Building the Perfect Pop Song on 'The Great Unknown'

“It still boils down to the same three things for me,” Rob Thomas says via Skype from his tour bus. “The song, the song, and the song. It’s all about writing good ones and learning how to write better ones.” Thomas has staked his career on the power of the pop song. From his success with rock supergroup Matchbox Twenty to hit smashes with Santana (“Smooth”) and on his own, the veteran singer/songwriter is continuously on the lookout for a captivating chorus and a heartfelt hook.

With the release of his new solo album The Great Unknown, Thomas offers a song cycle that sounds as fresh as it does familiar. Tracks like “Trust You,” “Hold on Forever,” and “One Shot” burst with unexpected sounds and unabashed grooves. It’s Rob Thomas, rebooted. On a tour stop in Florida, Thomas talks about the process of putting together the new set of songs on The Great Unknown.

Your last solo album Cradlesong came out six years ago. Why the long pause between albums?

Well, it was a pause for my solo project, but not for me in general. When I got off the road from the Cradlesong tour, I immediately went into the studio to work with Matchbox Twenty to record the album North. We made that album and then went on tour with it for almost two years around the world.

In all honesty, I’ve never really had more than a month off in the last twenty years. [laughs]. I’m always jumping from one thing to another. After we made Matchbox Twenty’s first album Yourself or Someone Like You, I was out touring and promoting it for almost three years.

After a month or two of being home from that tour, I jumped into recording “Smooth” [Thomas’ 1999 smash hit with Carlos Santana] and then that took me into another direction altogether. Then I went back to record Mad Season with Matchbox. And things have continued like that ever since.

How do you think the musical landscape has changed since the last time you released an album?

It’s obviously a completely different world nowadays. No matter what happens, as you get older, the pop landscape is just going to continue to get younger and younger. There seem to be more teen idols all over the place these days. But when I do my solo shows, the age range seems to go from around nine to 65 years old. So I’m almost out of that realm where I have to worry about whether people think I’m cool or culturally relevant. I just have to be relevant to enough people that they’ll still come-out to see me play and allow me to have a career.

Are you always thinking about ideas for your solo albums even while you’re working on other projects?

The way it works is I always write no matter what I’m doing. So when it’s time to put a new project together, I just try to cull together whatever it is that I’m working on at the time and see what works. The funny thing is, a lot of times I’ll be writing all year long. At the end I’ll have something like 40 songs, and then I’ll find two or three that I really like and I’ll re-write an entirely new record around them.

There seems to be heavy rhythmic component to your new album The Great Unknown—from the first downbeat of the song “I Think We’d Feel Good Together,” there’s a forward motion to the songs – the flow of the lyrics, the rhythmic propulsion of the drums and keyboards. Does it all start with rhythm for you?

Well, my melodies have always been pretty rhythmic. There’s an inherent kind of “fast-talking,” rapid-fire vibe that’s very percussive when I sing, as opposed to long, drawn out melodies. When I started out, I used to play an old Casio MT-68 keyboard, slapping the keys to get a percussive feel out of it. Even when I play guitar, I play it like a percussion instrument to get that slap and backbeat element in there. But this album to me sounds like a continuation of my first solo album Something to Be, as if the guy who wrote “Lonely No More” and “This Is How a Heart Breaks” made this record. The next album Cradlesong was in many ways a departure from that. As I get older, I’m starting to wonder how many super “poppy” and “dance-y” records I have left in me. So I thought I might as well get one out now while I have the chance!

Another thing to add is that a lot of this album was built from the ground up in my home studio, as opposed to the more traditional style of songwriting. So I would literally sit down, find a beat I liked, add a bass line, and start building tracks before I even had a melody to work on. Or I would be in my backyard and I’d come-up with one little piece of a melody for a chorus, so I’d run into my studio and start building things around that. So in essence, the record was really built from the rhythm up.

When we last visited your studio in 2009, you were using a Korg OASYS and software plugins like Spectrasonics Stylus RMX to form the bed of your songs. Has your home writing rig changed since then?

