Matchbox Twenty's First Album in 9 Years Brings New Resolve, Possible Drinking Problem

James Minchin
From left: Brian Yale, Kyle Cook, Rob Thomas and Paul Doucette

In an exclusive in-the-studio interview with THR, the band reveals how 17 years and a dozen hits in, a "$100,000 bender" led them to a point of unapologetic career pride.

Before Matchbox Twenty recorded a single song of their new as-yet-untitled album (due out in the fall), the band had already spent six figures -- on booze. Holed up in a complex of cabins in Nashville, band members Rob Thomas, Paul Doucette, Kyle Cook and Brian Yale left their wives, children and everyday responsibilities at home to come together and get inspired. Instead, they got drunk.

“We were hemorrhaging money,” says Doucette, seated in a lounge at producer Matt Serletic’s Emblem Studios in Calabasas, Calif., where the album truly took shape months later. “No joke, most of it was spent on wine. We just had cases of it.” 

Adds Thomas: “We drank away a hundred thousand dollars easily. We didn't have Matt onboard yet; we weren't quite sure what we were going to do, so we were like, ‘Let’s just go there and start and we’ll use whatever we use.”

After three months, they used none of it, though that’s not to say it was an unproductive time. Some nine-plus years since Matchbox Twenty last released a proper full-length, 2002’s More Than You Think You Are (“We’re on the Peter Gabriel tip,” jokes Thomas), and 17 years since the band formed, going on to notch a dozen hits and define the sound of '90s pop-rock, each band member had plenty to say. In the end, some 40 portions of songs or ideas had come together -- Doucette asserts it was more like 60 -- along with “about 28 fights,” says Thomas.

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“We were trying to find the dynamics of how the four of us would work,” Doucette explains. “With no real direction, we had, like, six different records. We have the side of us who wants to make the acoustic Americana record, and we have the side that wants the super pop record. … There's a record that Rob wants to make, and there's a record that I want to make and Kyle … but the record that we’re going to make, it’s a struggle to get there. And that's what Nashville became. At a certain point, we were like, ‘Well, this is kind of a mess.’ Actually, it was a f---ing disaster.”

Doucette continues: “We're some strong personalities in this band. One person will be like, ‘I think it should be this,’ and [another will say], ‘I think it should be this.’” Thomas interjects: “ ’No, but I think it should be this,’ and then, ‘You're dead to me.’ ”

Enter Serletic, the producer who had worked on all but one of Matchbox’s albums (2007’s Exile on Mainstream, which served as a greatest hits collection and EP of seven new songs, was produced by Steve Lillywhite). He dropped by the cabin one day to check on their progress and found a band not only inebriated but somewhat lost.

“We needed Matt to come in,” Doucette continues. “We needed someone to be beholden to because there was no one calling the shots. We've known each other for so long that if one of us is like, ‘Alright, get your shit together,’ the reaction is ‘F--- off.’ We need, like, dad to come in.”


Serletic’s first order of business: “Stop drinking,” says Thomas. “It was getting counterproductive [where] it would be, like, 5 o'clock and even in the middle of recording, we’d say, ‘Let’s take a break, get some wine and cook. …  It’s funny listening back to the demos: the after-dinner demos is always all of us drunk around a microphone thinking that we're really doing great.”

The two laugh off the experience as a necessary step toward reaching the place they’re at now: With a nearly finished album that puts forth Matchbox’s own brand of radio-friendly pop-rock complete with Thomas’ swoony sense of romanticism, savvy word play and that instantly identifiable voice on songs like the R&B-tinged “Overjoyed” and “Our Time.” On other tunes, like “Hands Up,” gangs of guitars drive the melody and a stellar bridge brings it home.

