photo by: Jim Trocchio
In the Moment and Flashing a ‘Chip Tooth Smile’ with Rob Thomas
Sunlight falls heavy. The light was shining from the radio. You think of your wife back home, pioneering Sidewalk Angels, you hug your son as he walks in the door and then prepare yourself for another adoring crowd who will hold your hand and sing back to you every word that comes out of your mouth.
And I’m saying a lot right now.
But I won’t lay down ‘til the work’s done, gonna raise my voice ‘til I am heard. Welcome to present day Rob Thomas. For twenty-three years Thomas has poured his heart and soul into every spec of ink he put to paper, every melody he put to song and every emotion he has emoted through the sheer force of a microphone.
Now out supporting his latest solo record, Chip Tooth Smile, Thomas’ perspective is more “bring on that mountain, bring on that climb, I’m in the moment, you heard it right” than ever before. His set each night consists of an array of material ranging from early Matchbox Twenty tunes to a collection of new material, and everything in-between. 2019, also serves as a bit of a reflective – offering a chance to pay respect to Thomas’ second solo record Cradlesong and his iconic collaboration with Carlos Santana, “Smooth”. Life is funny that way.
Prior to taking the stage in Boston last week, I had the chance to sit with Thomas to discuss how he navigates this timeless open field of expression we call music and art. Immediately I was submersed in how genuine Thomas’ intent is, stirring the same reaction I had the first time I saw Matchbox Twenty live. We shake hands, sit down and subconsciously bring ourselves to our respective places of “I’m somewhere in the moment, I ain’t lost, I own it.”
Through our dicussion we dig deep on how passion never fails to lead you to – sometimes you just have to show how you feel. This simple concept of being so real is what continues to make Thomas one of the most engaging and inspiring artists of today.
photo by: Jim Trocchio
You’ve officially released your fourth solo record Chip Tooth Smile and are in the midst of an extensive summer tour, how are you?
I’m good, man. It’s a rhythm now after twenty plus years. I took last year off and was making a record during that time, but it was the first time in about five or six years where I wasn’t touring. It was amazing how quickly we got back into the rhythm and a lot of it is because this solo band is the same band I’ve been with since 2005. I go back and forth between Matchbox Twenty and this, so when I go solo, it’s not a bunch of hired musicians, it’s family. Early in the year, before the record came out, we did two shows in California and we just picked it right back up. I was talking to my wife after the show in San Diego recently and she asked me how it went. I said that I thought it was the best crowd yet and she said, “Do you realize you say that every night?” And I thought, “Right on, it does feel like the best crowd every night, it’s crazy.” So, it’s going very well. I just love being up there playing.
The first time I saw you live was with Matchbox Twenty in 1997, you headlined a radio show in New York City. It was before I fully heard your debut record and I was blown away by how passionate your delivery was.
In the early days, what we lacked in ability and seasoning we made up for in sincerity. We really wanted to be there. It was still new. That’s the one thing we try to retain – how lucky we are to be there. I try and mean every word that I sing as opposed to just walking through them. It’s important to connect yourself to who you were when you wrote that song and connect yourself to the people and what they are feeling by hearing the song. I have songs that I could never hear again, and that would be OK, but I love playing them every night.
Then on the next record, Mad Season, I heard you tell the story behind “Rest Stop”. What again impacted my perspective was how you described the heavy meaning behind it, where the song came from and how you wrote it. I realized how much music as a form of expression meant to you. I have considered that with everything you have written and released since then.
