Being a woman in todayâ€™s pop music arena seems to immediately slap that feminist scarlet letter on the artistâ€™s chest â€“ a tag that most of the prominent females in modern rock heartily endorse with their attitudes. A gauge of this? What would be the assumptive grrrl reaction to being called â€œcuteâ€? Madonna or Courtney Love would probably have some smartass retort. Chrissie Hynde would just smirk or totally ignore the comment. L7 would laugh. TLC or Salt-N-Pepa would give it right back, only spicier. And the members of Bikini Kill might hit you over the head with their guitar.
But Gwen Stefani of No Doubt would probably just sayâ€¦ â€œThank you.â€
Platinum hair and funky wardrobe aside, the one outstanding characteristic of No Doubtâ€™s frontwoman is polite propriety. â€œIâ€™m old-fashionedâ€, she admits, with an unapologetic smile. But donâ€™t be fooled. Itâ€™s this very sense of quiet-but-firm opinion that gives a twist to Stefaniâ€™s particular brand of feminism â€“ that is, one does not necessarily have to choose between cowering in silence or screaming to be heard. One can be humorous and articulate, as well as independent and forthright.
No Doubtâ€™s newest record, Tragic Kingdom â€“ the third release from this Anaheim ska / rock / pop hybrid whoâ€™ve been building a local following for eight years â€“ marks the debut of Stefani as a primary lyricist, a role that previously had been, for the most part, shouldered by her brother (and band founder) Eric. Her siblingâ€™s departure from the band prior to the latest release (due to a desire to pursue a career in cartooning and animation) may be accountable for the decidedly feminine lyrical slant on Tragic Kingdom; Stefaniâ€™s mix of unabashedly romantic topics, after all, is peppered here and there with uncannily simple-yet-effective sarcasm that could only come from the mind of one whoâ€™s been there. Ask anyone without a Y-chromosome: The first single off the record, â€œJust A Girlâ€, speaks clearly about the exasperation involved in female stereotypes. â€œDonâ€™t you think I know / Exactly where I stand? / This world is forcing me / To hold your hand.â€
â€œI wrote that because my dad got mad at me for going to Tony [Kanal, No Doubt bassist]â€™s house and driving home late at night,â€ the 26-year old singer explains. â€œI mean, câ€™mon, Iâ€™m, like, going on 30 here!â€ she exaggerates, laughing. â€œI wouldnâ€™t trade [being female], but I really donâ€™t think guys understand what a burden it can be sometimes.â€
But regardless of whatever heavy message is ingrained in the lyrical side of things, Stefaniâ€™s breathless vocals always manage to soar high and joyful over an upbeat, infectious musical cocktail, drawing diversely in turn from a horn section, steel drums, â€˜80s-style keyboards, and a classic rock guitar. This is updated New Wave â€“ and a sound that should be well appreciated by any former preteen who ever worshipped Debbie Harry and the Go-Goâ€™s.
It seems odd to this band, then, that despite their hybrid sound, they seem to consistently carry an indelible label as a â€œska band.â€ â€œOur roots are definitely in ska,â€ says Stefani. â€œWhen we started in 1987, we were just pretty much trying to imitate what we loved, and I was really into the [British] band Madness. I was the only ska girl at my school â€“ as far as dress went, anyway. I would look at the English Beat girl â€“ you know, the cartoon girl on their album covers â€“ and think, â€˜Maybe Iâ€™ll get an outfit like that!â€™ And our first big show was opening for the Untouchables that same year. But then we started finding different [musical] influences from different members.
Not the least diverse of which was the influence of guitarist Tom Dumont, who tells his story with a sense of mild irony. â€œBefore I joined in 1988, I was in a heavy metal band â€“ yes, I can play [Metallica’s] â€˜Oneâ€™ on guitar,â€ he grins. â€œWe all used to rehearse in the same little studio in Anaheim. But I was becoming dissatisfied with my own band and the whole direction of the metal scene in general. I always liked other styles of music, and I would look in sometimes and watch [No Doubt] practice â€“ it was fascinating, because this was different from any kind of music Iâ€™d heard before. Ska musicâ€¦ I was pretty unfamiliar with it. Anyway, I quit my band, independently of that, and within a week, I saw a flyer, â€˜No Doubt needs a guitar player.â€™ I was fortunate that they would accept a heavy metal guy with long hair and lack of fashion sense,â€ quips the mohawked, AirWalk-wearing axe man. â€œTheir scene seemed so much healthier to me. People would come to shows, dance, and just have fun.â€
And drummer Adrian Young â€“ although admitting to his own junior high-era ska fever â€“ claims his earliest influences were his â€œhippie parentsâ€™â€ Hendrix and Janis Joplin records. Tony Kanal, meanwhile, was such a rabid Prince fan that â€œhe wore purple to school,â€ giggles Stefani. â€œSo, as we began collaborating and getting experienced with songwriting,â€ she continues, â€œwe got this ambition â€“ to not be a â€˜skaâ€™ band. Because it was always this label that was put on us, and it was always our goal to have our own sound.â€
Nevertheless, with ska currently segueing head-first into punk as the next â€œbig thingâ€ in popular music, the band have to acknowledge that the slightest reference to the upbeat (or offbeat) is going to throw them into the ska label. And cultivating â€“ instead of fighting â€“ the tag might prove lucrative in short order. Witness Rancid, whose return to skankinâ€™ roots on their latest album has gleaned them both major airplay and popularity with the ska-tinged single â€œTime Bombâ€.
