By Alan Sculley
---- — The first three Matchbox Twenty albums could have been titled “The Rob Thomas Show” as far as the songwriting was concerned.
Then the band took a break and Thomas went on to establish himself as a solo artist and released his 2005 solo debut, “…Something To Be.” The album reached the top of the Billboard charts and produced two hit singles, “Lonely No More” and “This Is How A Heart Breaks”; and then there was “Smooth,” the blockbuster single he co-wrote for Carlos Santana and sang on Santana’s “Supernatural” CD.
Thomas, however, wasn’t the only one honing his craft during that time period. Matchbox Twenty Paul Doucette and Kyle Cook, drummer and lead guitarist respectively, were busy with their own independent projects: Doucette working with his side band, the Break And Repair Method, and Cook with his, the New Left. The two liked having a heavier hand in the songwriting, they found.
So when Matchbox Twenty regrouped to make the 2008 album “Exile On Mainstream,” a greatest hits collection supplemented by six new songs, they insisted on being part of the writing process. After some growing pains, the arrangement worked and was carried forth onto the band’s forth album, “North.”
The band comes to the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on Tuesday in support of the record, along with the Goo Goo Dolls and Kate Earl.
In a recent phone interview, Thomas said he was happy to open up the writing process to his band-mates, though some people questioned his ability to collaborate.
The concerns were understandable: As primary songwriter on the first three Matchbox Twenty albums, Thomas had proven himself to be one of rock’s most reliable hit makers.
Matchbox Twenty released a debut CD in 1996, “Yourself Or Someone Like You.” It produced five hit singles, including “Push,” “3 a.m.” and “Long Day.” “Mad Season,” 2000, and “More Than You Think You Are,” 2002, added another half dozen hits to the list, including “Bent,” “If You’re Gone” and “Bright Lights.”
The worry, of course, was that changing things up by involving Doucette, Cook -- along with bassist Brian Yale and drummer Ryan MacMillan -- the songwriting would get diluted.
Thomas admits to having a bit of an adjustment in giving up some of his control.
“To bring a song to the guys, when you’ve been kind of the guy writing the songs for so long (was hard),” he said. “And you bring in a song and the guys are like, ‘I’m not feeling it.’ ... I remember telling the guys, ‘I kind of feel like we’ve worked together, I’ve been writing for 15 years. I’ve had all this success as a writer and my reward is to get a demotion to having to be a co-writer and have you guys sign off on what I write, when I don’t really feel that you guys have really earned the right to tell me whether I’ve written a good song or not.’”
The tension was short-lived. Thomas soon discovered, as did the people at Atlantic Records and the band’s management, that Doucette and Cook had grown tremendously as songwriters during the band’s hiatus.
“All that kind of stopped when we got together and started writing,” Thomas said. “Like a song like ‘Overjoyed’ that I wrote with Paul and Kyle, I like that as much as I like anything that I’ve ever written alone. So that’s really where the proof is. I’ll write a song with my dog if it’s a good song.”
On “North,” Thomas shares writing credits with Doucette and Cook on two songs: “Overjoyed,” a first-rate ballad and the current single from “North”; and “I Will,” a sweet, largely acoustic ballad. Cook and Doucette co-wrote “The Way,” and each got solo credit for another song. The remaining five songs were written by Thomas.
“North” sounds very much like a Matchbox Twenty album with its mix of hooky upbeat pop rockers like “She’s So Mean,” “English Town” and “Radio”; mid-tempo tunes like“Parade” and “Like Sugar”; and graceful ballads, “Overjoyed,” “I Will” and “The Way.”
The band members certainly put in the work necessary to come up with a dozen songs they felt belong on the album. They regrouped after a break during which Thomas released 2009’s “Cradle Songs.” Together, Thomas, Doucette and Kook held a series of songwriting sessions that produced 50 ideas.
The entire band then headed to Nashville, moving into a cabin/studio where they planned to refine and record a selection of songs for the album. Things didn’t go as planned, although by all accounts they had fun consuming copious amounts of wine.
“At the time we got to Nashville, we actually thought we were making the record. We were going to be the producer and start on our own,” Thomas said. “The Nashville time really just turned out to be a really expensive drunken/crash/bonding session.”
The album was put back on track when Matt Serletic, who produced the first three Matchbox Twenty albums, came to Nashville to produce another act and stopped in to
see what Matchbox Twenty was cooking up for the album. A lengthy listening session ensued.
“After like two bottles of wine and three in the morning and him looking at everything we’re doing, we just kind of looked at him and said, ‘We think you should produce this record,’” Thomas said. “‘You’ve got some good ideas. You know what we’re trying to do. So let’s, next year, January, we’ll hit L.A. and we’ll start recording.’ That was kind of how we went about it.”
Now, Matchbox is touring outdoor amphitheaters with the Goo Goo Dolls. Thomas said the band is trying to cover lots of ground in its shows. They devote about half to hits the fans want to hear, and half to the newer and unexpected material.
“You want to play a bunch of album cuts, but at the same time I hate when I go to see a band, and there’s that one song I’ve been waiting to hear and they don’t play it,” Thomas said.
“We’re still there to entertain and we’re still there to give somebody a great night,” he said. “They came and invested their time and their money, so you want to make sure they get what they want. But then you have that whole other half of the set that kind of becomes on different nights different album tracks and new tracks, covers and things like that.”
IF YOU GO What: Matchbox Twenty with the Goo Goo Dolls and Kate Earl. When: 7 p.m., June 25 Where: Verizon Wireless Arena, 555 Elm St., Manchester, N.H. How: Tickets are $95, $85.50, $65.50, $29.50. Call 603-868-7300 (Ticketmaster) or visit www.verizonwirelessarena.com/.