These days I’ve gotten more into programming my own beats, as opposed to finding pre-programmed rhythms. But the process is almost the same. I sit down with a keyboard and a groove, and I start moving things around. The only difference being now, instead of just sitting down and playing chords on the piano or keyboard, I really dig in and start building tracks. In many ways it’s much like when someone else gives you a track to write to. I just give myself that track and start writing over it. Some things I really like using are FXpansion’s BFD2 plug-in, which to me still has the most realistic drums. [Thomas’ BFD2 has since been replaced with BFD3—Eds.]

And I still use my Korg OASYS, which is just totally amazing. The funny thing is, it does so much that I haven’t even delved into, like the on-board sequencer, because I use it with Pro Tools. It’s almost like using a computer as a calculator. But I love the OASYS for the heavy, weighted feel of the keys, and I can run it through things like Synthogy Ivory to get great piano sounds, or Spectrasonics Omnisphere to get some great synthetic guitar sounds.

You co-wrote a number of songs on the album with different artists. What does co-writing give you that working alone doesn’t?

If you’re working with someone good, you’re always going to learn. It’s really interesting to watch someone else’s process and see how they get to the finish line. If I sit down to write a song, there may be certain “places” that I’m always going to go, just because of my own personal style. Having someone else there to say, “What about trying this?” where you would never have thought of taking a left turn by using a certain lyric or melody, makes things much more interesting.

How did your collaboration with Ryan Tedder from One Republic on the song “Trust You” come about?

I had the idea that I wanted to write with Ryan. So I kept calling him up, and eventually I flew out to Atlanta while he was on-tour and I hung out with him on his bus and we wrote a song together. He had a little studio setup and we sussed out a raw demo of the tune and the melody. Later, we sent files back and forth between my studio and his, building the track up bit by bit.

There were other interesting collaborations as well. Ricky Reed sent me a track for the song “Absence of Affection.” The folks over at my label Atlantic would send things my way for the new album from time to time, and that track was one of them. I also collaborated with Shep Goodman and Aaron Accetta who work with the band American Authors. I was introducing the band at the VH-1 “You Oughtta Know” concert and we realized we lived five minutes away from each other in New York. I went over to their studio and we wrote the song “One Shot” the very same day. That song is another example of how co-writing can change a song’s direction. It’s something I would never have come up with on my own. And now it’s really one of the great live moments in my show.

My producer Matt [Serletic] and I have a rule that we don’t consider a song finished until it’s recorded. There was a song on my first solo record called “My, My, My” that originally had a completely different melody and lyrics. When I went in to record the song, I didn’t like way it felt. So I went into a different room and re-wrote the melody and lyrics. So until I step away from a song and move on to something else, the melody and lyrics aren’t finished.

Listening to a tune like “Wind It Up,” with its bold drums, synth stabs and R&B-ish dance grooves, it seems like you have an affinity for the sounds and production values of ’80s music.

Yeah. My whole journey started as a kid in the south listening to country songwriters like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, and Merle Haggard. And then in the ’80s, it was all about Euro synth pop for me. I was into bands like New Order and Yaz. Somehow, those two sensibilities came together.

So the new record is akin to Waylon Jennings meets Depeche Mode?

Exactly [laughs]. That’s how I should start selling it! But it’s true that when I make pop records, it’s still like an alternative kid from the eighties making a pop record. This record actually started out even more ’80s in the beginning. But we tried to strike a good balance in the presentation between a “retro” vibe and one that is palatable to people listening to music today.

The title track “The Great Unknown” is somewhat haunting and unsettling, with a great melodic line that weaves throughout the whole song.

I wrote that one about my wife Mari and her recent struggles. [Thomas’ wife has had some health scares of late, and recently had brain surgery —Eds.] “The Great Unknown” was really about her strength and her resilience, and the way she carries herself in the face of adversity.

Originally that one was called “Hold On,” but when I played it for Mari, she said, “The title should be ‘The Great Unknown,’ and you should call the album that as well.” I think the title ended-up being more appropriate than either of us had envisioned. It’s not only about the challenges you face in life, it’s also about how whenever you do something as an artist, you never know what the results are going to be. You can only put your best efforts forward and see what comes out the other side.

The song “Paper Dolls” has a mesmerizing intro and a chord progression that seems to wrap itself around the listener. Was the intro where the song began?