Stefani reflects on this suggestion. â€œWell, [the members of] Rancid started out in a ska band, Operation Ivy, so itâ€™s really not unusual that they would go back to that. But for me, personally, after being in the scene for eight years, I got burned out on all the up-and-coming ska bands over the years, I just got sick of them trying to repeat the whole 2-Tone movement.â€
â€œThe funny thing is that â€˜Just A Girlâ€™ is not even close to ska,â€ interjects Dumont â€œItâ€™s more of a New Wave thing. I donâ€™t know if people are throwing us in with the Rancidsâ€¦ I mean, thereâ€™s nothing wrong with Rancid, but our song is actually more like Weezer.â€ The rest of the bandmembers nod enthusiastically in assent.
â€œI look at our band as kinda like the Police,â€ Stefani muses. â€œThey had the reggae / ska thing happening, but theyâ€™re a rock band. Our roots are ska, but ska just bubbles under in our music. We donâ€™t label our sound by that term.â€
Whether theyâ€™re technically ska or not, No Doubtâ€™s third record is currently the recipient of renewed commercial interest from its original parent label, Interscope (which released the debut No Doubt LP in 1992), even though theyâ€™re still on the smaller indie label, Trauma Records. Confused? The story behind the label switch provokes sighs from the entire band. â€œItâ€™s confusing to everyone, including us,â€ says Stefani, â€œbut people are gonna want to know why this record took three years to come out.â€ She cups her chin in her hand resignedly and begins the tale. â€œWhen we signed with Interscope in â€˜91, they had just formed as a new label.â€
â€œAt the time, we were finishing up an indie CD that we were going to put out ourselves,â€ continues Dumont. â€œ[Interscope] decided they wanted to sign us, and they were going to give us some money. So, we thought, â€˜OK, letâ€™s redo the CD in a really good studio.â€™â€
â€œAnd we thought we were recording in a really good studio,â€ Stefaniâ€™s tone is flat. â€œBut looking back, we were naive. It was almost like an independent release, anyway â€“ there was no push for the record [by Interscope] and no kind of support at all. Everything we did on that record, we did ourselves. We did get tour support, though, so we toured the U.S. once.â€
â€œWant a list of people who once opened for us?â€ asks Young, as he begins rattling off a semi- shocking roster: Rage Against The Machine, Ugly Kid Joe, Sublime, Dance Hall Crashers, 311â€¦”
â€œWhen we got back, though, the problems started.â€ Stefani has resumed the story. â€œWe were writing and writing, but Interscope was being really wishy-washy about letting us go in the studio. Things just kept getting dragged outâ€¦ .â€
â€œMonths and months and months,â€ emphasizes Young, shaking his head. â€œWe were going insane.â€
â€œIt was a really hard time. We were working, writing, attending school, trying to use up time,â€ explains Stefani, who majored in art at Cal State Fullerton. â€œBut every day, we were calling up and going, â€˜When can we go in? When? When? When?â€™â€
Finally, in complete exasperation, the band built their own studio and self-released two 7-inch singles, while Interscope looked on with an idle eye. The months spent writing had flowered into a catalog of over 60 songs, most of which No Doubt realized would not land on their next Interscope release. So, in a spontaneous burst of energy, the band went into their homemade studio and bashed out a full-length second LP, The Beacon Street Collection, in one long weekend.
