The little-SoCal-band-that-could keeps it all in the family
Thousands of Staind and Linkin Park fans are packed into the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, unaware that No Doubt are about to make a surprise appearance. And, to tell the truth, no one is sure if these fans really care. No Doubt are the only band tonight with a female member, the only group more attuned to ska and reggae than rap and rock, and the only act whose current single, “Hey Baby,” is full of New Wave electronics and drum-machine beats. There is no aggression or angst to be found in “Hey Baby,” kids, just Gwen Stefani singing about sipping chamomile tea. Can you relate to that?
It is Sunday, December 9th, 2001, and it is the sixth anniversary of many things for No Doubt. In 1995, performing at this same holiday concert for local radio station KROQ proved a pivotal moment for the group and its break-through album, Tragic Kingdom, which went on to sell 10 million copies and transform this oddball Orange County, California, band into international superstars. It was also the night that Stefani met Gavin Rossdale, the singer of the show's headlining band, Bush, setting off a six-year relationship that continues to this day. And it was the night the Douche first appeared. Yes, the Douche. Watch out for the Douche.
The Douche, anyone from the band will tell you with equal parts glee and dread, is guitarist Tom Dumont's alter ego when he's drunk. At the time, No Doubt had just landed the prized opening gig on Bush's upcoming tour. The bands hadn't met before, and no one was more excited about breaking the ice than Dumont, who idolized Bush guitarist Nigel Pulsford. Unfortunately, Dumont got drunk and the Douche arrived at the KROQ show instead. He barged into Bush's dressing room, walked up to Pulsford, who plays Fender guitars, and spat, “Fender sucks!” Eventually the band kicked him out. The next day, No Doubt received a frantic phone call from Bush's record company, telling them that if they couldn't keep themselves under control, they'd be off the tour.
Tonight, Bush and No Doubt are together on the KROQ bill again, and they are both facing a new predicament: Most of their fans who were teens in 1995 are now grown up. Each band must win over a new audience.
“We were, like, nothing six years ago,” says Stefani.
Sort of like At the Drive-In when they opened this concert last year? “Yeah,” she says. “But not as cool.”
No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, Stefani's ex-boyfriend, looks at the band's career like the original Star Wars trilogy. Tragic Kingdom was Star Wars, exploding out of nowhere to become a huge international phenomenon. Return of Saturn, the follow-up, was The Empire Strikes Back, darker and less entertaining, and left people scratching their heads. Rock Steady, their new dance-hall-meets-New Wave album, recorded with Ric Ocasek, Prince, rap producers the Neptunes, Nellee Hooper of Massive Attack, and reggae tweakers Sly and Robbie, is Return of the Jedi. “It's, like, full of Ewoks,” Kanal says. “You know, just happy.”
Happy and fun are the operative words for No Doubt this time around. Stefani can't stop talking about how thrilled she was to see their poster outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. There's only one thing she's more excited about right now, and that's spending time with Rossdale.
“Can you ever know that one person is the one?” she asks. “I'm always questioning that. I think we both question that. The one year that I think we had so much fun together was this year, because we spent so much time together and got to really know each other.” She pauses. “Not that we didn't know each other already.” She pauses again. “I just can't believe it's been six years.”
Any concerns that No Doubt won't fit into the hard-rock lineup disappear as soon as the band is announced and the audience erupts for the hometown heroes. Moving onto the stage, Stefani rolls her torso like a belly dancer with a spinal problem; Kanal, with spiked blond hair, skanks around like a cockroach; drummer Adrian Young, shirt off and mohawk up, slaps his own ass; and Dumont, he just looks uncomfortable.
The band leaves the stage feeling good. Rock Steady will be released in two days, and all is well. “It's just such a magical year,” Stefani says. “It's sad, because I know we're going to have a crash landing at some point, because we're just riding so high. Touring to me is becoming harder. The physical part of it is hard, the traveling part is hard, being away from people you love is getting harder and harder.”
Later, backstage, Rossdale arrives in No Doubt's dressing room, slumping around in a hat pulled anonymously over his eyebrows. Stefani, enthroned at the back of the room, spies him and seems unable to focus on the conversation she is having with a friend. Soon, the happy couple leaves arm in arm. Thus begins a pattern that continues in the next week: Every time Rossdale arrives, he and Stefani disappear.
