Rob Thomas believes that the lead single to Matchbox Twenty’s first album in over a decade works because the band didn’t overthink it.
“Wild Dogs (Running in a Slow Dream),” the pop-rock sing-along that deploys a racing tempo and a handful of rousing hooks, was added to the track list of Where the Light Goes, the band’s fifth studio album, after Thomas, drummer/multi-instrumentalist Paul Doucette and producer Gregg Wattenberg recognized a spark in its music and lyrics — then proceeded to do as little as possible to mess with its momentum.
“There was a vitality to that track – a drive, a visceral feeling, that if we spent too much time polishing and re-polishing, it was gonna go away,” Thomas tells Billboard. “Gregg was very careful to be like, ‘We’re gonna get in, and once we get it, I want you to get out. Capture it, then step away from it. Don’t just keep adding to add.’”
In some respect, Matchbox Twenty didn’t need to add to its discography: the alt-rock veterans’ catalog, beginning with 1996’s diamond-certified Yourself or Someone Like You, boasts hits like “3AM,” “If You’re Gone,” “Unwell” and “How Far We’ve Come” that could power summer amphitheater shows for years to come. Yet Where the Light Goes, due out this Friday (May 26) on Atlantic Records, is the product of a creative drive and longstanding collaborative ease: Thomas, Doucette, bassist Brian Yale and guitarist Kyle Cook have conceived the follow-up to 2012’s North, which topped the Billboard 200 chart upon its release, as a loose, unabashedly heartfelt check-in from a collection of old friends.
Matchbox Twenty kicked off their 54-date Slow Dream tour earlier this month, and will be playing a mix of old hits and new album cuts on the road through August. Ahead of the tour kickoff and album release, Thomas and Doucette chatted with Billboard about how an unlikely full-length turned into one of the most satisfying projects of their shared careers. (Ed. note: this conversations has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Considering it’s been over a decade since the last Matchbox Twenty album, how does it feel to start the machine back up?
Thomas: Oddly comfortable and normal.
Doucette: We’ve done so much in our lives, so it’s like, we haven’t done it in a long time, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that different. The world is different — like, we didn’t have to worry about TikTok [before]. We just made a video for “Wild Dogs,” and part of that conversation is, “How does this work in small little cuts?” Those aren’t conversations that we used to have. So there’s definitely new things in this process for us, but it is still the process that we’ve been doing all of our adult lives.
Thomas: From 1996, we’ve only existed through change. When we started out, it was this period where we got to make a lot of mistakes, and they were private — they didn’t exist online, nobody was there with a camera, TMZ didn’t exist. We were a band that came out at a time when we said the actual phrase, “Do you think we need a website?” Social media didn’t exist until like three records in.
So I think that we came along at a really good time to expect and be ready for change, whenever we were starting a new endeavor. But then at the same time, we’re getting ready to go on tour, and this process where we bring out the gear, we make sure that we’ve got the sound just so — this was exactly the same in 2017, in 2015. That’s the job, and that feels very familiar.
When did you guys start focusing on this group of songs?
Thomas: We were pretty much at a place where we didn’t think we were ever going to make a full-length record. Going into 2020, it was, “Let’s record a couple of songs to accompany the tour, and then maybe that’s our business model — you know, we tour every couple of years, and we maybe release a song or two.” That didn’t excite Paul. He wasn’t sure how much effort he wanted to put into a couple of songs, so he was like, “If you guys want to run with that, go for it.” So during that time, Paul listened to [the song] “Where the Light Goes,” and he was just like, “I like that one, maybe you guys should work on that.” And me and Kyle worked on it.
It was 2022, and other bands were really out touring, and we didn’t go out. And there was a sense that we were letting fans down. It was Kyle who would start the conversation of, “Maybe we do want to make a full-length record — we’re gonna be sitting at home, we’re not gonna be doing anything this summer, and that would make next summer even more exciting for people that have been waiting for three years. It’s another level of excitement to that touring process.” So that just got the ball rolling.
Doucette: I ended season three of [co-composing the score for] For All Mankind in April, I think, and then in May I flew to New York to start working on this, and it was basically from May until December. I think we all kind of felt like we were never gonna make another record — and then suddenly, we were making a record, and that record’s done! In the grand scheme of things, this record came together probably more quickly than any record we’ve ever done.
Thomas: To be fair, though, this wasn’t a situation where we went into the studio and wrote all the songs. Some of those were written during the process, but then some of those were 75% done and then we’d jump in and help finish it together, and some were 100% done. We came in with a lot of material, and then we whittled down a good portion of this album with things that were started at different times, and then just finished as a band.
How much of the creative energy between you guys was just like old times, and how much has it evolved over the years? Since it’s been such a long time that you all worked on an album together, what was it like trying to regain a rhythm?
Thomas: Some things are just very automatic. You’re just like, this is how this works, I see where you’re going with that, let me pick that up. It’s happening amongst a group of guys who are 10 years older than the last time we did it — and the last time we did it, we weren’t young. And so I think there’s a refinement to the process that’s welcomed, in a really big way, and a civility to the process. We’re less precious with our feelings and our ideas — we want to get something done, but at the same time, we’re very precious with other people’s feelings and other people’s ideas. So I feel like everything about it that was different was only for the better.
Doucette: Also, like, you’re not fighting for an idea simply to fight for it. We just want to come up with the best thing, and that takes a lot of the pressure off, because you’re more willing to try stuff that might get shot down. We were working on a song called “One Hit Love” on this record, and we were trying to find the chorus for it. We were playing the track in Gregg’s studio, and we had a microphone, and Rob would get up and say a line, sing a melody. And I’d go, “Oh, no, let me try this.” And I’d try something and he’s like, “No, not that.” It was going back and forth until we got it right, not going, “It has to be this, I believe in this more than anything!” The benefit of age is just being better at that, at being more conscious of each other’s feelings. You can have that conversation in a healthy way.
A lot of lyrics on the new album contain a personal specificity, even as the themes are pretty universal. I’m thinking of a song like “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” which is about identity and how your past informs your present.
Doucette: I know that, at least for me, I’m trying to write from a place that’s searching for positivity. There’s a poster from an artist named Deedee Cheriel that says ‘You Have Everything You Need,’ so I wrote “Friends” about that. “One Hit Love” is a song that we wrote that’s about this might be doomed, but we’re gonna go for it anyway. I just want to keep writing about hopeful things. That said, there’s a song, “Warm Blood,” that’s totally negative.
Thomas: I’m always like write, write, write, and I end up writing four or five songs for every one that I actually like. After 30 years, it’s become about getting a sense of what you’re writing about, but then trying to find a way to say it that has its own flair, its own color. When you talk about relationships, it’s easy to fall into the same tropes – you want to try and find new ways to express yourself. The effort that we put into the lyrics on this record, I think makes it one of our strongest ones that we’ve written.