Interstellar Overdrive: No Doubt Blasts off...
Before No Doubt released their 1995 multi-platinum album Tragic Kingdom, the band would have been thrilled to sell a few hundred thousand copies of the disc. Of course, now that they're huuuuge rock stars, the stakes are a lot higher, and so are the expectations. This accounts in part for why it took the group six years to complete its new album Return of Saturn. Actually, that figures not really fair. Two-and-a-half of those years were spent touring the world in support of Tragic Kingdom, and another six months or so were spent recovering from that experience which means it really only took No Doubt two years, two albums worth of songwriting and two stints in the recording studio to craft their most diverse and revealing record to date.
The band worked on the disc in Los Angeles with big shot producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain), and by the time it was done, No Doubt had 14 tunes that range from the poppy punk of Ex-Girlfriend to the quirky electronic-embellished beerhall pop of Bathwater to the new-wave strains of Six Feet Under. Then there are the emotive ballads Magics in the Makeup and Marry Me which prove that Don't Speak wasn't just a teary-eyed fluke. In addition to featuring some pretty confessional lyrics (courtesy of Gwen Stefani), Return of Saturn includes some of guitarist Tom Dumonts most thoughtful, dynamic playing to date.
There's no question that the band has risen to the challenge of creating an impressive follow-up to a blockbuster album, but according to Dumont, No Doubt never felt crippled by any sort of pressure to produce. We never intended to have the kind of success we had with Tragic Kingdom, he explains. It was an accident, and we didn't do anything to cause it, so we don't feel the urgent need to repeat it or anything. The goal this time was to be able to look back with pride on having done something really good. It's the only thing you have control over. I'll bet you a million dollars it doesnt sell like Tragic Kingdom did.
Guitar.com: With Return of Saturn, you seem to have strayed even further from your early ska roots?
Tom Dumont: Well, when I joined in 1988, No Doubt was a ska band. But pretty much after [drummer] Adrian [Young] and I joined, there was a conscious effort to reach outside of that and not feel limited. We were in this little scene in LA and Orange County back in those days, and we played those shows, but there was a certain restrictiveness about it. It was like this clique where you couldn't break the rules, and ever since I was in the band, we always started rebelling against that.
Guitar.com: Return of Saturn is more eclectic than Tragic Kingdom. Bathwater even sounds like a Kurt Weil beerhall song.
Dumont: That whole idea stems back to our early days as well when we played clubs before we made records. It was just always fun to vary up the music. It makes the show much more lively and interesting when the songs dont sound exactly the same. When we first got signed to Interscope our A&R guy used to tell us, You need to focus. You're too all over the place. This record is probably no exception. But weve definitely tried to push ourselves into places we havent been before.
Guitar.com: Did you approach the guitar differently on this record?
Dumont: I wanted to take some of the denseness out of the sound not have quite so many guitar layers, and try to leave space for the vocals and the keyboards. I wanted to make the whole album breathe a little easier. Kind of listen to what everyone else was doing and add some spice to that instead of covering it up. I think I covered over some of the bass parts on the last record.
Guitar.com: How did you make that happen?
Dumont: The way this album evolved was kind of cool. We recorded them live in the studio, and after every track was put down, we sat down and looked at each one from a guitar perspective, and in a lot of cases we stripped out the original guitar and spontaneously came up with new parts on the spot. Sometimes in a rehearsal environment, I'm not listening as much to everyone else, and I'm not complementing them and playing lines that go along nicely with everything else. So when were in the studio and I can sit down and listen to the bass, drum and vocal together, and I can improvise new parts spontaneously that really compliment everything.
Guitar.com: There's a new wave vibe to many of the songs kind of a cross between Blondie and the Cars.
Dumont: When I was a teenager, I wasn't really into new wave. I was into heavy metal, but I was always hearing new wave stuff on the radio or on MTV. And as I've gotten older, I've developed a newfound appreciation for stuff like Devo and the Vapors and the Cars. I really like the vibe of it. And everybody else in the band was into that stuff in the 80's anyway. So, its really the kind of thing we grew up on. And no one else seems to go back to that stuff for inspiration these days, so it seemed like a unique thing for us to do.
Guitar.com: How have you improved as a guitarist over the years?
