Return...with a bargain
Life in the pop star eye is a transitory one at best. Everybody knows that when you break through with a smash album, it’s important – no crucial – to follow up that disc quickly with another filled with even more bona fide play-it-safe hits. Make it big, come back fast and seal the deal. Which leads to the first question everybody is going to be asking No Doubt this spring:
Where the heck have you been?
No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom on Interscope Records
in October of 1995 and then set out on the road to support it for the next two
grueling years. During that time they slowly grew from an unknown California
act with two relatively unknown albums to their credit (their 1992 Interscope
debut No Doubt and early 1995’s self-released Beacon Street Collection)
to arena rock stars with the Top 40 hits "Spiderwebs," "Just
A Girl," and at-one-point ubiquitous ballad "Don’t Speak." But
it’s been close to three years since Tragic Kingdom’s grip on the pop
charts faded – an eternity in the world of pop.
No Doubt has at last returned with its seal-the-deal followup, Return of Saturn. It’s a sharp, savvy CD of 14 songs featuring Gwen Stefani’s trademark vocal quavers and Tony Kanal’s ska-influenced basslines. IE caught up with both of them as they readied for their comeback tour, which started in Chicago March 24. Our first question was, naturally, where have you been?
"We took a couple months off after the Tragic Kingdom tour and started working on Return of Saturn in February of 1998," explains Kanal. "We told ourselves at the time that we weren’t going to rush it, we were really going to experiment and open up our minds."
"We said when we began it that if we were going to make another record, we had to do something we’d be really proud of,"Stefani says. "Something that would show the experience of our 13 years together. We were not going to put a time limit on it – all of our records take really long. Tragic Kingdom took us three years to create. The pressure of going into a studio and having to hurry up to get the next take can creatively be a good thing, but it was a nice luxury to go in and really work on every part in the studio for this record."
"We didn’t think it would take two years to make – we figured six months to a year," Kanal says. "But looking back on it, I wouldn’t change anything. We had to go through that process – stopping and starting and trying to push ourselves to write more and more songs."
Is it a worry for the band that the long break could mean the final result of their two years’ labor will fall on the deaf ears of a fickle public?
"Would I say it’s a worry? No, it’s not a worry," Kanal says. "Is it a concern? Yeah. Of course it is. You want a career, you want to be able to do things that you didn’t last time, but we’re realistic about how fortunate we were in this industry – we’re very grateful that we had that kind of success with Tragic Kingdom – we sold 15 million records, we got to travel around the world and went to all these amazing places.
"We’re realistic – that was lightning that hit us and to have lightning strike twice, well, the odds are against it. At a certain point you have to block all this stuff out and that’s what we did when we started making this record. We said ‘we’re not going to try to capitalize on the momentum of the last record; we’re not going to try to duplicate the songs and have a "Don’t Speak Part 2" and "Just A Girl Part 2",’you know what I mean? We just wanted to make a record that we could be proud of. Because at the end of the day we have to live with it and we have to play it every night. If you don’t like the stuff that you’ve written, it’s torturous to be onstage playing songs that are old and tired."
Stefani animatedly explains that the band members really focused on making the record they wanted to make, rather than worrying about how it would be received.
"We weren’t too worried because this record isn’t about trying to do the same as the last record," she says. "The thing that saved us from being nervous was that this was a selfish record. We are only in this band because we are passionate about it. Before Tragic Kingdom came out, we had all these guilty feelings like ‘maybe I have to decide what I want to be when I grow up.’ Now we don’t have to feel guilty. If we had had to stop after that last record, it still would have felt great. This record is like dessert."
The band went to Europe to promote the new disc weeks before the start of their tour, and so far have been met with open arms rather than the feared indifference.
"We’ve been away for so long, but now that we’re coming out with a record, everybody’s being so cuddly," Stefani laughs with girlish enthusiasm. "It’s almost too exciting."
Kanal says the success of Tragic Kingdom really allowed the band to be able to experiment and create exactly what it wanted to for its Return.
"We recorded more stuff than could possibly go on this record," Kanal says. "We ended up writing maybe 35-40 songs and recording at least 25. We had never had the opportunity to do that before. With Tragic Kingdom, there are 14 songs on that record and we recorded 14 songs; there was no more money. This time we had the financial freedom to really experiment and… we did."