It’s pop-rock as catharsis. Over the years, I’ve tried to hone in on if I’m writing about something in my life, the person that’s listening to it doesn’t have to care about the thing that is happening in my life – there’s a residual emotion to everything that happens to you. If you go through something like an argument with your family or losing someone you love or a breakup, the breakup isn’t the thing, it’s the way that it makes you feel. Everyone can understand that feeling. So, when I’m writing a song, I’m trying to write about how that thing made me feel because that’s the emotion that I think people will tap into. Every time you do it, it’s an experiment. You want to create the story with a melody that you like to sing and a lyric you think is clever. All the mechanics work into it, but at the same time, you want it to feel the way someone else is going to listen to it, and the way they are going to feel when they hear it.
photo by: Jim Trocchio
You’ve mentioned that you went into the Chip Tooth Smile sessions feeling a little uneasy and vulnerable from a writing standpoint. Now that it’s out do you feel that was a blessing in disguise?
Yeah, I always used to feel that way. On the last record, The Great Unknown, there were three or four songs that I really felt connected to, but a lot of it was an experiment – I was working with other producers and trying to not just go to the same well of me writing on guitar or piano. I wanted a different vibe. I hated that disconnect, that I didn’t feel close to it. Even on the misses in my career, when I’d swing and miss, it all came from a real place. I listen back now and even though I think about what I would’ve done differently, I know where they came from and I remember where I was when I wrote them, which enables me to connect with that moment. I didn’t have that with The Great Unknown. I opened that wound again on Chip Tooth Smile where every song has a place that it came from. There was nothing on there that was just pop-fodder. I also had a lot of time to do it. I was touring my last record three summers ago, and two summers ago I was touring with Matchbox on the 20th anniversary. I had been writing all that time and had about six records worth of songs. I went through it all with Butch Walker. We sifted through the ashes to find what was good and what could be the makeup of a solid record.
You then introduced the record with “One Less Day (Dying Young)” and what’s interesting is the first thing people hear is you singing “I’m not afraid of getting older”.
At 47, I had to question if that was a true line or not when I wrote it. There’s so much about getting older that’s scary as hell, but there’s even more about it that you embrace because it’s really great. There’s an awareness now that I have about the things around me, and I’m comfortable with the shit I don’t know. I think I’m a talented songwriter and I think there’s a million of me. The specialness in me only exists in the moment where someone is listening to me. It doesn’t exist out in a larger atmosphere. I have a really great relationship with my wife, with my son and with my friends – I surround myself with good people. Those are the things that are special about me more than anything to do with my job. I’m not afraid of getting older, but it’s not because of anything I have accomplished on paper, it’s because of the life I have managed to somehow wedge myself into.
“Early in The Morning” struck a chord with me immediately. I found it to be symbolic in that seize the day and live life to the fullest mentality of the record. Is that a fair assessment?
There was a real thing behind that. There was a huge backlash about a naive comment I made on stage in Australia, and it was all over the news. The truth is I had a blind spot to a piece of their culture. I had been going there forever and I had basically just been a professional tourist. I should’ve known more about their culture. So, I started to learn, and I’d meet with the heads of certain tribes in every city. We’d have ceremonies and they’d have blessings for my show. I’d speak to them about their culture and their people and attend film festivals for local artists. Waking up early in the morning was all about having a better sense of awareness for my surroundings. I need to be more aware of the time that I’m in as opposed to just sleeping through it. How can I go to Australia for 20 years and not realize things that were happening right before my eyes? Now when I go, I see it completely different. I am not going to get caught like that again.
photo by: Jim Trocchio
I appreciate the insight because I can certainly see how that point factors into the record as a collective body of work.
Yeah, everything in there does. “Can’t Help Me Now” is the new single. My wife and I were just discussing this – we were sitting home watching the video and she was crying because she noticed it was addressing something we are going through right now as opposed to something we already went through. The idea is two people who have been together for twenty plus years are as close as they can be, but we are both going through our own shit and can’t help each other.
Everything in there has a moment that is tied to a direct thing that has happened over the past couple years of my life – which makes me feel really tied to it. The best part about it is that it doesn’t matter how the record does. I did the job I was supposed to do. As soon as it was done, I told Butch we should make another record and he said, “No, you have to go tour on this one.” But the point was I ready to keep writing.
