Q&A: Rob Thomas

The king of pop radio talks about his days as an acid freak, a microphone thief and a singer in a surf-rock band

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 3450 --Musical guest Matchbox 20 performs on October 4, 2007. Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

BEFORE HE SOLD MORE THAN 25 million albums with his band Matchbox Twenty, Rob Thomas spent his teenage years as an acid freak and a thief — he did two months for stealing a Camaro when he was seventeen. In his career, although Thomas has never been acknowledged as a badass most of his music has been on the softer side. On his first solo album...Something to Be, Thomas belts singalong pop, backed by guest guitarists like John Mayer, Mike Campbell of the Heartbreaker and Robert Randolph, who shreds his pedal steel on Thomas favorite new track, "I Am an Illusion." The album debuted at Number One, selling more than 250,000 copies its first week. Sitting in an Italian restaurant near his home, an hour north of New York, Thomas smokes cigarettes, eats halibut and explains how he deals with all the flak. "I see so many bad reviews of records I love, and so many great reviews of records I hate," he says "And it's been sort of a blessing that we were nobody's darling, because we never had a height to fall from."

Growing up, what music were you into?
I grew up in South Carolina, so it was all old country: George Jones, Merlc Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash — big stars who lived these fucking hard lives. That's why I wanted to be songwriter. Then I moved into Billy Joel and Elton John, which seemed logical. When I moved to Florida, I started to open up to Elvis Costello. There was one girl I used to date who turned me on to the Cure and Violent Femmes.

Did you ever steal records?
I stole a lot of things, but not records. We'd steal microphones from clubs, but that doesn't count.

What was the worst name of any band you've been a part of?
Tidal Wave [laughs]. It was a bunch of incredibly skilled musicians from Berklee College of Music who played these weird fucking surf tunes. I didn't write them, but songs like "Johnny's Got a Wave" and "Me and My Surfer Babe" — really bad stuff. I remember it was an open-mike night on a Wednesday in a metal bar where it was us, dressed up like a gay soft-ball team playing "Woolly Bully."

If you could put together a dream backing band, who would be in it?
How great would it be to have John Bonham on drums with Miles Davis up there playing trumpet? I'd do James Jamerson on bass. I'll take Carlos [Santana] on guitar, the Tower of Power horns and Chester Thompson from Tower on keys.

You must get flashed by girls in the crowd a lot.
Sometimes. It's never the girls you want to flash, though.

What's the nastiest thing you've seen onstage?
I had a run-in once. This older woman ran up onstage and started humping my leg when I was singing. It was so embarrassing, everyone in the stands was watching. That was the most un-rock & roll rock & roll moment ever.

What are Tom Petty's three greatest songs, in descending order?
OK: "Joe." That came in late, but it haunted me. When he said, "You get to be famous/I get to be rich," I went, "Oh, fuck, yeah! Wow!" Then "Refugee" and "You Got Lucky," He's always made really great records. I hear this next one is supposed to be fucking like old Petty all over again. Our sound guy was his sound guy, so I was getting all the dirt.

What's the best record to listen to after a fat bong rip?
Right now it's that Ray LaMontagne record. That's the most honest record I've heard in years . He's so good it makes me depressed. There's Ani DiFranco's Dilate — that's great. When I was an acid fiend — I know it seems so typical — but I'd listen to Pink Floyd's The Wall over and over and over, finding the hidden meanings. I was a big acidhead for a long time. Take four hits wait three days. Take four hits, go to Disney [World] all fucking tripped out.

What young bands do-you dig?
I picked up the Sights album on Tunes. I love the way that their record sounds, almost like the Band, or an old Stones album. Phoenix has some great pop — I think they're French, but they sing in English. Thievery Corporation I heard on the Garden State soundtrack and couldn't wait to buy their record. And Kasabian has an album that's like a poppier Pretty Hate Machine.

Do you and your wife have a song?
Yeah. It's "The Nearness of You." But it's the Keith Richards version. That's what she walked down the aisle to. On our first real date, we were watching that movie, I told her I was gonna marry her, and that would be the song.

You used to be a heavy dude.
I was the only person ever with a coke habit to gain fifty pounds. We did an MTV Live From the 10 Spot, and that was the first time I'd had good look at myself in a while. Not only was I heavy, but I had dark eyes, my face was all puffy. That was pretty fucked up. I'd met my future wife at that point, and she showed the tape to her mother. Her mother was like, "Why the fuck are you going out with the guy? He's ugly!"

When you were a fat-ass, did you ever bring food onstage with you? [Laughs] Oh, God! That would've been really funny: if I had some water up there, some oxygen and a hoagie.