THE FACE ARTICLE
By Jonathan Bernstein (from The Face Magazine, May 1997)
(transcribed by Pamela Leader)
CALIFORNIA+SKA+SUICIDE+SUGGS+THE SIMPSONS+THE YEARS+TEN MILLION
ALBUMS+THE INDIE EVITA+THE BLOKE FROM BUSH+NO CREDIBILITY+NO
PROBLEM WITH THAT=NO DOUBT
Right now, every buttock filling a seat in Madison Square
Garden's miles of aisles belongs to a taste- or a deal-maker
employed in the upper echelons of the American music industry.
Right now, every on of these buttocks is numb with tedium.
Ironically, all the executives, attorneys, agents and accountants
in attendance here in New York have coughed up top dollar
for the privilege of being bored during the three-hour duration
of the rockbiz Oscars, The Grammy Awards.
As usual, the real show is backstage. In sharp contrast to
the funereal pacing of the event, pandemonium reigns throughout
the bowels of the big arena. Show co-ordinators stressing
themselves out to the point of aneurysms shriek into headsets,
demanding a direct path to the stage be cleared for The Fugees,
right fucking now! Familiar faces are hustled by, close proximity
leading them to a nightmarish quality. The main guy from the
Smashing Pumpkins has a head like a Belisha beacon, while
his distaff colleague has a little peanut noggin. Troubled
teen Fiona Apple seems to be working that Nightmare Before
Christmas look. Bonnie Raitt, Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin
resemble a display of melted waxworks. Puke-rocker Marilyn
Manson's creepy-crawly impact is instantly nullified by comparison
with the truly scary bulging eyes, 3D maquillage and purple
dye-job supported by Diana Ross.
Fresh as newly-hatched chicks by comparison, the members of
No Doubt are ensconced inside their dressing room, evaluating
the level of rejection and humiliation awaiting them. "We're
totally going to lose," states drummer Adrian Young.
"We don't stand a chance."
The others - supercharged sweetie-pie warbler Gwen Stefani,
Zencalm bass player and band backbone Tony Kanal, and taciturn
guitarist Tom Dumont - eagerly concur. Notwithstanding the
fact that their multi-platinum 'Tragic Kingdom' album is currently
in its eighth week at number one; no matter that their big
break-up balled 'Don't Speak' perches atop charts the lengths
and breadths of Europe - the Southern Californian group are
primed to embrace defeat. The carnival of hooks and styles
evident on 'Tragic Kingdom' renders it a total shut-out for
Best Rock Album.
"One of those Hootie groups will get it," predicts
Young. As for Best New Act, they're hoping to be vanquished
by Garbage, by fearing a trouncing either at the hands of
Jewel, a yodelling noodlehead folkie, or LeAnn Rimes, a booming-voiced
14-year-old country phenomenon.
"We're gonna lose," says Gwen for maybe the hundredth
time. Feeling it incumbent on myself to inject a note of positivity,
I say lamely, "It's am honour just to be nominated."
"But I wanna win!" she wails.
As little as a year ago, the notion that No Doubt would be
so much as permitted within spitting distance of such a barometer
of industry clout, let alone debating their award-worthiness,
would have been cause for incredulity and chortles.
"For the longest time we were the nerd/dork band that
no one would look at, and I was never cool enough because
I wasn't a guy and I wasn't tough and I wasn't depressed."
Though Gwen Stefani tends naturally towards the self-deprecatory,
affecting a "little me" demeanour and delivery,
her assessment of her band's predicament is accurate. The
American rock media has always played favourites with the
art-rock out-put of New York, consigning the more physical
culture of California to oblivion. Thus it is the Sonic Youths,
Pavements and Jon Spencer Blues Explosions of the world who
generate acres of respectful column inches, while groups like
Green Day amass vast followings without attracting commensurate
attention. Of course, when they suddenly produce million-selling
records, they generate a shock of almost seismic proportions.
Now, the belated recognition afforded California's platinum-selling
pink bands is also being meted out to the region's rabid ska
underground. Ska had a glancing impact on the American mainstream
back at the dawn of the Eighties. The Specials appeared on
Saturday night Live and Madness visited the top ten with 'Our
house', but then The Thompson Twins came to town and it seemed
like game over. However, hardcore pockets of appreciation
remained loyal to the ska cause all across America - and especially
in California, where the high-energy, low-melody like of Fishbone,
Oingo Boingo and The Untouchables became local legends. Unfortunately
they remained local legends, capable of transfixing hometown
crowds with breathlessly exhilarating live shows, but absolutely
unable to translate their live attack to record and destined
to play backwater smoky filled rooms with two men and a dog.
