From “Jobber” to Star, Rob Thomas Has Seen It All

All Rob Thomas wanted to do was be a “jobber.” For the future hitmaker, when he and his teenage band, Fair Warning, got a gig at the Sheraton Hotel in Vero Beach, Florida, he thought they’d made it. And soon, Thomas realized, booking gigs was something he could do. Wanted to do. While the hotel job was cut short due to beer theft, Thomas knew he was onto something. It wasn’t about fame, just a living. If he wound up being in a “really great wedding band one day,” that would have been enough, he says.

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[RELATED: 5 Songs You Didn’t Know Rob Thomas Wrote for Other Artists]

Thomas, who grew up “more sensitive” than other kids, loved music. He was the one who remembered song titles and lyrics. Growing up in South Carolina and then Florida, he heard Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. At the skate parks, which he favored, he heard Michael Jackson and KISS. He also loved the bands from the second British Invasion like the Cure and Joy Division. Today, Thomas and his band Matchbox Twenty are known like those he grew up on. And their latest record, Where The Light Goes, out Friday (May 26), will assuredly be spun worldwide—including weddings. 

“It was around my early 20s,” Thomas tells American Songwriter, “when I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to be a jobber.’” 

Thomas says one of the bands he played in, Tabitha’s Secret, was one of the “big local bands” around Vero Beach. The kind that would open for a touring act when one came through and needed support. From that band grew Matchbox Twenty. But there was an issue in between. Unaware of the nuances of the business, Thomas had signed away a number of the songs he’d written for Tidal Wave. So, as Matchbox Twenty got going, he had to write a whole new batch. He “went away” for about six months and came back with the songs that would comprise the group’s 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, which included smash hits like “Push” and “3AM.” While some may have felt cheated out of losing their songs, Thomas looked on the bright side. 

“A lot of people say you have your whole life to write your first record, and then your second is [quicker],” Thomas says. “But my sophomore record was our first record. And thank God it was because the songs that Tabitha’s Secret had were regional hits, do you know what I mean?”

The songwriter says that the first record, which was stuck in Tabitha’s Secret limbo, largely didn’t have the songs that boasted national staying power. But Matchbox Twenty’s debut certainly did, going platinum twelve times. Thomas says the success seemed like it happened in a flash, but it was really a slow build. Really, they built themselves up as a “good jobber band,” he says, touring the southeast. They were used to life in a van going from show to show. Then, when a record deal came, it was just a continuation of that. They were ready, for the most part. Thomas, who went through a series of ups and downs as a young person, wanted to see the world and embrace a new life. After the successful Matchbox Twenty debut, life got even crazier thanks to a collaboration with Carlos Santana on the song, “Smooth.” Soon, Thomas wasn’t just the guy from Matchbox Twenty. He was his own entity. A boon to him and the band, in the end.  

“In between the first and second [Matchbox Twenty] record, I worked with Carlos,” Thomas says. “It kind of pulled me out as like, ‘Oh, this is Rob Thomas, a songwriter.’ That was a probably big help going into the second Matchbox record.”

[RELATED: The Writer’s Block: Rob Thomas Still Asks “Is This Any Good?”]

Flash-forward some fifteen years and the band has its newest album set for release—it’s first in about a decade. Thomas says it’s a bit of a surprise for the band to have completed an LP. After 2012 and the band’s album, North, they thought that would be their last big statement. But after tours and plans kept getting cancelled and postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Thomas and company felt they owed their fans more than just a single or two and a tour. They chose some songs Thomas had written and some bass player Paul Doucette had, and they formed the record from there. One guiding principle was that the band knew they didn’t want to make an album of rage and pessimism. They wanted joy to be their guiding light. 

“We wanted to talk more about joy and positivity,” Thomas says. 

One of those joys is the joy of getting older—and “not a fear of it,” says the 51-year-old frontman. For Thomas, who has appeared on magazine covers, been dubbed one of the best-looking rock stars and is known, at least in part, for his big-energy songs, life is not about trying to stay young. It’s about embracing change. He does this by writing, enjoying the “catharsis” of it. He’s not afraid of getting older, as other celebrities might be, because “every day is a day I survived,” he says. Thomas adds, with a chuckle, that while growing older never unfolds quite how you thought it would, the process is valuable. Anyway, the past is the past. 

“I’ve come to pretty good terms with how it’s working out,” Thomas says. 

As for Matchbox Twenty, Thomas seems to feel at peace about where the band is at this time. The Grammy-nominated group, which has been around for nearly three decades and is now on tour, has endured transformation and life changes. On stage, they remain them, Thomas says, even if at home they have their own unique rich lives. But for Thomas, that’s the best part about music. It’s transformative qualities. It can take you to new places internally and externally. Heck, it can alter your DNA, Thomas says. And whether or not that particular science is accurate, it is clear that music can certainly change a person’s life. 

“If you’re onstage and you look out, sometimes you will see someone behaving in a way that they only would in that circumstance,” Thomas says. “They’re completely letting themselves go. Music can make you happier, it can make you sadder, it can make you remember how much you love something.” 

Photo by Jimmy Fontaine /Atlantic Records

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