Why Rob Thomas avoids the spotlight

Rob Thomas is a busy guy — so busy, he apparently hasn’t had much time to check in with his Matchbox Twenty bandmates.

We only know this because we ran into guitarist Paul Doucette at the BMI Pop Awards in Beverly Hills several weeks ago, where he was picking up a plaque for songwriter of the year. “We’re interviewing Rob about his solo album,” I told him. “Hey,” Doucette exclaimed. “Tell that guy to call me, would you I didn’t even know he was in L.A.!” By the time we met up with Thomas the next day, he and Doucette had already connected over drinks somewhere between midnight and the morning — musician’s hours. Thomas recently released “Cradlesong,” his second solo CD. Even though he’s clearly excited about it, he spends as much time talking about Matchbox Twenty as he does the solo album he’s in town to promote. For the 37-year-old singer-songwriter, it’s all interconnected. One has fed into the other since he gained household name status a decade ago, after scoring a massive, Grammy-winning hit with Carlos Santana on “Smooth.” Watch Thomas describe the difference between being a celebrity and a musician ยป The following is an edited version of the interview. CNN: Who has given you the best piece of advice Rob Thomas: Carlos [Santana] will constantly send you messages out of nowhere. Carlos will call me at 10 at night and be like, “Listen, I had a dream about you, and so much good is happening, but there’s dark forces at work, and when you get out of here, I have this woman who wants to cleanse you.” I think Carlos’ most important piece of advice ever was that he taught me the difference between being a celebrity and being a famous musician. CNN: But some artists don’t have that kind of success, and they try for celebrity instead. Thomas: Sure, and sometimes that works — but none of my favorites have done that. I remember when Matchbox Twenty started years ago, and we had a lot of success, but nobody knew who we were. The first time we did an interview with MTV, it was about how no one knew who we were. We had sold 8 million records. I don’t know if we were being naive at the time, but we thought we’d won because our songs were more famous than we were. I’m much more known for the music that I make than what I do with my life. It’s never, “Oh yeah, I’ve been seeing you in [the New York Post gossip column] Page Six at these clubs that you go to” or “I know who you’re sleeping with.” CNN: When you became famous for being Rob Thomas the solo artist, did that cause problems within the band Thomas: No. I think the guys would rather it be me than them. None of them want the job, and they realize that it’s working now. They have a singer. I can go out and do it [publicity] for them, and they’re fine with it. They can stay home. I think there’s nothing more attractive than wealth and anonymity. If I’m not out supporting my work, I really don’t want people to see me. I go to movie premieres — my wife and I — all the time, and nine out of 10 of those movie premieres, much to my publicist’s dismay, I get there, but I sneak around the pictures and get into the party [using the back entrance]. If I have a record coming out, I’ll go in front of the cameras, and I’ll say, “Hi! Hey, I’m at this movie premiere.” I liken it to being a switch that I can move on and off. CNN: What has doing a solo project enabled you to do that you can’t do with a band Thomas: I get to pick my own schedule, and that’s nice. Matchbox Twenty — it’s four lead singers, there’s four front men, and everybody’s tastes, everybody’s schedule, everybody’s personal life comes into account when you’re doing something like that. We all live [in four different cities] … so we literally have to pull ourselves up from all over the country and go somewhere, just to get us into a room to write. And you have to not think you’re so great so you don’t get upset when somebody doesn’t like your stuff. Like “Her Diamonds” — one of the singles on this solo album — is one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written, and the guys loved the song, but didn’t want to play it. [They said,] “When you do a new solo record, you should put it on there. It doesn’t sound like a song we would do right now.” And they were right. When we put together the last Matchbox record, it was much more of a rock record. CNN: What’s the most surprising thing on your iPod Thomas: Britney Spears. Come on! “Toxic,” man, is just one of the baddest tracks ever! I remember the first time we listened to “… Baby One More Time.” … We were like, “Oh, let’s go play Britney Spears on the piano!” And we all come over drinking, and after a couple of minutes, we’re like, “This Britney Spears is a lot harder than we thought!”

CNN: Whose career would you like to emulate Thomas: Tom Petty is a famous musician. He’s not a music celebrity. When Tom Petty walks down the street, you know that it’s Tom Petty, but it would be like, “Oh my gosh, it’s Tom Petty! I love Tom Petty, right on!” It would never be like, “Aaaaaaaah!” — and 3 million teenage girls follow him down the street.