Tunes and 'Toons

Eric Stefani relishes both worlds-and anonymity

I don't think of my friend Eric as a rock star. If he mentions his sister, he does so in a way you might mention one of your sibs: they're a part of your life, like it or not. If he talks about music, it's about how he really wants to hear the Dixieland band at Disneyland again. If he discusses art, he tells you about an animation festival in Pasadena he's dying to see. He won't really talk, much less brag, about his own work-how he was the principal songwriter for No Doubt, how he's been nominated for a Song of the Year Grammy Award for writing "Don't Speak" (the awards ceremony is on Wednesday in New York), or how he's already won an Emmy Award for his work on The Simpsons. Nope, Eric Stefani's just a nice, normal person. "I'm the same guy I always was," he demurs. "I just like music and art." Always an avid cartoonist, Stefani combined his love for music and animation while attending Loara High School in Anaheim. Working at a Dairy Queen with original No Doubt vocalist John Spence, Stefani drew caricatures on the ice-cream cakes while Spence convinced him to get a keyboard and start a band. "I had already played one of those silly talent shows at school," Stefani says, "and I thought we were really bad. But the crowd liked it." Having already persuaded his younger sister Gwen to join him onstage for a school talent show (to sing the Selecter's "On My Radio"), Stefani soon enlisted her as a backup vocalist. Their first show was at Fender's Ballroom in Long Beach. "We didn't know if we could do it," Stefani recalls. "The bass player and trumpet player didn't think we were ready, even though we had practiced for six months, so they quit. We did the show without them, but we were worried. They were better musicians than us, but I guess we had our own strength." Within a year of the band's formation, Spence committed suicide. It almost broke up the band. "I guess I didn't really know him," Stefani says. "He was hurting so badly that he couldn't talk to anyone about it. . . . I remember this videotape of one of our shows: I was lying on the stage, and he was yelling at me to get up, with a lot of anger in his voice. That just rings in my head. Because he's up there on the microphone, he's taking control, and because of my insecurities of being onstage, I'm rolling around, being goofy. There's a lot of pressure when you're up there in front of all of those people. That's not my department." Concentrating on his keyboard parts was enough, so after Spence's death, vocalist duties went to Alan Meade; when Meade quit the band, Gwen took over the mic. Bassist Tony Kanal took over management duties, and Stefani found himself in charge of creating band logos for their T-shirts and fliers. He was the natural choice: before No Doubt even had a record deal, he'd already worked professionally on such Saturday-morning cartoon shows as The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and Beany & Cecil. He eventually got a break with The Simpsons, whose original animators worked in the same building as the Beany & Cecil people. Back then, The Simpsons had only been featured on The Tracy Ullman Show and a Butterfingers commercial, so the characters were a little more "square-like." "They were really childlike," Stefani says, "kind of like Peanuts with an edge." Invited to work with the Simpsons crew, Stefani took the job for two seasons. This past weekend, he picked up a Simpsons box set at Tower Alternative. "I spent my life on that show, and I didn't have any [episodes] on tape until now," he says. Bart, by the way, is his favorite character to draw-partly because the bratty Bart does a lot of the things Stefani would never dare to do himself but secretly wishes he could. He also started taking classes at Cal Arts while writing most of No Doubt's first album, which came out in '91. With grunge all the rage, the debut didn't exactly fit in; it only sold 30,000 copies. Despite low record sales and label troubles, No Doubt persevered, touring and writing enough material for two more albums, one of which they eventually released themselves as The Beacon Street Collection (named after their rehearsal space at Stefani's house). Meanwhile, they waited for the label to release the band's primary record, Tragic Kingdom. For a while, it seemed as if Tragic Kingdom might never come out. Partly out of frustration with the demands of the record industry, Stefani left the band in December 1994 to focus on animation and The Simpsons full-time. Tragic Kingdom came out a year later. At the time, it seemed like a sound decision. Always the shy one, he didn't look forward to spending more time on the road or onstage, and he felt trapped. "I like to create," he says. "But [touring] is too loud, with too many people. It's too much. I'd rather be somewhere peaceful. It takes peace and quiet to write a good song. That's what the guys in Oasis say." By not joining the rest of the band on their whirlwind ride o' fame, Stefani has the best of both worlds. He has a normal life, a home, friends, stability, and his cherished peace and quiet. And with the band's success and his share of songwriting royalties, he has the financial freedom to take time off and focus on his own creations. He's spent the past year (in addition to doing the occasional cover art for the Weekly) working on an animated short called A Very Fishy Event, whose villain, a cigar-chompin' fish(bone) caught by an unsuspecting fisherman, was inspired by Angelo Moore of Fishbone. It's a labor of love, with the cels painstakingly hand-painted, which is the way he learned to do it from working on The Simpsons. Instead of using a steady crew to help him with the more tedious aspects, Stefani threw parties and invited friends to help him paint. The scene I helped him paint (along with his friend Victor) is only about two seconds long, but since it's a chase sequence with a lot of motion, it took until 4 in the morning-and that's without touchups.Now that A Very Fishy Event is nearing completion, Stefani's hoping to showcase it at film festivals (Sick & Twisted would be a good start, considering he already has an in, having done the voice-over and music for Sick & Twisted's No Neck Joe). He's thinking about going back to The Simpsons, now that they should be storyboarding the new season. And he's been talking to his sister about possibly writing more music for either her personal projects or for No Doubt. Gwen, who's never failed to give her older brother credit for exposing her to ska through Madness and for making her who she is, has repeatedly expressed her wish to have Stefani on the next record "because Eric is No Doubt." "I'm at a crossroads now," Stefani says. "I need to see how far I can push myself with my own stuff. With The Simpsons, we're the working muscle of the show, and [series creator Matt Groening] is the brain. Someday, I want to be working on my brain first. . . . I never thought my stuff would have that kind of appeal, that 'Don't Speak' could make that many people so happy. I want to shoot [A Very Fishy Event] on film. That's the way to go. I had fun making it; I hope people like it. That's the test."

 
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