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 that Jim [Guerinot] used to manage? The Scientologist guy?”
“The solo guy? Beck,” Kanal reminds her.
“Yeah, Beck! It was just so fun… We would all play 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 U.K. 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 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 its first album in 11 years, “Push and Shove” (Interscope). 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 difficult 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 the last decade.
Perhaps that’s why the music video for “Settle Down,” directed by longtime collaborator Sophie Muller, and the song’s subsequent performances on the Teen Choice Awards, “Fallon” and “Good Morning America” prompted sighs of relief from longtime fans, who breathlessly tweeted 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 record, “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 our lives, are out there waiting for us, so what does it matter if it’s a month here or a month there? As long as we make the record of our lives that we are so 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 Los Angeles — 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 solid year, it comprised 10 mostly upbeat tracks that ranged from new wave rave-ups like “Lookin’ Hot” and “Gravity” to the reggae-inflected “Sparkle” and “Breakfast Club”-worthy closer “Dreaming the Same Dream.”
ABOUT THE COVER:
Just as the music on “Push and Shove” is a return to No Doubt’s roots, so is the album’s cover. The four custom portraits were photographed and then rendered manually into paintings by Los Angeles street artist El Mac, known for his murals across L.A. Get Full Story
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 AC radio formats and light up a thousand waving 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 how 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 L.A. — 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 is a 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.”