Smatterings of breathlessly excited, blonde-streaked, sparkle-lashed 14-year-olds liter the backstage area of San Francisco’s fabled Filmore. Oblivious to the portraits of Janis, Jimi, and the Jefferson Airplane scattered around the venue, these girls line up to press tokens of esteem on the recently adopted object of their devotion, No Doubt’s bare-midriffed, high-octane, dreamboat frontwoman, Gwen Stefani. “You inspired me to start my own skateboarding magazine for girls!” enthuses one such acolyte. Then she presents the 26-year-old singer with a painting, thankfully explaining the elements contained therein — “That’s the sky, that’s the river, that’s the castle” — and before anyone can ask “Uh, what is it, exactly?” Stefani gushes gratitude and holds the peice out of me. “Isn’t this amazing?” she gasps. Of course, I find myself witha headful of retorts of the “I can’t tell till you wipe the vomit off” variety. I search Stefani’s eyes for a glint of cynical complicity, find only earnest appreciation, and feeling like grinch, mumble, “Interesting. Very unique.” Another devotee pleads to use the phone in No Doubt’s dressing room. Against the advice of the group’s road manager, Stefani lets the girl in. She rushes to the phone, dials seven digits, and shrieks “I’m in No Doubt’s dressing room!”
Such heartwarming scenes of girly empowerment, acted out nightly and with increasing glee during No Doubt’s unlikely climb to stardom, must no doubt be growing commonplace, maybe even tiresome, to the boys in the band: bassist Tony Kanal, drummer Adrian Young, and guitarist Tom Dumont. Once the changing area is finally cleared of teens spirited, the tour members of the group slump on the tone of just another stop on their uphill trek.”I don’t know whether to wear this onstage or not,” frets bassist Tony Kanal. “How does it look?”
“You guys, can I get some feedback here? How do I look?”
Stefani sits in the corner wrapping yards of gauze around the foot she broke during a typically combustible performance the previous month. Kanal, meanwhile, doggedly solicits opinion on his choice of onstage apparel, a billowing striped gray jumpsuit that conceals any evidence of crotch and butt. “It’s polyester,” he grumbles, “I’m sweating already.”
“I think you look cute,” says Stefani, finally, looking up from ministering to the throbbing foot that has earned her a Kerri Strug-like reputation for grace under duress.
“You look like Woody Allen in Sleeper“, smirks Young, whose own visial hook — hair slicked up into devil horns — has recently been shorn into a flat-top. The jump suit is jettisoned.
Showtime approaches. And despite the whiff of lethargy hanging over the hallowed room, this clearly isn’t just another stop on the trek. The fifth date on No Doubt’s first-ever tour as a headliner, a double-platinum-plus-and-rising album under thier belts, this is major. In recognition of their altered status, the group links arms for one of those arcane collective motivational psych-up rituals. Kanal gives me a look. I make to leave. “You too,” he says. I link arms with No Doubt while they recite their aims for the rapidly approaching show. “Last night was great. I want to take this one to a higher level,” says Kanal. “I just want to enjoy myself because I’m totally selfish,” giggles Stefani. “I’m not going to dance tonight,” promises Dumont. I mumble something about attempting to be less tardy with my rent check. The quartet breaks out of the circle, slam their fists together and, in unison, emit the cri de coeur, “No Doubt!”
Myself, I had doubt. Two fists full. My first fleeting impression of No Doubt was gleaned from their grady presence among the maudlin, slope-shouldered worry warts enjoying MTV rotation. “Who are these prancing nincompoops?” I wondered. “Who is this buff blonde with the dot on her forehead who looks like she’s just been peeled off the side of a WWll bomber?” I harbored such questions because I didn’t quite get No Doubt right off the bat. I failed to immediately ascertain that they trafficked in a commodity called Entertainment. I forgot — and, after the onslaught of a rock’s funeral last five years, and who could blame me? — that groups could be fun, and if they were fun that didn’t automatically make them pariahs or confidence tricksters. I knew what I had to do. I went back to the smash Tragic Kingdom, with it’s rinky-dink keyboards, farting horns, staccato guitars, and vibrato-spattered vocal gurgles, quacks, and squeals. I removed it from the company of Live Through This, Little Earthquakes, and Exile in Guyville, where it stood out like an artfully manicured sore thumb, and filed it next to Parallel Lines, Beauty and the Beat, and She’s So Unusal. That manner of hook-strafed, femme-fronted, quirky radio fodder was once in heavy supply. Now it’s available from a solitary source. No Doubt is the Last American New Wave Group.
