“She's a hardcore, candy-store, gimme-some-more girl,” sings a worse-for-wear Rob Thomas croakily rehearsing “She's So Mean”, Matchbox Twenty's new, terrifically moreish pop single in a sprawling studio space on the outskirts of Nashville. I'm sitting on a flea-friendly sofa at the back, out of the way, listening to the session/free concert on headphones, having been warned by their burly management that the band are “tired and cranky” after a month of rehearsal.
They're not really that cranky; in actual fact, all four of the core members – loquacious singer Thomas, guitarist Paul Doucette (the outfit's “unofficial leader”, who “rules the band with an iron fist” according to Thomas), bassist Brian Yale and lead guitarist Kyle Cook, plus stand-in drummer Stacy Jones – are amiable, but there is tension here. This is a sort of comeback tour for the sunny rock band from Orlando, Florida, who emerged in 1996 with the hook-loaded Yourself or Someone Like You, garnering huge record sales and acclaim in the US and Australia, but much less so in the UK.
The experienced four-piece haven't produced a whole album of new material for over a decade and their last record, the greatest-hits package Exile on Mainstream (which featured six new songs, including the exquisite “How Far We've Come”), was five years ago. Quite a bit hangs on the success of their fourth effort, North, and the perky and droll single “She's So Mean”. In America, sales seem assured; over here, less so.
The first band member to take a rehearsal break and drift over to the sofa to chat is the goofy Yale. He explains, in quite some detail, that Matchbox Twenty “is the one thing I do” and that the rest of the time he lives a “retired” existence in Florida, which involves playing golf, surfing, power boarding and mountain biking. After extolling the merits of a midweek round of golf, he discusses the band's frustration on not conquering Europe.
“It's tough for us in Europe, but it's not for a lack of trying,” Yale maintains. “With every new record, we've gone to the UK and we try our best,” Yale adds. “It's a touch frustrating when you spend all this money and you don't necessarily make it back, after years and years of trying.”
While Yale slopes off to putt some golf balls on his mini green, chirpy Thomas and chippy Doucette (the band's big guns; both hungover) join me, picking up the subject of their lack of acclaim here.
“Would we love it if we had success in England?” says 40-year-old Thomas. “Luckily our career isn't dependent on it.” So, which song has actually had the most impact in England? “I don't think any of them,” Doucette retorts.
That's not quite correct – the Pearl Jam-like single “Push” reached No 38 in the UK chart in 1996; but their other big, highly commercial US hits – “Disease”, “Bent”, “Unwell”, “3AM”, “You're Gone”, “Back to Good”, “Mad Season” – have not made a dent on our shores. It's a shame, as their guitar-pop sound and heartfelt lyrics are redolent of the likes of Weezer, John Mellencamp and Soul Asylum, who, come to think of it, are not very successful American acts over here either.
Perhaps there's a certain type of earnest and emotive Stateside songwriting that just doesn't translate over here? Whereas the magnificently gloomy The National and retro folkies Fleet Foxes are lauded to the heavens, the likes of Hootie and the Blowfish, Fountains of Wayne and Matchbox Twenty are dismissed as MOR. And, unarguably, they're certainly not a contentious or radical band, as Thomas forcefully points out.
“Our songs are not political; they're driven by emotions and relationships between two people,” says Thomas. “People can do anything they want with their money and their time and the fact that they choose to spend it with us really means something.”
So, Thomas's polished outfit are not in danger of scaring the Tennessee horses, but North, which is a more collaborative effort than their previous three albums (Thomas has always been the main songwriter, but for this record they wrote them together), has several highlights, most notably the acoustic ballad “Overjoyed”. The next day, Thomas, and the outstanding and laconic guitarist Cook, who resembles a clean-living Tom Waits, perform the number perfectly in front of an intimate crowd of fans at a Nashville radio station, 107.5 The River.
“Overjoyed”, along with “She's So Mean” and the catchy “Put Your Hands Up”, could well be their breakthrough songs in Europe. However, the likes of “Unwell”, a song about Thomas's panic attacks (“It's a weird juxtaposition of doing this job and having a problem of being with a group of people and wanting to find the exit”), and the beguiling “3AM” really should have been too.
Formed in 1996, Matchbox Twenty have snapped up five Grammy nominations, sold over 30 million records and garnered four American Music Awards nods, while the high-profile Thomas (he's currently a judge on the US version of The Voice) co-wrote the 1999 monster hit “Smooth” with Carlos Santana, and worked with Mick Jagger on his solo single “Visions of Paradise”.
“I'd get so wasted with Mick,” says Thomas, “and at the end of the night I'd fall down on the floor in my house and my wife would say, 'Look at you. I bet Mick isn't like this right now...'.”
Matchbox Twenty's new album, 'North', is out now; they play London's Shepherd's Bush Empire on 18 September and the iTunes Festival at the Roundhouse, London on 19 September