It’s been 10 years since the post-grunge-band-turned-pop-stars Matchbox Twenty released an album of all-new material.
In the 21st century world of pop music, that is the equivalent of an epoch’s worth of shifting musical trends with a gaggle of brightly, if briefly, shining pop stars, and the increasing dominance of the Internet in our daily lives.
But the band, featuring singer-guitarist Rob Thomas, bassist Brian Yale, drummer/guitarist/pianist Paul Doucette and guitarist Kyle Cook, didn’t totally disappear during its recording break. Front-man Thomas released a chart-topping solo album … Something to Be in 2005, and in 2007, the band released Exile on Mainstream, a compilation featuring seven new songs.
The band toured through 2008 before taking another break for Thomas’ second solo album, Cradlesong.
By the time the band took that first break in 2004, it already had three multiplatinum records, including its 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, which achieved the very rare diamond certification for sales of more than 10 million.
The band found fame in part by riding the mid-1990s, post-grunge wave. But where many of its peers adhered closer to the low, Drop D-tuned sound and teenage and 20-something angst that fueled much of grunge, MB20 kept the soft verse-loud chorus blueprint and the Florida/South Carolina-raised Thomas mysteriously sang with a Midwestern accent.
But the band focused on layering catchy, hummable pop melodies on early hits such as Bent and over the years became more of a classic pop-rock band incorporating more funk and dance elements in songs such as the Mick Jagger co-written Disease from 2002’s Mad Season.
The new album North, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has sold platinum since its late summer 2012 release, is a big shiny pop record that feels thematically lighter than much of MB20’s previous material. It contains nods to current pop trends such as the soul pop of lead single She’s So Mean and the neo-disco grooves of Put Your Hands Up and the simmering electronica-laced funk of Like Sugar.
The band is on its biggest tour in years. It’ll make a stop in Akron for a sold-out show Sunday at the Civic Theatre.
Member Paul Doucette took some time out of his busy schedule (of chilling on his tour bus during a break in Dallas) to talk about the new album and the band’s musical evolution.
Q: So it’s been a decade since a new album. That’s a loooong time. Were you worried that no one would still care?
A: I know, that’s a lot of cobwebs, right?
I think we definitely felt like, hey, does anyone care? But the reality is we’ve always felt does anyone care. Every time we go on tour, we wonder if anyone is going to show up. (Laughs.)
At the same time, we realize this is what we do, and we’re conscious of the fact that someone’s going to like it — whether it be 5 million people or 500 people, I don’t know. We’re not in charge of that, all we’re in charge of is doing what we can do the best, we can do it, and using our own gauge of what we think is good and let the chips fall where they may.
Q: So MB20 is creeping up on 20 years, how does that feel?
A: It’s been 20 years since Rob, Bryan and I met. We started playing 20 years ago this year.
First off, when you get up in the morning, it’s hard to not think about it. We think all kinds of things. It’s amazing. I’m sitting on my bus 20 years later doing the same thing just at a different level. And then you also have the thought that “Wow, we’re 20 years older. How did that happen?” (Laughs.)
Q: Considering it’s been a decade, this album has your shortest collection of songs. Was that on purpose?
A: [The songs are] shorter this time but that just sort of happened. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because as we get older we sort of become better at economy. As you get older, you sort of realize what you like in a song and you just kind of pinpoint that and pinpoint that and pinpoint that. We’re big fans of great crafted pop songs and I think we try to get closer and closer to that. It’s not necessarily in fashion, but the music we aspire to … and hold in high regard tends to have a very concise form to it.
Q: Am I crazy or is “North” also your lightest record thematically and musically?
A: There’s, I guess, the post-grungy kind of stuff from our earlier records that we definitely over the years have steered away from just because it doesn’t feel as natural to us. It’s not really where our heart is or where our influences lie. So that kind of stuff tends to fall away a little bit. Not that we don’t like to rock, it’s just a little different way to go about it.
It wasn’t a planned thing to write it like that. That’s just where we were and there were a lot of ideas and that stuff just doesn’t come out of us anymore. Personally, I always felt like we were trying to wear a hat that maybe wasn’t really a hat that fit us. Now, we really know who we are at this point and we feel very comfortable with what we do.
Q: It’s interesting that you say that hat didn’t really fit you guys, because your early post-grunge-flavored sound seemed to be the radio rock blueprint into the early 2000s.
A: Yeah, but if you go back and listen to that stuff, really all it was was people writing pop songs in E minor or drop D. The structures of those bands, they are all still the same. All the best songs you can still play on an acoustic guitar. It was more melodic rock that was really at the heart of that kind of sound, and in our mind what we liked was really the melodic part.
Q: From where did the funky, dance and disco stuff come from?
A: We’ve always had that, too. [New song] Hands Up and Disease [from More Than You Think You Are] are thematically very close. They’re sort of dance influenced, in some way, and then we try and do something else with it. That’s the thing. We just write and we write and then we kind of work on stuff and we say, “We like this. This is going to go on the record.” And then sometimes we have songs where we’re like “We love this,” but it doesn’t necessarily fit on the record and we have to push it to the side.
Q: Obviously, you don’t play every song on the album live, but most of these tunes seem like they’re fun stage songs, do you factor that into the writing process?
A: It [the album] is … very fun to play. Sometimes when we write, as we’re writing it we can picture it live. But more often than that, it’s when we’re working the song out.
Because [they do most of their writing] on piano or acoustic guitar, we’re looking for the melody. Everything else, in our mind, is window dressing. You can take that melody and do anything with it. You can make it a polka; you can go anywhere you want. But if it doesn’t have a good melody to base it on, we’re not ready for the next part. But once we get that, that’s when we’re like “Oh, live this is going to be phenomenal.”
Q: So what have been the most fun new songs to play, that get the crowd going?
A: [Album opener] Parade is fun to play live; English Town (penned by Doucette) is a lot of fun to play live. It’s coming up very epic, it’s great.
Radio is a lot of fun to play. Hands Up is a lot of fun to play; it’s a lot more fun than we were anticipating. The thing is, none of them are not fun to play.
Q: Most of you guys are in your early 40s, for rock ’n’ roll, you’re almost senior citizens.
A: I know, right? (Laughs.) It’s true, But if you look at it right now, at who the biggest touring acts are, you got McCartney, you got Aerosmith, you got the Stones, obviously, you got U2, Bon Jovi. They’re all still doing it and they are all a good bit older than us and they’re doing fine, look at Springsteen … we have some time, I think. We can still work on it and get better.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram. … Go figure.