No Doubt’s Big Push
It’s been 11 years since the band’s last album. What took so long? “We made the record of our lives’’, Gwen Stefani says. ‘’Otherwise why put something out?’’
Gwen Stefani is trying to remember a guy’s name. Not just any guy, but that guy who was big in the ‘90s, when No Doubt’s breakout album Tragic Kingdom ruled the airwaves and the then-20-somethings were the faces of the then-exploding alternative rock movement.
It’s 45 minutes before showtime at ‘’Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’’, and Stefani and Tony Kanal are nestled in the green room outside Studio 6B in New York’s Rockefeller Center. The talk has turned to the days of playing radio festivals in the mid-‘90s. ‘’There was Garbage, Bush, Radiohead… What’s that band? Foo Fighters’’, Stefani begins. ‘’Wallflowers, Oasis…’’ She turns to Kanal. ‘’Who was that guy Jim Guerinot used to manage? The Scientologist guy?’’
‘’The solo guy? Beck’’, Kanal reminds her.
‘’Yeah, Beck! It was just so fun. We would play all these shows in one night, then everyone would go back to the hotel and we would all be staying there. It really felt like a scene”. She pauses. ‘’But it wasn’t a scene, it was just whoever happened to be on the radio.’’
Cut to this late-July Thursday in 2012, when No Doubt’s first new single in nine years,‘’Settle Down’’,has just debuted at No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100, sandwiched between the latest from country heartthrob Dierks Bentley and dubstep ballad ”Too Close” by UK singer Alex Clare, with Kelly Clarkson, Wiz Khalifa, Calvin Harris and One Direction not too far away. The bands Stefani so fondly recalls playing with — a few of whom (Garbage, Foo Fighters) have put out new records within the last year — are nowhere to be found to found on the chart. Rock on the Hot 100 –alternative or not — is limited to Train, Linkin Park, Matchbox Twenty, and Green Day, whose new single ‘’Oh Love’’ was released the same week as ‘’Settle Down.’’
Such are the realities for No Doubt as it prepares for its first album in 11 years, Push And Shove. Due Sept. 25, the 11-song set once again straddles the pop, rock and reggae influences and audiences that made 1995’s Tragic Kingdom an 8.2 million-selling sensation (according to Nielsen Soundscan), and also made hits out of ‘’Hey Baby’’ and ‘’Underneath It All’’ in the early 2000s, with 2001’s Rock Steady moving 2.8 million.
But an extended hiatus followed Rock Steady, during which singer Stefani released two successful solo albums and upped her profile as a global style icon. And as all four band members expanded their families and had eight kids among them, a new album became increasingly hard to prioritize. Save for a 2003 greatest-hits set (The Singles 1992-2003) that sold 2.5 million copies (and produced a hit cover of Talk Talk’s ‘’It’s My Life’’) and a 2009 tour, No Doubt has been largely absent from the cultural conversation for the better part of a decade.
Perhaps that’s why the music video for ‘’Settle Down’’, directed by longtime collaborator Sophie Muller, and the song’s subsequent performance on the Teen Choice Awards, ’’Fallon’’ and ‘’Good Morning America’’, prompted sighs of relief from longtime fans, who breathlessly Tweeted and and Facebooked variations on ‘’Thank God they haven’t changed!’’ and ‘’Has Gwen aged in the last 15 years?’’ Indeed, the 42-year-old Stefani barely passes for 26 when she sits down for a pair of interviews, rocking an ultra-glam leopard print pantsuit one day and a modern-day Orange County rock singer ensemble (black blazer, checker-print pants, and a Specials T-shirt) for her ‘’Fallon’’ taping the next.
That preservation lends itself to the music, too. Unlike 2001’s Rock Steady, a sonically expansive set that saw the band collaborating with the likes of the Neptunes, Prince and William Orbit, Push and Shove is a defiantly ‘80s-referencing new wave/pop record that was produced primarily by longtime collaborator Mark ‘’Spike’’ Stent (Bjork). Only the title track, a collaboration with Major Lazer, could be considered any kind of response to recent pop music trends-it opens with a giant, wall-shaking dancehall beat that abruptly shifts into a dubstep-like breakdown for the chorus, with Stefani trading verses with Jamaican rapper Busy Signal. (‘’Just when you think it’s over/We’re on another level like we’re doin’ yoga’’, she raps at one point.)
