After a five-year hiatus, No Doubt is back and having a blast—but don't expect a new album anytime soon
While completely pissed is an exaggeration, it's not stretching things to suggest Gwen Stefani sounds more than a little agitated.
The reason for that says plenty about the platinum-tressed icon's devotion to her bandmates in No Doubt, the Orange County quartet that has returned from the wilderness after being MIA for a half-decade. On the morning Stefani calls the Georgia Straight, high-profile fashion glossy Elle has been all over the Internet pimping its upcoming story on the band's decision to end a five-year hiatus. The angle the magazine is using is that the reconvening of No Doubt has been loaded with drama, with band members battling it out with “heated conversations” in the studio.
There's a small grain of truth to that. Earlier this year, Stefani, bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont, and drummer Adrian Young set out to record a cover of the Adam and the Ants new-wave nugget “Stand and Deliver”. If you've thrilled to No Doubt's dub-tastic mid-'90s reinvention of Bad Brains' “Sailin' On”, or 2003's smashingly synthetic take on Talk Talk's “It's My Life”, you know it's not like it was the group's first time tackling a classic. This time, there was a small hitch in the recording process, with Stefani and Kanal briefly disagreeing on the direction they wanted to take things. The squabble was over before it began, which is why Stefani isn't thrilled to have Elle suggesting that things devolved to the level of a battle royal.
“When a magazine has an article coming out, they put these weird quotes out there which are totally out of context,” the forthcoming singer says, on the line from a Philadelphia tour stop. “They're trying to get people talking, and I totally get that. When we were in the studio, there was a fight that Tony and I had about a keyboard line in a song that we didn't even write. Clearly, we were having a fight, even though we haven't had a fight in I don't remember how long. It was so foreign to us that we were on the phone going, ”˜We don't even know how we're going to end this conversation.' It was just one of those things where there was a lot of pressure. And there was a lot of pressure.”
Indeed, after years apart, spent raising families, designing clothing lines, working on soundtrack projects, dabbling in production work, and launching insanely successful solo careers, the members of No Doubt suddenly found themselves under the gun. The band agreed to record “Stand and Deliver” for the teen-soap sensation Gossip Girl, only to find out that, even when you're tackling a cover, getting on the horse again isn't always effortless.
If Stefani is a tad on edge this morning, that's nothing compared with where she was a year and a half ago, when she finally accepted she was having no luck recapturing the magic that helped No Doubt sell over 20 million records. As hopelessly stoked about being on the road as she is today, the return of No Doubt was anything but easy.
“All of a sudden we were doing this song that we never even intended to do,” Stefani says. “You think it's easy to just go in and do a cover, but it's not. You're competing against the perfection of the original song. There was that, and then everyone thinking that this was going to be our first comeback single, which it's not. I think once we got in the studio we realized how much pressure there really was, and that there was this bubble that needed to be popped. It was like, ”˜Whoa, where did all this come from?' We just wanted to go on tour and have fun.”
When Stefani decided in early 2007 that she'd had enough of being a multiplatinum solo artist, she and her bandmates got together to write a new record, only to discover that things weren't the same as they once were. Pretty quickly, it became evident that, while the will was there, the focus required to write new material wasn't.
Reached in Florida, where he's taking his two young kids to Walt Disney World during a break in No Doubt's tour schedule, guitarist Tom Dumont remembers being initially amped up about returning to action.
“When Gwen came home from tour in 2007,” he recalls, “she said, ”˜This is what I'd like to do: I'm planning to get pregnant again, so let's start writing again. It's a perfect time—I'll be home, I'll be pregnant, and I'll be able to sing while I'm pregnant.' So we started getting together a few days each week.”
At first, the members of No Doubt found themselves using their time back together to reconnect. Following an 18-year run, the band went on hiatus in 2004. Dumont started a family with his wife, as well as producing and touring with Matt Costa and doing soundscape work with a project called Invincible Overlord. Young had a kid and indulged in his passion for golf, while Kanal honed his in-demand skills as a producer. Stefani, of course, was the busiest of all, making an effortless transition to a solo career with two platinum-shifting records (2004's Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and 2006's The Sweet Escape). In between tours that found her selling out hockey arenas, she managed to give birth to a son with rocker-husband Gavin Rossdale, and also launch her own much-hyped clothing line, L.A.M.B.
With everything that was going on in their lives, it was perhaps no surprise that the bandmates, who started out as kids playing third-wave ska in an Orange County garage, had drifted apart.
“There was a little bit of getting to know each other again,” Dumont notes. “Although we'd been in touch during the time apart, we weren't together like we used to be. In the old days, we lived together in a bus for months on end.”
While the goal was to make a new record, those initial bonding sessions looked like the early days of the band, with everyone sitting around eating and shooting the shit. It gradually became clear, however, that things had changed since the group's last album, Rock Steady, which not only went stratospheric after its release in 2001, but also marked No Doubt's official transition from ska-pop torchbearers to beat-blasted urban-dance kingpins.
“We kept trying to write for a couple of months,” Dumont reveals. “And for whatever reasons, Gwen wasn't in a mode where she felt inspired to write lyrics. She didn't know what to write about, she didn't know how to approach the album, and it just wasn't flowing. So we took a break for her to have a baby, and my wife had a baby at the same time.”