It should come as no surprise that Gwen Stefani and No Doubt hall from the last bastion of Anglophilia. Somewhere between the endless blue sky and the manicured lawns of suburban Southern California lurked a lingering discontent that led a generation to seek solace from a colder climate. Countless Cali teens spent their formative years crying in the sunshine to British doomsdayers like Robert Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, and Dave Gahan. The less pallid and passive in the audience spiked their hair and attempted to modulate their vowels in accordance with the rules laid down by the Anti-Nowhere League, the Exploited, and GBH. Others, taken by the porkpie hats, ticking-clock rhythms, checkerboard apparel, and “Rude Boy” pins of England’s 2-Tone movement, adopted ska as the soundtrack of their lives.
Eric Stefani of Anaheim, Orange County, California, was one of the latter group. Among the oddities he brought home from the local import bin was a picture-sleeved seven-inch Stiff single “Baggy Trousers” by Madness. For Eric’s little sister, Gwen, that record was a revelation. Ask her now about her teenage years and she’ll flatly retort, “In high school, the only thing I was really into was Madness.” She fell for their vaudevillan swagger and the way they dealt with the bleak mudanities of everyday English life — taking the bus, standing in the rain, the British school system — all housed in a romping environment.
A Loara High School classmate, John Spence, was similarly stuck on ska and it was he who, in early 1987, motivated the Stefani sibs to form a band. The core of Eric’s keyboards, Gwen’s teeny harmonies, and Spence’s hoarse bellow, plus a few makeshift musicians, popped up at a various Anaheim parties. “We sucked,” recalls Gwen, “but for some reason there was automatically this built-in following. People loved the fact that it was a girl, that it was 2-Tone, and it was me and John up there.”
Tony Kanal was born in India, raised in England, and was relocated to California at age 11. He saw No Doubt in their party-band incarnation, heard they were looking for a full-time bass player, and, by the time the group played thier first promoted-and-paid show, had become a permanent fixture. Five months later, he was both the group’s manager and Gwen’s boyfriend, neither of which he currently maintains.
In December 1987, Kanal recieved a phone call from Eric. “He just said, ‘Come over right away.’ I got there and he said ‘John’s dead.’ He shot himself in the head.”
“There was some problems there,” recalls Gwen. “He was kind of in and out of high school. His mom kept taking him out of school. He wasn’t really in with the bad crowd, but his mom was really paranoid about it. For all the years I knew the guy, I only went to his house one time, but compared to my family, The Brady Bunch family, church every Sunday — it was different.”
Alan Meade, described by Gwen as a “disco-smooth dork,” took over vocals until he purportedly got his girlfriend pregnant and left the band to get married at 17. That left Gwen as sole proprietress of vocals.
Tom Dumont, who along with his sister laid down the screaming twin leads for Anaheim metal-lurgists Rising (“That’s Rysing?” I ask, hopeful. “No, two i’s. We didn’t go all out”), joined the group in 1988. Longtime No Doubt audience fixture Adrian Young became the full-time drummer next year.
The group’s burgeoning reputation as a festive line spectacle attracted niblets of label interest, but it wasn’t until Tony Ferguson, a Brit who used to work at Stiff, home of the hallowed Madness, and who now labors in an A&R capacity for then-just debuted label Interscope, that anyone took a serious look at No Doubt. Ferguson brought along Jimmy Iovine, Robert Cort, and Ted Field, the industry heavy hitters behind Interscope, to see the group.
“Jimmy told someone, ‘That girl will be a star in five years.’ That was in 1991,” marvels Gwen.
“It wasn’t a scientific insight or anything,” says Iovine, a music-biz vet whose presence as both a producer and label boss has loomed large in the careers of John Lennons, Bruce Springsteen, Dr. Dre, and Trent Reznor. “They were young. I knew they needed a lot of work. Five years was just a figure. I can’t believe she remembers that.”
Glaring proof that luck laughs at No Doubt came when they set to recording their Interscope debut at the exact same moment from a pungent gust from the Pacific Northwest was about to render their peppy skank about as welcome as a melanoma on prom night.
Packed with reedy rhythms and novelty songs, No Doubt’s self-titled first album was released in 1992. It was instantly embalmed by Interscope. The label withdrew tour support and refused to give the group a green light to record a second album. “But we never lost faith in the ability of Gwen Stefani to become a star,” insists Ferguson.