Another big difference between their breakthrough disc and their followup was the band’s ability this time around to focus intensely on the project at hand.
"We made Tragic Kingdom over three years in 11 studios," Kanal says. "It was a very scattered process. This record was very focused. It was two years of pure creativity in music, as opposed to Tragic Kingdom when we were working, going to school, trying to make ends meet. We’d have a little money here and record and then take three months off and then try to record some more. The cool thing about this record is that I think it’s a very true representation of where we are now in our lives."
Stefani says following the Tragic Kingdom tour, she had to take some time to come to grips with what her life had become and where she wants it to go. That struggle is very apparent in the lyrics of new songs like "Comforting Lie" where she talks of her internal "tug of war" with her personal "Jekyll and Hyde" and in "Marry Me" and "Simple Kind of Life" which talk a lot about "something borrowed, something blue" and that traditional ceremony’s traditional result – babies.
"Those songs are not so much about ‘that’s what I want,’ but about ‘that’s what I thought I would have,’ " she says. "They’re about the confusion of ‘wow, I thought I was going to be this when I grew up’ and I’m not."
With a new record and tour to focus on, neither marriage nor babies seem imminent in Stefani’s future.
"I feel like it’s hard for me to do more than one thing really good," she says. "Being in a band takes 24 hours a day, seven days a week of my passion. It takes a lot out of you and my relationships have suffered, because I’m not putting the time into them. And that’s what my songs are about, really – I write about the stuff in my life that’s off-balance. The past couple years were really my time to grow."
"When we made Tragic Kingdom I was 23," Kanal says. "Now I’m 29, Gwen’s 30…we’re in a much different place in our lives now and I think it shows on the record. One thing about our band is what you see is what you get; we never try to manufacture, it’s very sincere work. This is who we are. I think there’s a certain sacrifice that we make in the kind of lyrics that Gwen writes. They’re very honest and very sincere but you’re giving away personal stuff. The virtue of that is you can really tell the songs are coming from us."
While much was made of Tragic Kingdom’s frank exploration of the end of the romantic relationship between Stefani and Kanal, the bassist says he’s comfortable with Stefani putting things "out there."
"I would never try to censor her art and she would never do that with me. I think the songs are general enough that they aren’t about "Gwen and Tony" or about "Gwen and her new relationship." I think anyone can relate to these songs, anyone who’s been in a relationship of any sort. On this record, Gwen’s really exploring the conflicts within herself. Like in ‘Simple Kind of Life,’ – that kind of life is something that she’d always dreamed of, and she’s asking, ‘well, do I still want to be that married woman, do I want to have kids now, when is that point going to come, am I going to be too self-centered to make that commitment?’ It’s kind of a very public therapy. But it’s art, it’s real. Sometimes you have to go through a little pain to get something special."
Stefani says many of her lyrics for the new record came from a journal she kept on the Tragic Kingdom tour.
"We didn’t write songs while we were touring, but I kept a journal and wrote ideas while we were on the road. It was a great help later in writing the album, because when you look back on what you’ve written, you don’t even remember writing a lot of it. It’s strange, but you really can write a song and not know what you’re writing about until afterwards. Then it says so much more to you after it’s written."
Most of the songs on Return of Saturn were written by pairing either Kanal and Stefani or guitarist Tom Dumont and Stefani in a corner to come up with ideas that the band would later flesh out.
"They’re bare and almost embarrassing, but we just riff off each other. You’ve got to open up. It’s how we’ve always done it – it’s a very organic starting point," Kanal says. "Then we bring it to the rest of the band. That’s the hardest part — actually taking an acoustic idea and taking it to the band level. One thing that Adrian [Young, drummer] always does is make us try things with a different beat or a faster or slower tempo. We literally will go through 10 different ways of playing the song until we find what makes sense."
That process was a little different on "Ex-Girlfriend," the first single from Return To Saturn, however, which was actually the last song completed for the disc.
"We were really pushing ourselves to come up with one more up-tempo song for the album," Kanal recalls. "We’d already mastered a version of the record and thought we were done. But one day we went to Tom’s house – he’s got a little computer studio set up – and we used the comptuer to make this soundscape. Then Gwen came in and worked on top of that. It was a very different process for us but it was fresh and exciting because we’d never done anything like that before."