It's not simply that they want to be alone. Stefani says that in six years, they have never been together around a journalist. They are adamant about keeping their relationship private. And despite how clearly in love they are, their time together hasn't been easy. Much of Rock Steady is about how hard it is having a relationship that's not only long-distance but also between two people in different touring rock bands.
Stefani remembers writing a song with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. “The day before we went over there, I was in the park-with Gavin, and I had been keeping a journal,” she says. “And we were so in love, and I wrote that line, ‘You're lovely underneath it all.’ You know, like, ‘After all the shit we've been through, you're a really good person. I really think I might like you.’”
Stefani is a bit obsessive, to put it mildly. “I'm really self-centered,” she admits. “I really am. I'm also pretty lazy. I love to sit around and watch TV, and eat ice cream, not work out and be a slob.”
There seem to be two things that make her world go around: Rossdale and No Doubt. Nothing else much matters. I learn this during dinner with her and the band. She slinks into the restaurant in a gray sweat shirt with a hood pulled over her face. Her shoulders curve so she is practically staring at the floor. As she eats, she only perks up twice: The first time is when Kanal says he's upset that a journalist called him “anal.” “Well, you are anal,” she says to her ex. The second is when her new album is discussed:
The new record is more . . . sexy.
Yeah, the record does have a sexiness and a hipness that we've never had before. The thing about the sexy side, for me, is that I earned it. It wasn't until I felt comfortable wearing high heels, because when you're on heels — dude, you should try it — all of a sudden you're sexy. I finally feel like there's a side to me like, “I'm a woman now,” which is fine.
That's pretty good — you're thirty-two.
Yeah, I never felt really strong growing up. I didn't know where I fit in. All the women around me that I could look at were in bands like L7 or Hole. They were angry, and I didn't really feel like that. And the other ones were these folky girls, so there wasn't really anybody, until I discovered Blondie. She was sexy, and she wasn't ashamed to be rocking out, and to me, that's having it all. Because we all want to be sexy, even guys do. It's in human nature, because we've gotta have babies.
But the way you work, it is all your own.
I think the whole sexy thing, to do it seriously, is just a joke. I mean, have you seen me when I wake up in the morning?
Stefani was raised in a Catholic family, which is what she blames for her worst faults — namely, that she is too judgmental and not open enough. “My brother was an artist since the day he was born,” she says, referring to Eric Stefani, who left No Doubt during the recording of Tragic Kingdom. “He would win all the awards at school. I didn't have to do anything, because I had him. I was always a passive person, a one-on-one person. I always had my one best friend, and I didn't have lots of girlfriends. I never have.”
Outside of the first boy she kissed, Stefani has dated only two people: Kanal and Rossdale. As for her goals in life, starting a family is the only one she hasn't yet fulfilled. In her music, she's already there: “Having a song [‘Don't Speak’] that's going to be there when you're dead is just, I'm sorry, but it's just pretty cool,” she says.
An evening with Stefani: When No Doubt walk the red carpet at the Billboard Awards in Las Vegas, the paparazzi scream not for the band but for “Gwennnn,” who obliges them by opening her fur jacket and sticking out her chest, which is covered by just a bikini top. Later, a fan runs up to Kanal. “Man, I love your band,” he says. “I have to ask you: When you guys first got together, did you just think, ‘Wow, she is hot!’” Kanal doesn't answer.
Young comes from the opposite background of Stefani. He was born to hippie parents, though his mother left when he was young. The exhibitionist of the band, Young is a madman with a conscience. When he heard that a girlfriend was cheating on him, he got drunk, wrote that she was the Antichrist across the driveway of the Anaheim, California, house where the band lived and passed out on the roof. Since the house belonged to Stefani's parents, he spent the next morning scrubbing the driveway.
Now married (to a woman who used to work in the band's touring production office) and with a child on the way, he's mellowing out. He just wants to drive some golf balls and be with his wife, though he still can't seem to avoid singing, “Hey, we want some pussy,” during any lull in the conversation.
