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Ahead of NYC shows, Rob Thomas talks 'Smooth's' 20th anniversary, plus his new album and more

Rob Thomas performs onstage during the pre-Grammy gala

Rob Thomas performs onstage during the pre-Grammy gala and salute to industry icons at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Feb. 9. Credit: Getty Images for The Recording Academy / Frazer Harrison

For many who came of age 20 years ago, it’s the summertime rock and roll equivalent of the “Marco Polo” swimming pool game.

Someone says, “Man, it’s a hot one.”

Someone else says, “Like seven inches from the midday sun.”

Soon, just like the ocean under the moon, no one will be able to get Santana and Rob Thomas’ classic “Smooth” out of their heads for a week. And Thomas says he’s happy people still react that way.

“I could never listen to ‘Smooth’ again, but I still love playing it, if that makes sense,” says Thomas, calling from Raleigh, North Carolina, on his current “Chip Tooth Tour.” “I think there's an energy every night when you do that one, playing it with Carlos or just playing it with my band. I think vicariously you kind of get the energy from the crowd and so every night it seems new.”

Of course, Thomas has plenty of new music from his new “Chip Tooth Smile” (Emblem/Atlantic) album that he wants people to hear, even if the pop radio that once embraced him and his band Matchbox Twenty doesn’t pay the same attention any longer, despite the new songs being just as good, if not better. But he’s OK with that.

“We were lucky,” he says. “I had my moment. And then if you're lucky enough to have a career that goes on past the moment, you realize that the moment was really just the ticket to get you on the ride. What it's really afforded me is to be able to do what I like, to write songs that I think should be on the radio, whether they're ever going to make it there or not. It also let me write songs that don’t sound like what's on the radio, songs that I think other people would still want to hear.”

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On “Chip Tooth Smile,” Thomas tackles all sorts of styles. The first single “One Less Day (Dying Young)” is a soaring inspirational pop anthem. “Funny” and “The Man to Hold the Water” are the kind of gorgeous ballads he has become known for. There’s a bit of country in “We Were Beautiful,” a bit of funk in “Timeless.”

“It might sound a little country,” Thomas says. “It might sound a little singer-songwriter-y. It might sound super-pop.  It might sound a little funky sometimes. But I think every one of those is a song that you can just listen to it on a guitar or piano and kind of see where it came from. Then, it goes a lot of different directions in production styles. But I think having Butch (Walker, the album’s producer) at the helm gave it a kind of consistency, which made it all kind of seem cohesive.”

“Chip Tooth Smile” also hangs together because of Thomas’ distinctive, heart-on-his-sleeve writing style, which has been his signature since his Matchbox Twenty days, even when it generated some jokes at his expense.

“It truly is the only way I know how to write,” he says. “Being earnest and daring to be cheesy, sometimes, I think is a good thing… I mean, what was I going to do? There's nothing I could do about it. And we got our biggest criticisms when we were enjoying our biggest success. So, for me, it was like, ‘All right, just shut up and take your [expletive] lumps.’ You're making people happy… so you go out and give them that.”

After all, Thomas says, making music is its own reward. “[In Matchbox Twenty] we thought it was weird because we were selling all these records and all these other bands were on every magazine cover and were talked about,” he says. “They were the cool bands and we just weren't that band. But now, we're still around. And so that has its own thing.”

Thomas says unintended consequences often end up being the best ones. He says the best part of “Smooth” is the friendship it established between him and Santana. “Carlos and I to this day are still unbelievably close,” he says. “I text with Carlos pretty much every night. When I get offstage and he gets offstage, we get on the phone and start talking about how the shows went for us and start bragging to each other… It's just a very, very special relationship.”

And looking back on “Smooth” — which was released on June 29, 1999, and won the Grammy for record of the year — Thomas says he recognizes how lucky he was.

“What's crazy is that every little component had to be in the place for that thing to become what it was,” Thomas says. “It's not the best song I've ever written. And it's not the best song Carlos has ever done. It's just him and I together at that time, when there was what they call the Latin explosion. So there were people more open to wanting to hear these kind of Afro-Cuban rhythms.”

“Basically, all we did was rip off parts of Buena Vista Social Club and put some heartfelt lyrics in it,” Thomas jokes, adding, “You know what I also really love is that every year, almost without fail, The Onion runs a post that says, ‘Rob Thomas and Carlos Santana sweep the Grammys once again!’ They've done it every year, like we've swept the Grammys for 19 years in a row.”

WHO Rob Thomas

WHEN|WHERE 7:30 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, July 29-30, Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, Manhattan

INFO $63.50-$139.50; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com

HE’S SO ‘SMOOTH’

In his career, Rob Thomas has made his mark as a solo artist, part of Matchbox Twenty and as a songwriter. Here’s a look at his biggest hits:

“SMOOTH”

CREDITED TO Santana featuring Rob Thomas

Thomas’ collaboration with Carlos Santana combined his emotional lyrical style with a bit of Latin-tinged rock.

CHART PEAK No. 1, 12 weeks, 1999-2000

BENT”

CREDITED TO Matchbox Twenty

A surprisingly hard-edged rock number that darts back over to the pop side for the chorus, as Thomas sings about hoping for the healing power of love.

CHART PEAK No. 1, 1 week, 2000

“UNWELL”

CREDITED TO Matchbox Twenty

The pop incarnation of the feelings emo bands of the time were raging about. Thomas and Matchbox Twenty deliver it, though, with folk trappings, including a prominent banjo.

CHART PEAK No. 5, 2003

“IF YOU’RE GONE”

CREDITED TO Matchbox Twenty

A gorgeous, straightforward pop ballad that draws from the ‘80s work of bands like Chicago, complete with horn flourishes.

CHART PEAK No. 5, 2001

“LONELY NO MORE”

CREDITED TO Rob Thomas

For his first solo outing, Thomas leans into the dance music of the time, drawing comparisons to Justin Timberlake for its mix of rock and R&B.

CHART PEAK No. 6, 2005 – GLENN GAMBOA

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