By Jonathan Bernstein (from The Face Magazine, May 1997)
(transcribed by Pamela Leader)


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 in town.

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 figurehead.

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 non-washboard tummy.

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 and Elastica.

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 so much.

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 Gwen!

You deal with this problem in the remarkably self-aware "Don't Speak" video.

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," Gwen mock-sobs.

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 yet.


(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.