] and then get another job on a Monday. So it was every construction job, every restaurant job, delivering beds, building futons, cleaning and delivering boats—anything I could do was just a job that wouldn’t take too much attention away [from music] because we were making little strides as a local band.
Like, we could play four hours on Thursday nights at the college bar because that was the big night—and we could do half covers and half originals—so we thought we “made it.” A few months would go by and we’d be like, “Well now we’ve ‘made it,’ obviously.”
High Times: It sounds like a series of small wins that felt big that kept crescendoing to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing until it became your full time focus.
Thomas: I remember I talked to Adam Duritz—who later became one of my really good friends—right before we’d gotten signed. I went to a Counting Crows show and was backstage because we were the big local band and I think I said that to him, like, “Oh yeah, hi—My name’s Rob, we’re with Tabitha’s Secret, we’re like the big local band around here.” [Laughs] I was bragging about being the big local band because that was as big as I’d gotten—and that might have been it.
High Times: As humans, we’re limited by what we can or cannot perceive or know, so if the idea of something grander at that time wasn’t yet in your consciousness, then you’re not even thinking about it.
Thomas: Yeah, when I was growing up my grandmother owned a little general store in South Carolina where she actually sold weed. I could separate seeds and stems when I was eleven to make little dime bags. It was a little shitty general store with a house attached to it in this tobacco town, and we were really, really poor. But I didn’t know we were poor until my mom moved us to a low/middle-class neighborhood. I didn’t realize we were living in squalor because everyone else around us was living the exact same way. So at every stage we were at, we felt like “this is great.” We were like Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, like every place we were at was the place to be.
High Times: Which helps you appreciate each ascension.
Thomas: But also if you have enough time to spend at each plateau, you really can settle into it and own that moment before you move on to another one.
For us, you’re in a local band, you think that the end-all-be-all is landing a record deal. That’s it, man, you gotta get a record deal. Then you get the record deal and you just hope the record gets made. Then the record goes out, and you’re like, “If we go gold, we get to make another record.” Then the record goes gold and you’re like, “We have a gold record!” But then you’re like, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a platinum record? Then you can’t stop us—that’s huge!”
So Matchbox goes on and the record [sells] like 15 million copies. But then you’re like, “Ah, shit. We could be a one-record wonder. Wouldn’t it be great if the second record does well? That’s what we really need. We gotta beat the ‘sophomore slump.’” Second record comes out and we had our first number one single. So then we were like, “You know what it’s really about? Let’s be the best fucking live band. Let’s just go out and really play the shit out of it every night.” Then that became [our] focus, of trying to up our game every time. It became less about successes that other people could give you and more like cross-fit where you had your own goals in your head you wanted to achieve.
High Times: What gave you the confidence to go all-in and pursue that path?
Thomas: I think you have to be a little naive, right? You’ve got to have a blind spot to the odds of something like that being able to happen to someone, and then you mix that in with a little bit of an ego. I think anybody who does something artistic and puts it out to the world—whether writer, filmmaker or songwriter—there’s got to be a bit of an ego there. There’s got to be something in you that says, “I don’t know why, but I think other people should hear this or read this.” There’s an audacity to that feeling of “I need to share this and you need to hear it.”
If we really thought about the odds, we would have been like, “Oh well, that’s never going to happen.” But there was something in us that was like, “Oh yeah, we can do this,” and then it was like, “Oh shit, now we have to do this—we don’t really have a lot of other options.”
People used to ask, “What would you be doing differently if you weren’t [playing music professionally]?” My answer is that I would still be doing this, just at a much lower level. I would be doing this at a hotel bar somewhere or I would be doing this in a wedding band. But I would still be doing this because this is kind of what I was built for.
High Times: Do you think infusing heart into what you create is why it resonates with people, regardless if it was on stage at a stadium or at a hotel bar?
Thomas: I hope so. I’m not a singer, I’m a writer, and I sing the songs I write. I don’t do other people’s songs really. A lot of really great, really big writers come to me like, “I wrote this great song, this is great for you,” but that’s not what I do. The only time I sing someone else’s song is if it’s written by Paul [Doucette], who’s in Matchbox Twenty. He’s the only person whose song I’ve sung that wasn’t mine, and I think it’s because he’s my best friend, I know where it’s coming from, and I can empathetically put myself into the voice of the writer.
