No Doubt has achieved a lot as a band, including releasing several multi-platinum albums (1995’s diamond-certified Tragic Kingdom, 2001’s Rock Steady, and a 2003 singles collection) and a string of chart-topping hits (“Just A Girl,” “Don’t Speak,” “Hey Baby,” “Hella Good,” “Underneath It All,” and “It’s My Life”). They’ve launched international sold-out tours, won two Grammy Awards and five MTV Video Music Awards, and were invited to perform for Paul McCartney and the President at the annual Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. Lead singer Gwen Stefani has further emerged as a global music and fashion icon via two best-selling solo albums and her L.A.M.B., Harajuku Lovers and Harajuku Mini clothing lines. Through all the success, the band members have remained grounded by a long-standing friendship that began when Stefani, guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal, and drummer Adrian Young — bonded by a shared love of ’80s British New Wave and ska bands — began performing together in their hometown of Anaheim, CA. Their natural camaraderie, not to mention the musical alchemy that occurs when these four friends reunite, is palpable throughout the band’s new album Push And Shove — a supercharged blend of ska-rock, dancehall, and electronic pop that will remind people why No Doubt has maintained its position as one of the most beloved and commercially successful acts of the past 20 years. What follows is a Q&A with Stefani, Dumont, Kanal, and Young, in which they discuss all things Push And Shove, including Stefani’s writer’s block, the 2009 summer tour that helped her work through it, the band’s songwriting process, and how excited they are to release their new studio album.
Q: You’ve been on hiatus from recording for the last decade. Why did you take such a long break?
Adrian Young: We don’t think of it as a hiatus, because we’ve all done so many other things, both No Doubt-related and non-No Doubt related, including having eight children between us. After Rock Steady was released, we toured throughout 2001 and 2002. In 2003, we recorded "It's My Life" and released our singles collection. In 2004, we toured behind that, then Gwen put out her first solo album.
Gwen Stefani: After Rock Steady we all decided we wanted to take a break. We'd literally never taken a break. But I don’t really know how to take a break, so I was like, "Oh, maybe I can make a dance record.” It was supposed to be one record, but it turned into two. Then I ended up having two babies. So there were two records, two tours, and two babies. That takes us up to when we decided to make a new No Doubt record in 2008. Everyone says we were on hiatus, but if you do that math, we’re way ahead of schedule!
Adrian: We were making music; making babies . . . we're doers.
Q: Have you felt pressured to put out a new album over the last ten years?
Tom Dumont: It's funny, there's that classic scenario where a band's first album is always so great because they've had their whole lives to write it. Then there’s a time pressure on their follow-up records. Bands may feel pressured to release a new album quickly. I'm glad that we took our time and insisted on making our best effort. I'm inspired by my band-mates work ethic and commitment to make something really special. And I think for Push And Shove that really shows, it's an album that we're all so proud of.
Q: Gwen, is it true you had writer’s block when you tried to write a few years ago?
Gwen: I did. In 2005, I was getting ready to go on tour after putting out Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and I got pregnant, so that was a surprise. I had Kingston, then I went back on tour within eight months and did 105 shows. The month I got home, I got pregnant with Zuma, which is when I said, "Let's make the No Doubt record," and started trying to write. It just wasn't happening. I was just so depleted from everything I'd been doing. That's when we said, "Let's just go on tour and have fun." I took that baby on tour when he was eight months old.
Q: You’ve said that the inspiration to write again came from the North American tour No Doubt embarked on in 2009 — the band’s first in five years.
Gwen: Being on stage with these guys again just felt so natural and so inspiring. But not just that. To have my two babies, and to sing those songs that were about my past and be in that moment, I was brought to tears almost every night. I was still nursing, so I was a little hormonal, but it was really emotional. It's a moment in time when you're like, "Wow, so much has happened, and we're still really good friends and we still get to do this." There was no taking it for granted. That's what we put into making this record — having those moments onstage together and realizing, "Oh, we wrote all these songs that we’re playing. People know them because they've been on the radio. We can write songs, let's do this!”
Tony Kanal: We got back to what we started doing as a band in 1987, which is playing music live. That's the one thing that's always come very naturally to us. Songwriting has always been a challenge, but when all four of us are on stage together, it feels like home. It was the biggest tour we’d ever done and we didn’t even have a new record out. That felt good. It gave us the confidence to go back in the studio.
Q: What was the songwriting process like for Push And Shove?
Tom: We wrote the first song for this album, "Undercover," in November 2009, then really began writing in earnest in early 2010. We wrote the album that year, recorded most of it in 2011, and here we are putting it out. It was a two-year process.
Gwen: We wrote it in a really different way. We would get together around 4 p.m. Nothing would happen before the sun went down, but we would pretend and try. And then maybe at 9 p.m., for 15 minutes, some magic might happen. It was really slow going. That happened for a year straight until we finally got the record. There are only 11 songs, there are no more.
Tony: That was a big difference between writing this record and previous records. In the past, we’d have 20 or 30 songs and pick the best ten for the album. We spent so much time on each song, making sure the chorus was as good as the verse and the verse was as good as the bridge. If it wasn't, we'd spend weeks fixing it just to make sure it felt right. We learned that you can't rush songwriting. If you do, you're going to end up with the crappy stuff. But once the door was open, we walked right through and the songs started flowing.