An evening with Young, age 32: In the bar of a New York hotel, Stefani lifts her glass for a toast: “To fifteen years of blood, friendship, love and the release of our new record.” Young stands up and takes off his jacket. Underneath is a faded No Doubt shirt. “It's from 1987,” he says. “I bought it at a No Doubt show.” Young is the band's newest member, having joined in 1999; before that he was the band's biggest fan. “You shouldn't wear that shirt,” says Stefani. “You should frame it, and cut it so that both sides show in the frame.” Young says nothing, but it is clear that in his mind, shirts are for wearing.
Kanal, as cool as he seems, is the band's most tightly wound character. His father and mother moved from India to London and then emigrated to America with their two young sons in 1981. Eventually, they opened a store in Anaheim called Kanal's Gifts and Fashion. “They're such beautiful people,” says Stefani of Kanal's parents, “and they have such open minds. Especially in their community, because all their friends' kids are rich and going to Harvard. And here was Tony. In a band. With a white girlfriend.”
An evening with Kanal, age 31: After a twelve-hour photo shoot and a Korean meal, he offers a tour of his house. “This window isn't supposed to be open,” he says when we enter the bedroom, sounding like a cop on patrol. In an office upstairs, he finds a few discs out of order. “I can tell when my brother's been borrowing my CDs,” he says, rearranging them. They run from Eighties groups such as the Human League and Men at Work to Oasis and U2. “We judge everything we do by the Clash and U2,” he says. Every time it comes to making a decision, No Doubt ask,“What would the Clash or U2 do?”
He pulls out a daybook, in which he's listed a chronology of each day's events for the year of making Rock Steady. “Adrian has golf, Tom has surfing, Gwen has Gavin, I guess, and this is all I have,” says Kanal. “I wake, eat and sleep No Doubt.”
Dumont grew up as the only adopted child in a family of three kids. “His dad was really strict,” says Stefani. “Like, if a chair was pushed out from the table when he went to bed, he'd have to go back and push the chair in. I think his parents' divorce was just so hard on him. And he really takes care of his mom.”
An evening with Dumont, age 34: He invites me to his small West Hollywood apartment to hear the original Rock Steady demos, recorded on a mini-Pro Tools rig in the living room. He plays an unreleased track recorded to a Dr. Dre beat and a failed jam called “Expensive Sushi” with improvised Stefani lyrics and samples he downloaded from Napster. “I'm the opposite of Tony,” he says. “I'm lazy — I would just let something go and later on regret it. I always do this in my life.”
Four days after Rock Steady is released, the band is backstage at Saturday Night Live. After touring with their idols U2, the success of the KROQ show and the buzz about Rock Steady, No Doubt feel like they are getting a second chance. On their first walk through the gauntlet of popularity, they were too confused to enjoy it. Kanal remembers that when No Doubt played Saturday Night Live last time, in 1996, he was so nervous he screwed up.
Tonight, there is other drama. Young's wife, who is seven months pregnant, is sick. And Young is worrying himself sick, too. He calls her a doctor and returns to the dressing room, his face ashen. Stefani walks in with a torn black top and a haircut that basically amounts to a mullet. She isn't feeling very sexy in her high heels tonight. “They're too high,” she says. “I can't feel my feet.”
She switches shoes while Young places a paper bag next to the drum set in case he vomits during his performance. All goes smoothly, however, and after performing “Hey Baby” and “Hella Good,” the band, plus Rossdale, climbs into a limo. “Can I borrow your phone?” Dumont asks Kanal. “I need to call my mom. She's been upset today.”
As we sit in the limo, waiting to go to the Saturday Night Live afterparty, it sinks in what a strange group this is. You've got a mama's boy who's completely uncomfortable with himself, another guy who's so compulsive that he keeps a log of what he does every day, a punk with a mohawk who is actually a sensitive golf-playing father-to-be and a blond sex symbol who is actually a totally traditional love-smitten woman.
“Most people don't get it,” Stefani says in the limo. “I love that you are getting it.” And with that, she grabs Rossdale by the hand and jumps in another limo, and the lovers disappear into the night.
This story appeared in the January 31st, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.