They say you can never go home again.
Yet, on its new Interscope Records release and fifth album, “Rock Steady,” No Doubt has embarked on a globe-spanning musical adventure that proves, once and for all, that home is where the heart is.
At the heart of the quartet’s 15-year musical journey is a sound, a style and a sensibility that celebrates their bond with millions of fans worldwide: the sheer pleasure of pure pop — danceable, hummable, instantly accessible songs that have become indispensable additions to the soundtrack of our life and times.
And now, with “Rock Steady,” that soundtrack signals a return to some of the key creative elements that have made No Doubt one of today’s most popular and enduring bands. Simply put, No Doubt is ready to party.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world just to be simple, to let the music and the words speak for what you’re feeling, and, hopefully, to share that feeling. And the feeling we all shared on this album turned out to be pretty simple, too: we were in a good mood.”
So says vocalist, lyricist and glorious gamine Gwen Stefani on the inspiration that ignited the dozen deliriously entertaining new tracks comprising “Rock Steady.” With all-original material penned by Gwen and No Doubt’s dynamic songwriting duo of Tony Kanal and Tom Dumont and a roster of producers that pretty much covers the cutting edge of the studio art, “Rock Steady,” recorded in such far-flung locations as London and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Jamaica, is without question the most eclectic, wide-ranging and stylistically diverse offering in the band’s extraordinary career. It is also a loving tribute to the musical roots that have nourished No Doubt from its very inception.
“We were on tour pretty much all last year,” explains drummer Adrian Young, “and, whenever we had some down time, we found ourselves listening to lots of dancehall. It was kind of like getting back to where we once belonged.”
Dancehall, the exuberant evolution of reggae, ska and calypso currently rocking the clubs and studios of Jamaica, proved a potent point of departure for the group when they convened in early 2001 to begin work on a new album.
“We were part of the whole ska revival back when we first got together,” continues Adrian. “The fact is, we had to work hard to prove we had a wider range, and I guess we did that. Because, this time, we didn’t feel we had anything to prove. The whole point was to follow the music wherever it led.”
Following the music would lead the quartet to a variety of exotic locales as they indulged their instincts and experimented with sounds and settings that would capture the sensational new music beginning to emerge.
“This album was less about technique and more about attitude,” asserts Tony. “We took it one day at a time, and it became a very spontaneous process. Tom had set up a studio at his place in L.A., and we’d meet there just to try out different ideas. Whereas before we’d write everything with a guitar or bass, this time we started with just beats and grooves and keyboards and built from there. After a week or two of songwriting, Gwen had a trip planned to London. Since we were having such a good time, we just packed up and followed her over there. We knew we were onto something.”
“It felt like starting over,” is Tom’s assessment. “We had spent two years working on ‘Return of Saturn’ because we felt it was important to prove we could do a record that had depth and substance. Once we got that out of our system, it was time to have some fun.”
“Return of Saturn,” the group’s smash 2000 release, did indeed establish No Doubt’s ability to fashion songs of substance as well as style. It also demonstrated that the group’s 1995 breakthrough release, “Tragic Kingdom,” was more than a flash in the pan, although it was a distinctly dazzling flash that elevated the group to world-class status with a solid string of hit singles. “We’d already done most of what we’d set out to accomplish,” continues Tom. “We wanted to try something fresh.”
Something fresh and, as it turned out, something tried and true. “With all the dancehall we’d been listening to, it was only natural that some of that rhythm would seep into our new songs,” Gwen adds. “We ended up going to Jamaica without really knowing exactly what we’d find when we got there. That was the whole plan from the beginning … not to have a plan.”
What No Doubt found in the lush musical environs of the island was a creative collaboration with some of Jamaica’s most revered producers, including the legendary team of Sly & Robbie, who sat behind the board for the album’s debut song “Hey Baby” and “Underneath It All,” a tune written by Gwen and Eurythmics mainstay Dave Stewart during the group’s London sojourn. They would also go on record with the fast rising dancehall duo of Steely & Clevie, who worked the magic for the incendiary selection “Start The Fire.”
Remarks Tom, “Going to Jamaica and working with the great artists there had always been a dream of ours. Having that opportunity is one of the best things about having some success. It’s more important than any amount of fame and fortune.”
As the spring of 2001 turned to summer, the pace of recording stepped up, along with the group’s increasingly bold ventures into new creative territory. In Los Angeles, they added hip-hop to the mix, with the streetwise sensibilities of The Neptunes, co-writers on the album’s opening track, the scorching “Hella Good.”
Next they huddled with profile mixmaster Nellee Hooper on the title track of “Rock Steady” as well as such standout selections as “In My Head,” “Running,” “Detective” and the above mentioned “Hella Good.” Along the way, they logged time with William Orbit for “Making Out,” Rick Ocasek on “Platinum Blonde Life” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” and the inimitable Prince who co-produced and provided backing vocals on the drop-dead gorgeous “Waiting Room.”
But mixing and matching songs and producers was only part of the creative evolution that took place with “Rock Steady.” Says Tony, “Our attitude from the beginning was that we’d do whatever it took to make the music work. We’ve always been a very self-contained unit. This time, we wanted to open it up, to find out what other people could bring to the party.”
“The whole album was an exercise in spontaneity,” adds Gwen, “and that challenged me to write more directly from my thoughts and feelings. I threw away my thesaurus and put aside my influences, everyone from Joni Mitchell to Sylvia Plath. I wanted to write songs about how it felt to be alive right now and that feeling, despite everything that is going on in the world, is optimistic and full of hope. This is a time to affirm what’s good and positive in our lives, and if we can convey a small part of the fun and excitement we had making this music, then we’ve done what we’ve set out to do.”
Hot on the heels of the release of “Rock Steady” comes news of an extensive touring schedule that includes select dates with U2 as well as an extensive library of international headlining dates.
“We’re primarily a live band,” comments Tony. “That’s how we started, and that’s how we maintain contact with our fans. Over the past couple of years, as the No Doubt machine got bigger, it’s been more difficult to maintain that connection. But, this time around, we’re determined to stay true to the spirit of the music. It’s about having a good time, about dancing in aisles and singing along. We all need that, and it’s what this tour is going to be about.”
“After 15 years together, you naturally create all kinds of rules about how things should be,” concludes Gwen. “There comes a time when you’ve got to throw the rules out and start all over again. That’s what keeps it fun and interesting. For us, that time has come.”
It’s a sentiment that gets to the heart of the brilliant music on “Rock Steady,” an album that finds No Doubt comfortable at home with the risks and rewards of true originality. It’s also proof positive that, when No Doubt throws a party, everyone’s invited.