Cameras, lights, backdrops and props are ready. Industry types have assumed their positions. The air is thick with anticipation as we wait for the stars of today’s photo shoot – Orange County rock band No Doubt – to emerge from their secluded dressing room. By Alison Rosen.
First to appear is charming drummer Adrian Young. He’s clearly at odds with the loud, colorful ensemble chosen for him. “I feel like I’m wearing some kind of zany Mervyn’s clothing. It’s like ‘Hey there! Let’s go party!’” he jokes, winking and making cheese-guns with his hands. He is soon joined by bassist Tony Kanal and guitarist Tom Dumont, both equally uncomfortable in their respective get-ups. The room begins to buzz with whispers, mumblings and grumblings.
Then singer Gwen Stefani arrives. All eyes skate across her unbelievable frame, the sculpted platinum hair and the cherry red lips that twist and glide into an alluring down-turned smile. Stefani is a star- the kind that turns heads and stops conversations. She enjoys the dress-up, the play-acting. She loves the camera and it’s a love that is fully reciprocated. Today she is wearing a minuscule white t-shirt paired with equally form-fitting orange leather pants, the excess of fabric being held together by a clamp in the back.
“Jesus, Gwen, you look like a twig!” Young tells her.
Stefani mulls over this accusation. “That’s good. I mean, that’s good, right?” she says finally.
Stefani is a girl and she’s not about to apologize for it. And before you start judging, realize that with one little unassuming song, she’s done more for women’s causes than you ever will.
“Just a Girl”, from No Doubt’s third album, Tragic Kingdom, is a catchy new-wave flavored song that proclaims the burdens of the fairer sex, using the stereotype to point out its own flaws: “Cause I’m just a girl, little ol’ me/ Don’t let me out of your sight/ I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite/ So don’t let me have any rights/ Oh… I’ve had it up to here!” The song which by now you’ve definitely heard on the radio and which was never meant to be more than a reflection of Stefani’s own frustrating experiences (such as her father’s concern over her driving to ex-boyfriend Kanal’s house late at night), rises to anthem-like proportions when performed live. Stefani, all pouts, poses, and kicks, leads the audience in a celebration of girl-hood, and if only for a little while, the typical foundation on which rock music stands begins to crumble.
So who is the real Stefani? Is she the creation strutting about on-stage speaking in the little girl voice and basking in the sensation of thousands of eyes washing over her lithe frame? Or is she the earnest, soft spoken family girl who, according to her younger sister Jill, “was always giving really good advice about guys and about friends and about the superficiality of it all”?
“I think I’ve been able to fool a lot of people because I know I’m a dork. I’m a geek,” says Stefani, giving hope to geeks nationwide.
“I think [the on-stage persona] is definitely a part of me, but I don’t think that I go around when I’m offstage saying ‘Fuck you, I’m a girl’ and running all over the place. It’s definitely two sides of my personality.”
One wonders how Stefani manages to keep her energy at such a feverish pitch, night after night.
“Yesterday I looked in the mirror and I thought, ‘God, I look so old today. I look so tired.’ So I just put on tons of make-up and screamed up and down the hall to try to get myself worked up and then I went out there and the audience was so intense there’s just no way you couldn’t feed off that. These kids were just on fire. They looked like a bunch of Rice Krispies!”
No Doubt formed nine years ago in Anaheim, California, at the suggestion of high school friend John Spence, a charismatic kid who was in love with the idea of being in a band and whose subsequent suicide forced No Doubt to learn to overcome hardship. The initial line-up included Stefani’s older brother Eric on keyboards (who was to remain in the band as keyboard player and main songwriter until ‘95 when he left to pursue a career as an artist), and Gwen and Spence sharing vocals.
“I never really thought about being in a band. I mean, maybe when I watched Donny and Marie I thought, ‘God, I wish I could be Marie,’ but that was the closest I’d come. John was the one that said ‘I want to be the singer of a band.’ That was his dream,” remembers Stefani, whose personal heroes include Angelo Moore of Fishbone and Kermit the Frog.
“When your friend dies like that and it’s so unexpected it’s very traumatic. I think it taught us all a big lesson in how much one person can influence so many different people.”
The early music of No Doubt was “ska, because that’s what we were into and that’s the only thing we really knew. It was pretty easy music to play.” But as the line-up began to solidify, with “Prince fan” Kanal joining almost immediately, followed by heavy metal guitarist Dumont in ‘88 and drummer Young in ‘89, the wide range of styles encompassed by No Doubt began to emerge, as documented by their releases.
No Doubt released their self-titled debut on Interscope in 1992, an independently produced collector’s item called The Beacon Street Collection in 1995, and Tragic Kingdom on Trauma/Interscope in 1996.
“We were labeled a ska band forever and it was always something we were trying to get away from. We wanted to become our own sound. For the first time on this record I think we were able to do that; to mix up all the different influences without freaking people out.”
Stefani need not have worried. America has latched on to No Doubt’s brand of vibrant, tuneful rock, with Stefani’s smoothly intriguing show-tune vocals dancing in and out of a catchy stew of varied bass lines and guitar riffs. No Doubt is easily the band of the moment, and this fact is not lost on its members.
“We’re just so happy that people even want to take notice of us after all these years,” says Kanal. “We went to New York to do MTV and we were there on the set and Gwen and I just looked at each other and said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this right now. I can’t believe we’re here.’ It’s really incredible.”
And then there’s the flip side: “It’s weird. [We’re playing for] a lot of new people that aren’t used to coming to [our] shows. It’s a different vibe. It’s not as fun as it used to be,” says Dumont, who promoted a well respected club for a short while and is known by Orange County musicians as a strong supporter of the eclectic local scene. “I don’t know, it just seems like [these new people] don’t know what to do, they don’t get it.”