I write about things that are important to me and I’m a pretty normal person, so I feel that a lot of the things I relate to are things other people will relate to as well. If I write a song about a fight I just had with my wife—I’m not writing a song about my wife and my fight—I’m writing a song about how that moment made me feel. A listener then knows that feeling, maybe for another reason—maybe something else in their life has made them feel that way—but they’re like, “Oh, I get the vibe. I know what you mean when you said that because I’ve felt that way too.” It’s not describing to someone their condition, it’s more about using music as a way to kind of carve out my condition and what I’m really feeling. Then somebody else is like, “Ah, shit—yeah, I get that.”
High Times: With Matchbox Twenty’s new album Where The Light Goes, what creatively was the inspiration behind it?
Thomas: If you’ve been doing this for this long, every record isn’t going to be hit after hit after hit. What you want though is that every time you put something out, you want it to have a couple bricks in it to put into the wall.
Our last record [North] had a song on it called “Overjoyed.” So many people now have used it at their wedding—it’s a song people walk down the aisle to or have their first dance to—and they want to hear it when they come to our show. That album has a couple bricks—it’s got “She’s So Mean,” “Overjoyed,” and a song called “I Will” that fans really like. It’s got a few bricks that we can put on the wall.
Next time we’re touring or making a record—and in this case, we’re talking about Where The Light Goes—we want to make sure there’s a couple of songs that have stuck around—that for one reason or another resonated with people. If you do that, it feels like a nice success, of being able to continue on, and each time you come on, you’re adding a couple other songs to The Matchbox wall.
High Times: Speaking of music creation, what role does cannabis play for you creatively or in your life in general?
Thomas: There are two things when writing a song: You have inspiration and craft. The inspiration is the part you’re not responsible for—it’s when you’re sitting down and a melody just kind of comes out. In that little piece of melody and that chord, there’s kind of a color, and that color starts to inform you that it’s a sad song or a happy song or a certain vibe. Most everyone I know just has gibberish [hums melodic gibberish notes that sound like a song without using real words], they’re not really saying anything, and then one word pops out and it starts to inform you of what you’re doing.
You write so many songs that if you’re not careful, craft comes first, and that’s not a great way to go. You’re then sitting down and constructing a song like, “I’m going to write this kind of a song.” There’s something about smoking or gummies that helps take that layer away so you can sit down and surprise yourself. You can sit down and start playing the piano without an agenda and then hear it in a disembodied way. Weed’s always kind of helped me get to that point.
When I’m writing lyrics, it’s the same thing. Sometimes I could just sit there and beat my head against the wall because I’m trying to say something, but then if I just smoke a little bit, words become like colors and they come out with these weird sensibilities of things that I probably would have never said. Like, I was amazed with the new single “Wild Dogs.” I didn’t think the guys were going to go for it because I was on a roll with the song and then [belts out “Wooo Wooo”]. That probably would have never happened if I wasn’t high [laughs] because I’m not a cool enough guy to write “Wooo Wooo” in a song. But when I’m high, I am.
Some days, [weed] puts on little blinders for you and keeps you zoned in on what you’re doing, not on where your life has been up until that minute. You might have a lot of heavy stuff going on in your life, but to write about it, you still need to step away from it. You can’t be burdened by the actual feelings of something bad that’s happened in your life, like “I feel [insert emotion]” and then write about it. For me, I smoke a little bit of weed and then I’m looking at [things objectively].
High Times: In that way, weed helps you healthily detach and self-reflect on whatever experience or moment is happening. You’re still tapped into the emotions but you’re not ruled by them.
Thomas: I took a break for a bit because I was an all-day everyday guy. I would show up to a writing session and the first thing I would do is pull out my bong. A little while ago, I got back into the joy of getting to the airport and getting a little high, putting on headphones and then just going through how everything is a part of some film that you’re in—wherever your head’s at in that music—because music is way more 3D. You can kind of reach inside of it and it has depth. So I went back to the joy of my sixteen-year-old-self, where I’m just high for no reason at all, other than it makes the walk through the airport so much better, and sometimes, that’s enough.
Follow @robthomas, @matchboxtwenty and check out https://matchboxtwenty.com/ for tickets and tour dates
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