The sound is distinctly Matchbox, but not in a '90s retro way. “We're people who listen to music,” defends Doucette. “I know what's going on in the world, I'm not listening to the same records when we made More Than You Think You Are. I listen to new stuff and am always being influenced -- we're all like that. We’re not sitting there going, ‘This is what’s popular now’ … or ‘Lets make a song that sounds like Fun.,’ but I hear [‘We Are Young’] and like it, so maybe that seeps in. With this band, we have our quality level, our meter, and we ask ourselves, ‘Do we hit that?’”

Thomas, a three-time Grammy winner, has even loftier goals. “It’s been 16 years since our first record, and you can still turn on the radio and hear ‘3 A.M.’ or something from that album,” he says. “I want these songs to stand up to that, too. I want them to be on classic rock radio or Jack FM.”

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It’s one reason why the band is considering a self-titled album four releases in. “We've kicked around the idea, especially because of how we did this record where we all worked on it together,” says Thomas. “It feels like it would be an appropriate title.” Other ideas being considered: “Hashtag New Album,” he cracks. “Or$100,000 Bender … or why don't we just have a cover with a blank line, like Hello, My Name Is ______ and you could write in the title, whatever you want it to be.”

Doucette had his own idea. “I really want to call it, F--- You, We're Matchbox Twenty so bad, but no one else is going with it,” he says, noting that it comes not from bitterness but pride. “I think we caught a lot of shit in the beginning, and sometimes that seeped into us a little bit, where it made us walk into a room and go, 'Eh, we're Matchbox Twenty.' Then suddenly I was like, ‘No, we're Matchbox-f---ing-Twenty. F--- you!’ I felt a shift, like we're pretty awesome.”

Thomas adds with a laugh, “We're the greatest f---ing pop-rock band on Earth.”

But all kidding aside, Thomas -- who has released two solo albums, 2005's Something to Be and 2009's … Cradlesong -- sees the band’s place quite plainly: “We're making another record, and it’s one that we're excited about and proud of. This isn't a 'We all have mortgages' record. This is a 'We don't have to do this, but we're doing it because we want to' record. It feels really good to be in that position.”

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In truth, the band does still owe its label Atlantic Records at least three albums, which came part and parcel with a renegotiation of terms back in the '90s -- clearly, a very different time when the music business was not only seeing unprecedented profits but had yet to feel the pinch of piracy. Indeed, Atlantic has seen its own culture shift under the watch of Warner Music Group chairman Lyor Cohen and his trusted lieutenant Julie Greenwald, who, along with Craig Kallman, runs the label that the late Ahmet Ertegun built. They’ve certainly seen their share of massive successes, from Bruno Mars to Wiz Khalifa to Cee Lo Green, but how does Matchbox fit in to a hip-hop-heavy roster? “I think there's a new vibrant energy there that comes from the success that they're having,” says Thomas. “I think their roster has gotten more diverse since my first solo record with them, which was the first under Lyor and Julie, who all came over from Def Jam. There was a kind of weirdness of, ‘How's this going to go? Are we going to like each other?’ Now they've got some great rock and pop artists along with their hip-hop stuff, so I'm excited about what we're going to be able to do with them.”

Still, it’s hard not to reflect on -- and even lament -- the music business of yore. Says Thomas: “We’re one of those last bands that could put out an album, sell records, get on the radio and then build a fan base. I don't know how I would feel if I was just starting out and having to give up all your publishing and touring and merchandising just so you could get a record made.”

On the other hand, he adds: “When you think of the music business, you're really talking about this archaic idea of the old way of doing things, where if I were 17 right now, I would be so excited about the access that I would have to my favorite artist and about how easy it is to get music. I think that the state of music is thriving and really exciting -- the music business just has to catch up with that a little more.”

So how did Matchbox make it this far and to what does the band credit its longevity? The secret to staying together, says Thomas, is spending time apart. “When you're not together, just stay the f--- away from each other,” he laughs. “Then when you really have to see each other, you're happy. With this album, we had all the time in the world to do it right, and you only get one opportunity to really f--- it up.”

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin