The Happy Ones

With Rock Steady, No Doubt officially joins pop-music aristocracy

In fact, the fuel for Rock Steady is nothing less than the interface of the internationally famous. No Doubt literally traveled the globe to write, record and produce it with the people who helped compose Mother Earth's late-20th-century soundtrack. Prince co-produced and sang background on the gushy-funky "Waiting Room." Ric Ocasek gave a Cars overhaul to "Platinum Blonde Life" and "Don't Let Me Down." William Orbit plugged in "Making Out." Hip-hop crew the Neptunes co-wrote "Hella Good." But high-profile mixmaster Nellee Hooper provided the closest thing to a production theme, turning the knobs on five of the songs. Additionally, the band traveled to London and Jamaica—their demos stored in ProTools computer programs—to work with Dave Stewart and the dancehall production teams of Steely & Clevie and Sly & Robbie.

This is a long way from that garage on Beacon Street.

"Well, it is, and it isn't," says Stefani, blowing at a wisp of straight, bleached-blond hair that has escaped from the clip intended to keep it out of her face. "In some ways, this record feels as though we sort of went backward toward what we used to be. Because No Doubt has always been kind of an up, positive band. This record has that approach. It's really spontaneous and fun. It has a lot of our roots, which are, like, the ska-reggae-dance-hall thing. It all kinda comes from that same place, of making music with our friends. In some ways, it feels like we are coming home in a way. Except we're more mature and maybe a little bit better musicians . . . hopefully."

And except that their friends are more famous and more talented. And, again, that the members of No Doubt are, too.

The band has never before displayed such elasticity and command, such mastery of modern pop songs and production. Stefani bends and shapes her voice into the styles of chanteuses ranging from Janet Jackson to Nelly Furtado, from Pat Benatar to, well, Madonna—whom she appears to have supplanted on the throne of over-the-top queen—without falling into imitation. The contributions of Kanal, Tom Dumont and Adrian Young—who often have seemed overlooked in the light of Stefani's stardom—remain in the background. But now their presence seems essential, not only for their emotional stability (the band-ness of No Doubt) but for their musical virtuosity as well. Maybe it's that we're just noticing, but these guys are good.

"When Tragic Kingdom came out, people had a tendency to write us off—not necessarily as one-hit wonders, but as one-album wonders along the lines of a bubble-gum pop situation," Kanal says. "I think we had that chip on our shoulders when we went into Return to Saturn. For lack of a better word, that was a 'labored' process. But I think we proved ourselves as songwriters and musicians. There's not a day that goes by that somebody in our peer group doesn't tell us how much they liked that record."

Many from that "peer group" also wanted to work on the next one.

"But this time around, it was more like, 'Let's just fuckin' have fun,'" Kanal says. "It was really free. We took off all the restrictions we previously had. Tom and I even said, 'If we don't play our instruments on some of these songs, that's okay. Whatever's best for the song.' So sometimes we've got Tom on keyboards and me on keyboard bass—and when we do 'Hey Baby' onstage, we're going to have four of us playing keyboards. But the key was we wanted to work with people we'd never worked with or people you'd never think we'd work with."

Like Bono, for example. He didn't do any work on the album, but their all-nighter in that London pub led to the mini-tour as U2's opening act that No Doubt just finished.

And considering the way No Doubt's world is expanding, you wonder aloud whether, like Bono and U2, there might potentially be a political or humanitarian or somehow activist side to Gwen and Tony and No Doubt? And it turns out that Gwen has been wondering, too.

"You know what? The world is changing," she says excitedly. "I've been thinking about this a lot. Because at the VH-1 Fashion Awards, they were asking that. And I was thinking, 'I've never written a song about those things before, but it will be interesting to see how the changes in the world affect us creatively.'"

Tony seems uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.

"I just think that we—that's No Doubt—have been about fun, about having a good time, just kind of a release for people who come to see us to get away from all those serious things," he says. "So I think the way we help is by lending ourselves to charity events, things that everybody does. That's how we help, rather than songs that are political statements. That's never been our thing, you know?"

Another of those small silences ensues. Tony turns to Gwen and continues, backtracking a little, perhaps concerned he's stepped on her toes.

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