If there is a rock & roll heaven, the place where the bands play is probably a lot like the Santa Barbera Bowl, a stone ampitheater surrounded by woods on top of a hill, from which one can see the entire city and, beyond it, the Pacific Ocean. The place is so beautiful is verges on the picture-postcars kitsch, and the wonderfulness of it all is not lost on Gwen Stefani.
“Today is just so amazing,” says the 27-year-old lead singer of No Doubt as she heads down a tree-lined trail (sun is streaming through the trees, of course) with a pear in one hand and an herbal tea in the other. Just a few months ago, Stefani says, No Doubt were the opening band for Bush. They played this very venue, and it blows her mind that in just a few hours, thousands of people are going to fill the theater again, but for her band this time. “I want to appreciate that we’re going to play here, that people are excited to see us. ” She beams. “For some kids it might be one of the funnest nights of their life.”
Gwen Stefani loves her job. And try as one may, it is hard to be curlish in the face of such unabashed enthusiasm. This time last year, No Doubt – whose album Tragic Kingdom is triple platinum – were all but unknown outside the Orange County, Calif., scene that spawned them. The band (Stefani, bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont, keyboardist Eric Stefani and drummer Adrian Young) had been together, in one form or another, for close to a decade. Their major label debut, No Doubt, was released by Interscope in 1992, but at the time, our country’s youth were ioo deeply invested in grunge to give what Stefani calls “our little happy ska band” a listen. The label withdrew support, and the album tanked. Says Kanal: “I was 21 years old, and it was like, ‘Wow we just got signed. Things are going to be great.’ And it was so far from the truth.”
It was during this time that Kanal, who had been Stefani’s boyfriend for seven years, ended their relationship. The band managed to survive the breakup of it’s two key members, though, and at the end of 1994 was given the green light to record a secong album. Stefani’s heartbreak-inspired lyrics form the core of Tragic Kingdom, but Kanal doesn’t seem to mind. “I could get weird about [the songs] and go, “Wow, that’s not fair that somebody wrote songs about me and that album sold 3 million copies,” he says. “But it’s my band, too.”
Shortly after recording was completed, Gwen’s brother Eric left the band to take a full-time job as an animator on The Simpsons. “He’s the type of guy who’s just really happy playing keyboards in his room,” his sister says. “To have to go and play every night would be torture to him.”
Tragic Kingdom toned down the ska influences, brought in a little traditional guitar rock and finished things off with an ample dose of pop. The first single, “Just A Girl,” became an instant radio hit. The New Wave-ish song about what a bummer it is to be coddled and sheltered was on heavy rotation on MTV, and suddenly nobody could get enough of Stefani. Like Maddona before her (and this is where the oft-cited comparison ends), she has cultivated the kind of wholly origonal persona that comes along in the pop universe very occasionally. Part of it is that she’s just so cute. Then there’s her vampish, playful performance style: One moment she’s stalking across the stage like a rapper; the next, she’s furiously pogoing. But most compelling is her truly unique sense of style. With the platinum ’40s hairdo, the Indian jewel between her eyes, the constantly bare midriff and the Southern California skateboard gear, Stefani is part Barbie doll, part club kid, part Hundu goddess.
Onstage Stefani projects supreme confidence, but she swears she isn’t a natural. “After you make a fool of yourself a few hundred times, you learn what works,” she says. She started singing in the band when she was 17. “I was playing among all these punk bands, and the only other female rockers were really hardcore,” she says. “I was always kind of insecure about that, because I played with Barbie dolls growing up and I love to wear makeup and I’m into fashion.” At first, she says, the other girls didn’t know what to make of her. “The skinhead chicks were like, ‘What’s she doing up there?’ THen t some point we started to get more chicks at the shows, and my little brother came to one and he was like, ‘What’s the deal with the mosh pit? Its gone soft! You can’t float!’ Because there were so many girls in the pit.”
And the girls still love No Doubt. At a recent show in Anaheim, Calif., Stefani shouted out to the audience, “How fun is this?” And the capacity crowd – composed largely of teen-age and preteen girls – screamed so loud that the band members couldn’t even hear their instruments. “Haveing 12-year-old girsl like our band and be passionate about it makes me so happy,” says Dumont, 28. “I’d rather have that than guys who just want to jump on each other and hit each other.” The after-show meet and greet was like a casting call for Sweet Valley High, with dozens of of prepubescent daughters of the L.A. music industry’s power elite waiting their turn to be shepherded into the dressing room for an audience with their idol. Stefani loves her fans, but she hates the way most of them don’t even know the names of the guys onstage with her. “We’re a band,” she says. “It’s not like Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.”
Up on the hill, the rest of No Doubt are doing a sound check – goofing around, playing Van Halen. Stefani, who has a sore throat, is sitting this one out. She finds a sunny spot in which to rest and sips her tea. Unmade-up, with her hair in no particular do, and wearing Adidas striped sweats, a light-blue midriff top and Stüssy sunglasses, she looks like a million other cool L.A. girls. Except, of course, Stefani has become spectacularly famous, a bit of data she has yet to process fully. She sincerely doesn’t understand why anyone would care to know the details of her personal life. For example, that she is dating Gavin Rossdale, the luscious singer of Bush. “It’s hard for the whole band,” says Stefani. “It’s like, who cares who Gwen kisses? It’s silly. Especially when they’re talking about me, this total dork.”
No Doubt clearly posesses that rarest of rock-star qualities: unmanufactured humility. They’ve been known to hire limos to take their parents to shows, and when she’s not on the road, Stefani still sleeps in her old bedroom. She imagines that one day she’ll move to Los Angeles, but she isn’t in any particular hurry. “I love Orange County,” she says. “I love the convience of it. You can just get in the car and go to Sav-on.” Not long ago, she suffered a major crisis when, after her mother specifically requested that Stefani not curse during a certain show because relatives were going, she deliberately and repeatedly used the f word. Her mom didn’t speak to her for a week. “The fact that my mom thought it was rude to say it made me want to rebel,” Stefani says. “I’m, like, 27, rebelling against my mom.”
Like so many other bands in which one member gets singled out for stardom, No Doubt have had to deal with the fact that as far as the CD-buying public is concerned, No Doubt are all about Stefani. “People just naturally gravitate toward her,” says Dumont. “But it’s not just Gwen writing the songs. It’s always been all of our creative vision.”
As a kid, says Stefani, “I just wanted to be a wife and a mom. This is not what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Yet, what she has become – this year’s girl with the most cake – is precisely what all of No Doubt’s young, female fans want to be when they grow up. But Stefani is, after all, just a girl, and she says that sometimes her fans are all that stand between her and feelings of total loserdom. “I’ll be walking through a club thinking, I’m so fat today, or, why am I wearing so much makeup?” she says. “And then this girl comes up and says, ‘You’re so beautiful. Can I have your autograph?’ And it’s like: If you only knew what’s going thru my head right now! Thanks for coming up and saving me from, like, slaughtering myself.”