"We need this sooo badly," says Gwen Stefani in the perpetually questioning accent of a native Cali girl. "We've been in a drought for, like, years." She's talking about the rain currently pelting the greater Los Angeles area. Presumably.
On an early March afternoon, the platinum blonde singer, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail, is looking through the kitchen window of the recording studio where she and bandmates Tony Kanal, Tom Dumont, and Adrian Young have been working on a cover of Adam and the Ants' "Stand and Deliver." It's the first music they've recorded together in half a decade.
Stefani wraps her long, thin fingers with shiny, French-manicured nails around a mug of PG Tips tea. Her calf-length boots, loose slacks, and turtleneck are all black. "You get desperate trying to write new songs," she says. "Then the opportunity to sing this one came up, and now we're going on tour -- it's like I got out of doing my homework!"
Five years since their last tour, eight years since their last studio album -- the triple-platinum pop-dancehall hybrid Rock Steady -- and a seeming lifetime since Stefani became a solo megastar and fashion mogul, she and the boys are re-upping for a 52-date North American safari. If the jaunt goes as well as the band hopes, it should yield a new album. But if the limp economy (though early indicators suggest strong ticket sales) and time apart from fans prove an insurmountable buzzkill? "We can't think about that shit," says Kanal. "We have to focus on what we're doing."
Right now, that means Antmusic. A few hours after Stefani's rainy-day ruminating, the four old friends and producer Mark "Spike" Stent are assembled in the Hollywood studio, assuming playback position -- eyes on the ground, heads bobbing in time to the music. The quartet will mime "Stand and Deliver" for an upcoming appearance on Gossip Girl, whose 18 to 34, predominantly female demo just so happens to be the same consumer group whose pop-culture radar very likely has a Gwen-shaped blip where No Doubt used to be.
For her part, Stefani is no great fan of the show. "[Gossip Girl is] totally the kind of thing I would watch," she says apologetically, "but if the choice is between sleeping and watching TV, then I'm going to sleep."
The track is far from finished. Horns will be rearranged. Backing vocals will be tinkered with. The mix will be tweaked. But even in rough shape, No Doubt sound pretty much the same as you remember. At 39, Stefani's vocal style remains girlishly brash. Dumont, 41, is still a guitarist adept at layering pop sheen and metal crunch. Drummer Young, 39, and bassist Kanal, 38, have retained their gift for shining skank onto even the straightest rock beats, as well as for razzing one another.
"Hey, Adrian, how much did you pay Spike to make your drums so loud?" asks Kanal, looking up from the sofa in the dimly lit studio.
"I didn't pay him anything," says Young, his head clean shaven except for a long mohawk that's slicked straight back and dyed bright red. "I just gave him a pee-pee rub."
"That reminds me," says the tall, faux-hawked Dumont, "I gotta stop at an ATM later."
The conversation devolves into Kanal threatening to roofie his drummer before Stefani speaks up. "This is so weird," she says, beaming. "I can't believe we're all here doing this again."
But just what exactly are No Doubt doing? The band never broke up, which means this isn't quite a reunion. And they don't have new music to sell, so the trek -- kicking off May 2 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a stop the next day headlining the Bamboozle Festival -- isn't part of the usual album-tour cycle. Instead, No Doubt's resurfacing is best understood as a kind of referendum on the band's musical and cultural relevance -- a road test, if you will.
"I have no idea what we mean to people anymore," says Stefani, her legs pulled up beside her on a large L-shaped couch in the studio's lounge."I was on tour by myself not that long ago and selling out all over the world. But now," she shrugs, "do people even go out anymore? The world's gone crazy."
The fast-approaching tour has Stefani feeling certain about two things: "We'll have a blast and get some great ideas for an album." Well, maybe not certain. "Writing songs is a torturous process. I never know how I do it. The fear is always there that I won't be able to do it again. So, yeah, if the tour doesn't sell and we don't come up with anything, maybe this will be the end of No Doubt. But I highly doubt it."
To encourage writing, Kanal's tour bus will be equipped with a mobile recording studio. "We've never written on tour before," says Stefani. "I just need to figure out at what point I'll be able to get some sleep."
In person, it takes a moment to adjust to the glamorous luster of Stefani's candy-apple-red lips and near-geisha complexion. Her famously flat belly is hidden under her shirt. "I'm nowhere near in shape for the tour yet," she frets, then laughs her short, sharp laugh. "I'm only just now starting to fit into my old clothes!"
Her constantly smiling and wide-eyed son Zuma was born last August. He's with his nanny down the hall. His older brother, Kingston, 3, is at home with Dad, British rocker Gavin Rossdale. Mom has released two platinum albums, 2004's Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and 2006's The Sweet Escape, since No Doubt were last a functioning unit. "Before, when I was with the guys, I didn't even have any kids," says Stefani, an almond-size diamond sparkling on her wedding ring. "That's, like, whoa -- a huge deal. The dynamic of the band is different. It has to be." She notes, ruefully, that for the first time since they formed 23 years ago, the foursome will be traveling in separate buses.
"When you've still got the endorphins going from the show, it's so much fun to all be on the same bus, hanging out and drinking champagne. There's no way that can happen anymore. I've got two babies, and their nanny, and an assistant, and my security, and a hairdresser. It's not as much of a party, but that's what I need in order to perform every night."
Read the entire No Doubt cover story in the May issue of SPIN, on newsstands now!