Q: How do you describe the sound of Push And Shove? Critics have been speculating about whether you’d return to your ska-rock roots, retain the dancehall influences of Rock Steady, or maybe have a more electronic sound.
Tom: It’s all of the above. To me, Push And Shove is a perfect mix of our musical influences over the years, but put together in a really modern way. We all grew up listening to a lot of ’80s New Wave, like Depeche Mode and The Cure, and British Ska, like Madness and the Specials. That's the palate we draw from. This album has a lot of that, but we never stick to one particular style in No Doubt. We cover a lot of ground, and I think that's a strength. There are songs that remind me of growing up listening to the radio in the 80s, and there's a very Jamaican influence as well. It’s a musical patchwork.
Gwen: It's so great having Tom because he is the one person in the band who is really schooled musically. He can listen to a song, listen to the chord progression, and know the theory behind it. So we were able to figure out why certain notes work really well and how to create certain feelings. We had no idea what direction we were going to go in when we started making the record. We just started by listening to songs that we love and wished we had written and analyzing them. We try to sound like what we love, but we always end up sounding like us. It's the weirdest thing.
Adrian: There are a few songs where we did go back and play some ska, and it felt really good. "Push And Shove" has a really modern feel, but it also has a really old-school ska feel, especially in the verses. It's so fun to play like that again. We've talked about how great that song is going to be to play live. It's going to feel like it did when we were teenagers.
Q: Why did you re-team with your Rock Steady mixer Spike Stent to produce?
Tony: We brought Spike on board because we knew that this record was going to be a journey, and we needed someone who was familiar with us; someone we'd known for a while. We’ve done a lot of stuff with Spike over the years, including our Singles record and our relationship has blossomed
Gwen: He understands the dynamic. Because even though we do like each other, we all have huge opinions. When it comes time to record, we all secretly go to him and tell him what we want. He makes it sound like he's on your side when he's actually going behind everyone's backs. He's really good at being able to balance it out. We don't fight with each other, because we have him to go to. He’s like the wrangler. He’s really good at it, besides so many other things. We never really worked with him as a producer before. He was more of a mixer, but he would do so many things during the mixing process that would be production-type things. So this time we just said, “Let's just get him in.”
Q: Tony, you collaborated with Gwen on the lyrics on this album. What did you guys find yourselves drawn to writing about?
Tony: What would happen on a lot of these songs is Gwen would talk about how she was feeling and we would try to narrow that down to a concise, two or three-word idea. Then it would flow from there.
Gwen: We would sit and talk about what was going on in my life and realize, "That's what we're trying to say." Tony was very patient with me. I'm so hard on myself because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. He would say, "No worries, it's going to come. You don't want to work right now, come back tomorrow, we'll start again." It was really laid-back and I needed that.
Tony: I knew we’d get there. We all had the same goal, to make the best record we could.
Gwen: As far as the actual themes, there's everything from "Wow, I'm so in love I can't believe I could still be in love," to "Wow, you screwed up again," to "Wow, I'm so insecure." It's the same stuff because I'm the same person in the same life for the most part.
Q: You teamed up with Major Lazer on the album’s title track. How did that come about?
Tony: It’s the only collaboration that we did outside of the band. We were fans of Diplo and Switch [Major Lazer] before we started writing the record. We were about a year into writing when they sent us the idea for what would become "Push And Shove." It was something they'd done in Jamaica with an artist named Busy Signal and it was this really cool, inspiring start of a song. We all heard it and were just like, "This is amazing. This is going to be a great thing to work on together."
Gwen: The lyrics that Busy Signal had written were all about being a hustler in Jamaica. I was like, "Okay, how does this relate to my life? Let's see. Mom of two . . ." Because I like to write from my heart about what's going on at the time. I had a moment where we were sitting on the couch and I realized, "I know what this means for me." It ended up being the chorus to "Push And Shove." We chose it as the title because making the album was a lot of pushing and shoving, just trying to find time, and trying to make it happen.
Q: “Settle Down” is the first single. What can you tell us about that song?
Tom: Most of the songs started with a beat and keyboards, but "Settle Down" started out on guitar. Sonically, it has this huge dancehall beat plus the ska guitar, it's an organic blend of styles – both vintage and modern.
Gwen: I think the lyric is pretty self-explanatory, It’s a bit about being overwhelmed, having so much going on, and trying to glide through life saying, "I can do all this" but actually it’s more like, "I'm going crazy, I don't know if I can do all this." Everyone always asks me, “How do you balance it all? How do you make it work?" Well, I don't make it work. There are so many days when I fail. There's always someone that suffers, it just depends on what day it is. “Settle Down” is about that feeling.
Q: What are you guys looking forward to most about releasing Push And Shove on September 25th?
Adrian: I am extremely excited to play the new songs live. I just can't wait. We didn’t play any new material on the last tour. The songs on the new record are so good and so energetic, like "Push And Shove," "Settle Down," and "One More Summer." "Looking Hot " is going to be a ball buster.
Gwen: We really are a live band. That's what we've always been. The songwriting is always a challenging part, but to be able to play live is going to be the reward. Once you tour, you actually meet the people who are making it all happen, the people who actually care about you and inspire you to make music. Otherwise it just doesn't feel real. Nothing feels real until you go on tour.
Tony: That's what our tour was in 2009 — a reminder, that yes, we get to go out and play songs live and play shows and connect with all these incredible people.
Gwen: The people who care and make our music worth writing.
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