The “it” to which Dumont refers is No Doubt’s roots as an underground band, a grounding all members want to maintain. “It’s like we come from a scene, a local Southern California scene where we play all-ages shows and they’re kind of punk and ska audiences. You know people go to the shows and just go nuts and have fun and dance and crowd surf and it’s a very physical, energetic kind of show,” explains Dumont.
But despite the gripes, “This is something I’ve wanted for so many years now and I never really thought it would happen. It’s like a dream come true to hear my songs on the radio. I know that the music industry and people that listen to music these days are pretty fickle and this may be our one hit wonder and it may be gone tomorrow, but we’re going to have a lot of fun in the meantime. 99% of musicians, whether they are telling the truth or not, want to make a living playing music. It’s not about selling out. It’s about having a little fun for awhile and not having to work another job and getting to play music all day long, every day. It’s really satisfying.”
This spectrum seems little more than the varied emotions of a band in flux, making the transition from local underground heroes to national entertainers. All the members are thrilled to be receiving attention, yet they talk as if it might evaporate tomorrow. They all remain loyal to the local scene which housed them for so many years. And they all attempt to make sense of the incongruous blending of art and commerce, worrying about being perceived as “sell-outs.”
Kanal admits concern over how fans would react to their decision to tour in a tour bus, as opposed to the vans they always used in the past, despite inconvenience and issues of safety. He’s well aware of the distorting powers of fame.
“I think for the most part we’re pretty nice people. I check myself every day just to make sure this is the same person. I really want people to tell me if they think anything has changed about me. I think about that stuff all the time,” says Kanal, who is a few credits short of receiving a degree in psychology.
Dumont harbors the same concerns. “I haven’t been able to hang out with my friends much anymore because I’m so busy. I wonder if they are like, ‘Tom’s too cool for us now.’ They don’t understand that there’s a lot of responsibilities and we’re busy constantly, all day long.”
Stefani talks of the girls who approached her at a recent show, feeling betrayed, and worrying that now “jocks and nerds” would be audience members. “I totally understand that, because I had a band that was ‘my band’ ? Madness – and in some ways I wanted to wear the shirt and tell everyone that they were my band but I didn’t want other people to really get into them, so I can understand that. But at the same time I think a lot of people are really happy for us.”
The genuine excitement the group feels is more poignant when coming on the heals of No Doubt’s “Bleak Period”, referred to by all members in grand, sweeping, epic terms.
“If you would have seen us last year,” Stefani begins, “we were barely hanging on by a thread. We were ready to quit and save ourselves from becoming a bunch of losers.”
These hard times centered around, according to Stefani, “political stuff with our label. The biggest problem was we weren’t able to put out music and it was like three years between records. I remember the first year the band came together it seemed like so much had gotten done and the last three years it was like nothing happened. That’s why we put out The Beacon Street Collection, which is the CD we did in our garage. It was one of the best things we ever did because we were able to take some songs that would have probably gotten lost and document them. But this was awesome because at the very end, when we were mixing our album, we hooked up with these guys from Trauma, which happens to be a subsidiary of Interscope, so now it’s kind of neat because we have Interscope and Trauma working for us. Everything has turned around. It’s flip-flopped. It’s unbelievable how fast it has changed, so we’re just trying to take every day and just enjoy it because we know it could be gone at any second.”
But in the process, No Doubt lost a member; keyboard player Eric Stefani. “Eric was my biggest musical influence,” says Gwen. “He’s the one that said ‘you be the singer’ when I was sitting on the couch watching the Brady Bunch and being as lazy as possible. So if it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what I would be doing. It was really hard when he left because I felt like this was his baby – his band. For me to take over was really weird and awkward, but at the same time it was a long time coming. He taught us how to write songs and we took it from there. In a lot of ways this record has so much more meaning to me than the first one because I was really able to participate, whereas on the first record I was singing songs about my brother getting his wisdom teeth pulled.”
There are many connections between this latest record and the “Bleak Period”. The album’s title is a pun on Anaheim’s own Disneyland (referred to as the “Magic Kingdom”), but the album is mostly about the anything-but-magical hardships faced by No Doubt. The break-up of Kanal and Stefani’s seven year relationship inspired many of the songs.
“You can imagine all the things that come with being in a band with your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend. It’s odd. We just deal with it every day,” Kanal reveals. “We’re still really good friends. We were best friends when we were going out and Gwen is really, really important to me.”
Stefani holds similar feelings. “I think we’ve just been really blessed that we can remain good friends. I love him so much.”
“I’ve always thought of myself as being a really normal person, with the most normal life, with a mom and dad and sisters and brothers and a totally normal personality with nothing exciting about it and then I step back and look at my situation and all the, like,” Stefani pauses, measuring her words. “How can I say shit that’s going on and I realize I am in the weirdest incestuous situation. It’s a weird life that I have been thrown into, but at the same time I can’t remember a time that I’ve been happier. Things are so great right now and I’m really enjoying my life, every second of it.”
The music business is a weird industry. The methods of achieving success are outwardly shunned and denounced, though secretly sought after. No Doubt are achieving the kind of success every other band, whether they would admit to it or not, secretly hope for. After nine years ripe with the good and the bad, No Doubt refuse to play the game. “It’s funny, because at least now we’re not like total losers,” says Stefani. “We had a video on MTV and got to be on the radio and stuff. If it was taken away tomorrow, we at least got to do that. Now we have stuff to show our grandkids.”