The Happy Ones
Gwen Stefani and Tony Kanal were in a London bar one night last summer, taking an all-night break from a long day of mixing tracks for No Doubt's latest album, Rock Steady, when in walks maybe the biggest rock star in the world.
"Bono came out and met us because we had a lot of mutual friends," explains Kanal. "We drank with him. And I'll tell you—like I was telling Gwen earlier—the cool thing, the inspiring thing about that guy is that you see Bono, and he's totally got his shit together. He's this great musician—legendary now—and he's politically active, helping people beyond, like, our wildest dreams."
"He really does it!" Stefani interjects.
"And on top of it, he likes to drink and really let go," Kanal continues, "which, to me, makes it very real."
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"He's Irish!" Stefani says.
"But it's cool to find that balance in life," Kanal says, forging ahead, "of doing the things that are important, but enjoying yourself, too."
"Enjoying day-to-day life," Stefani offers.
Her final comment makes a feather-light landing, and the conversation drifts away without anybody really noticing—replaced for a moment by the lingering memory of that night in London, its lessons and their implications.
This is how they do it, Gwen and Tony, interview after interview, a half-hour or an hour at a time, sometimes all day when a new album is coming out (Rock Steady is being released Tuesday). Last time, barely 18 months ago, when Return to Saturn was about to drop, they did it at Gwen's place, a mansion in the hills near Griffith Park. This time, it's at Tony's home at the bottom of the hill, sitting around a table on the backyard patio of an old house he has made completely his own in a funkily gentrified neighborhood of Los Feliz. In Spanish, that means "the happy ones."
It's a nice, sunny day. The garden is old Southern California suburban gorgeous—a small, green lawn surrounded along the wooden fence and stuccoed house by well-troweled beds of flowers and shrubs—and the air is quiet except for the soft murmur of traffic a block or so away. We're all sipping hot tea.
And then: "Tony!"
Kanal is startled from his lethargy to see Stefani, his long-ago ex-girlfriend, take a piece of gum from her mouth and throw it across the patio into his precise landscaping.
Illustration by Mark Dancey
"Gwen! Stop doing that!" he snaps, real irritation serrating the edge of his cool. "You threw one over there, too. Earlier, you did. Did this one go on the . . . the thing—the sidewalk, I mean—or is it somewhere in the grass?"
Stefani giggles with mischief and defiance and then ignores him completely.
"This is Tony's house," she tells you, with sass, "so I can throw my gum"—she pulls another piece from her mouth—"like that"—and she chucks it across the patio—"and his mom's not gonna come and get mad or anything like she used to when we were kids."
Kanal is exasperated, but he has known Stefani since 11th grade. He has seen much worse than this playful rebellion against his mother's long-ago scolding. Hell, everybody who heard Return to Saturn—which dripped with the what's-it-all-about lyrics of Stefani's turning-30 depression—realizes there's worse than that.
Kanal waits out Stefani's little button-pushing episode and then steers the interview back on course. "We had a really good time making the record," he says slowly and then looks expectantly at Stefani.
"Yes," she says dutifully, "we did."
They go silent for a moment before simultaneously breaking into laughter.
This is how it has been for Tony and Gwen for—well, it seems like forever. Rock Steady is No Doubt's fifth album, but nobody noticed the first two. They were doing this long before Gwen could tell about the time one of her idols, Joni Mitchell, complimented her for "Simple Kind of Life" when they saw each other on the same plane. They were doing it long before Tony could sheepishly apologize to Ric Ocasek for writing a song influenced so much by the Cars ("Platinum Blonde Life")—and before Ocasek could sheepishly apologize that he really hadn't noticed the resemblance.
Not that Gwen and Tony seem to drop these names with arrogance or calculation. "I mean, can you believe we had the opportunity to write a song with the guy who wrote 'Sweet Dreams'?" Stefani gushed, in reference to Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. And, speaking of gushing, she reports that Puff Daddy approached her at a party to report that he had heard the new record. "He said he had to change his pants after hearing it—that he peed his pants, he liked it so much," Stefani says, perhaps offering an inadvertent insight into the hip-hop mogul's new P. Diddy moniker.
Mostly, however, these illustrious names seem to emerge naturally in conversation, which, in this case, illustrates the essential message of the new album: with Rock Steady, No Doubt has officially ascended into the pop-music aristocracy.
Sure, Orange County's long-ago house band has been world-famous for seven or eight years. But the 15 million sales of Tragic Kingdom could have been a Spice Girls aberration. And the 1.4 million sales of Return to Saturn was nearly a Hootie and the Blowfish disappointment. But rather than descending into the world of Geri Halliwell or Darius Rucker, Gwen and Tony have emerged as something like their generation's Sonny & Cher. By now, the crme de la MTV has become No Doubt's for-real runnin' buddies. In half an hour, they mention Bono, Prince, Kid Rock, Puff Daddy/P. Diddy, Ric Ocasek, Nellee Hooper, Steely & Clevie, Joni Mitchell, the Neptunes, William Orbit, Sly & Robbie, Bounty Killer, Dave Stewart, Eve, Jimmy Iovine, and Dr. Dre. There are times during the interview when it's obvious Gwen and Tony are trying not to mention a celebrity, perhaps self-conscious about the impression they may be creating. But by now, Gwen and Tony get their names dropped as often as any of the others.
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.
"That's not to say that you wouldn't do it . . . like, write lyrics about that in the future," he says. "We'll just see if it happens naturally."
Stefani isn't mad, but she is a little ruffled.
"I know, I know—that's what I was saying," she tells Kanal. "I was saying, 'I wonder if, in some way, it's going to affect everyone.'"
"Like, if you get inspired someday," Tony offers.
"Look, I'm just wondering how it's going to affect us creatively," Gwen says. "I don't know. It's going to affect us, no matter what. And I'm wondering if it will be beyond, you know, where everyone's like, 'Did you wear a different outfit tonight because of the whole terrorist thing?' And I'm, like, 'No, I didn't! I'm not!' Oh, you know what I mean. We hear the stupidest questions."
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