BECAUSE HE ISN’T ALLOWED to smoke inside his house, Rob Thomas, 37, shuffles out back to a covered patio, his dogs fumbling around underfoot, where he lights up an American Spirit, smokes it almost down to the filter, wrestles with a few things that are on his mind and says finally, “This is the road I’m on, and there is no other road.”
By that, he could mean the same road he’s been on for the past 16 years, both with his band, Matchbox Twenty, and on his own, creating sparkly pop music that actually strikes a chord with people at a time when the world is very short on bona fide pop stars. His six-album total has yielded a ridiculous number of Top 10 singles — 19 in all, including “Long Day” (the first, in 1996), “Bent” (the first to go gold, in 2000), “Lonely No More” (his first as a solo performer) and, of course, “Smooth,” his monster Latin-tinged 1999 collaboration with Carlos Santana, which earned him three Grammys, spent 12 big weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and eventually began to wear on even the most hardcore fans. As a performer, his approach has always been the same. He writes the songs, records the songs, goes on tour behind the songs, says a few words to the press, and other than that, you don’t hear much from him. “I’m married, I’m not fucking anybody else, I’m not hitting anybody, I’m not out there,” Thomas says. “My songs are more famous than I am, and I’m OK with that.”
Along the way, however, he has picked up his share of detractors, who constantly carp about how syrupy his lyrics can be. To them, his music is “corporate-radio fluff” and not worth further consideration. At the same time, they also tend to write off Thomas himself, as if he too is fluff. Plus, he’s been called “the rock star next door,” which about says it all. Feh.
But here’s the thing. For the most part, Thomas has kept his personal life and his past to himself. He’s coughed up a few things about an alcoholic grandmother, stealing cars, dropping out of high school, a fondness for coke, cigs, pot, acid and booze. But it’s been a hodgepodge of facts. It’s almost like he doesn’t want people to get too close a look. “I’ve always believed, and still believe, that it’s nobody’s business,” he says.
On the other hand, with the release of Cradlesong, his latest and most personal album, he would like to start opening up a little more. For one thing, he thinks the conventional wisdom about him is superficial at best. “Like, I’ve got this thing that I’m the nicest guy in rock,” he says. “Well, because I’m Southern, I am polite. But I also have a switch, and the second that switch goes, I completely go to ‘Fuck you.’ If I’m angry with you, I’ll go for the first thing I know about you that will hurt you. In a heartbeat. If you want to be a dick, I can be a dick, and I will go dick to dick.”
He pauses, thinking this over.
“I guess I’m tired of being one-dimensional,” he goes on. “I mean, there are these pockets in my life where I spend all day talking about myself, but it’s like a Nick Hornby Top Five list — you’re just giving facts — and it sometimes makes it seem like the music I make must be fake in some way or disingenuous. You’re still representing yourself, but you’re not really searching inside yourself. Over the past few years, ever since my mom died, I’ve been getting these panic attacks. The first time, I thought it was a heart attack. So I’ve got these weird, unresolved things within myself, and I sometimes think that it would be a helpful thing for me to unload completely.”