Being a woman in today’s pop music arena seems to immediately slap that feminist scarlet letter on the artist’s chest – 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 “cute”? 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 say… “Thank you.”
Platinum hair and funky wardrobe aside, the one outstanding characteristic of No Doubt’s frontwoman is polite propriety. “I’m old-fashioned”, she admits, with an unapologetic smile. But don’t be fooled. It’s this very sense of quiet-but-firm opinion that gives a twist to Stefani’s particular brand of feminism – 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 Doubt’s newest record, Tragic Kingdom – the third release from this Anaheim ska / rock / pop hybrid who’ve been building a local following for eight years – 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 sibling’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; Stefani’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 who’s been there. Ask anyone without a Y-chromosome: The first single off the record, “Just A Girl”, speaks clearly about the exasperation involved in female stereotypes. “Don’t you think I know / Exactly where I stand? / This world is forcing me / To hold your hand.”
“I wrote that because my dad got mad at me for going to Tony [Kanal, No Doubt bassist]’s house and driving home late at night,” the 26-year old singer explains. “I mean, c’mon, I’m, like, going on 30 here!” she exaggerates, laughing. “I wouldn’t trade [being female], but I really don’t think guys understand what a burden it can be sometimes.”
But regardless of whatever heavy message is ingrained in the lyrical side of things, Stefani’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, ‘80s-style keyboards, and a classic rock guitar. This is updated New Wave – and a sound that should be well appreciated by any former preteen who ever worshipped Debbie Harry and the Go-Go’s.
It seems odd to this band, then, that despite their hybrid sound, they seem to consistently carry an indelible label as a “ska band.” “Our roots are definitely in ska,” says Stefani. “When 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 – as far as dress went, anyway. I would look at the English Beat girl – you know, the cartoon girl on their album covers – and think, ‘Maybe I’ll get an outfit like that!’ 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. “Before I joined in 1988, I was in a heavy metal band – yes, I can play [Metallica’s] ‘One’ on guitar,” he grins. “We 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 – it was fascinating, because this was different from any kind of music I’d heard before. Ska music… I was pretty unfamiliar with it. Anyway, I quit my band, independently of that, and within a week, I saw a flyer, ‘No Doubt needs a guitar player.’ I was fortunate that they would accept a heavy metal guy with long hair and lack of fashion sense,” quips the mohawked, AirWalk-wearing axe man. “Their scene seemed so much healthier to me. People would come to shows, dance, and just have fun.”
And drummer Adrian Young – although admitting to his own junior high-era ska fever – claims his earliest influences were his “hippie parents’” Hendrix and Janis Joplin records. Tony Kanal, meanwhile, was such a rabid Prince fan that “he wore purple to school,” giggles Stefani. “So, as we began collaborating and getting experienced with songwriting,” she continues, “we got this ambition – to not be a ‘ska’ band. Because it was always this label that was put on us, and it was always our goal to have our own sound.”
Nevertheless, with ska currently segueing head-first into punk as the next “big thing” 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 – instead of fighting – the tag might prove lucrative in short order. Witness Rancid, whose return to skankin’ roots on their latest album has gleaned them both major airplay and popularity with the ska-tinged single “Time Bomb”.
Stefani reflects on this suggestion. “Well, [the members of] Rancid started out in a ska band, Operation Ivy, so it’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.”
“The funny thing is that ‘Just A Girl’ is not even close to ska,” interjects Dumont “It’s more of a New Wave thing. I don’t know if people are throwing us in with the Rancids… I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Rancid, but our song is actually more like Weezer.” The rest of the bandmembers nod enthusiastically in assent.
“I look at our band as kinda like the Police,” Stefani muses. “They had the reggae / ska thing happening, but they’re a rock band. Our roots are ska, but ska just bubbles under in our music. We don’t label our sound by that term.”
Whether they’re technically ska or not, No Doubt’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 they’re still on the smaller indie label, Trauma Records. Confused? The story behind the label switch provokes sighs from the entire band. “It’s confusing to everyone, including us,” says Stefani, “but people are gonna want to know why this record took three years to come out.” She cups her chin in her hand resignedly and begins the tale. “When we signed with Interscope in ‘91, they had just formed as a new label.”
“At the time, we were finishing up an indie CD that we were going to put out ourselves,” continues Dumont. “[Interscope] decided they wanted to sign us, and they were going to give us some money. So, we thought, ‘OK, let’s redo the CD in a really good studio.’”