Butch Walker is one of my favorite producers. I find he has a distinct ability to get the artist to address exactly how they feel about what’s going on in their life, what’s burning inside and then putting it to song. “Funny” comes to mind or something as subtle as the breath that’s in front of “The Man to Hold the Water.” Was that your experience working with Butch on Chip Tooth Smile?
Yes. He’s also a chameleon. I’ve worked with a lot of great produces over the years whether it’s Rob Cavallo, Steve Lillywhite or Matt Serletic who I’ve worked with for years, and they have their imprint. Butch takes himself out of the equation. He makes the best P!nk record that P!nk can make or the best Brian Fallon record that Brian can make or the best record that I can make. It doesn’t sound like a Butch Walker record because he just looks inside of you and says, “OK, let’s bring this out of you.” For someone that talented to be able to be that absent is amazing. It shows a lot about his humble energy. I have known him decades, but over the past 10 years we have become super-close to the point where we talk all the time. I cherish that friendship. He wields his talents like a sword, it’s amazing.
photo by: Jim Trocchio
You’ve also been reflecting upon the 10-year anniversary of Cradlesong, you’re playing a bunch of songs from that record on this tour including the incredibly moving “Her Diamonds”. What does it feel like now playing that song each night?
Unfortunately, it is still sore. It’s still me working through it when I sing it every night. The same thing holds true for “Ever the Same” – they were both written when I started to realize my wife was sick. It hasn’t gotten that much better. Mari has been very open about it and it has caused a lot of other people to come out and start talking about what they’re going through. I can see people in the audience that are working their way through it as I’m singing it. There’s something really cathartic about that solidarity when you realize you are not alone. It’s easy to get myopic about things and think that you are experiencing something cold and unique to yourself. It makes you feel completely alone. Then you realize it’s a very broad emotion that other people are going through. People can relate to just getting through every day. So, that’s been very helpful to me.
2019 also marks the 20th anniversary of “Smooth”, your collaboration with Santana. When you think back to that now, what is something that you carry with you every night?
Carlos taught me – you can’t control the outcome of anything that happens, but you can control your motive, your intention and your purpose. If you control those three things in everything you put into, then it’s going to be honest. You also must have gratitude everywhere you go. The best thing that has come out of “Smooth” is that even today when we are both on the road, we get on the phone and text each other, “How was your show?”, “Good, how as your show?”, “I fuckin’ love you”, “I fuckin’ love you, too” I saw him in Phoenix a few weeks ago and I went up and played with him on a night off. We were talking about “Smooth” and saying how it’s not the best song I’ve ever written and it’s not the best song he’s ever done. It was this weird lighting in a bottle and we believe the reason it was put there was for him and I to meet and become friends. He’s literally like my brother, it’s an unbelievable friendship that we’ve built over the years. That’s the best thing that I take with me – not just me and him, but him and my family, there’s just a love there. One of the first things we’re thinking about doing when we get off the road is going out to his place in Hawaii and doing some writing. We’ve done a ton of stuff quietly since “Smooth”, like I wrote a bunch of songs for his Shaman record, we just never wanted to try and repeat “Smooth”. That was just a special moment, it was our moment, and it’s an amazing thing that it has stuck around the way that it has. It has its own life, where it is it’s own thing now.
Coming full circle here, all of this considered, what does this moment, the Chip Tooth Smile chapter in your journey mean to you?
It’s revealing itself every day. We spend so much time in our lives worrying about something that you can’t change or anticipating something that’s about to happen that you can’t change. We don’t spend enough time just in the moment. I know that today I’m in Boston, my son is going to come join me and jump on stage and play music, and I’m going to hang out with some friends. I’ll then go home tonight get into bed with my wife and have a day off tomorrow. I’m trying to not think about much more than that. Next summer we are thinking about going out with Matchbox Twenty, these kinds of things are in the works. But I may not get next summer. I know that I had last week, I know that I have today, and I hope I get next week, but I’m definitely not going to squander today worrying about it.