No Doubt might as well change their name to No Rules for their upcoming album. Rock Steady, due December 18, is a scattered collection of pop, rock, rap and reggae songs produced by everyone from Prince to Dr. Dre.
Singer Gwen Stefani, all smiles talking about her band’s fifth album during the video shoot for the all-star “What’s Going On” remake, explained how her band of brothers returned from Saturn with an urge to do something different.
“After 14 years of being a band, you build all these rules up,” Stefani said, adjusting her shiny No Doubt belt buckle. “That’s not what it’s about. So we decided that if any cool, talented people came along and wanted to work with us, not even necessarily for the record, we would do it.”
The group’s boundaryless approach landed them on the sunny shores of Jamaica, where they explored cutting-edge reggae and retro ska styles with renowned knob twiddlers Sly & Robbie and Steely & Clevie (Shabba Ranks).
“Dancehall is what’s hot now,” Stefani said. “We listen to so much of it, we said, ‘Let’s try to write something like that.’ And these legends wanted to work with us. They didn’t think we were lame. We had a magical experience.”
“Hey Baby” – which emerged from their sessions with Sly & Robbie and features Kingston, Jamaica, rapper Bounty Killer – is Rock Steady’s first single. The song’s video will be shot later this month.
The group also spent time in a London flat working with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and in Minneapolis at Prince’s Paisley Park studio.
By the time recording wrapped last month, Stefani and crew – guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young – had also worked with Dr. Dre, former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek (Weezer), the Neptunes, Timbaland, William Orbit (Madonna) and Nellee Hooper (BjÃ¶rk).
“It was so spontaneous,” Stefani said. “Everywhere we looked we kept running into really talented people who wanted to work with us. It was rad. Suddenly we had this record full of many different angles and personalities that come together to make something really fresh-sounding.”
“Underneath It All,” the group’s collaboration with Stewart, was written at record pace, Stefani said. “What I learned from it is that you can write a good song in 10 minutes.”
Prince’s effort, “Waiting Room,” stems from sessions for last year’s Return of Saturn, which featured the hit “Simple Kind of Life.” The Artist, as he was then known, duetted with Stefani on his 1999 album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and promised to return the favor by producing a track for No Doubt.
“We sent him and a demo and… it’s so funny how things work out,” Stefani recalled. “We fly in and get off the plane and someone hands me a phone and says, ‘Prince needs to talk to you.’ He’s like, ‘I had to rewrite it. You’re going to like it.’ He rewrote the whole thing, sang it, played on it, everything. It didn’t fit anywhere on Saturn, but it fits perfectly on this one. I re-sang my vocals, we added stuff and made it No Doubty.”
Rock Steady doesn’t contain much of a common thread, musically, but Stefani said the wide range of songs have the same vibe.
“When I write songs, it reflects what I’m going through,” she said. “I’m in a really good mood. I had a great year. Me and the guys, our relationship is more intense than ever.”
Stefani characterized the album as nothing less than a big party. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, however, she wonders if now’s the right time for happy music.
“It was weird because we’d made this upbeat party record,” Stefani said. “We were flying high, so excited, and then we see all this craziness on TV. It made the record feel small.
“I thought a lot about where our record fits in. Is it appropriate? I thought, ‘What can I do?’ I can’t dig people out. The only thing we can do is our music. That’s our gift. Hopefully, it can help people escape. They can put on our party record.”
Before No Doubt hits the road with U2 in November, Stefani will join Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige and others performing Motown classics at Thursday’s City of Hope benefit concert in Los Angeles.