Rob Thomas keeps the fire burning
Photo credit: Randall Slavin
Whether he's working with Matchbox Twenty, Carlos Santana or on his own, Rob Thomas has an undeniable knack for great music. Going into his new album Chip Tooth Smile, Thomas went back to his roots as an artist and branched out creatively. We caught up with Thomas ahead of his stop at the Canadian Tire Centre on August 23, to talk about his new record and the strange power that having a big hit can have.
Ottawa Life: What did Butch Walker bring to the album from a production perspective and was there anything particular that they brought out of you?
Rob Thomas: Up until my last solo record I had really only worked with Matt Serletic, but for the last record I had Matt on part of it and a few other producers. (Ryan Tedder, Aaron Accetta, Shep Goodman, Noel Zancanella) It didn't feel like me though, it was like being in someone else's suit. So this time around it was just Butch except for one song with Benny Blanco. Butch and I had been planning this record for a year, I had been telling people that I was making a record with Butch, but I didn't tell him. He called me because he heard that I was working with him in an interview. I've always been a fan of his producing, his song writing and singing. He'll make a record with Pink, Fall Out Boy or Green Day, and they all turn out great. He's a chameleon who brings out the best from who he's working with.
Did telling people about Butch before you'd actually confirmed him on the record almost backfire?
No, because we've been friends for 18 years, so that was really strong. It was more that I forgot to tell him. So when he called me it was more just us saying "That sounds like a great idea."
And on the other side of that, how was working with Benny Blanco?
I've known Benny for a long time as well, we've made music that never came out too. This came out of visiting his apartment just to hang out and playing him this song, and he liked it. So we started producing it. He knew I was producing with Butch, so he wanted to listen to the album to make sure it fit. He heard the eighties tones and put his own spin on that feeling so it really belonged there.
And how did you find working by sending demos remotely, and working over FaceTime?
I'd never done something fully like that before. I'd sent Matt some tracks like that in the past but this was new with Butch. Butch would come to me in New York, and we would sort through demos. He wanted me to make versions in my studio with my piano, guitar and vocal so he could build around it. Aside from some spare pieces, Butch played everything, he was the band. We'd get together to do some tracks, work in his studio, go over things again. All the vocals were done at my studio though, so I could spend as much time as I needed. After a year of working on it like that though, I didn't feel like I'd been working on it that long though. In the end it felt like I'd had my year and the record was there.
There's a lot of talk about going back to your roots with Chip Tooth Smile, so what led you to this kind of approach?
Because of the other producers I'd worked with, this one was a bit of an experiment. There's some weird pop to my last record that I'd never really explored before, and I was writing a lot of material with other people. So this time it was important to me that every song start with me on a guitar or piano, and that every song came from a personal moment. Just because I write pop-rock, doesn't mean it's all fodder either, it can mean something to you. It was a singer-songwriter record first.
How do you whittle down from 60 or so songs, and do you ever feel like some material will come back?
So imagine you write ten songs for a new project. Every record I say I'll grab some older songs but I think, "If they weren't good enough for that record, what makes them work now." So I end up with a hundred songs just lying around. You gotta figure if you write ten songs you've got the best 10 you've written so far, at 12 you've got a record. Then you write 14 songs, and think "I can't put them all on the record," which starts liking some more than others and that becomes the process of the record. You play demos for friends and they'll ask me "Are you kidding? That song should be on there," and the guys from Matchbox do the same thing. So between all those people and my wife, and the nature of outdoing yourself, it works out for itself naturally.
I was also interested to hear from someone like you how you balance name-checks on a track like "Timeless" without feeling like you're pulling away from something personal?
It's funny because "Timeless" is actually the least close to me personally, since Butch started it. Without realizing it, he'd put "Modern Love" and "Nothing Compares 2 U" in the chorus, and so that made me think about all these eighties songs. I would sit in the studio with my wife sending me eighties songs, and then it became an exercise in storytelling. If you know the songs you can pick out the references, but at the same time my 11-year-old niece loves it and doesn't know the songs at all. She liked it on the merit of the music itself. This ended up being the one song that was less personal and more about going out and following an idea.
How do you feel looking back on your hit "Smooth" 20 years later, especially with the crazy meme-level cult around it?
There's a guy in Pittsburgh who played "Smooth" on the radio for 24 hours straight, ironically of course, just like a punk band who covered it like that too. When Carlos and I first did the song together, it was just young Latin girls dancing to it all over the place, and then it became soccer moms because the song stuck around and they got older. Carlos is my brother and we text each other all the time. We both agree it's not our best song, but it was the right place, and right time in pop culture for us and Latin rock to come together again. It was a great, hot, summer track which then became a parody of itself. Now it just is. It's super easy to parody and make fun of, but there's a lot of respect in that too. I see all sides of it.
Also interested in the concept behind the video for "One Less Day" came about and the experience of performing around so much fire and heat?
It was hot as shit, unbelievably hot. I would take my jacket off between takes while they reset everything, and I would keep it off until the last second just so I wouldn't sweat to death. It was about pure imagery, we knew we didn't have a narrative so it was basically this moving painting. Candles represented a day, as they burnt out.
"One Less Day" was drawing from a Celtic root too right?
Big Country was the eighties reference in this song, and to me there was just something life-affirming about an Irish jig or a Scottish folk song. They're very life-affirming but they're always about death. This song was about dying young but also getting older. If you take our bridge and move it to the bagpipes it worked as this Irish jig feeling. And we married it into the music in a way like Big Country.