‘’We’ve never fit into any format’’, Stefani says simply. ’’Luckily, we’ve been able to fit into both [pop and rock] a little bit, though not really consciously… We’ve just managed to nudge our way in.’’
Though a new album has been teased ever since Stefani finished touring behind her second solo album, The Sweet Escape, in 2007, it took No Doubt’s 2009 reunion tour to really light the creative spark. ‘’We had writer’s block up until that point’’, bassist Kanal recalls. ‘’When we did that tour, it was the waking of the dead. Not only did we get our confidence back, on top of that it gave us the feeling of not needing to rush. All these amazing people were still coming out to see us, so we thought, ’let’s make the best record we can make now.’ We wouldn’t have this record if we didn’t do that tour.’’
‘’We would’ve loved for it to come out sooner’’, Stefani says, alluding to a fall 2011 release date that was scrapped so the band could fine-tune the songs, recorded between late 2009 and mid-2011. ‘’At the same time, we realized that the people that care about us, that have given us their lives, are out there waiting for us, so what does it matter if it’s a month here or a month there? So long as we make the record of our lives that we are proud of. Otherwise, why put something out?’’
Compared with the sessions for Rock Steady, which had the band shuttling from the United States to London to Jamaica to work with various producers, Push and Shove was a more local affair, recorded at studios all around LA — and often in the afternoon, so the members could be with their children during the day and record at night. And where Rock Steady produced 30-some songs during an 18-month period, Push and Shove barely made it to 11-for a sold year, it comprised 10 mostly upbeat tracks that ranged from new wave rave-ups like ‘’Lookin’ Hot’’ and ‘’Gravity’’ to the reggae-influenced ‘’Sparkle’’ and ‘’Breakfast Club’’-worthy closer ‘’Dreaming the Same Dream.’’
It wasn’t until Stefani had a night to herself while visiting with husband Gavin Rossdale’s family in London that she got enough inspiration to write ‘’Undone’’, a sweeping ballad that could reasonably be considered the closest thing the band has come to a ‘’Don’t Speak’’ moment-a song that could excite rock, pop and Hot AC radio formats and light a thousand iPhones in concert.
‘’I really hadn’t emotionally felt like we could write a slower song”, Stefani says. ”And we had written the chorus and a verse at Tony’s house, so I took it with me to work on while I was in London. And I think I called you’’ –she points to Kanal — ‘’and said, ’I think this song might be good’ and then he finished this chorus. It all happened so fast we were almost insecure about it.’’
Though Stefani and Kanal led the writing process, all four members shared final say on how each of the songs ended up sounding. ‘’We’ve learned really well how to compromise with each other for the sake of keeping the band together’’, drummer Adrian Young says, sporting his signature faux-hawk and a brightly colored mix of clashing patterns over breakfast at New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. ‘’There’s times where I’m not going to be happy with 100% of everything on the record, where we’ve learned to let go of those little things and being so idealistic.’’
Kanal credits Stent with playing referee during the album’s most contentious moments, and for becoming an unofficial fifth member along the way. ‘’He moved his family from England to LA — it was a real commitment on his part’’. Stefani adds, ’’We needed somebody to be that team leader that could wrangle us all together and would be the one we could go to behind their back and be like, ’Make sure these guys don’t fuck it up.’ He was so good at that and making us feel confident and move forward. He gets us. He’s like family.’’
Stent also lends the album a live-band feel that may have been missing from the Pro-Tools-heavy parts of Rock Steady, and it makes songs like ‘’One More Summer’’ and the title track beg to be played live. Though Stefani admits that ‘’it’s going to be challenging’’ to agree upon set lists for the next No Doubt tour, when those dates happen is kind of up in the air, to hear her tell it. ‘’We do want to tour –that’s the goal — but there’s a lot of other things going on where we want to live in the moment, promote the album on the TV shows and do the videos and not let it all be on top of it. Let’s slow down a minute.’’
And as the increased clout of Stefani as a solo brand begins to overalp with No doubt again, so do branding opportunities. In early 2011, Stefani signed on to become the new face of L’Oreal Paris, a highly visible endorsement deal that has produced multiple commercials and sent the singer to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time in 2011 for a series of shoots and promotional opportunities. That relationship now carries over to No Doubt, as L’Oreal agreed to help pay part of the budget for the ‘’Settle Down’’ video in exchange for a shot in which Stefani applies Infalliable Le Gloss lip gloss. It’s an arrangement that still surprises the singer.