The band used another innovative songwriting approach for Saturn when they sat down to write "Staring Problem" with Gwen’s brother Eric, a founding member of the band who left to pursue other creative projects before the release of Tragic Kingdom.
"We sat in a room and we played this game," Kanal explains. "We said, ‘OK, I’m going to make up a part, then you make up the second part. It was cool – just like going round and round in a circle, a very weird approach to songwriting. Eric also helped write ‘Everything in Time’ which didn’t make the album, but we’ve got it saved for a B-side."
As for the band’s relationship with its founder?
"We see him once in a while, but not that often – we’ve been so consumed with making this record. I still think he’s an amazing genius with making music," Kanal says. "But Eric’s the type of person who just wants to move on. And for him, No Doubt is a chapter he’s already read."
"Staring Problem" probably comes closest to capturing the ska energy that the Stefanis, Kanal, Dumont and Young had when the band first started out. But these days, the horn breaks and ska influences so prevalent on 1992’s No Doubt are much fewer and farther between.
"We’re much more of a guitar/keyboard band now," Kanal acknowledges. "These things come with age, I guess. It’s just what comes out when we sit down. We love ska music, but we haven’t been a ska band since 1988. After two years of being a band together we realized that we had to open up to a different style of music. We’ll play the old stuff and it will still be fun but we don’t feel like writing that stuff anymore. Again, we won’t ‘manufacture’ what’s coming out. It wouldn’t be real."
Being "real" is very important to the band. Stefani explores the problems of superficiality that being a pop star – and being a woman – impose on new songs like "Magic’s In The Makeup" and "Staring Problem."
"I don’t want to be a fake person," she explains. "But we also all love to fantasize about being something else, like being born a glamorous girl in the 1940s. And we all play different roles throughout the day – right now I’m playing the singer of No Doubt and you’re playing the interviewer. But after this, I’m going to be with my niece and I’ll play the aunt. So we all have these different roles and sometimes you ask yourself, which is the real one?"
One thing that helped the band avoid being sucked into self destructive unreality by the success of Tragic Kingdom was the fact that they had been a band for a long time before the "overnight" success."
"The good thing about Tragic Kingdom was we had already been together before that record took off for eight years, nine years before it went to number one," Kanal says. "We’d already experienced everything as a band. We’d done van tours and rehearsed in our garage for years. We had sold out clubs like The Whiskey or The Roxy (in Los Angeles) and then moved up to the next level. Even before Tragic Kingdom had success we had built up a good fan base so it was a gradual process – that helped prepare us for Tragic Kingdom We never, ever expected it to do that well and while we were on the road, it was hard to have any perspective on what was going on. So for us, I don’t think it really hit until we actually got home."
While the Tragic Kingdom tour seemed endless, after a couple years off, both Stefani and Kanal are looking forward to getting back on the road.
"Making this record was really hard and I’m so glad it’s done," Stefani says. "I couldn’t have gone out and done this tour a year ago, though. A lot of the reason this took so long had to do with recharging our batteries. I was just not ready for this last year. But now I can’t wait!"
Stefani says she’s ready to get back onstage to her ‘fantasy life.’
"Being on tour is not real life, you know?" she says. "It’s fantasy life. Nothing’s really real. There are loads of people who love you for the moment. The whole tour life is so surreal, but it’s awesome. Reality was nice for awhile, but I’m ready to go back to fantasy!"
"There’s something beautiful about being able to play clubs and have that very intimate energy being shared between the audience and the performers," Kanal concurs. "But there’s also something great about being able to get onstage and look out at an arena and play for 15,000 people. That’s rock and roll. It’s addicting."
While she’s eager to plunge back into "unreality," Stefani says she’s learned not to take her band for granted from Brian Setzer, who called her up and asked her to duet with him on his last album for Interscope, The Dirty Boogie.
"I couldn’t believe he even knew who I was!" she says. "I told him, ‘I wore poodle skirts in high school because of you!’ But singing with him was just the easiest, most natural thing. I sang onstage with him one night when he played a show at The Greek and we had a party at my house afterwards. He’s really seen it all – he knows what it’s like to have success when you’re so young and then to have it taken away."
No Doubt certainly hopes that its success won’t be taken away. But whatever happens, the band feels good about what it has created.
"This record shows our 13 years of experience," Stefani says. "What can we say?We’ve put the two years into it, now you can go buy it for $13.99."
What a bargain!
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