In 1996, fronting an alternative rock band seemed like the national pastime for any bored young male with even a vague touch of musical ability. The radio was filled with angsty, pseudo-earnest rock bands all seemingly trying to recapture the musical magic that had begun fading from the airwaves the moment Kurt Cobain committed suicide two years prior. So when Matchbox Twenty’s first chart-topping single “Push” hit the airwaves, it didn’t exactly rattle the cages of the musical elite. In fact, a disinterested collective yawn could almost be heard from the army of rock critics, hipsters and music snobs, as this new group fronted by Rob Thomas — a young, nonthreatening white guy sporting a Caesar cut about two years after everyone else had moved on to those spikey, Brad Pitt-esque dos — seemed to be yet another in a long line of uninteresting bands with numbers in their names (Blink 182, SR-71, Eve 6 … etc), a group destined to spend its 15 minutes of fame pumping out forgettable music that would soon be forgotten.
Fast forward 24 years and somehow everything looks different. Rock music itself is what has been forgotten, as it barely registers as a blip on the pop charts, which are all but completely dominated by hip-hop, R&B acts and the occasional bit of bro-country foolishness. And most of those rock bands from the mid-90s have indeed fallen by the wayside, while the few lucky enough to still be out there are now relegated to performing 20-minute sets on large, nostalgia-based tours with a panel of other one, two and three hit wonders.
But guess who nobody forgot about over the last quarter century? Rob Thomas. Splitting his time between solo work, Matchbox Twenty records and his charity The Sidewalk Angels Foundation, Thomas – who heads to A.C. this weekend for a three night stand of benefit shows for Sidewalk Angels Foundation at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa at 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday, Jan. 17-19 – has not slowed down since those early days. While he has never had it easy – Thomas grew up with an abusive alcoholic mother and an incredibly unstable living situation – he has since become the poster boy for overcoming the odds. Continuing to sell out solo shows on a regular basis, and with a reunion tour with Matchbox Twenty planned for this summer, Thomas is a walking middle finger to everyone who dismissed him in the post-grunge ‘90s. Yes, in 2020, it’s good to be Rob Thomas.
At The Shore: You had a rough upbringing, and were even homeless at one point. When all that was going down, were you ever able to envision having the type of success you have been able to enjoy?
Rob Thomas: God no! I was literally voted “most likely to not do anything of worth with my life.” And when you first start out, you don’t have any real frame of reference. I remember thinking that if I made it I would go back to my high school and I would play prom and ‘show them.’ I let all of these different avenues go I didn’t go to college and I didn’t get in on the ground floor of a career because at the time I didn’t want to do anything that might become a career. I didn’t want to accidentally slip into something safe, so I would take jobs that I could quit on a Friday if I had a gig. I think the only way you ever find any success at all (in the music business) is to have some sort of willful ignorance to the odds. Because if you really knew them at the time you would just give up, because it would be way too daunting.
ATS: Did you get to a point with your songwriting where you started to realize you were writing potential hits?
RT: When our first record came out it blew up. And of course everyone tells you it’s a fluke and warns you about the sophomore slump and everything else, so it wasn’t until our second record came out and the first single off of it became our first No. 1 single that we knew we had some kind of a rhythm going and could probably make a career out of this and not just be a one hit/one album wonder or something.
ATS: What opportunities does your solo work offer you that the band can’t?
RT: With Matchbox Twenty, even if I bring a song in that has been written by me completely, there is an aesthetic that gets attached to it by the band. They kind of attack it the way they want to and their imprint is all over it. For example ‘Lonely No More,’ which was the first single off my first solo record, is a song that I think if I had brought into the band the guys would be like ‘I don’t know – that doesn’t sound like something I want to do.’ Whereas for me, when I am working as a solo artist I can just say ‘well this is what I am and this is what I sound like now.’ It just gives me the chance to do some stuff without the tribunal weighing in on everything.
ATS: Tell us a little about your charity Sidewalk Angels. How did it come about?
RT: My wife and I started it about 15 years ago. We were doing a lot of work with no kill shelters and rescues we found that there were a lot of like-minded people who had the best of intentions and wanted to do something, but couldn’t get off the ground and get started, so we became kind of a funding source for them. We have helped build over 30 shelters across the country and have worked with rescues, helping them get medical assistance and other resources. We’ve worked everywhere, including spots like Puerto Rico, Houston and New Orleans after they were hit with hurricanes. We work with homeless shelters who will take people in with their dogs if they get displaced. We have just tried to be a conduit in between a lot of things to help these people and animals all over the world.
ATS: Your collaboration with Carlos Santana on the song “Smooth” was a huge success. If you could write a song with any artist living or dead, who would it be?
RT: My answer to this question was always Willie Nelson, but I actually got the chance to write with him and for him. Asking for anything else seems greedy!
ATS: What is the worst thing about being on the road?
RT: You have a whole home life that you put on hold. I don’t get to see my friends as much and I don’t get to see my son as much because he is in college. It’s a lie better at this level because I’m by myself and so my wife can come out whenever she wants and join us, but it’s weird that you have this whole part of your life that just sits there waiting. You kinda get in a routine at home which you love and then when you go on tour it just gets all smashed up. Its chaotic lifestyle for sure, but it depends on who you ask. If I’m talking to Kid Rock, to him I come off like the dentist who lives next door to me. But if I’m talking to the dentist who lives next door to me, he thinks I’m Kid Rock! (Laughs) It’s all about perspective.