In all these areas, No Doubt followed the career patterns
set down by the founding fathers. Worse, they were rendered
leprous by the saturation acceptance of mope-rock. This far
into the nineties, No Doubt should, at best, exist as a footnote
in a subsection of a margin. Instead, they've sold over ten
million albums worldwide. What happened?
"We just got really lucky with the timing," guesses
Gwen. "The record company was working for us this time,"
says Tony Kanal. "Good songs," insists Tom Dumont.
All these options have merit. America's rapidly-decomposing
alternative rock revolution finally went belly-up. The group
were traded from a label with a million competing clients
to one with a modest roster. 'Tragic Kingdom' was awash with
New Wave synths, big choruses and tear-stained slowies. After
almose a decade that has, for the most part, seen white American
rock at its most parched, sluggish, tuneless and personality
free, No Doubt suddenly seemed like just about the only fun
It didn't hurt, either, that the group began their decade-long
period of enforced dues-paying it with a singer and ending
it with a star. A squeaky-clean good girl who still lives
with her parents but galvanises audiences with a screech of
"Fuck you, I'm a girl!" (the call-to-arm line from
the bands breakthrough hit "Just A Girl"). A bands
devout Catholic who advises abstinence before marriage but
was embroiled in a seven-year, on-off relationship with bandmate
Kanal, and who is currently involved in a till-recently-clandestine
pairing with Bush's abguished pretty-boy Gavin Rossdale. A
frontwoman so dynamic she seems like she's hooked up to a
Jolt Cola IV-drip. A pouty, blonde Italian-American so of
the moment she makes Madonna seema s vital as a deceased Argentinian
A stylistic mesh of Mexican gang girl, Indian princess and
Cali beach chick, Gwen Stefani excercises a fasination on
the consciousness and bedroom walls of adolescent America
that ranges from her trademark forehead adornment to her triumphantly
What's that thing on your forehead? Gwen Stefani : It's called
a bindi. Tony's indian and we uses to go to these Indian parties
and I saw his mum wearing one. I was just into anything that
sparkles. I started wearing it and couldn't stop. People try
to read this religious signification into it, like "Is
that your third eye?". I'm like, no, that's where I communicate
with my home planet
How did you become a ska girl? I was a follwer of my brother
Eric and what he was into. He brought home a copy of "Baggy
Trousers" by Madness and I was totally into them. They
sang about where they came from and their culture just spilled
out of them. My family would sit around and try to work out
what they were singing about. Like, what are Smarties? They
branched out into all the other 2-Tone stuff. I wanted to
look like that but I didn't know what a girl was supposed
to look like. I knew that the guys wore the suits and the
black and white but there was no girl who I could look like
except that little girl on The Beat's label with the headband
and the short skirts and the tights. I was the only ska girl
at my school. I remember going to my first club show at Fenders
ballroom in Long Beach. I walked in the room and couldn't
fucking believe that there were people who looked like me
and were into what I was into.
For people whose main exposure to you is "Don't Speak",
seeing you described as a ska band is a pretty big stretch.
And after listening to "Tragic Kingdom" it's still
a pretty big stretch. We got out of that scene pretty fast.
Early on, we started playing a little bit of disco, and a
little bit of funk, and those skankers were like, fuck you,
you are not traditonal, you are out. That whole audience,
eben today, is just so closed-minded. We all come from different
backgrounds: Tony's into Prince, Tom comes from death metal.
At heart we are a ska band, its here and its not going to
go away ever. But it is not pure.
If anything, you're probably the only straight-up pop group
America's produced this decade. When I think of pop, I think
of Mariah Carey. I don't think we're that kind of band; maybe
you do. I think of us more like a British pop band like Blur
Speaking of British pop groups, do you think you opened the
doors of America to the Spice Girls? I hope not. I can see
how people might think that because of the girl thing and
they are all dressy-uppy, but there's such a huge different.
We're a band that has been around for ten years doing honest
music. They're fine for the 14 -year-old girls that listen
to them and get really happy, but it's a different scene.
