On Tuesday, Gwen Stefani and No Doubt released Push and Shove, their first album in eleven years. Bassist Tony Kanal spoke to Popdust about what the heck he did for the past decade, his disdain for '90s nostalgia, and his favorite perk of being a rock star.
The new album was 11 years in the making. What was a typical day like for Tony Kanal during the long timeout from No Doubt?
Well, we finished the Rock Steady tour in 2003. In 2003, we put out our greatest hits album and we did a little tour to support that in 2004. Then Gwen started working on her first solo record and I did three tracks on that. It wasn’t until then that I started wrapping my head around working on other projects.
At this point did you come to the conclusion out that the band was officially on hiatus?
Yes, but for how long I didn’t know. And I never expected it to last as long as it did. This album was definitely not an easy one to make. We encountered writer's bock when we first started making it. There were moments where we all thought we just hope we can get this record out. There were a few moments in the hiatus where I wasn’t sure we’d ever make a record again.
Was the hiatus discussed in long, torturous, Some Kind of Monster-like band meetings?
There were conversations about it, but part of it was unspoken and understood. We'd never taken a break before, and we’d been a band from 1987 to 2004. We were constantly gigging, and if we weren't on the road, we'd be making a record. It was non-stop, and it was time for a break. Gwen expressed interest in doing something else. But we didn’t know how long it would be.
You'd been doing No Doubt for 17 straight years, and then it just stopped. How did that mess with your sense of identity?
It was a very interesting thing to wrap your head around. You want to keep moving, but you're faced with some challenges. I know that as long as I'm working and staying creative I'm happy, so I had to keep working. It's a muscle, and if you don’t work it out, it goes away. But it's interesting when you don’t really have to, but you want to.
You didn't need the cash…
Right, and that's the tricky thing. It took me a while to figure out what to do. I worked on Gwen's record. I produced a record for a kid named Elan, I did some soundtrack work. Then I bought a new house for me and my girlfriend (Erin Lokitz, now wife). It was supposed to take six months to renovate the house, and instead it took 19. It basically consumed my life. So that's what I was doing for a couple of years. I wasn't working on music, which was not good. After that I worked with Gwen on her second record, but it wasn't until after that, from 2006 to 2008, that I really started to work with outside artists in earnest, co-writing and co-producing for new and sometimes established artists. I put myself in some very uncomfortable situations. There were plenty of days, sitting in the studio with a new artist, where I wondered, Why am I doing this? I don’t need to do this. Because I'm not the type of writer who can walk into a room and come up with a hit song in a day.
You're no Dr. Luke.
No, I'm just not that type of guy. That's a craft, that's an art, to be in such high-pressure situations and deliver hits on a consistent basis. It takes me a while to hone a song. But that experience made me a better writer, so when I came back to No Doubt, I could sit down with Gwen, who on her solo records had written with some of the biggest songwriters out there, and actually exchange melodic and lyrical ideas with her. And that had never happened before.
Really? How had it worked previously?
In the past, Tom [Dumont, No Doubt guitarist] or I would come with the chords, and Gwen would essentially come up with the lyrics and melody. Now, with the new album, Tom would come with the chords, and Gwen and I would do the lyrics and melodies together. It was the first time we've ever done that, and it would never have happened if I hadn’t had those experiences of writing outside the band.
Isn't being in a tight-knit rock band like No Doubt, where you write and play and tour together, antithetical to the way most Top 40 songs are crafted, where outside songwriters are shuffled in to supply on-demand "hits?"
That's the way I used to look at it, but now all those worlds have merged together. The rules I grew up on have fallen by the wayside. It’s a different world, and I just have to wrap my head around it. I hear bands doing songs for commercials now who never would have done so 20 years ago. Things are changing. You want to be precious about your art, but not too precious.
The new record sounds like it could only have been made by people in their 40s who grew up immersed in '80s new wave. The references sound very lived in.
Totally. That stuff is part of our DNA that we're never going to get away from, whether it's 2-Tone bands like the Specials and English Beat, or the British new-wave movement of Depeche Mode, the Cure, OMD, all those bands. Listening to those bands as a teenager, that's when I formed my identity. They're embedded in who I became later in life.
Given that No Doubt struck it big in the '90s, is there a lot of nostalgia for that era among the band members?
No, not much at all.
Even though alt-rock was so ascendant in the '90s?
I don't think about things that way. When we're grouped with bands from the '90s who are releasing new quote-unquote comeback records, some weird things happen in my head. First of all, we started in the '80s, and the '80s are much more influential on No Doubt. We weren't a grunge band. If anything, we were the antithesis of a grunge band. The fact that we were on the radio during that time was a big surprise to us, almost a miracle. Also, Rock Steady came out in 2001. Gwen's solo records came in the 2000s. I just don't feel a lot of connection to the '90s.
In August, Gwen hosted a Michelle Obama fundraiser at her home that the band, your families, and other celebrities attended. So the obvious question is, What was it like meeting Jeffrey Tambor?
[Laughs] I saw him but I didn’t meet him.
What? You didn’t buttonhole "Hey Now" Hank Kingsley?
No, but I did say to my wife to Erin, "Look, there he is!" Seriously, we've had some incredible milestones in the band’s history, and that was definitely one of them. When Gwen introduced Mrs. Obama, I was just so proud of her. Here’s my friend, who I’ve known since she was 16, hosting the First Lady at her house. This is a big fucking deal! And the First Lady was the most gracious, sweetest person. I walked up to meet her and extended my hand, and she hugged me! I was like, Okay, you're awesome!