No Doubt talks ‘Tragic Kingdom’ at 25: The tears, tours and triumphs behind the classic album
OCRegister – Gwen Stefani, Tom Dumont, Adrian Young and Tony Kanal reflect on No Doubt’s third album, “Tragic Kingdom,” which came out on Oct. 10, 1995, and its slow, steady rise to No. 1.
On Oct. 10, 1995, No Doubt’s third album, “Tragic Kingdom,” was released.
The Anaheim-based band — comprised of vocalist Gwen Stefani, guitarist Tom Dumont, drummer Adrian Young, bassist Tony Kanal, trombonist Gabrial McNair and trumpeter Stephen Bradley — feared that the record would never see the light of day. The label had gone through some changes and they’d been shuffled in and out of nearly a dozen Los Angeles area recording studios during the album-making process. They’d also received less than enthusiastic sales of their eponymous debut back in 1992 and a self-released follow-up, “The Beacon Street Collection” earlier in 1995.
“We were really compelled to make that record; it was so important to us,” Dumont said during an interview from his Long Beach home last week. “It’s the honest truth that we didn’t expect it to break through and become a success at all. We were writing the album in such a naive, but good, way. We were writing it for ourselves and to prove something only to ourselves and to make songs that we loved.”
THE SLOW, STEADY CLIMB TO NO.1
Though it came out in 1995, it wasn’t until December 1996 that “Tragic Kingdom” finally peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, where it spent nine non-consecutive weeks at the top. The album also spawned numerous singles including “Just A Girl,” “Spiderwebs,” “Don’t Speak,” “Excuse Me Mr.” and “Sunday Morning.” The record put Orange County and No Doubt on the map as one of the area’s most commercially successful musical acts.
“We were on tour during that time, and this was pre-email and all of that, but I remember going down to the lobby of the hotels we were staying at and getting the faxes from management that had the charts,” Kanal said. “We’d be in some faraway place, somewhere in the middle of the night jet-lagged, and I just remember the fax machine with like that thermal paper. When we got it, it was wild just to see that thing slowly climb the charts.”
In 1997, “Tragic Kingdom” was nominated for best rock album and the band was nominated for best new artist at the 39th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The next year, the single “Don’t Speak” was nominated for best pop performance by a duo or group and up for song of the year. Each single included a music video that received heavy play on MTV and the band became winners and performers at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Following that successful run, No Doubt released “Return of Saturn” in 2000 and went on to win a pair of Grammy Awards with 2001’s “Rock Steady.” Stefani embarked on a successful solo career that included a Las Vegas residency and Dumont, Kanal and Young each had their own projects, including forming a supergroup with AFI vocalist Davey Havok dubbed Dreamcar. The band did come back together for “Push and Shove” in 2012. However, No Doubt has been inactive since 2015 following a short string of festival shows, including Kaaboo Del Mar.
GETTING ON THE RADIO
Since the band hailed from Southern California, one of the biggest, most gratifying moments came when the songs were added to the regular rotation at The World Famous KROQ 106.7 FM, a station all members of the band grew up listening to.
“I just remember [someone at the station] saying, and this a literal quote, ‘It’s going to take an act of God to play No Doubt on KROQ,’” Stefani said during a phone interview before heading off to film a new season of “The Voice” in Los Angeles. “So, I guess God is real because they played it. I remember calling in and requesting, like a hundred times, for them to play ‘Just A Girl.’”
Former KROQ Kevin & Bean Show co-host Kevin Ryder recalled the first time former programming director Kevin Weatherly played “Just A Girl” for the crew and told them he wanted them to play it on the morning show. Back then, he said, it was heavier punk rock and grunge bands like Bad Religion, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden that dominated the airwaves and the station was actually beginning to receive complaints from fans that there were no female artists being played.