Well, they have their Girl Power manifesto and you have your
big "Just A Girl" anthem where you get all the little
girls going crazy and screaming "Fuck you, I'm a girl"
along with you. I never fucking dreamed that it would become
anything that it became. I was never a feminist but the more
time went by, I realised that I was in a male-dominated society
and things would affect me. I was never outraged by it, but
the main thing was I would get really scared about things.
I thought, it really sucks that I have to be frightened every
time I leave the house. That's what trigged the song for me,
just having these fears and experiences. A lot of things happen
to you when you're a girl, like your walking down the street
and a guy whistles at you and your like, what? Am I gonna
fucking come fuck you? What are you thinking? Am I just on
dispay like a toy or a piece of candy? Next day you walk down
the street and no one whistles at you and you think, I must
look really ugly. Like I said, I never meant it to be any
kind of feminist statement, but little girls really get into
it, they go "You kicked ass!"
"Just A Girl" is one of the few songs on the album
that isn't about your break-up with Tony Kanal. How did you
two get together in the first place? It was 1987 and Tony
had just joined the group. We played this party and I knew
this was the night I was going to try and kiss him. Me and
Tony were walking home and I said "Kiss me", and
he wouldn't. and I sai, "But we're in a group togheter
and I want it so bad." Finally, we kissed down the block.
Tony thought that it meant nothing but I was totally in love.
Was he your first? First what?
First sexual exp... I would never tell you that! Are you crazy?
I would never tell anyone that. I have pretty strong feelings
about that. If any girls were to ask me what my advice would
be, completely wait as long as possible, wait till you're
married. I think it's really a scared thing. It's different
when you get older and you have a boyfriend. Like, i'm 27.
It's such a blessing that God gave us, we should be able to
respect it. I'm not going to talk about that stuff any more.
Sorry to make you uncomfortable. You're just being a journalist.
Oh well, since we started down that path, how did you and
Tony break up? We knew things weren't right, and I'd be like,
"Obviously something's wrong and you don't want to be
with me." But Tony didn't want to hurt me and we didn;t
want to break up because we had to be in the band together.
We finally broke up but we would kiss at times. I was so desperate
for him. Then one night I met Gavin...
Gavin who? Just kidding. Go on. I met him a couple of Christmases
ago and he told me that he thought I was gorgeous. When I
found out we were going on tour together I really had an anxiety
about it. I thought I'd have to hide in my bunk. Just the
whole idea of Tony being there and there's this guy who might
have a crush on me. Then it was three days into the tour and
we werein New Orleans, it was Mardi Gras and there was this
huge party for our bands and we just had such a crush on eachother
even though we didn't really know eachother. It had just built
up since Christmas. the we kissed that night.
You both used to say that you were just good friends. Our
relationship has grown; we see each other whenever we can,
we talk on the phone every day, we're becoming more and more
real - before we weren't. When we were on tour it was really
hard - I couldn't hang out with Gavin because Gavin and Tony
hate eacthother. It's hard for Tony. I don't know what's going
to happen when he gets a girlfriend. Maybe I'll freak out.
I want him to be in love. I want him to be happy. I love him
December 12, 1996: the day after "Tragic Kingdom"
has gone to number one on the US charts, No Doubt have just
finished a show in the post-apocalyptic environs of Asbury
Park, New Jersey. Throngs of excited patrons wait outside
the dressing room. Gwen goes out to sign proferred merchandise.
Tony Kanal sinks deeply into a chair and mutters, "I'm
not going out there." A few fans peer in through the
window. "I feel like a monkey," he says. This is
what happens when not only you ex-girlfriend became a universally
adored pop idol, but also people routinely regard you democratic
unit as a pouty blonde's backing band.
"I feel like a monkey"? Tony Kanal : It's a lot
different for Gwen because they are all looking at her. Whereas
we're getting her leftovers. So I'm not going to fool myself
and say, "Yeah they're looking aat me", when they're
not. It's not me that drives all these people crazy when I
walk out on stage. Oh grea, here's the bass player, then here's
You deal with this problem in the remarkably self-aware "Don't
Tony : I'm very proud of that video. I think it made everyone
in the band really realise how everyone felt and I think,
for us three, for us to know that Gwen realises what's going
on is very important because sometimes its esy to think that
she doesn't. I think the video made it pretty clear that she
knew what was going on. Her guilty look when she looks at
us and she's doing the photo by herself is brilliant. That
look tells a million words. Gwen : We were actually fighting
about stuff while we were filming and my dad was standing
there. I remember I said the f-word and my dad was right there!