At the end of 1994, the band finally got the go-ahead to make another record. The album would be known as Tragic Kingdom remianed in a cryogenic state of artificial existence for a year after it’s recording. During that time, Eric Stefani left the group — he now works as an animator on The Simpsons — and Kanal relinqished his duties as Gwen’s boyfriend.
Paul Palmer, who had just mixed labelmates Bush’s Sixteen Stone, was dafted in to apply similar sonic skills to Tragic Kingdom. “I thought they were fantastic the minute I heard the music. It was all there, even in it’s roughest stages,” avows Palmer, who was not only a studio doyen but also co-owner of the boutique label Trauma, which had just gone into partnership with Interscope. “I had a feeling about the band I couldn’t let go of.”
In the first sustained slice of good fortune to waft No Doubt’s way since the dawn of the ’90s, Palmer’s enthusiasm saw the group shifted from the Inerscope to the nurturing environs of Trauma, where they were, at one time, one of the only three bands on the label. Tragic Kingdom was released in October of 1995. Buoyed by visable record-company, the group set out on tour, which, a year later, is where they remain. Their sweet has borne fruit in the shape of inescapable airplay for “Just a Girl” and “Spiderwebs,” and the Top 10 presence of Tragic Kingdom.
“I can’t believe this is my life,” gasps Gwen. “This is my loser band?”
“You don’t have to be singing songs about angst and pain to be credible,” says Tony Kanal. “We’ve gone through just as much as any band. We don’t choose to sing about it.” He pauses and thinks about his last statement. “Well,” he amends,” maybe we do choose to sing about it.”
“I forced Tony to go out with me,” says Gwen Stefani. “He wasn’t even interested. When we made out that first night, I think he thought it was more of a one-night kiss. But then we started going out and after the first year, I was going, “When are we going to get married?'”
Among the album’s kaleidoscope of styles, moods, and tempos lurk songs celebrating individuality (“Different People”), songs expressing demographic empathy (“Sixteen”), and songs about living in the shadow of Walt Disney (“Tragic Kingdom”). Mostly, though, Tragic Kindom is filled with Gwen and Tony songs. Specifically, Gwen-Left-Heart-Broken-Hearted-by-Tony songs. Vengeful declarations of independence (“Happy Now?”), tear-stained refusals to accept the inevitable (“Don’t Speak”), and the vain attempts to cling to a few shreds of self-resepect (“End It On This”). Like Fleetwood Mac and Abba before them, the group’s success has both come at the expense of has openly exploited the heartbreak of a central couple. But while Lindsey Buckingham could pen a stinging critique of Stevie Nick’s perfidy and flakiness (“Go Your Own Way”) and then force the object of his derision to mouth his words, in No Doubt, it’s the otherwise sweet-natured singer who nightly picks the scabs off old wounds for public consumption.
“When we broke up, I still forced Tony to kiss me,” says Gwen. “I was in denial. I might have lost the title of girlfriend, but in my eyes we were still together. For, like, a year, he didn’t have to come to my house when I demanded it. He didn’t have to do anything, but when he felt like it, I was there. It was horrible.”
As female revenge scenarios go, Stefani has landed in an unbelievably juicy position. Imagine, as a dumpee, you wind up worshiped and adored for warbling songs that berate the dumper. And he has to stand there and play those self-same songs! “It’s fucking surreal,” says Kanal. “Think about being onstage playing these songs. I’m opening my personal life up to all these people. But I can’t get attached. I’ve got to seperate myself from the music and lyrics.”
“At first it didn’t seem to get to Tony,” says Dumont. “He was like ‘I don’t know, for some reason it doesn’t bother me that all these songs are about me.’ Maybe he liked it. But now I think it’s starting to bother him a little. Some guy wrote an article about us saying, ‘Why is Gwen so sad? What did Tony do to her to make her write all those lyrics?'”
While Stefani admits to phoning Kanal and reciting lyrics to “Happy Now” (“Are you happy now? / You’re by yourself / All by yourself / You have no one else”), this self-admitted Woman Who Loves Too Much maintained intense loyalty to her ex. “Everybody’s like, ‘God, that guy is a jerk.’ which is not fair because he didn’t have his lyrics to talk about me when I smothered him and he didn’t have a life. It must have been hard for him to take when people write ‘How could you leave Gwen, she’s so great.’ But they don’t know me. They don’t see my faults. They just see me however they want to see me. They think I have abs and I don’t. I have fat.”
