It is not uncommon for established rock stars to stretch out and explore new creative pursuits or business projects. Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas is most assuredly not one of them.
“I don’t have plans for other careers,” he said. “I don’t want to act, or produce, or work for a record label and try and figure out how to crush other people’s dreams. I’m just going with my dream.”
That dream has two distinct musical sides.
The first is Matchbox Twenty, which plays Friday night at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The Florida-bred band struck gold with its 1996 debut album, “Yourself or Someone Like You.”
Fueled by such audience favorites as the songs “Push,” “3 A.M.” and “Back 2 Good,” it has sold more than 12 million copies in the U.S. alone.
The second is Thomas’ solo career.
Eager to spread his creative wings, he has made three albums in the past 12 years. That’s two more than Matchbox Twenty has made in the past 16 years.
“The next thing I’m doing after this tour is a solo record,” said Thomas.
“I haven’t thought any farther than that. It’s just that I’ve been writing a [new] record I’m really proud of — and that’s where my head is. There’s a certain autonomy I’m appreciating now as a writer and performer being able to make my own schedule.”
But balancing the band and his solo career can be tricky.
“Rob’s success obviously keeps our name out there,” Matchbox Twenty drummer-turned-guitarist Paul Doucette acknowledged in a 2011 Union-Tribune interview.
“But his success also keeps us from working as a band, which is not so great, so it’s a double-edged sword. But that’s the way it is, and we’re willing to work with it.”
Thomas is well aware of how his dual-pronged career impacts not only his work as a solo artist and with the band, but also the way he is perceived.
“You get to a point where people are like: ‘You’re going solo [again]? Why do you hate Matchbox?’ I don’t think it’s one or the other,” he stressed.
“Between this year and next year, there’s only one me. I can only do one thing at a time. I have these [new] songs I’m loving and I will just do them.”
But Thomas leaves no doubt about his devotion to Matchbox Twenty. He, Doucette and bassist
Brian Yale formed the band in 1995, after their previous group, Tabitha’s Secret, broke up.
“I think we’re one of the best pop-rock bands on the face of the earth,” Thomas said, speaking from his tour bus, en route from Montana to a tour stop in Oregon. “And, live, we do what we do as well — if not better — than most people. So it’s important that when we come out onstage, we bring it on that level.
“There’s a level of confidence we have now, with all the time we’ve put in the game and our quality of musicianship, where — even on a bad night — we feel like we’re pretty good. On a great night, we feel like we’re untouchable.”
But how do Thomas and his Matchbox Twenty bandmates accurately gauge the quality of their performances? And isn’t it even more challenging to do so when audiences often react with similar enthusiasm to superior and so-so performances alike?
“There’s a moment happening between you and the crowd, and you judge it by that energy being reciprocated,” he replied. “Not just [because] their hands are up in the air, which is great, if that’s all it is. But if the energy is building and you hit it — and they hit it — then you feel that link where everything just starts happening in ‘The Matrix’ time.
“Sometimes, a show goes by you and someone says it was the best they ever saw, and you don’t know. For you, it’s when it happens in slow motion. … There have been nights where the whole band agrees that we just sucked. And, maybe, someone else doesn’t feel that way. But if we don’t feel it, it doesn’t matter how they feel.”
In a 1998 Union-Tribune interview, Thomas described Matchbox Twenty without a hint of pretense, saying: “We’re just a bunch of idiots. We’re the same jerks we were when we started.”
Nearly 20 years have passed since then. Are Thomas and his bandmates different idiots and jerks now?
“Yeah, we have to be,” he replied. “Because, if we weren’t we would be idiots. When I was talking to you back then, it was purely about the idea that we had some success — and can that change you?
“Now, I’m 45. And, if it doesn’t change you, you have a problem. We have wives and families, and have had experiences far beyond selling records. And we are complete idiots, in that we live in a world and have jobs that allow us to not fully grow up. But, now, we’re idiots in our 40s.”
Thomas, clearly, is quick with a quip.
Recalling his early days as a budding singer, he said: “When I sang, I wanted to be a hybrid between Elton John and Tracy Chapman. In the end, I ended up [sounding] like Cher.”
But Thomas is serious about his craft, which — in addition to his Matchbox Twenty and solo work — has seen him co-write memorable songs for Santana (“Smooth”), Willie Nelson (“Maria, Shut Up and Kiss Me”), Mick Jagger (“Vision of Paradise”), Travis Tritt (“What if Love Hangs On”) and others.
A fan of numerous musical styles and approaches, he speaks knowledgeably about the work of such disparate artists as Joni Mitchell, Merle Haggard, John Coltrane, My Morning Jacket and Perry Como.
“I’m not sure if I listen to all that for inspiration, or because I like all kinds of music,” he said. “To some degree, if you’re making and writing music, everything you hear and see throws itself into that sphere you’re in and becomes part of the gumbo.
“Like, the other day, I couldn’t stop listening to my Burt Bacharach box set and Perry Como’s ‘Magic Moments.’ What a great song that is! Then I got into a rabbit hole of Bacharach. … You go out and live your life, and find what hits your button at that moment. …
“It still feels like you’re chasing that one song. You don’t know what it sounds like, but I’ll know it when I find it. Maybe it’s a false horizon that you are always heading toward. Then you put together another batch of work, and maybe you like it. But the person who made it is different, so you have to satisfy that new person you’ve become. So, as long as you grow, your idea of what is good will keep growing and changing.”