“I remember listening to that song, ‘Just A Girl,’ and just going ‘YES!,’” Ryder said. “I was really happy about it, and ‘Just A Girl’ is a song that punches you right in the face, which was exactly what we needed from a band that was fronted by someone like Gwen, who was just a fireball. No Doubt was ska-ish and that was not at all what was mainstream at the time. But I was so happy to have that song because it was good, it was very different from what else we were playing and it was coming from a female-led band.”
No Doubt had been on the road for the “Tragic Kingdom” world tour when the album was released and the band stayed on the road for two and a half years. From the time they left Anaheim in the summer of 1995 to when they returned in November 1997, their entire lives and the trajectory of the band had completely changed.
“To put that in perspective, we circled the globe three times,” Young said of that tour during a phone chat. “We went from small clubs to theaters, then some arenas.”
The band performed two sold-out shows at The Pond [now Honda Center] in Anaheim on May 31 and June 1, 1997, which were filmed for the live concert DVD “Live in The Tragic Kingdom.”
Young also recalled the first time they heard themselves on the radio while out on the road and staying in a hotel in Provo, Utah.
“It was exhilarating,” he said. “I remember vividly that there was a lot of hugging going on.”
The success came as no surprise to No Doubt’s agent, Mitch Okmin, who first saw the band live at Prince’s Grand Slam club in Los Angeles in the early ’90s.
“They were just such a great live band,” he said during a phone interview. “I always knew if somehow they got the luck of radio airplay, or at that time they got play on MTV, that they’d take off. Because they’d been playing for years and had honed a really great live show and that’s what really makes careers — being great live.”
THE HOUSE ON BEACON AVENUE
All members of the band agree that a lot of the magic from “Tragic Kingdom” stemmed from all of the hard work, late-night hangs and demoing sessions done at their band house. The four-bedroom, single-story tract home on Beacon Avenue in Anaheim, just a few blocks away from Disneyland, served as the band’s home base. It originally belonged to Stefani’s grandmother, and after her passing it was inherited by her parents.
Somehow, she and her brother, Eric Stefani, who was the principal songwriter of the band at the time, convinced their parents to let them turn it into their musical sanctuary. Midway through the songwriting process for “Tragic Kingdom,” Eric decided to pursue other interests, including animation and he eventually went to work on “The Simpsons.”
“When Eric left, it was a real pivotal moment for the rest of us, because he is such an incredibly creative musical genius,” Kanal said. “When he left, it created this sort of, ‘Okay, what are we going to do now?’ But that forced Tom, Gwen, Adrian and myself to step up and that’s when songs like ‘Spiderwebs,’ ‘Just A Girl’ and ‘Sunday Morning’ started coming out.”
Dumont said at that point everything else in life was secondary to the band, though all of the members were working odd jobs to support themselves, while also pursuing higher education at Fullerton College and Cal State University, Fullerton.
One night, Kanal handed Dumont a cassette tape. It had two songs on it, and he told him to write his guitar parts so they could demo them the next day in the garage, which had been turned into a makeshift recording studio.
“Tony hands me this tape and says, ‘Gwen and I wrote a couple songs,’ and I remember being in my bedroom and learning ‘Spiderwebs’ and going, ‘Okay, wow, this is really good,’” Dumont said. “The other song was ‘Sunday Morning,’ and I was just like, ‘Wow, okay these are both great songs.’ At that point, it was really exciting.”
“Those songs were written on a four-track recorder at my parents’ house in my bedroom,” Kanal added. “Gwen and I demoed those songs and that’s kind of what our process was. Everyone had ideas and then they’d bring them to the house. I remember writing ‘Sunday Morning’ and Gwen wasn’t feeling well that day and I had an acoustic guitar and I started singing, ‘Somebody is feeling quite ill…’ and that became ‘Sunday Morning.’”
Dumont said he remembers sitting in the garage studio with Stefani, trying to evoke “aspects of Devo and The Cars” in this guitar playing, as they fleshed out “Just A Girl.”