Lucid and loquacious when holding forth on subjects ranging from No Doubt’s checkered path to Prince’s far-reaching ’80s lineage (he bests me with Tamara and the Seen, I call his bluff with Jill Jones), Kanal’s speech is peppered with pregnant pauses when discussing how he and Stefani found themselves taking up residence in Splitsvile. He glances out the window of the Seattle hotel restuarant where we’re having breakfast. Out on the patio, a wedding in progress. He watches as the couple take their vows and it’s possible he’s hearing Stefani’s oft-repeated plea “When are we getting married?” and wondering if she’s up in her room watching the ceremony, maybe even tensing himself for the prospect of her charging across the patio in time to catch the bouqet. He turns back from the exchange of rings and ponders his perception as something akin to a ska-punk Ike Turner.
“It’s very tough,” he admits. “I care about her a lot. I’m not given the opportnity — nor do I want to — to write my own lyrics. But hopefully people with some logic will realize that it wasn’t just me, that it’s not just a one-sided thing. I’m not such a bad guy.”
Stefani claims her post-Tony love life has not been a densely populated affair. But there were those rumors linking her tousie-headed labelmate Gavin Rossdale. “Everyone wants to know about me and Gavin,” she smiles. “We’re just friends. Although he’s definitely cute.” Pondering the ditchotomy between her natuarally self-depercatory nature (the inside of her vanity case is festooned with stickers bearing the word DORK) and her sudden ascension to paragon of bare-midriffed yumminess, she continues. “A lot of boys like me now. But it’s not like I’m making out with people, you know, ‘Hey baby, come back to my room.’ I’m the kind of person who would way rather just spend time with my boyfriend watching a movie at home then going out to a party. That’s the way I’ve always been. I’m not used to being on my own, because, like, I’m into it. I think about him all the time.”
Turning plainitive, she sighs, “I want to have a time when I don’t need a boyfriend. But it’s just nature to want someone. There’s nothing better than that.” She pauses for a second then leans towards me. “So what did Tony say about me?”
If existing in an unattached state is taking its toll on the singer, the rigors of the road have left a similar mark on Dumont and Young. As Gwen and I head down to the Quality Inn hotel bar, we come upon the guitarist and drummer locked in each other’s arms, swaying to in-house one-man band Steve Merriam’s haunting rendition of Chris Issak’s “Wicked Game.” Later that night, Young will tell me he’s counting the days till his girlfriend Christine joins him on tour. His anticipation is made more urgent because he’s smuggled a shoeful of mushrooms from Germany for the purpose of celebrating the reunion. As he talks, an inappropriately coquettish, over-40 Asian woman crisscrosses the bar, continually attempting to catch his eye, then making a big show of looking away and laughing. “It’s a lonely life,” he sighs.
Modern Women, a beauty supply store in Bremerton, an hour outside of Seattle, isn’t the most densely stocked outlet in the planet, but its displays of Wella and Clairol are sufficient to elicit an involuntary sigh of happiness from Stefani, who loads up with the shampoo, conditioner, and lip-liner. “I most recently got ragged on for the girly stuff,” she says, referring to reviews that have taken her fondness for cosmetics and naval-displaying stagewear as compelling evidence to impeach her as the sort of pialnt, submissive fuck toy of which we should have long rid. “Maybe I should be more of a tough chick. But I’m not. That’s not me. I love makeup. I love getting my hair done. I love getting pedicures. I’m the furthest thing from a rock chick.”
Going on to tabulate further examples of Non-Rock Chickdom, she brings up examples such as her yearly trips Knott’s Berry Farm to see the Ice Capades, her recent trip to Paris where she went jogging without money or I.D., got lost and had to call her friend back in the States to find the address of her hotel and, most heinously, that she still happily resides at home (as does Kanal). “I don’t pay bills. I don’t pay rent. The only thing I pay is my phone bill and my car insurance.” She does, however, harbor vague notions of one day moving to L.A. “If my dad will let me.”
Adrian Young rises from his hotel bed and glances at the gold bag propped up against his table. A dedicated player who prefers his time on the links to his hour onstage, Young’s been practicing for a radio station pro-celebrity game. “I was going to play today, but we’ve got a group meeting,” he says. “A lot of people don’t realize that this is a democracy. They’re like, ‘Ask Gwen if this mix is okay.’ Or we’re doing some TV show and it’s like, ‘Ask Gwen how this feels for her.’ I make fun of these people. I have to do something. I can’t fake it all the time.”
