By Gary Graff
DETROIT (Reuters) – Headliners in their own right, singer Gwen Stefani and her bandmates in No Doubt were so eager to showcase their forthcoming album, “Rock Steady,” they started touring as an opening act two months before the CD was due for release.
Back on the road after an 18-month hiatus, No Doubt will be playing warmup dates for veteran Irish rockers U2 into early December.
But far from feeling overshadowed by Bono and friends, Stefani sees the U2 gig as the perfect way for No Doubt to bring itself back in public view and prepare for the Dec. 11 release of its fifth album.
“I love being the opening act,” Stefani, 32, said in a recent interview. “There’s a lot less pressure; you have a short set, so you get to go out and work everyone up to a frenzy. It’s kinda fun to prove yourself like that.
“Hopefully we won’t embarrass ourselves.”
This time around the Southern California quartet has a bit less to prove than it did for its last album, “Return of Saturn,” in the spring of 2000. That release was two years in the making amid self doubt and daunting expectations generated by the success of the band’s 1995 effort, “Tragic Kingdom,” which spawned the hits “Just a Girl” and “Don’t Speak” and sold a staggering 15 million copies.
“This record comes from an easier place,” said guitarist Tom Dumont, 33. “We came out of the success of ‘Tragic Kingdom’ and the last record still really good friends and … adjusted to all the kind of weirdness that comes with popularity.
“So this time we weren’t so concerned with what people think or anything. We were, ‘Let’s just make songs we think are cool, maybe have a little more fun this time.’ It was more lighthearted.”
IN A PARTY MOOD
Stefani said the overall feel of “Rock Steady” was inspired by the tour No Doubt did to support “Return to Saturn” — and particularly by their parties on the road.
“Our dream was to actually have a record we could be dancing to in a club, because that’s what we like to do,” she said. “So we just started there, and we wrote all the tracks like that.”
While No Doubt was working, Stefani unwittingly did her part to keep the band in the public eye, too. Duets she recorded with Moby (”South Side”) and Eve (”Let Me Blow Ya Mind”) became hits, establishing her as a solo but also attaching the band’s name to some high-profile successes.
“We were really proud of her — ‘That’s our girl!,’ y’know?,” Dumont recalled. “Gwen is the face of our band, and when people think of her, they think of No Doubt, too.”
Stefani agreed. “The world moves so quickly and people forget about you,” she said. “To be able to be part of those things and be visible … I think it helped keep people aware of us. When No Doubt comes out it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, No Doubt, that Gwen chick’s band!’
“The thing about us is we’ve never limited ourselves as far as, stylistically, what we could do. We’ve always taken our inspirations and tried to filter them into our music somewhere and make it our own.”
The latest release continues that approach, with an emphasis on catchy melodies and danceable rhythms — and a distinct leaning toward Caribbean styles.
Unlike previous albums, “Rock Steady” grew out of collaborations with several producers and writers, including including Prince (”Waiting Room”), hip-hop masterminds the Neptunes (”Hella Good”), former Cars leader Ric Ocasek, the Jamaican studio teams Sly & Robbie and Steely & Clevie, and former Soul II Soul member Nellee Hooper.
STEADY ROCKIN’ ALL NIGHT LONG
The music was recorded in Jamaica, Los Angeles and San Francisco. And the writing process was so charged that when Stefani went to London to visit her boyfriend, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, her No Doubt bandmates — Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young — all tagged along so they could maintain their creative momentum.
“It was all about getting different flavors and letting it be really eclectic and not necessarily focused and sounding like the same record from song to song,” Dumont said. “We got a lot of variety, which is really exciting to us.”
That said, Stefani added with a laugh that, “It could’ve been a disaster.”
“The idea of working with somebody new and trying to collaborate sounds like fun, but when you’re actually in the room doing it, it’s super hard and super scary,” she said. “But those challenges fueled the fire. Anything could’ve happened, but it ended up being the perfect thing to do, and I think everybody’s grown from it.”
Stefani said No Doubt is anxious to hear reactions to the album, particularly in light of events since Sept. 11. She was in London with the rest of No Doubt finishing “Rock Steady” on the day suicide hijackers slammed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“We have this, like, party recording coming out, and is it appropriate?” Ultimately, she concludes, it is.
“Music is such a healer and it’s such a gift, and I feel like we have this little present to give everyone,” she said. ”Hopefully, they’re gonna get this record and have a little diversion from this stuff and just listen to a little music. That’s the only thing we can offer, y’know? This is what we can do to help.”
(Gary Graff is a nationally syndicated journalist who covers the music scene from Detroit. He also is the supervising editor of the award-winning “MusicHound” album guide series.)