“I wouldn’t have pictured myself saying ‘yes’ to that 10 years ago’’, she says. ‘’But when the opportunity came around this time, things just felt right. I guess maybe it was timing and my age, and the idea that they would ask me just felt like, ’Wow. Do I get photographers? And look really pretty?’ To have this opportunity felt like a really big deal. So when they gave us some money for the video, we were able creatively to make the video we really wanted to make.’’
There’s also the matter of promotion, with the media landscape much different this time around. Shows like ‘’The X Factor’’, ’’The Voice’’, and even ‘’American Idol’’ didn’t exist during Rock Steady’s release, and the band’s upcoming gig at Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio Music Festival will see it sharing a lineup with Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Deadmau5, acts that represent a far cry from No Doubt’s former alt-rock brethren. ‘’All the old-school rules don’t apply’’, Kanal says of promotional opportunities.
The fact that ‘’Settle Down’’ revisits that band’s dancehall roots is also not lost on Young and guitarist Tom Dumont, who sees the band’s role as cultural ambassadors for a new generation of No Doubt fans.
‘’When you listen back to what the Specials and Madness did, we imitate that to some extent,” Dumont says. ‘’They were imitating ska from Jamaica, and the Jamaicans were imitating blues they were hearing from the States. It’s like evolution.’’
To Young, playing the song at the Teen Choice Awards really hit home. ‘’With those kids, those are the impressionable years. Whatever they listen to at 16 years old, that’s going to be in their DNA. We were music fans at that age, and we’re still music makers. Those impressionable years will always be a part of us.’’
Push and Shove: Inside (and Outside) the Sessions
How long did it take to make No Doubt’s “Push and Shove”? “I told my mate when I first left for L.A., ‘See you in six weeks,’ ” U.K. producer/engineer Mark “Spike” Stent says. “Five years later, literally almost to the day, I’m still here.”
In August, 2007, Stent – who co-produced 5 tracks on 2001′s “Rock Stready” (and also mixed and produced on Gwen Stefani’s solo albums) – first flew to Los Angeles to discuss a new record with the band. One meeting turned into two years of planning as each member’s families continued to expand.
Once writing and recording began in earnest in 2009, Stent played referee among the band to make sure each member’s input was being heard. One thing everyone agreed upon: it had to be a record that could translate live.
“Everyone wanted it to feel like it was a band playing this rather than everything just programmed and sampled,” Stent says. “My angle was to work with all the 80s influences they love but also trying to make it a modern record as well.”
Just as the music on “Push and Shove” is a return to No Doubt’s roots, so is the album’s cover, as Billboard exclusively reveals here. The four custom portraits were photographed and then rendered manually into paintings by Los Angeles street artist El Mac, known for his murals across Hollywood and L.A.’s Mid-City.
El Mac’s work had been a longtime favorite of Stefani, who has collected several of the artist’s pieces over the years and tapped him to work on the album cover earlier this year. The portraits may look simple, but were actually a long labor of love for El Mac.
“It was a month and a half of non-stop work – barely sleeping, barely doing anything but just painting. It was an epic job for me,” El Mac recalls. “It’s a tricky photo-realistic way of painting the patterns because they have to look right up close but have a different experience when you look at them from far away. There was a lot of back and forth.”
The results thrilled guitarist Tom Dumont, who hopes the original portraits make it to an L.A. art gallery at some point after the album’s release. “We’re all very interested in contemporary art and street art,” he says. “so to now have a footprint in that world is so cool.”
Team No Doubt
Album Title: Push And Shove
Label: Interscope Release
Date: Sept. 25
Managers: Jim Guerinot, Lisa Kidd and Larry Tull, Rebel Waltz
Touring: iHeartRadio Music Festival, Sept. 21; other dates, Spring 2013
Booking Agency: Mitch Okmin, MOB Agency
Publicity: Dennis Dennehy and Christine Wolff
Interscope Attorneys: Bert Deixler, Kendall Brill Klieger, Seth Lichtenstein, Hertz and Lichtenstein
Sites: nodoubt.com, facebook.com/nodoubt, youtube.com/NoDoubtVEVO