March 5, 1997 : "Best Rock Album goes to... Sherly Crow!"
Gwen and her brother Eric sit it the audiende Both applaud
politely. "Best new act goes to... LeAnn Rimes!"
No Doubt are at the side of the stage, having just finished
their number. The male contingent is clad in Tommy Hilfiger-customized
Devo-esques jumpsuits and insectoid dark glasses. They immediately
turn and troop back to their dressing-room. "Boo hoo,"
March 14th, 1997 : Gwen's on the phone from Belgium. It's
one in the morning and she's wearily tying up a few loose
ends for me. I mention that while in the past she's dismissed
the very idea of her start status, she now exhibits signs
of her having lost her celebrity virginity. I bring up a recent
occasion when, informed that Steven Meisel wanted to photograph
her for US Vogue, she retorted, "I'll do it if I can
have the cover." Recalling the moment, she says: "There's
only so many days in a year, there's only so much energy in
my body and I have to pick and choose what I do. I want to
be in Vogue, but if I'm going to put that much effort into
the photo shoot I might as well have the cover. In the early
days you have so much energy, you're like 'Yeah, I wanna do
that', but now I get more excoted about sleep."
Point taken. Before she conks out, I ask if the once very
prevalent little girlie-girl side of her is now in abeyance.
"I've grown up," she says. "I love being 27.
Becuase I grew up in a family that was so perfect in its way
of being traditional - church every Sunday and four kids and
we all get along - I was always in this little nest. I always
felt like a kid forever. Now I finally feel like I have my
own life. It's got a lot to do with the fact that I away all
the time, and they're at home, and I finally have accomplished
something. I feel at thus age and at this time in my life,
that I'm finally doing what I'm supposed to do. Which sounds
cheesy, but I'm so comfortable and maybe it won's lasy or
it'll last a couple of years or whatever, but for right now..."
There are a few seconds' silence and I figure she's dropped
off. Then she returns to the phone, yelping with enthusiasm.
"Oh my God, dude, you have got me at the best time! It's
Sggs on TV in a red suit singing a dance version of 'Welcome
To The House Of Fun' and he's a little bit chubby. Oh my God,
dude, he's so rad and that was so not good but I love him.
'Suggs, give it up for Suggs,' they're saying..." Guess
that little girl's not quite ready to throe in the towel just
(Article inset) No Doubt: a bluffer's guide
1. The group was formed in 1987 by Eric Stefani and John Spence
2. Gwen was drafted in to sing harmonies with Spence. She
found her voice by singing along to "On My Radio"
by The Selecter. Among the group's early-days repertoire was
"One Step Beyond" by Madness and "Gangters"
and "Little Bitch" by The Specials. 3.You may not
have heard of them until recently, but in America they are
massive. "Tragic Kingdom" has sold eight million
copies; "Don't Speak" was the most-played song on
US radio last year. 4. John Spence committed suicide in December
1987, shooting himself in the head. "He had a lot of
problems," recalls Gwen. "He had a huge stage presence
but he couldn't sing. It's really sad when you look back -
its like fuck, if we'd just let him sing..." 5. Trumpet
player Alan Meade took over as No Doubt's main vocalist but
decided to quit after getting his girlfriend pregnant. This
left Gwen Stefani as the sole singer. 6. The group were signed
to Interscope by an A&R man who used to work with Madness.
In 1991, they released their debut album. It sold over 25,000
on southern Califonia and not a bean anywhere else. 7. Interscope
kept the group in a state of suspended animation, refusing
to green-light a second album, so they released a privately-distributed
album, "The Beacon Street Collection". They started
work on "Tragic Kingdom" in 1994. 8. Eric Stefani
quit and went to work as an animator for The Simpsons. Eagle-eyed
viewers ought to be able to pick out cartoon versions of the
group on particular episodes from 1996 onwards. 9. The group
were traded in 1995 from Interscope to new label Trauma which,
at that time, numbered only Bush in its catalogue. 10. "Tragic
Kingdom" entered the US album charts in the first week
of 1996. It went to number one in the middle of December.
11. "Don't Speak" was number one in seven European
countries. 12. The father of the personal trainer Gwen Stefani
used while in the UK wrote the "You can't get better
than a Kwik Fit Fitter" jingle.