Dumont: I remember when I was growing up I was really into technique. I was really into trying to learn to sound like the people I loved to hear. Flashy solos were really important to me, and I worked on that, but I could never quite do it right. And at a certain point a few years into No Doubt, I just stopped worrying about that stuff and tried to see what I could do to make a song sound better to write parts that complement what the vocal is doing and fit in really well with the drums and bass. On the last record, there were these songs like Happy Now that had these really bitter lyrics and the music was an upbeat, rocking, party-type song. And I guess that was kind of cool in some ways, but this time I tried to be more sensitive to what was going on with the vocals. And I also tried to do new things in the studio like playing through Leslie speakers and trying out different tunings on the guitar.
Guitar.com: What kind of alternate tunings did you use?
Dumont: We restrung an acoustic guitar. Some people call it a tenor guitar, but it's basically like having a 12-string guitar without any of the main strings, just [having] the high strings on it. It has this really ethereal sound, but all the chord voicings are the same. We used it in Too Late and Magics in the Makeup. It's just a really pretty sound. And in Simple Kind of Life we tuned the guitar down a whole step to get it in the right key for Gwens voice while maintaining the integrity of the chords that she wrote the song in. And the same chords just didnt work in other voicings, so we had to tune the guitar down a whole step. And it gives it a really warm, beefy low-end. Korn and those guys do it, but its completely non-Korn sounding. It's much more of an R.E.M. approach, but it definitely has this beefiness to it.
Guitar.com: Was Return of Saturn an easy record to make? Did it create itself or was it more like pulling teeth?
Dumont: It was a little bit of both. There were times when it was long and agonizing. Before we got into recording the album with Glen Ballard, we wrote for about a year and thats a long time. We had done demos and we had one failed attempt at recording before we worked with Glen. Some songs took a long time to get right, like we had to record Magics In the Makeup three or four times. But sometimes songs would come out very easily. Bathwater and Simple Kind of Life just came out. The first time we ever played Simple Kind of Life as a band was in the studio. The take thats on the album was probably only the fourth time we ever played it through as a band.
Guitar.com: The albums first single Ex-Girlfriend has leapt out of the gate flying. Were you striving to make a mega-hit single to show everyone you were back with a bang?
Dumont: No. We have no idea how to make radio singles. The stuff comes out naturally, and certain things gravitate towards the poppier side. And half the time we rely on the objective opinions of our producer, our manager and the guys at the record label because they have much more of an ear for what might be a single than we would have. We just keep writing and writing and every tenth song maybe has that kind of single potential. It's a really lucky thing when it happens because there's nothing better than having your song on the radio.
Guitar.com: On the whole, Return of Saturn is slower and has a more reflective tone than your other albums.
Dumont: We didn't want to be constrained with the idea of having to write uptempo songs. We've been playing these things live for the last week or so, and they work really well. We still have plenty of upbeat stuff from the last record, but there are just a few more added dimensions to the music now. So, instead of having one groove or vibe the whole time theres a number of different ones.
The Sounds of Saturn
When No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont re-wrote and re-recorded the guitar tracks he had cut live with the band for Return of Saturn he effectively changed the tone of his musicianship. Instead of striving to lead the sonic fray as he had done in the past, he decided to complement the melodies, playing strictly for the benefit of the songs.
Guitar.com: What was it like to work with Glen Ballard, who has a track record as a hit maker, when you're not striving to be a hit band?
Dumont: We had met with a lot of producers, and on a certain level we knew in the back of our minds that choosing Glen would make our label happy because they like to see that kind of stuff. But when we met him, he had this really amazing, peaceful vibe about it. He was a very egoless man. When he talked about music he wasnt talking about singles, he was talking about lyrics and arrangements, and we had a really easy time getting along with the guy. It was his personality that drew him to us. Of course, it didn't hurt that hed had a lot of success.
Guitar.com: How did he help you out?
Dumont: We tend to over-write and we need someone to come in and edit us a little bit. He helped prioritize what was important in a song and strip away some of the dead weight. And he really brought out the best in us lyrically and as songwriters.
Guitar.com: Any strange things happen when you were working on the record?
Dumont: Yeah. Me and Gwen both have dogs, and she was singing in the little isolation room, and I think her dog pooped in there while she was singing. So she cleaned up the poop and went outside of the studio to the trash dumpster area. But it was behind a locked gate, and when she went in there to throw the poop out, she found herself locked in. The studio is this big, soundproofed building so no one could hear her screaming from the outside. That was pretty interesting.