Going Retro

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Rob Thomas explores ’80s culture and musical freedom on latest album

Rob Thomas appreciates the culture, music and even fashion of the ’80s. And on his fourth album, “Chip Tooth Smile,” he celebrates it.

The second song on “Chip Tooth Smile,” “Timeless,” is a relentlessly catchy ode to the decade with references to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” He even touches on the ’90s with Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

“We’re the children of the ’80s,” Thomas says. “In the ’80s, there was no coherent aesthetic. Nobody stuck to trends. You could try everything. I mean, there was Peter Gabriel, Madness, MC Hammer and Ozzy Osbourne all on the same block. Production-wise, it was fearless. That’s what we strove for.”

Known as the lead singer of Matchbox Twenty, Thomas has scored countless hits — with the band and solo — like “Lonely No More,” “This is How a Heart Breaks,” 3AM,” “If You’re Gone” and “Streetcorner Symphony.”

He collaborated with Carlos Santana for “Smooth,” which sold more than 3 million copies 20 years ago.

In 2004, Thomas was the first artist to be honored with the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Hal David Starlight Award, created to recognize composers in the early years of their careers who have made a lasting impact. Twice he earned the Songwriter of the Year prize from both Billboard and BMI. Overall, Thomas has contributed to sales of more than 80 million records.

Thomas made his solo debut with 2005’s platinum-certified “Something to Be” and was the first album by a male artist from a rock or pop group to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Thomas’ sophomore solo album, 2009’s “Cradlesong,” spawned two No. 1 singles in “Her Diamonds” and “Someday.” At the time, Thomas tied P!nk for the most No. 1 Adult Top 40 hits by a solo artist as well becoming the first male solo artist to score multiple chart-toppers at the format.

In 2012, Matchbox Twenty returned with its first album in a decade, “North.” Fueled by the hit singles, “She’s So Mean,” “Overjoyed” and “Our Song,” “North” proved a landmark for the band as it was the act’s first No. 1 debut and Billboard 200 chart-topper. Thomas’ third solo album, 2015’s “The Great Unknown,” had a top 10 debut on the SoundScan/Billboard 200 upon its release and featured hit singles “Hold on Forever” and “Pieces.”

Thomas is also a dedicated philanthropist, establishing Sidewalk Angels Foundation in 2003 with his wife, Marisol Thomas, who has battled lyme disease for 16 years. The organization is dedicated to providing critically needed funds and support to over 20 no-kill animal shelters and animal rescues, across the country, that help to fight for the rights and fair treatment of those with no voice.

As for the 12-song “Chip Tooth Smile,” it explores new musical territory for Thomas. The first single and the album’s opening track, “One Less Day (Dying Young),” has galloping drums and Irish fiddles. “The Man to Hold the Water” is a sparkling, gentle song about love, and “Can’t Help Me Now” is a desperate call for normality. Each song has its own feel.

“Even with Matchbox Twenty and (producer) Matt Serletic, we wanted each song to have its own personality,” he says. “When we put out ‘Unwell,’ everything else in the top 40 was hip-hop. Here we are with a banjo on the track. It helps the song to have its own personality.”

“Chip Tooth Smile” features production from Butch Walker (Panic! At the Disco, P!nk) and Benny Blanco (Ed Sheeran), which complement Thomas’ songwriting talent.

“I was writing about experiences I’ve been through that I could’ve only been through by getting older, by facing mortality, by having a son, by having a family, and by having responsibilities that I didn’t have when I first started out” says Thomas, whose 21-year-old son, Maison Eudy, is credited as a songwriter on the album.

“It’s very autobiographical about where I’m at now and where I’m headed.”

Working with Walker, an alumnus of the Marvelous 3, was inspirational as well.

“A lot of people don’t even know how talented he is,” he says. “As a producer, he takes himself out of the song. He’s in service to the song and the track. Like, if he’s writing a song for Fall Out Boy, he’s not making a Butch Walker song. He’s writing the best Fall Out Boy song he can.

“He’s a chameleon and a lot of people don’t realize that — unless they’re lucky enough to listen to his solo stuff. He’s a great guitarist and performer as well.”

Thomas and Walker explored new musical territory because, frankly, they didn’t feel they had anything to lose. They convinced themselves that no one was going to play the songs on the radio. With that mentality, Thomas and Walker felt freer to write what they wanted.

“Butch did a good job of putting an urgency behind the songs,” he says. “At the same time, he didn’t it without using too many modern pop tricks.”

During the conversation, Thomas was getting ready to leave for his tour rehearsal. He only has an inkling about what fans can expect when he performs at Tucson Arena on Tuesday, September 24.

“I have the same solo band I’ve had since 2005 on my first solo tour,” Thomas says. “I’m writing with them in mind. Like, I’ll know if my bass player is going to slay it this time.

“We do want hands in the air. We can all share a moment. For two hours, I want everybody to forget about things outside the door and just escape. I feel like I’m in the hospitality industry. For those two hours, I want to serve the night. We’re all a part of the same thing. If we do it right, we’ll all feel that together we made magic.”