Even in the midst of the insanity that comes with caring for a newborn, Stefani was obviously thinking about more than dirty diapers, sterilizing bottles, and praying to good God above for more than three hours of uninterrupted sleep.
“We were having dinner, I think in November of last year,” Dumont remembers. “She said, ”˜Guys, you know what would really help me? Let's just go out and play some shows. I want to get back into shape, and back into the mode of being the singer of this band and all that that entails.' As an idea, it was kind of naughty. We would get to go out on the road and have all the fun of touring without putting in the effort of making a record. That's how it all came down. We were all excited because playing live is what we've always been about. Before we ever made records, we played shows—there's a big camaraderie that goes along with that.”
Stefani doesn't mind admitting that she was frustrated at the lack of progress she was making in the studio.
“It wasn't really happening,” she says candidly. “I feel like I was kind of knocking my head against a wall and also not feeling very modern at home. The idea was to just get out there and forget about all that. It's like, if it's not working in that situation, you have to take yourself out of it, get in a different place, and change it up.”
Looking back, she's crystal clear on why she found herself unable to focus. When you have your first kid, everything changes, with days suddenly scheduled around afternoon naps, late-night feedings, and 5 a.m. wake-up calls. When you have two, as Stefani now does—three-year-old Kingston and 11-month-old Zuma—all hell breaks loose, to the point where getting anything accomplished becomes mission impossible.
“It's crazy,” she says bluntly. “This kind of life is very self-indulgent, and having kids is very much the opposite of that. You don't want to miss out on being a mom and being there for them. You can't just go, ”˜Okay, I'm going to go write a song from 2 to 5 when they are having their nap.' ”
Laughing, she continues: “I'm not used to that. I'm used to rolling in at 4 o'clock, eating, and then maybe by 1 in the morning start writing a song. Being up all night? That life is gone. I did it last time [for The Sweet Escape] when I had a baby, but it's different when you have a baby and a three-year-old.”
No one in No Doubt is begrudging her that. Dumont sees the band as a family that has grown up together. Still, one might be tempted to read between the lines when the guitarist admits that he didn't expect Stefani's solo career to take off the way it did, sticking No Doubt on the back burner just when it was coming off the career-reshaping Rock Steady.
“When the break came, and it was a number of years ago now, it was time,” Dumont offers. “We had worked so hard for so many years, and toured so hard, everyone really did need the time off.”
Pausing, he adds: “Although the idea of our singer going off and doing a solo tour”¦ Umm, that wasn't the most exciting thing.”
Stefani also acknowledges that her solo success was probably harder on the other members of No Doubt than they let on.
“When I did The Sweet Escape, there was this kind of thing where it was ”˜Oh no, how am I going to tell these guys that I want to do another [solo] record?' ” she notes. “But it's one of those things where you have to follow the inspiration when it hits. We're experiencing that right now—it's like the inspiration [for a new No Doubt album] wasn't there. I couldn't write. I could sit in a room with those guys every day and spend the time, but if the songs aren't going to come out, they aren't going to come out. It's not like there's a magic button you press. I had to write those songs [on The Sweet Escape] when they were coming to me, and, because these guys are my best friends, they got that.”
Indeed, Dumont is quick to add that he couldn't be happier with the way things turned out for Stefani.
“Gwen had grown up in the band, in a way,” he says. “At the point when we took that break, she was an adult on her own. I think for her to get out from under the band and make her own decisions and follow her own inspiration was an important thing. A band is like a marriage in that it's always a compromise for all the parties involved. That can be hard, getting married when you're 17, and then finding yourself in your 30s and going, ”˜Hey, I want to do my own thing for a few minutes.' ”
The most pleasant surprise about the reunion, then, is that the marriage that is No Doubt suddenly seems new and shiny, instead of like four people doing their best to recapture a slowly dying flame, something that was the case before the hiatus.
“One of the great things about this tour,” Dumont says, “is that, having been away for so long, everything is fresh again. It's kind of like getting the chance to do this again a little bit older and wiser and finding that some of the negative aspects of touring so long and having slogged it out for years are kind of in the past.
“When you're living in a bus for years together,” he continues, “it can get to be a grind, and it did towards the end of the Rock Steady tour. We didn't realize at the time we needed a break, because we always had this ethic of working hard and pushing ourselves more. Now we're refreshed and our batteries are recharged. Hopefully, that will lead us towards making a great record. That's the goal after this summer vacation.”
Whether No Doubt is able to recapture the songwriting mojo that made it one of the alt-rock boom's most iconic acts remains to seen. What's indisputable, though, is that Stefani is in no way unhappy about where she is today. No Doubt is not only on tour, but it all feels so good that, even on the rare days when she's a little agitated, she's still having a blast.
“There's nothing like the chemistry between us four,” she practically gushes. “I feel so lucky to have the history that I have with my band. We're going to be playing the biggest show of the tour tonight in Philadelphia—I think we're at 24,000 people. We're all so pumped up and excited about it. It's one of those things where it's hard to take it all in. We weren't expecting all of this, so we're definitely having fun.”
No Doubt plays GM Place on July 18.