Unknown: Tony on “Rock Steady” (May 2002)

“We got a huge weight off our shoulders,” says Tony Kanal about the making of No Doubt’s 2000 Interscope CD Return of Saturn. Following the ’95 breakthrough smash Tragic Kingdom, the band had agonized about every detail on Saturn—but for Rock Steady, released last December, No Doubt took a more carefree, experimental approach. Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont, drummer Adrian Young, and singer Gwen Stefani laid down the bedrock for the tracks in Dumont’s digital home studio, and then took them to various producers in L.A., Jamaica, and London for additional tracking and polishing.

In making Rock Steady, Tony took a big step: Inspired by Jamaican dancehall and ragga music, he performed some of the bass lines on keyboard using Dumont’s Access Virus and Emu E-synth. “I was playing lines I’d never play on my bass because they’re just too simple,” he says. “On bass, you get stuck in a mental thing: You think, Oh, I need to come up with something else, because that’s not good enough. But on keyboards, I’d think, Well—that’s the extent of my keyboard talent at this point. It was so much fun to take that naive approach. It helped us simplify and create a very groove-oriented record.”

“Hella Good”: This one balances a pulse-like keyboard bass part with my bass guitar line, and Tom’s riff goes over that. We co-wrote it with hip-hop producers the Neptunes, who brought the loopy, hip-hop feeling to the tune. I’m playing my Yamaha BB3000 4-string; since we did this one at Nellie Hooper’s London studio, I was able to plug into my Gallien-Krueger 800RB/Ampeg SVT 8×10 rig, and we took a direct line from a P&R Audio DI as well. I always do that when I can, because we usually mess with the direct sound more than miked-amp sounds.

“Hey Baby”: This was inspired by Jamaican dancehall music. There’s keyboard bass on the choruses and my Ernie Ball/Music Man 5-string on the verses, which we recorded straight into the board at Tom’s place. (Ex. 1 shows the end of verse 1, at 0:38.) Onstage, I’m playing both. We built the track and then took it to Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare in Jamaica. To be able to work with Sly & Robbie was a huge honor. We were fully expecting them to hear the song and say, “Let’s start over and do it right”—but they loved the tracks we brought. They made only minor changes to what we brought in; Sly, for instance, added a drum loop.

“Making Out”: We had originally recorded my Yamaha 4-string through a Johnson Amplification J-Station, which is a modeling preamp, straight into Pro Tools. But when we mixed the song in London, our mixing engineer, “Spike” Stent, put it through the Line 6 Bass POD Pro. I use the Bass POD onstage to try to approximate the recorded sound, but I don’t have it exactly yet. I normally don’t look at the fretboard when I play live, but that one is all over the place, so it’s a challenge. (Ex. 2 shows the verse line.) If I could do the line over I’d play it a little more aggressively, but it works well in the track.

“Underneath It All”: I recorded this line in Jamaica with Sly & Robbie. I’m a finger player, but Robbie wanted me to sit back in the groove—so he had me pluck my Yamaha with my thumb, which was new for me. Having Robbie Shakespeare there, directing me on how to pull off those notes, was an amazing experience. He wouldn’t let me cut and paste in Pro Tools; I had to play the performance from the beginning to the end. (Ex. 3 shows the chorus line.) It was challenging because the track is so sparse, with everything about my playing naked and apparent. Equipment-wise the Jamaican studio wasn’t what we were used to in California, so we just made do with what was there. I plugged into an amp and a 4×10 cabinet, I believe.

Robbie himself added a cool melodic bass line that’s tucked into the track. You can hear it once in a while; it’s a descending line he strummed on the G and D strings.

“Detective”: That’s another one with keyboard bass, which I did first at Tom’s place. I doubled it on the Yamaha, and then I came up with the little sliding riff that happens every once in a while—that’s real bass. The bass and keyboard ended up being mixed together, and I love the way the groove turned out.

“Don’t Let Me Down”: We were feeling very Cars-inspired when we wrote this one, so we thought we’d bring it to Ric Ocasek. But when we first played it for him, he didn’t think it sounded like the Cars at all. Recording the bass was straightforward: Just plug in and go. There’s not much to it, but it totally works. I was going for a square and angular feel. Tom doubled the bass line on guitar. I used my Yamaha, which was recorded both direct and through my G-K/SVT rig.

“Start the Fire”: We finished this one in Jamaica with dancehall producers Steely & Clevie. That’s all real bass—I re-recorded the bass line after we had worked with Sly & Robbie, and since I wanted to keep it meaty and thick, I plucked my Yamaha with my thumb, like Robbie had shown me. I originally thought I’d redo the bass on keyboards once we got to Jamaica, but Steely & Clevie said, “No—we can make your bass sound like keyboard bass.” They rolled off all the high end.

“Running”: That’s keyboard bass through the whole song. Gwen and I wrote it in about half an hour, using this small Yamaha PortaSound PSS-560 keyboard that my dad got me when I was 13 or 14. We had been listening to a lot of Thompson Twins, and we were inspired to write a song that was simple and classic. The keyboard has just two rca outs, so we had to clean up the sound, but I love how it turned out.

“In My Head”: We recorded this at Nellie Hooper’s London studio. That’s my Yamaha 4-string, until the bridge. We wanted to give the end of the song more dynamics, so I came up with that bridge bass line on the Music Man 5-string, and at the end it goes into kind of a Cure-inspired line. From the bridge onward it was a spontaneous, one-take performance. That’s rare for me, because I tend to pore over my stuff a little too much. When we did Return of Saturn sometimes I’d spend days in the studio refining just one bass line. This tune especially was a reaction to that.

“Platinum Blonde Life”: Another straightforward, rockin’ song. When we went into the studio Ric Ocasek sent the bass through an effect to give it that growl, but I don’t remember what it was. I used the Yamaha, both direct and miked through my rig. We worked with Ric after we had already gone to Jamaica and London, so it was good to get back to a rock-oriented, band-driven producer. It was like being home.

“Waiting Room”: That’s an interesting one. We actually wrote this song for Return of Saturn, but we couldn’t seem to complete it, so we sent it to Prince. By the time we got to his Minneapolis studio, he had re-worked the tune and written some new parts, including a lot of keyboard bass. Then we took it back to L.A. and did more work on it—but we put it away, because it didn’t seem to fit on Return to Saturn. We pulled it out while we were mixing Rock Steady, and the vibe fit in much better, so we finished it up. I played a bunch of different bass lines on the Yamaha 4, countering what Prince had done on keyboards, doubling certain things, and coming up with some new lines. Then Spike took the best of everything and put it all together.

“Rock Steady”: This started as a simple groove jam at Tom’s house, with a drum beat and that bass line on my Yamaha 4. We wanted to do a reggae song that actually sounded like UB40—a drum-machine kind of reggae tune. UB40’s stuff is tight and inorganic, as opposed to traditional reggae, which is very organic. On the demo the bass line went though the whole song—but because we were listening to all this dancehall music, we decided to give it just the roots on the chorus. That’s probably the simplest line I’ve ever done, but I love the way it works.

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