Probably the only starlike indulgence practiced by Gwen Stefani is her predliction for checking into hotels under the pseudonym “Daria Blue.” Nevertheless, her undimmable onstage kilowattage and generous allocation of Personality Plus has singled her out as the group’s Star-with-a-big-S. In the endless obstacle course of their nine-year career, the last and most potentially damaging impediment to No Doubt is that they’re now irreversibly engaged in the process to which experts refer as Becoming Blondie.
Like Chris Cornell, Kim Deal, Eddie Vedder, and uh, Evan Dando before her, Gwen Stefani shines in a solo setting from the front cover of this magazine. Such public acknowledgement for a band member’s ascension from singer to Star-with-a-big-S caused heartburn for the rest of the group. “We want people to know that we’re a band,” asserts Kanal, who is able to recount at some length the number of photo sessions in which he has participated only to open up the subsequent magazine and find himself cropped out. “For many years, we talked about what would happen if we ever got offered this sort of stuff. We’re going to say “It’s the whole band or nothing.”‘ But when you’re actually put in that situation and you see that your friend has the opportunity, maybe the once in a lifetime opportunity, to be on the cover of a magazine, why would you hold someone back from that?”
“Everybody just wants to focus on the girl,” admits Stefani. “I think that’s the one outside stress thing that has come into the band. We’re getting over it. The others sit and bag on me constantly now. Like, ‘On MTV News, Gwen broke her foot last night blah blah blah… and in less important news, Tom Dumont found dead.'”
“This crowd has not yet been rocked.” So pronounced Rob Kahane, co-owner of Trauma Records, gazing out at th evast expanse of pierce-holes and skate wear favored by the audience at Endfest, an annual interment camp with brief musical interludes, sponsored by Seattle’s modern-rock station, KNDD, “the End.”
The previous day, No Doubt played a ramshackle acoustic radio session at the End. Stefani’s voice was ragged (“I’m being visited by a horse”) and Dumont’s playing hand was injured (“Someone asked for an autograph. Then, when they realized I wasn’t in 311, they grabbed the pen back and cut my hand”).
After the set, two starstruck Gwenabees approached Stefani, paying shy homage and asking for tickets to the upcoming dirtbath. She apologized for being unable to accomodate them. They wandered off disconsolately. Then the group’s road manager said he could put them on the guest list. Stefani squealed “Little girls!” and scampered off after them. On hearing of the news, they threw themselves at her like she had attained Fairy Godmother status in front of their eyes. “Work hard, stay in school, don’t kiss boys,” she cautioned them.
I don’t know if those girls were out in the crowd toda. Part of me hopes not because they might have caught any kind of disease out there or, worse, the prefunctory sets by Everclear and Filter. But if they were bouncing around near the front rows, they would have seen No Doubt shine among the murk. They would have seen Stefani’s wackiest-ever rendition of “Just a Girl.” Downshifting from the song’s pogomatic power to a skeletal repitition of that niggling opening riff, Stefani adopted scaredy-cat eyes. a trembly-lipped pout — when Laverne wore a similar expression, Shirley referred to it as the “the boo-boo face” — and a cowering posture. Whimpering “I’m just a girl” repeatedly, she prostrated herself on the stage, regressing back to infancy, looking like she might be huddled up in a streaming puddle of pee, until she screwed up her difiance and railed back at the ignorance and oppression of this man-made world under whose heel she’s squashed with a crowd-galavanizing “Fuck you, I’m a girl!” They would have seen Tony Kanal finally sporting his billowing gray jumpsuit. They would have seen the hulking brutes of Goldfinger and Deftones herded on stage to sing along like happy campers with the group’s wedding-band encore of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” They wold have agreed with Kahane when, at the show’s close, he delcared that the crowd had finally been rocked.
“I never thought that me, this loser from Anaheim, could have any effect on anyone,” says Stefani after the show. “I never had any creativity or anything. Then, suddenly, I’m what everyone is looking at. It’s such a strange thing, but it’s so exciting, ‘case I remember the way those two little girls from yesterday felt. You have to keep in mind, whether or not you feel like shit or whatever. You think that maybe if you bring a little happiness to these kids, they’re going to remember that. Like I would talk about Madness, they’re going to talk about No Doubt? How Cool is that!?”