Matchbox 20 on 16 years of music, social media and going 'North'
Some 13 000 kilometers away, Kyle Cook of US rock band Matchbox Twenty sits in a swanky hotel having late breakfast, while I sit in my dingy cupboard in my bedroom, cold tea at my feet, holding the phone close to my ear trying to hear him.
“This is a great office,” he says with a laugh. “I sometimes wonder how I’ve managed to still work in this kind of office. It’s great. And surreal.”
And here’s me thinking ‘interviewing the guitarist from Matchbox Twenty is surreal. Goddamn it is!’
Formed in 1996, Matchbox Twenty has become a name known to every music lover. Whether it be through one of their hits or through lead singer Rob Thomas who went solo for a while, everyone knows at least one of their songs.
Cook says it’s been a really incredible journey since their first album Yourself or Someone Like You, and the landscape of music has changed vastly.
“We didn’t really know each other and we jumped into studio. We ended up driving in a shitty van touring the US, eating peanut butter sandwiches, getting no sleep… it was a treat getting a cellular phone – you know those heavy blocks of metal ones? Yeah those… We though it didn’t get any better than this!”
Since then, the band has had a string of hit singles, including Push, 3A.M., Bent, If You’re Gone, and my favourite, Unwell.
Made up of Thomas, Cook, Paul Doucette and Brian Yale, the band has been though five albums, two hiatuses, solo careers and a collaboration with Santana. Sixteen years later, and Cook says it’s still unreal.
“You never expect to make it. The music industry is so hard, and you gotta be great. You cannot take being successful for granted. You can drop the ball anytime.”
He says things have changed so much, and it’s mainly due to social media. “I am still amazed that we can give our fans and followers running updates on what we’re doing.
“We tweet ‘Hey guys. Day whatever in studio and we’re cutting guitar…’ and people engage with it. It’s crazy that we’ve gone from being a band in a shitty van in a studio to almost having our fans there with us.”
Cook says it’s like people subscribing to the magazine of you and it’s interesting. “It changes the dynamic of how people consume the music. It’s become a culture of being everywhere at once and having to deliver. All the time.
“But it’s also moments captured. You’re part of an instant conversation and it’s hard not to be connected. It’s not really that invasive – it’s still quite distanced in a way.”
He reckons it would be interesting to see how that interaction affects the band’s latest album North.
“We were kind of the last of the generation not connected to social media and we’re growing into this vastly different generation that kind of expects that connection.
“It may have affected the way in which we made the album, but we’ll see about that… I mean most of the real fans may already have the album… they’ve streamed it, gave us feedback… It’s a move away from the traditional way of promoting an album. I like it.
“It even makes it possible for us to make an album even though we live in different cities.”
North is an album which still has the exuberance of the band’s earlier days, but is mellower than the Mad Season era. There is distinct evidence that they’ve grown up and have families, but they don’t really want to grow up. The album exudes an almost boyish feel. I’m not a fan of the first single She’s So Mean and Put Your Hands Up… it’s like they’re written for radio, which I feel is insincere. But songs like Overjoyed bring me back to my high school days when my friends and I stayed up late to listen to the rock shows on radio, waiting to hear Rob Thomas’ voice drip like honey, oozing sexiness, out of the speakers.
I look back and realise he was one of my first celebrity crushes, when I realised Jimmy Page was too old.
Even though Matchbox Twenty were from my teenage years and may seem like they’ve been around forever, they’re still relevant, keeping their distinctive ‘90s rock feel and sound, while showing their maturity and development of musical mastery, especially songs like I Will and English Town.
“We ask ourselves all the time if we are relevant, and are constantly questioning what we’re doing and whether it’s good enough,” says Cook.
“We, as a band, attach value to what we do, and if it’s not good enough, we don’ put it out there. We want quality.”
He says they take a long time to write an album, and that’s because they want to pay attention to detail.
“We don’t want to churn out singles. We want to fine tune and not repeat ourselves.
I would like to keep a kind of a recognisable thread going but we don’t want it to be the same single every time.”
Cook says Matchbox Twenty aims for each album to be different, but not too different that they lose themselves. “Familiarity is good, but not when it ends up being comfortable and boring.”
Each album is crafted, he says, and whereas the earlier albums where mainly Thomas’ creations, the band has started to bring more of themselves into the latest albums.
“We don’t want ‘frontman stigma’,” Cook says. “We may not have employed that method before, but we’re starting to… It’s organic… It allows the band to grow and to draw from more than just one person’s experiences.
“There is nothing wrong with wanting to do better, and time will tell whether we got it right. I hope we have.”
Cook is a family man, with a wife and kids, and he says it’s so important to keep a culture of good music going with his own children.
“I drag them to the theatre and they do complain… but it’s important to know where the roots are. I initially played the violin… It’s so important to show respect for those artists who have come before.”
He says he’s inspired by many artists like the usual rock legends, but is also inspired by his mother, who has always been supportive.
“She did a lot for me to get to where I am, and exuded this free spirit of ‘do what you love’.
“She worked and was doing her Masters degree at the same time, but always recognised my love for music and brought me up with the idea that I should never regret and never look back.”
We lost track of time, and I - sitting in the cupboard with the cold tea at my feet – am disturbed by my dog and Cook by some random person at the hotel telling him time’s up. I’m still reeling that I’ve just spoken to a band member of one of the bands on which I founded my love for rock.
“Yeah, I think we gotta wrap this up,” he says. We say our goodbyes and my cheeks are sore from smiling so much. I still can’t believe it.
Tick one off the bucket list.