â€œInterscope was surprised,â€ says Dumont. â€œThey though we were doing another 7-inch. And then we ended up recording Tragic Kingdom in, like 10 different LA studios over the next two years â€“ wherever they could get a deal on a studio!â€
It was during one of those sporadic studio session that Interscope introduced the band to a guy who was interested in mixing Tragic Kingdom. â€œIt was this guy, Paul Palmer, who had just mixed this new band called Bush. You know what they sound like, right?â€ asks Dumont, dead serious. â€œPaul mixed â€˜Just A Girlâ€™ first and then decided to mix the rest of the record a couple of months later. It turns out that he was the owner of Trauma Records, and he wanted to release the record on his own label â€“ which was, conveniently, already tied into Interscope, thanks to Bush. After that, everything just turned around. Trauma got really hot because of Bush. Plus, theyâ€™re a small label and totally focused. It was the best thing that could have happened to us!â€
â€œYou do have to remember, too,â€ adds Stefani, determined to be fair, â€œthat after we got on Interscope, the company became so huge. And we were pretty much dealing with just one person at that point. Now that we have to deal with Interscope all over again, weâ€™re remeeting people, and itâ€™s a whole new situation over there. Itâ€™s all turned around and much better now.â€
Itâ€™s not just Interscope thatâ€™s improved from the bandâ€™s vantage point, either. Theyâ€™ve also seen a good evolution in the attitude of the audience the band attracts as well. â€œWhen I first started singing, there werenâ€™t very many female singers in the scene,â€ Stefani explains. â€œWhenever we went to a club, I would always be looked upon as a tagalong girlfriend â€“ â€˜Whereâ€™s your wristband?!â€™ But as soon as I finished a show, the same people would be, like, â€˜Oooh â€“ I canâ€™t believe you were up there!â€™ And the attitudes of the girls in the beginning! More like, â€˜Bitch! Who does she think she is?!â€™â€
Stefani, who seems unaware that her striking good looks might be considered intimidating, appears genuinely perturbed by this latter aspect. â€œBut now itâ€™s gradually changed into this whole bonding thing between all the girls at the shows. They have their songs â€“ they consider them their songs â€“ that they can [mosh] to. Itâ€™s weird being a girl who likes rock, because when you have a band, youâ€™re usually into the person, too. Like, when I liked Madness, I was totally in love with them. But itâ€™s different [for us] now, and itâ€™s great â€“ the girls are into the music.â€
â€œExcept,â€ deadpans Dumont, â€œwhen they look at my side of the stage, of courseâ€¦ .â€
The latter comment does make you wonder what it must be like for Stefani, one lone girl, touring with a busload of â€œcrudeâ€ males. â€œOh yeah,â€ she says, cheerfully. â€œBurps, farts, everything! But I love touring, so I donâ€™t really pay attention. Iâ€™m pretty much used to it, anyway.â€
â€œItâ€™s just not the three guys, either,â€ adds Young, with a wicked delighted giggle. â€œThereâ€™s our horn section â€“ Steve, Gabe, and Phil. And Donnie the crew guy. Our â€˜king of merchandise,â€™ Merchmaster Mattâ€¦â€ Stefani rolls her eyes and smiles as her bandmates launch into a spirited explanation of bathroom technique and other etiquette while on the road.
Not surprising, then, is the new No Doubt video for â€œJust A Girl,â€ which is scheduled to shoot the day following our interview. The plot seems to be a humorous revenge of sorts for Stefani â€“ she is to be shot separately from the others, singing in a plush and pretty ladiesâ€™ room, while the boys are forced to perform in a â€œgross, pee-on-the-floor, club-type bathroom.â€ Itâ€™s a clever yet subtle plot that fits well with the duality of the song. â€œItâ€™s definitely a very real song, and thereâ€™s always two sides to everything,â€ says Stefani with a smile, admitting that the video story line was her idea.
That naturally brings the subject back to our initial topic: Stefaniâ€™s gentle-yet-solid form of feminism. Itâ€™s easy to see that she clearly does not consider her role to be any kind of a selling point for specific political issues; thought-provoking lyrical matter is fine, but this band seems more into creating a friendly vibe. That is, dancing feet, not minds.
Stefani puts her chin in her hand and thinks for a moment. â€œI should tell you this story,â€ she finally says. â€œWe were playing a Rock for Choice benefit. They were all excited about us and everything, â€˜cause Iâ€™m a girl. Whatever. Anyway, my own feelings on abortion are pro-choice, but I personally donâ€™t feel right about it. Iâ€™m glad that no one can make that choice for me, though. So I said to the audience, â€˜You know, if it were me, I would not choose to have an abortion, but Iâ€™m glad I have the choice.â€™ After the show, everyone was so pissed off at me for saying that!â€ The bandmates shake their heads in chagrin. â€œHey, it was a pro-choice benefitâ€¦ there was nothing wrong with what I said.â€
So, a belated welcome to the â€˜90s where a musician like Gwen Stefani can define her own style of feminism, expanding and broadening the once-limited label of â€œWomen in Rock.â€ In other words, a style that is in charge, in effect, and definitely in demand. Will this appeal to male and female music fans beyond the Orange Curtain? The reply is obvious: No doubt about it!
Transcribed by Craig Smith