“She had a notebook of ideas and this was an idea of hers about coming to terms with growing up and seeing what challenges there were in being a female and growing up,” he said. “There was sort of this sarcastic take on it, and she wasn’t just singing like ‘Girl Power.’ She was singing it in such a clever and sarcastic way. Eric pulling away from the band left a space for Gwen to start writing words about her life rather than just singing words about Eric’s life.”
TURNING HEARTACHE INTO HITS
Stefani said that serving as a judge on “The Voice” has given her a chance to really look back, reflect and appreciate her experiences. She noted that she’s currently been inspired to write some new songs.
“Songwriting is the thing I’m the most proud of, that makes me feel like I’m worthy of something and feels like I’ve contributed to something,” she said. “It’s such a personal healing and it’s a spiritual kind of thing for me, because I really don’t feel like I’ve ever had control over it. Back then, I don’t know how we did it. We were kids and everything was just pure instinct.”
In the middle of trying to get the record out, and as the band was still recovering from losing Eric, Stefani and Kanal’s relationship fell apart.
“That time period was a painful time period for me,” Stefani said. “I was very naive. I was very sheltered and I depended so much on Tony, and then when we broke up I was like ‘I don’t know what to do with my life.’ I was so dependent on him and then with my brother leaving, I mean, I followed [Eric] around like a puppy and looked up to him and was doing whatever he told me to do.”
“Those two things were suddenly gone. I felt very alone all of a sudden, but yet these dreams were kind of coming true all around me. It was a great and amazing time, but also a sad time for me. The greatest part of it all was probably becoming a performer. Every single show, you’re out there living your truth and living those songs with the pain in the lyrics and learning to connect with the audience.”
What would have normally shattered a band actually brought everyone closer, Kanal said.
“I think back on it now and even though Gwen and I were living through a tough time with the breakup, as creative partners, that took precedence in our lives,” he said. “Even though we were going through this really emotional stuff, which obviously ended out coming out in the music, we managed to stay really close and be creative partners through all of that.
“There was this catharsis to it, and it was like therapy as we were dealing with these emotions and putting them into music. I think that’s why so many people related to the songs was because the sincerity, the pain and the heartbreak, the joy and the happiness that came out of all of it. It came from such a real place for us and we were so passionate about our band and what we were doing that it translated and people really felt that.”
IN THE SHADOW OF DISNEYLAND
The album title, “Tragic Kingdom,” comes from a song on the album of the same name and is also a snarky nickname for “The happiest place on Earth.” It’s both an ode to the band’s hometown and a nod to how Disneyland subtly creeped its way into the band’s writing and recording process since they could quite literally see the Magic Kingdom from the Beacon house.
“Every night, we could hear and see the fireworks show from Disneyland,” Dumont said. “At night, you could hear the yeti from inside the Matterhorn growl like every 60 seconds.”
“In early 1995, we played a series of grad night shows there and that was huge for us because they paid us a reasonable amount of money and we got to run around the park all night and go on rides in between sets. We also got the key to the city from the mayor of Anaheim at Disneyland, too. The whole thing with the album title is interesting because yes, we’re from Anaheim, so it worked on that level, but it also reflected the turmoil in the band at the time … there was a sort of darkness to our world as well.”
At the end of the day, Kanal said that yes, moments like performing at the Super Bowl Halftime Show with Sting in 2003, playing atop Radio City Music Hall in 1996 for the MTV Video Music Awards and meeting President Barack Obama during a taping of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in 2012 (and finding out “Different People” from “Tragic Kingdom” was on the president’s playlist) were monumental, but he mostly remembers the more subtle moments in between.
“We’d go on stage and have the best time ever and we’d go out and destroy and make it great whether it was for five people or 50,000 every night,” he said. “It’s the little things that stick with you though. Like the boring airport layovers and the bus breaking down in Prague. Those were the real bonding moments.”
“There was always a real camaraderie with No Doubt. It was always more than the music. The music was a big part of it obviously, but there was a real family bond with No Doubt.”