In between bites of a Cobb salad at New York’s Tribeca Grand Hotel, Gwen Stefani is explaining why No Doubt is going on tour for the first time in five years without a new album to promote.
“Honestly, it’s procrastination,” she says with a sigh. “My plan was to get pregnant and write a record, but instead of writing, I just ate all the time.”
Stefani laughs as she pops a tomato in her mouth. “Writing is always really hard for me – I hate it and hate it and then I do it, and I’m happy it’s done,” she says. “I was blocked and I needed to get inspired, and I thought playing live would get the creative juices flowing again.”
Which isn’t to say Stefani and her No Doubt bandmates haven’t been busy since the 2001 release of their last album, “Rock Steady.” Stefani, who has two sons, ages 8 months and 3 years, released two solo albums, “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.,” which sold 4 million copies, and “The Sweet Escape,” which sold 1.7 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Bassist Tony Kanal did production work on Stefani’s albums and wrote songs with artists including Pink. Guitarist Tom Dumont produced two records, scored a documentary and was a stay-at-home dad. Drummer Adrian Young did session work and played golf.
Now they’ll be together for a tour that starts Saturday (May 16) in Las Vegas and ends August 1 in Irvine, California.
Hitting the road without new material after years of relative silence might seem like a risk, but the band’s manager, Jim Guerinot, was delighted when the group approached him with the idea. “I think it’s the right move,” he says. “Even though they remained friends throughout the hiatus, they’ve all been working on other projects and haven’t spent a lot of time together. They’ve become more of a unit in the time they’ve been rehearsing together and played a few shows, and I think this will change things for the positive.”
A weight was lifted
So far, the reception has been enthusiastic. Tickets have been selling briskly for the shows; seven dates in Southern California have sold out, according to Live Nation spokesman John Vlautin, as have shows in Houston, Denver and at Jones Beach on New York’s Long Island.
The band started rehearsing in Hollywood, then set up shop in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to prepare for East Coast dates. “As soon as the pressure to make a new album was off, it was like a weight was lifted,” Stefani says. “I could get back into learning the songs and planning the show, and it was so much more fun than banging my head against a wall in the studio.”
No Doubt wants to make it clear that it’s not another ’90s band looking to hit the road and cash in on the band’s greatest hits. “I don’t see us as being part of that ’90s revival,” Kanal says. “We were always a band, even when we weren’t playing together.”
The group also wants to make sure its audience doesn’t consist entirely of twenty- and thirtysomethings who know the band only through “Just a Girl,” its 1995 breakthrough hit single. So it will give away digital copies of its three studio albums to anyone who buys tickets in the top two price tiers. (Seats for No Doubt’s run of summer dates range from $10 for lawn seats to $80 for the best seats, with $59.50 and $24.50 price points in between.)
“Tom had the idea to give the albums away electronically for free with the ticket purchase,” Guerinot says. “A lot of people like Gwen’s solo work but might not be as familiar with No Doubt. There are people who might not have listened to the records in a while.”
Dumont says that giving away the catalog seemed like an obvious value-add. “Lots of bands give away their new CDs, but we didn’t have one of those,” he says. “I’ve always thought you should be able to go and buy an entire catalog in one click, so you could get a broad representation of a band’s work.”
In his mind, giving the music to fans is a continuation of No Doubt’s time-tested strategy. “When we first started out, we had mailing lists and parties where we’d sit and lick stamps for hours. This is a more modern version of that. And we won’t get high off of licking stamp backing, either.”
Today and tomorrow
If the band is worried about fans forgetting the hits, it shouldn’t be. At recent performances on NBC’s “Today” and at the Bamboozle festival in New Jersey, the audience sang along as the band ripped through a set of its greatest hits, including “Spiderwebs,” “Don’t Speak” and its cover of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.” The audience at both events leaned slightly older, and at Bamboozle, when Stefani asked those in the crowd to raise their hands if it was their first No Doubt show, many did. Still, they proceeded to sing along to most of the songs.
After the joys of parenthood and channeling their inner Tiger Woods, the band members will do their best to maintain a semblance of normalcy on the road. All admit to being fitness fanatics, and they’re indulging their need to jog while touring. “We travel with two personal trainers,” Kanal says. “We make hotels keep their gyms open late so we can work out. We’re getting older, and we can’t party like we used to.”
But Kanal says that being older has plenty of perks. “We got to live though the record industry in its heyday. When we started, we were in a van and looking for change under the seats so we could buy food. We went from that to having a hit and getting to do things like make music videos with million-dollar budgets.”
Stefani says she and the rest of the band aren’t interested in “gratuitous fame,” but she still finds herself in the spotlight. “I have to wear makeup to the gym because I get some dude doing sit-ups next to me and surreptitiously taking pictures,” she says.
And although Stefani cheerfully shows off pictures of her sons, Kingston and Zuma, she’d rather talk about her ventures as a businesswoman, albeit in a self-effacing manner. Her clothing line, LAMB, is in its seventh year, and she also has her own perfume. Still, Stefani is slow to take credit for it all.
“I’m a good collaborator,” she says. “I’m always open to other opinions, and I can do things like have meetings at my house and juggle it all. I’m actually heading to a five-hour meeting about the new line of handbags after this, and I’m pretty excited. I started it seven years ago and never thought it would last, but here we are.”
During the “Today” performance, Stefani and her cohorts were self-assured, despite worries the day before that they might forget parts of the set. There was a moment during the intro solo of the track “Don’t Speak” where a slight tension rose among the members, but it quickly dissipated as Dumont hit every chord and Stefani’s voice kicked in. Backstage, the visibly relaxed band conducted an interview with a local morning news anchor, who had attended some of the act’s mailing-list parties in the early ’90s in Orange County.
“We’re from Anaheim,” Stefani says with a laugh as she considers her opportunities. “This is cliche to say, but we never thought this would happen to us. We built a studio in the garage, and now we’re driving around on tour with a bus that has a studio in it. We survived it all and we’re still friends, and that’s great.”