Tony Kanal: Full Speed Ahead with Dreamcar

June 28, 2017

Tony Kanal shifts forward in his chair to focus on the menu in front of him, in the vegetarian restaurant just a few blocks from the venue where he is soon to perform. An adamant vegan and animal rights activist at age 46, Kanal decides on the cauliflower tacos before returning his attention to important topics such as the significance of preshow naps, the difficulty in finding an original band name in 2017, the merits of being a vegan, and his newfound appreciation for Disney soundtracks. Since becoming a father to three-and six-year-old daughters, Kanal has developed quite the palate for animated film scores, and he can’t give the album from Disney’s Moana enough praise. It might not be the conversation you’d expect from one of the most popular rockers of the ’90s and 2000s, but you can’t argue that the Moana soundtrack isn’t catchy.

While children’s songs might be one new addition to his repertoire, Kanal typically lives his life by the creed “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” From using Yamaha basses for his entire career, to keeping the same bandmates for over 30 years (guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young), to remaining loyal to his GK amps since 1988, and even to his haircut, which he’ll proudly admit he’s stuck with since the ’90s and is back in high fashion once again. It was a big change, though, when he decided to shift gears away from the pop/reggae/alternative sound of No Doubt to his take on his new ’80s-inspired project, Dreamcar. Collaborating with Young, Dumont, and AFI frontman Davey Havok in place of Gwen Stefani, Dreamcar is a new-wave outfit that mixes classic sounds with modern elements.

Photo Credit: Steve Erle

Dreamcar’s self-titled debut is a collection of 12 songs that could each be a hit radio single on its own, thanks to catchy hooks and energetic riffs. Although his big, midrange-heavy tone stands out in the mix, bass lovers might have to listen closely to determine whether or not Kanal has converted to pick playing. Fear not, finger purists—he hasn’t. That’s solidified on songs like “On the Charts,” “The Preferred,” and “The Assailant,” where his funky slap-and-pop grooves remind us of his early No Doubt days. With his newfound appreciation of less being more, Kanal’s ability as a riff writer comes out in every song. Just ask the band’s producer, Tim Pagnotta. “Tony is a songwriter first. He knows how to balance being flashy and how to hold back and do what’s necessary for the song. And his ability to come up with catchy lines is unparalleled.”

Kanal and his bandmates are currently out on their first run of shows, where they’ve decided to play small clubs, a vast departure from the stadiums and arenas that No Doubt and AFI regularly sell out. But it’s a nostalgic feeling for Kanal to revisit the humble stages he graced on his way up when his band first formed in the John Hughes movie era. Caught in a sentimental mood, Kanal spends the rest of our dinner contemplating what’s to come and reminiscing about shows and studio sessions. Unsurprisingly, he wouldn’t change a thing about the journey that has gotten him here now, but then again, not changing things is what got him here in the first place.

How is your bass playing different in Dreamcar, as compared with No Doubt?

The biggest difference is that I'm slapping and popping more than I did in No Doubt’s latter years. It’s been a lot of fun to explore that side of my playing again. And I’m loving moving between techniques in the same song. Playing parts in the studio versus playing them live are two completely different things, and discovering what is best for each song is a cool journey to be on, regardless of the project.

How and when did Dreamcar first form?

It’s been about three years in the making. I love playing with Tom and Adrian, and we have such a deep musical bond where we don’t even have to talk about stuff anymore, whether it’s onstage or offstage; at this point it’s all intuitive between us. We go on vacations with our families, our wives love each other; it’s great. We knew we wanted to keep making music together, even though No Doubt is on hiatus, but we didn’t want to look for someone to join us, we wanted them to come into our lives naturally. We had known Davey from our bands playing together for a while, and right around when I was becoming vegan, he had just moved to L.A., so we were seeing each other at a bunch of the same restaurants. We got to hanging out, and it turned out that we have a lot of the same interests and like the same music and food. That’s when I realized that he should join us to make music, and Tom and Adrian instantly agreed.

And Davey was all for it?

In 2014 the three of us invited him out on a date at our favorite restaurant (Crossroads, Los Angeles), and we sat down and asked if he wanted to work on music, and he said yes. So we sent him four ideas, and within a couple of days he sent them back, and we knew we all had to get into a room together. For the first two years it was totally under the radar; we didn’t know what was going to happen, and the beauty was there were no expectations, no managers, no record company, nobody telling us what to do or when we had to get it done. It was a great place to be creative from. We hadn’t had that freedom since No Doubt was first starting out in our garage.

Did the four of you have a vision of what the music would sound like going in?