“And we thought we were recording in a really good studio,” Stefani’s tone is flat. “But looking back, we were naive. It was almost like an independent release, anyway – 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.”
“Want a list of people who once opened for us?” asks Young, as he begins rattling off a semi- shocking roster: Rage Against The Machine, Ugly Kid Joe, Sublime, Dance Hall Crashers, 311…”
“When we got back, though, the problems started.” Stefani has resumed the story. “We were writing and writing, but Interscope was being really wishy-washy about letting us go in the studio. Things just kept getting dragged out… .”
“Months and months and months,” emphasizes Young, shaking his head. “We were going insane.”
“It was a really hard time. We were working, writing, attending school, trying to use up time,” explains Stefani, who majored in art at Cal State Fullerton. “But every day, we were calling up and going, ‘When can we go in? When? When? When?’”
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.
“Interscope was surprised,” says Dumont. “They 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 – wherever they could get a deal on a studio!”
It was during one of those sporadic studio session that Interscope introduced the band to a guy who was interested in mixing Tragic Kingdom. “It was this guy, Paul Palmer, who had just mixed this new band called Bush. You know what they sound like, right?” asks Dumont, dead serious. “Paul mixed ‘Just A Girl’ 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 – which was, conveniently, already tied into Interscope, thanks to Bush. After that, everything just turned around. Trauma got really hot because of Bush. Plus, they’re a small label and totally focused. It was the best thing that could have happened to us!”
“You do have to remember, too,” adds Stefani, determined to be fair, “that 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, we’re remeeting people, and it’s a whole new situation over there. It’s all turned around and much better now.”
It’s not just Interscope that’s improved from the band’s vantage point, either. They’ve also seen a good evolution in the attitude of the audience the band attracts as well. “When I first started singing, there weren’t very many female singers in the scene,” Stefani explains. “Whenever we went to a club, I would always be looked upon as a tagalong girlfriend – ‘Where’s your wristband?!’ But as soon as I finished a show, the same people would be, like, ‘Oooh – I can’t believe you were up there!’ And the attitudes of the girls in the beginning! More like, ‘Bitch! Who does she think she is?!’”
Stefani, who seems unaware that her striking good looks might be considered intimidating, appears genuinely perturbed by this latter aspect. “But now it’s gradually changed into this whole bonding thing between all the girls at the shows. They have their songs – they consider them their songs – that they can [mosh] to. It’s weird being a girl who likes rock, because when you have a band, you’re usually into the person, too. Like, when I liked Madness, I was totally in love with them. But it’s different [for us] now, and it’s great – the girls are into the music.”
“Except,” deadpans Dumont, “when they look at my side of the stage, of course… .”
The latter comment does make you wonder what it must be like for Stefani, one lone girl, touring with a busload of “crude” males. “Oh yeah,” she says, cheerfully. “Burps, farts, everything! But I love touring, so I don’t really pay attention. I’m pretty much used to it, anyway.”
“It’s just not the three guys, either,” adds Young, with a wicked delighted giggle. “There’s our horn section – Steve, Gabe, and Phil. And Donnie the crew guy. Our ‘king of merchandise,’ Merchmaster Matt…” 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 “Just A Girl,” which is scheduled to shoot the day following our interview. The plot seems to be a humorous revenge of sorts for Stefani – she is to be shot separately from the others, singing in a plush and pretty ladies’ room, while the boys are forced to perform in a “gross, pee-on-the-floor, club-type bathroom.” It’s a clever yet subtle plot that fits well with the duality of the song. “It’s definitely a very real song, and there’s always two sides to everything,” says Stefani with a smile, admitting that the video story line was her idea.
That naturally brings the subject back to our initial topic: Stefani’s gentle-yet-solid form of feminism. It’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. “I should tell you this story,” she finally says. “We were playing a Rock for Choice benefit. They were all excited about us and everything, ‘cause I’m a girl. Whatever. Anyway, my own feelings on abortion are pro-choice, but I personally don’t feel right about it. I’m glad that no one can make that choice for me, though. So I said to the audience, ‘You know, if it were me, I would not choose to have an abortion, but I’m glad I have the choice.’ After the show, everyone was so pissed off at me for saying that!” The bandmates shake their heads in chagrin. “Hey, it was a pro-choice benefit… there was nothing wrong with what I said.”
So, a belated welcome to the ‘90s where a musician like Gwen Stefani can define her own style of feminism, expanding and broadening the once-limited label of “Women in Rock.” 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