“You’re just not the person in your fifties that you were in your twenties,” says Rob Thomas, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment from the tour bus that’s been his home away from home — and sometimes his only home — for most of his adult life.
The Matchbox Twenty frontman, 51, is back on the road to promote his band’s first album in 11 years, Where the Light Goes, which he says is “filled with questions about mortality and questions about the difference between where you are and where you think you’re supposed to be. … Losing my mother was a really big thing for me. My relationship with my father is a really difficult thing for me. My wanting to be a good dad to my son, wanting to keep this career off the ground, wanting to keep my marriage going good — these are things that everybody deals with, you know? And I think if you don’t spend time thinking about them and really giving them a good, thorough investigation, then you’re probably not doing it right.”
There probably was a time when Thomas wondered if he’d even make it to 51. He had an incredibly unstable upbringing, with an alcoholic mother, an absentee father, and a grandma who sold moonshine and marijuana. “When I was 10 years old, I was at my grandmother’s house learning how to separate seeds and stems, so I could make dime bags so she could sell weed,” Thomas chuckles. “When I got back into a ‘normal’ life… my mom, you know, had worked really, really hard to get us into a nice, middle-class life, but when I got around ‘normal’ people, I didn’t know what that was like.” Eventually Thomas dropped out of high school, spent two months in county jail for stealing a car, got into drugs himself, and even ended up homeless for a while. But now he believes that his adolescence prepared him for the chaotic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
“I already had a little Gypsy in me,” muses Thomas. “I realize that if I had gone to Little League and had a ‘normal’ life, I wouldn’t have the point of view that I was afforded at an early age. I find now in my fifties that so many curses along the way have been blessings. And so in a lot of ways, I think I look at it like a gift. … And I wasn’t shielded from it. I wasn’t shielded from some really harsh things. But also the generosity of people, the kindness of people that are there to help you when you’re in that kind of situation — I existed on the kindness of people who would take me in, so I saw that good in people too. I think if you’re a guy who writes songs, and if your songs are about relationships and interpersonal relationships with people — not just romantic, obviously, but familial and platonic and every kind of way that people interact with each other — that’s a blessing. And so, that’s the kind of way I’ve always looked at it.”
Thomas also soon realized that a life in rock ‘n’ roll was the only life for him: There was no Plan B. “I’m not suited for anything else. I’m not really good at anything else. I don’t have any skills — like, life skills,” he laughs. Before Matchbox Twenty exploded onto the mainstream in 1996 with their 12 million-selling debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, he had “almost every kind of a job that you could have that wouldn’t become a career, like any kind of a job that I could have that I could quit on a Friday if I had a gig, and then get a new job on a Monday. I did every kind of restaurant work, every kind of construction work, every kind of delivery jobs, driving stuff, building, making, futons, delivering beds, roofing, drywall. I just did pretty much anything I could do, because at that point I had just been navigating my way through a bad situation, kind of like floating around, living on park benches and hitchhiking around the Southeast, and really just kind of figuring myself out since I was like 17. If you don’t have any infrastructure, you don’t know where that’s going to go. I was just lucky enough to settle myself into something, and I found a work ethic that I didn’t know that I had — because it was just something that I enjoyed so much that I would spend 16 hours doing it all day, learning it and trying to perfect it and get better at it. And then I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t realize I actually do have a work ethic!’ It just has to be something I like.”
Success came fast and furious for Thomas and his bandmates in the 1990s, which Thomas amusingly calls “the last good time,” and that success overlapped with Thomas’s unexpected and equally massive side career as a pop star — starting with his Carlos Santana collaboration “Smooth” in 1999, which won Grammys for Record and Song of the Year and still ranks as the third-most-successful song on Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Hot 100 Songs chart. (Fun fact: Thomas originally wrote “Smooth” with George Michael in mind. “I think he would’ve killed it, but if it wasn’t going to be him, I’m glad it was me,” he quips.) And as Thomas’s star rose, he definitely indulged in his new rock-star perks. “There was a lot of drugs in the ‘90s; there’s no other way to say it,” he shrugs. “So, there’s a lot of blurry spots in that period, which I tend to think means I had a good time.”
