No Doubt are back on pop
By Linda Laban
MARCH 28, 2000: "If I could pick one word that would be the theme for this album," says No Doubt's singer and frontwoman, Gwen Stefani, "it would be confusion."
Stefani is talking about the Southern California band's fourth album, Return of Saturn, which will be released by Interscope on April 11. Although it's still weeks away from store shelves, No Doubt have already put in considerable promotional legwork. By the time their US tour (which benefits the band's favorite charities) brings them to Boston's Avalon for a sold-out show this Wednesday, Stefani and company will have already spent three weeks whizzing around Europe, chatting up the press and TV. "It's a little harder doing European press because of all the translation," Stefani says. "You gotta be a little bit straighter instead of being real silly. But everyone has been really huggy and cuddling each other, welcoming us back in a way. It felt really good."
After two years in the studio working on Saturn, being out in the sunshine of some huggy, cuddly promotion must have proved refreshing. Still, laboring over an album is nothing new to No Doubt -- their multi-platinum 1995 breakthrough, Tragic Kingdom, kept the quartet anchored for three years of writing, rewriting, recording, and re-recording. "So we're kind of ahead of ourselves," jokes Stefani over the phone from LA, as she's being readied by a make-up artist and hairdresser to shoot a video, and as another Saturn single gets lined up to follow January's leadoff track, the suitably punchy pop-punk re-introduction, "Ex-Girlfriend."
But back to that theme of confusion . . . though sometimes melancholic rather than angst-ridden, Return of Saturn has a strong romantic feel, traveling swiftly from the pouty "Ex-Girlfriend" to the introspective psychoanalysis of "Magic's in the Makeup" to the album's blockbuster ballad and contender for second single (the reason Stefani is being attacked by a blowdryer as we speak), the sublime "Simple Kind of Life." Just what does Stefani, a gorgeous-looking successful So Cal It Girl with enough moolah in the bank to keep her in Prada and Ferragamo for a lengthy lifetime, plus a dream-date boyfriend in the shape of Bush's Gavin Rossdale, have to be confused about?
"Everyone has low and high points. The last two years were not my favorite ones," she says, deliberating over her words in a manner that emphasizes the understatement of her remark. "But I learned a lot of great things. I did a lot of reading . . . poetry, Sylvia Plath, and listened to Joni Mitchell. It was a real creative period and a growing period."
Prior to Tragic Kingdom's success, which kept the band on the road and in the public eye for a stressful two and a half years, Stefani says she was a carefree girl living in Anaheim and singing in her brother Eric's band. Huge fans of English early-'80s ska second-wavers, like Madness and the Specials, No Doubt filtered that sensibility through the prevalent adolescent muse of punk rock, becoming part of the So Cal ska-punk scene. It's a label the band can't quite see as relevant now, or even when they recorded Tragic Kingdom.
"When I joined in 1988," says guitarist Tom Dumont two days earlier from his home in Long Beach, "No Doubt was a ska band playing in all the clubs. But I came from a completely different background, as did our drummer Adrian. Even in the late '80s we were breaking away from that. We never wanted to be limited, but the label kind of followed us."
"We were really pigeonholed with that whole thing," agrees Stefani. "We started our band because of ska. We were 16-year-old kids trying to imitate the music that we thought was cool."
With barely a syncopated beat perceptible, Return of Saturn breaks that mold to establish No Doubt as an idiosyncratic pop band. "We knew from the first year we were together," Stefani explains, "that we weren't going to have any taboos on the music we were playing, and that the whole idea was to come up with something that was kind of unique and not have any kind of label."
Tragic Kingdom began the move away from the ska influence of their 1992 No Doubt debut (on Interscope) and the frenetic punk of their self-financed follow-up, The Beacon Street Collection (Interscope pulled all funds from No Doubt until 1994, when the label agreed to proceed with Tragic Kingdom). Yet it's Return of Saturn -- produced by Alanis Morissette veteran Glen Ballard -- that sees No Doubt emerging on their own as the material of a great pop band. Ballard, who came in after several songs were recorded and then mixed with Kingdom producer and old friend Matthew Wilder (though Saturn's secret track is Wilder's recording of "Too Late"), gets the thumbs-up from Dumont. "The stuff he has done in the past isn't the kind of stuff I listen to. Wilson Phillips and Aerosmith are a world away from No Doubt to me. But we got along and he had a personality that fit well. He helped us trim the fat out of a lot of the songs; he was interested in every step of the way. He spent as much time on the drum track as he did on Gwen's vocals. Everything was important to him."
Stefani agrees: "He's always the hardest-working person in the room. He's comforting, supportive, inspiring -- everything a producer should be. At the same time he had to be the referee a little bit too. We all have strong opinions, we are definitely a band that needs a producer in there to be the referee."
Although there are some superb individual performances here, Stefani's deep-souled singing and openhanded lyrics are the showstoppers. Even the occasional use of her Betty Boop, cutie-pie voice has more depth and feeling. What first inspired her to greater vocal performance was working with Elvis Costello as producer of his "I Throw My Toys" for the Rugrats soundtrack. "Rugrats is not like our favorite thing. The only reason we did it was because Elvis Costello wrote this song for us. We wanted to work with that guy, he's fantastic."
Feeling no pressure other than to come up with an album that would do justice to their latter-day skills as songwriters and musicians (not to mention their now undoubted adulthood), No Doubt went along with Ballard's encouragement to write, and write, and write some more. "The whole idea of this record was to try and get better at songwriting," says Stefani. "It was really kind of a selfish thing, because we were only thinking of ourselves and taking the opportunity to improve."
Sticking through some rough patches and persevering paid off, since two of the most resounding songs were the last produced. "Ex-Girlfriend" actually came after the band had declared the album done. "We had finished and mastered the record last July," says Dumont, "and we all took two weeks' vacation, a little celebration for the end of the record. Then we came back and thought the record was too mellow, not enough of the old spunk. We knew it needed a couple more-upbeat songs."
The other late-breaker, "Simple Kind of Life," was the result of a long weary day in the studio. "That song was the second song I had ever written completely on my own," says Stefani. "Twelve o'clock at night, after writing all day with Tony [bassist Tony Kanal], it just kind of came out. Kind of what you call a PMS moment," she adds with a laugh. "Simple Kind of Life" sees Stefani yearning for the part of her life that she says has suffered because of No Doubt's stranglehold on her energy and time: marriage, kids, the basics that both she and Dumont hold dear. "The tricky thing is trying to figure out what's important in life," says Dumont. "It's great to have a nice house and a nice car, but finally for the first time in my life I've figured out what the priorities should be. People: my girlfriend, my family, the band."
After 13 years together, No Doubt have weathered the suicide of co-founding member John Spence; Stefani's break-up with Kanal (expounded over much of Tragic Kingdom); the departure of No Doubt's original creative force, Eric Stefani; and fame the like of which they never dreamed. Faced with life back on planet normal after Kingdom's lengthy world tour, not to mention having to produce an immortal work with just mortal tools, who wouldn't be confused? But when Stefani, opting not to go into every little emotional twist that winds through Return of Saturn ("That would be like opening my diary and boring everybody"), says, "There's a lot of confusion on this record," she is politely understating the complexity behind these pop gems.
"Too bad you can't be happy your whole life, the whole time," she surmises before exiting with make-up and hair now apparently MTV-ready. And with an excited, up-for-the-crack-once-more squeal, she's off to make a video: "We're going to go shoot the first scene. Yeahhh!"
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