25 Years Ago: No Doubt Go Against the Trends on Their Debut
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No Doubt couldn’t have been less aligned with the trends when they released their self-titled debut on March 17, 1992. Nirvana‘s Nevermind had recently topped the Billboard chart. Distortion, angst, grunge were in; groups trying to be the new version of the Specials or Madness were not.
But it was a love of the ’70s/’80s ska revival that led Eric Stefani to found No Doubt. The artistically inclined kid from Anaheim, Calif., had formed the group with original frontman John Spence, and he coaxed his little sister Gwen to sing backup. The band began to gain a local following before tragedy struck and Spence committed suicide. No Doubt, named for a phrase Spence would often utter, temporarily broke up.
But Eric had an undeniable creative drive and he soon reformed the group. Eventually, Gwen was promoted to lead singer. By that time, bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young had incrementally joined No Doubt. Through the late ’80s and early ’90s, Eric was the band’s primary creative force, crafting peculiar songs on his keyboard, writing goofy story songs and observational ditties about subjects like getting your wisdom teeth out.
“He’s such a psychotic genius that we just leave him alone,” Gwen said in 1992. The other members of No Doubt would often use the g-word when speaking about Eric’s talents. It seemed as if everyone in the band was in awe of the guy.
And why not? At the same time he was pushing No Doubt to become a local favorite (also helped by Gwen’s manic energy as a frontwoman), he was helping to define The Simpsons‘ visual style as a professional animator. He split his time between drawing and music until No Doubt was signed to an album deal in 1991 by the newly created Interscope Records.
But Eric’s ambition also could put distance between the keyboardist/songwriter and the rest of the band. While he enjoyed writing new songs and creating new melodies, Gwen and Tony were in a relationship, which added a different sort of bond to the band dynamic. Regardless, their memories of No Doubt’s early days have more to do the thrill of being in a band than the creative process.
“[Tony’s] parents used to own this little shop in front of his house. So when the shop closed down we would rehearse in that front room,” Gwen remembered in 2012. “It was like during the first year of the band and I just always think back to just how magic [it was]. We were children. His parents would go out to a party and we would just silly string, like dancing, like wild animals in that front room trying to write music and it was so much fun.”
Although getting signed and making an album for a major label was also fun, the reaction to No Doubt wasn’t as exciting for the band. At the height of grunge, the California kids’ slick, 2-tone sound, quirky songs and bubbly female singer were one step beyond what was in vogue. The record flopped, selling 30,000 copies in its first year. Even No Doubt’s more modest goals – like getting its single, “Trapped in a Box,” played on local station KROQ – were thwarted.
“The program director said it would take an act of God for this band to get on the radio,” Young later recalled to Rolling Stone.
Watch the Video for “Trapped in a Box”
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The band was disappointed. Eric took it the hardest, pulling away from the other band members and retreating from Interscope’s attempts to “fix” the group’s music before the next release. Frustrated by the creative interference, he encouraged the other members to take on more writing responsibility. Gwen began writing lyrics from her perspective as a woman in a male-dominated scene. A more visceral version of No Doubt would become hit-makers, ushering in the ’90s ska resurgence.
“Eric was in some ways the dad, the teacher,” Gwen told the Los Angeles Times about her big brother in 1996. “He taught me everything I know. He wasn’t happy for a long time. It wasn’t a surprise [when he left]. For me, it was terrible, but it opened a lot of creative space for the rest of us.”
The keyboardist didn’t leave the band right away, continuing to contribute through 1995’s blockbuster Tragic Kingdom (he co-wrote “Don’t Speak” with his sis). But the reaction to No Doubt’s debut made his departure inevitable. He parted ways with the band he’d created and led for so many years just before the group’s big breakthrough was released. Feeling tapped out, musically, he returned to work at The Simpsons.
“It was like being the father of a kid, and it was time to let go,” he said as No Doubt ascended to sensation status. “For the long run it worked out for the best for everyone, including myself.”
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