Thomas isn’t totally sober now. “Oh, no, no. I’m a mess! My therapist is trying to work on that!” he laughs. However, he stresses, “I’m a much more controlled mess, you know? I’ve been married to my wife for 24 years. I am much more about home life and my dogs. I got it out of my system, and then met my wife still at the beginning of this journey.” Thomas says that since he and his wife, retired model Marisol Maldonado, fell in love at the height of his Matchbox Twenty fame, in 1997, they’ve “never been apart for more than two or three weeks, ever.”
Thomas refers to Maldonado as his “best friend” and “ride-or-die,” and the two have faced various struggles over the years due to Maldonado’s various medical issues, including a brain lesion that required surgery, several tick-borne diseases, Hashimoto’s disease, and atypical trigeminal neuralgia. “It’s touch-and-go. It’s just a part of us now. I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” Thomas matter-of-factly says of his wife’s health these days. “I don’t think there’s a horizon that works like that. But it’s something that you can learn to navigate, and she’s unbelievably resilient and strong, so the second that she gets a good day, she runs with it.”
Thomas says that when he and Maldonado met at an afterparty in Montreal, “there was an instant attraction,” but he realizes that — just like with his decade-spanning professional success — the fact that he is in one of rock’s most enduring and stable marriages a quarter-century later can’t really be explained. “She was a model and I was 30 pounds heavier — and she still was into me,” he laughs. “But I mean, why would it last? It didn’t make any sense. Like, I told her I was going marry her on our first date. It’s just a recipe for disaster. But you know, there it was.”
When Matchbox Twenty resumed touring immediately after Thomas and Maldonado’s fateful first meeting, the singer would call his future wife from the road every night, and they’d stay up late chatting. “We had to find a f***ing landline,” he laughs, remembering those simpler days before iPhones, WhatsApp, FaceTime, and Zoom. “I’d have to wait till we got to a rest stop so I could get on a payphone so I could call her! At that time I just had a pager, which she said made me look like a drug dealer. But the pager was really just for girls that were on the road, so once I met her, I didn’t need the pager anymore.”
By the time the couple finally went on that first date when he basically proposed marriage, they “just really knew each other, because we had just hours and hours and hours talking about everything. And so, I think that really helped a lot,” explains Thomas. “We were so in love with each other that [Matchbox Twenty bandmate] Paul [Doucette] got jealous, because up until then, Paul was ‘my girl’!”
And now, almost three decades later, Thomas is still in a contented marriage, Thomas and Doucette are still playing huge venues like the Hollywood Bowl on Matchbox Twenty’s current Slow Dream Tour, and, in another against-all-odds development, Thomas is still enjoying parallel careers as a band frontman and solo star. “What’s funny is when I went solo, there were so many voices coming at me telling me not to go solo, and then I went solo and it went really well, so then there were so many voices telling me not to go back to Matchbox Twenty!” Thomas says incredulously. “It’s a very unique situation to be in, concurrently going back and forth between the band and solo and having it work. Honestly, it all depends on the generosity of the guys in this band allowing that to happen. And that’s not always been easy.”
Thomas admits that when he and his Matchbox Twenty bandmates were “getting older and busy doing other things,” they once “kind of thought we weren’t going make records anymore; we thought we would just go tour every now and then, maybe put out a song or two here and there.” (This isn’t the first big gap in their discography: the band’s third and fourth albums, More Than You Think You Are and 2012’s North, were spaced 10 years apart.) But when they were finally able to get back on the road after various pandemic-related delays, they were moved “by how many of our fans were still holding onto those tickets and waiting for when we finally went out,” so they decided, “Maybe we should just rethink about putting together a full record, so that when we come out we’ve got something new, instead of just a whole nostalgia tour.”
The result is the confessional Where the Light Goes, and Thomas is feeling proud of the result and just how far he’s come, personally and professionally. “It doesn’t matter how often we do it,” he says of Matchbox Twenty’s sporadic recording and touring schedule. “It just matters that we do it when we’re ready for it, so we can give it everything.”
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