That intro set the whole tone of the song. Originally it started as a pure piano song, and I recorded it with me singing all of the lyrics. The idea for it being a duet came late in the game. We started talking about how one thing I had never done on record was a duet. And “Paper Dolls” seemed like it could be a conversation between two people. We had background vocalist Ruth-Anne Cunnigham [aka “Rooty”] sing the lead vocals just as a placeholder at first, but we ended-up liking her so much that we kept her vocals on the track.

In terms of chords, I go back and forth between looking for unexpected progressions and trying not to get in the way of myself by making things complicated. Sometimes a song will tell you what it wants to be. [Guitarist] Paul Doucette from Matchbox Twenty once said, “I just don’t think I’m a good enough writer yet to write a three-chord song.” And I think that’s one of the greatest things I have ever heard. Willie Nelson and Tom Petty have a lot of songs that repeat the same chords over and over again. But the melody and lyrics are so strong that you’re not paying attention to what the chords are doing.

The album closes with your song “Pieces.” Is there anything more affecting than the simplicity of a voice, a great melody, and a piano?

That one was the last song I wrote for the record. When I played the album for Atlantic Records President Julie Greenwald, she said she thought it was great but she felt it was missing a ballad. I wrote the song on a little keyboard when I was in Mexico with my wife. It was one of those songs that I didn’t want to do anything to. I was thinking of Adele’s “Someone Like You,” with a piano, a vocal, and a little string part. And the reaction to it from fans has been incredible.

What do you use to write songs when you’re on tour? Do you have a mobile recording rig?

No. If I’m writing while I’m on the road, it’s just about finding a good melody. I’ll flesh it out later. So right now, everything comes down to the voice memos on my iPhone. The hard part comes later on when you go through the 60 or so ideas you recorded and realize that most of them are just crap! So if something stands out on my voice recorder, I know it must be special.

You recently replaced your Yamaha Arius YDP-223 with a Roland RD-800 for live performances. Why the change?

Taking the Yamaha in and out of my house just became too much of a hassle, and I love the sound and feel of the Roland. Onstage these days, we’re using the Roland RD inside of a white, upright piano shell. At home, my main writing piano is actually my Yamaha baby grand that I keep up in my living room. But it’s great having the Yamaha [YDP] spinet back in my studio. Sometimes while I’m building tracks on the OASYS and looking for new sounds, it’s great to step away for a minute and move to the Yamaha where I can just play piano and see if I like what I’m writing.

The new album has wide variety of sounds and styles. Sometimes you want to dance, and sometimes you want to look inside yourself.

I feel like within twelve songs, you want a record to be able to be somebody’s “Saturday night,” and somebody’s “Sunday morning.” You want it to be something they can go party to, but also something they can cry in their beer over. In some ways, you want a record to be as diverse as your own CD collection. Every song that you write helps build your musical personality, and once you do something, it is you. So there’s not really a theme to this record, other that it’s a time capsule of where my head was at between the last album and this one.

MATT SERLETIC

The Producer Talks Tech

“We went through a lot of work in the early stages of the project just putting essential elements of the album together,” says producer Matt Serletic. “It’s a heavy programming record, and the line between drum, keyboard, and synth tracks became totally blurred. For us, it was all about what made the songs breathe and ultimately come together.”

“Gear-wise, I have two setups,” Serletic continues. “I have a proper studio with real ‘hardware’ like my Korg OASYS and other keyboards and gear, and I also work at home a lot off of my laptop for experimental purposes. So I use everything from reFX Nexus and Native Instruments Massive, Kontact, and Komplete, to the Arturia suite of classic keyboards. I like playing around with some of their modular stuff and making percussion loops from synthesizers. But I also go back and forth in my main studio, working with one musician at a time. We’ll use old-school keyboards like my Mark II Stage model Rhodes, my Hammond B-3, a Yamaha U3 upright piano, and an old student model Wurlitzer electric piano.

“The sonic palette really started coming together after I did some experimentation with Jason Lader, who played bass and synths on the album. We both brought in just acres of keyboards—from my Moog Minimoog Voyager, to Jason’s old Korg MS-20 and his Doepfer analog modular synths, an Alesis Andromeda, a Roland Jupiter-8, a Teenage Engineering OP-1, and many others. I used the same rack of Neve preamps I’ve had for years; they still sound great on everything. I also do a lot of alchemy with regards to signal processing in the box. Sometimes after processing I can barely recognize what’s being played at the keyboard. It just becomes a wash of sonic textures.”