With today's release of sixth studio album Push and Shove, No Doubt resurfaces on a radically altered landscape. The Southern California quartet that ruled the airwaves with 1995's Tragic Kingdom released its last studio album 11 years ago, before the arrival of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the iTunes Store. The iPod had been out one month.
First Push single Settle Down, a signature blend of pop-rock, ska and dance hall, impressed critics, found a toehold at radio and suggests the foursome still holds sway with the masses.
"We didn't know that Tragic Kingdom was going to fit in anywhere," says drummer Adrian Young, 43, of the breakthrough that sold 8.2 million copies. "We're not that objective about this record, but to us, it sounds like No Doubt in 2012. Stylistically, we never have a clear idea where we're going. We cover a lot of territory. Does it fit in? We don't know."
Guitarist Tom Dumont, 44, adds: "Our goal was to be true to our past and our influences but to be contemporary. That's a fine line. We can't control how it's accepted in the marketplace. We can only be ourselves. We wanted to make a record that we felt great about."
Spirits are high in the cavernous, multistory photo studio where the players, rocking platinum dye jobs and slick attire, are hanging out.
"Once you go blond, it's hard to go back," jokes singer Gwen Stefani, 42.
The four non-brunets huddle around a laptop with director Sophie Muller to watch freshly shot footage for an upcoming video. It's another gleeful moment in the quartet's comeback season after an extended hiatus that had fans wondering whether the hit parade was over.
"The questions started in 2004," Young says. "It did get annoying after a while because we didn't have an answer."
No Doubt, founded in 1986, had no doubts about its return, but the long gap proved frustrating for them as well when Push was pushed back by writer's block, outside commitments and endless tweaking. When the project stalled in 2008, the band decided to hit the road.
"We were going to do a few dates, and of course it turned into 58, the biggest tour we've ever done," says bassist Tony Kanal, 42. "It was our most fun tour ever. The turnout was incredible."
The trek, gamely undertaken without new music, "gave us so much confidence," Stefani says. "We know they're waiting and they care. It was motivating."
'A long journey'
Push's 11 songs, produced largely by Mark "Spike" Stent, were recorded in Los Angeles from late 2009 to mid-2011.
"We got sick of wondering if we were going to finish," Stefani says. "It was a long journey, and that was mostly my fault. I had so much going on in my life."
After 2001's Rock Steady, which sold 2.8 million copies, the band released a compilation, The Singles 1992-2003, with a hit cover of Talk Talk's It's My Life, and toured in 2004 before calling a timeout.
Stefani's fame escalated with a pair of solo albums, 2004's Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and 2006's The Sweet Escape. She launched her L.A.M.B. fashions in 2003 and the Harajuku Lovers line in 2005. Her marriage to rock singer Gavin Rossdale of Bush also boosted her celebrity profile.
In the No Doubt bubble, Stefani doesn't outshine her bandmates. "She's got a lot of talent," Young says. "We get it. She's been a big celebrity for a long time. It can never be a perfect democracy, but that's how we're set up."
Unlike many band breathers, No Doubt's was amicable.
"It wasn't to cool off from each other," Dumont says. "We took a break to stand on our own feet. No Doubt had worked so hard for so many years. It was good to chill. I got married, and we had our first baby. During that time off, the band was supportive of each other. Getting back together to make music felt natural."
Stefani and Kanal teamed to craft rhymes and melodies, bringing skeletal songs to the studio for embellishment. Lyrics fell to Stefani, who relied on Kanal for coaching.
"Gwen's lyrics are always very sincere," Kanal says. "She wears her heart on her sleeve, and all that angst in her life was inspiration. The struggle on this record was about how to find balance."
The writing process "is like a Rubik's Cube," Stefani says. "Luckily, we enjoy it. Tony is always coming at it like he wishes he was in a punk-rock band. I come at it wishing I was in a dance band. Without that clash, it wouldn't be No Doubt. It's hard to please all four. Then you bring in a producer and have one more opinion."
Kanal adds, "We fight with each other through him."
No Doubt clung to its reggae-pop roots on such tunes as Sparkle while eagerly experimenting with modern sonics, dipping a toe in dubstep on the title track featuring Major Lazer and dance-hall artist Busy Signal.
"My parts were picked through and scrutinized more this time," says Young, who grew to embrace touches of electronic percussion. "I'm purist-leaning, and I got coaxed into some of it. But to not explore stunts one's growth. I discovered things I really liked. At times, instead of going back to the drum set, I grabbed my iPhone, pulled up a drum program, plugged it into the recording board and played with my fingers."
Despite creative disagreements, Push and Shove entailed little pushing and shoving.
"There's a negative connotation to the word 'compromise,' but you have to do it," Dumont says.
Presenting the album to a digitally reordered universe "is weird," Stefani says. "Before, you knew exactly how many people had your record. Now it just goes out there, and there's no way to know until you do live shows. But it's great to be spontaneous and put something on the website right now. Before, it was, 'OK, it's Wednesday, let's get the mail, read the letters, have a pizza party and write everyone back.' The new world is fun, but it's not what we're used to."
No Doubt's vanishing act probably hurt the band's career, says Keith Caulfield, Billboard director of charts.
"The cycle moves so fast now, you can't really take a vacation," says Caulfield, noting that since No Doubt decamped in 2005, Rihanna released six albums with a seventh expected by late 2012. "As we've seen with certain '90s-skewed rock acts, you can't count on the fan base from your glory days to show up en masse. You have vintage alt-rock bands like The Wallflowers and Soundgarden facing the same situation."
The band probably will trail Mumford & Sons and Green Day in the week's chart race. If Push sells 75,000 to 100,000 copies its first week, "that's a successful start," Caulfield says. "No Doubt has to rebuild a story and remind people why everyone liked them so much. In 10 years, practically two generations of young listeners have bypassed them."
A family, No Doubt
No Doubt insists that's secondary to the challenge of juggling personal and professional obligations. All four are parents, and they plan to haul their collective eight children on tour next year after a test residency in December in Los Angeles.
"For Tom, Adrian and myself, it's easier," Kanal says. "Our wives are at home. Gwen's a mom and it's a bigger sacrifice. This year has been so intense with not a moment to breathe. She's handling it well."
Stefani, whose sons are 6 and 4, agrees that the past year has been the hardest in her working life.
"My husband's been on tour for a year," she says. "It's the first time we've been apart since we've been married, and it's chaos for the kids and impossible to find balance. The good news is he is on his way home, and my entire London family just showed up."
No Doubt has sold 15.8 million albums and 4.1 million tracks to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. If its profile and profits slip in the tradeoff for happy homes, so be it.
"We never did this to be successful," Stefani says, recalling the band's scrappy start in Anaheim, Calif. "We were kids having fun, just gigantic fish in a small pond. In our world, we were successful."
Kanal measures success in No Doubt's integrity, loyalty and deep friendships.
"We're the band that played in the garage together, toured around the world together and are now raising our kids together," he says. "It's so awesome to have all these experiences that only the four of us can relate to. In another 26 years, we'll celebrate our 52nd anniversary."
He pauses and smiles. "When our next record comes out."
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