When we started collaborating, it was just flowing. We never once talked about what kind of band we were going to be or what kind of music we were going to make. Once we had about 20 ideas, we got a manager and started shopping to record companies, and we surrounded ourselves with a great team that were all good friends. It’s made everything so fun for us.

Has this process been reminiscent of when you first started No Doubt?

Absolutely. There are a lot of similarities between starting this and starting No Doubt so long ago. It’s an open flow of creativity, but we have a lot of history now, and with that comes knowledge and wisdom. If it’s going to work, it’s going to work, and with Davey we knew right away that something cool was happening. I will say that I love getting in my car and listening to this record. Everything about it—all the parts, how it makes me feel, the rawness—I just love all of it.

Was the writing process entirely collaborative?

Tom and I had a few ideas already, so when we went to send Davey the song concepts, we had a lot in the works. But the rest of the music on the album came from us sitting in the studio together and writing. And because there were no limits to what we were doing, I could play anything I wanted to and just throw out a bunch of ideas, and it didn’t matter what they were. It was a complete freedom of expression for me as a bass player, and that’s a cool thing to have happen.

You couldn’t have done this project with Gwen because of how different the sound is from No Doubt, right?

I don’t want to say that, but No Doubt is No Doubt, and we didn’t want to do anything similar to that. And same with Davey and AFI—it had to be completely different. That’s why we think this is so cool. It’s great to step out and do something new, and for us having played together for so long, it’s exciting to write in a different way than we’re used to.

That’s a great slap line in the verse of “On the Charts.”

That’s funny because that song didn’t have any slapping on the demo version, and even up to the point when I went into the studio to record it, I had a different bass line written. Then Tim, our producer, urged me to slap on it, and so I wrote that on the spot in the studio. In the ’80s there were so many players who slapped, and those players got into me. I’ve always been big into guys like Mark King or John Taylor, who would incorporate that.

Which other ’80s players influenced you?

Simon Gallup, Peter Hook, Horace Panter from the Specials, and my bass teacher in high school. I was playing saxophone in high school jazz band as a freshman when the bass player Dave Carpenter, a senior, was graduating. I wanted to be cool like him—so when our band director Mike Stopher asked if anyone wanted to try out for bass, I volunteered. Between ninth and tenth grade, Dave taught me how to play bass (as did Mr. Stopher), and he influenced me big time. I had only been playing for about one year when I joined No Doubt in my junior year. Dave introduced me to so much great music from that time and so many great bass players.

It almost sounds like you’re playing with a pick on some of these songs.

I did try to use a pick on one or two, but I’m no good with a pick, so pretty much the whole album I’m using my fingers like I always do, with the exception of a couple parts.

What were the keys to capturing your studio tone?

I left it up to Tim. I just bring in my basses and play, and he does the rest. I ran into a GK 800RB through one Neo 410 cabinet as my clean line, and then a GK Fusion 500 head through another Neo 410 cabinet, which was my effected signal. I’ve been using GK heads since the beginning. I still have the first one I bought at Guitar Center in 1988. They’ve even rebuilt it for me a couple of times, because it’s blown out over the years.

What accounts for that great midrange tone you get?

One of my custom Yamaha BB basses is really mid-heavy, and that’s great for replicating that ’80s pick sound. I used that for a lot of the songs on the album where that tone was called for.

You’ve been playing Yamaha BB Basses for your whole career. How did you first get into them?

When I started playing I was using the school’s Rickenbacker bass, and I would take it over the weekend to play shows. And as cool as [Mr. Stopher] was, as soon as he found out about that, he told me I had to stop taking it or he’d get in trouble. At the time I didn’t have a lot of money, but Gwen’s dad worked at Yamaha in the WaveRunner division, so he was able to get me an employee discount. I borrowed $350 from my dad and got a BB1600. That was my bass from 1987 until we went to Japan for the first time, in 1995, and I found a BB3000 in a store, so I bought it and started playing it. Right about then, Yamaha got in touch with me, and I’ve been working with them ever since.

How do they customize your basses?

For 22 years they’ve either been building me custom models based on my original BB1600, or finding vintage BB models from the ’80s which they strip and put in new electronics and re-paint so I can style them how I want.

How did producing songs for Gwen, Pink, and other artists influence your bass playing?

You learn to let everything have its moment to shine and to give the other instruments their space. Everything fits together sonically in its own place, and you learn to identify that. When you’re working on someone else’s music, it’s easy to be objective, because you’re slightly removed from it—but when you’re working on your own music you can only be subjective, because you’re so close to it. Tom, Adrian, and I have always agreed on bringing in a producer for our albums so there’s another voice making decisions.

What have you been listening to lately that’s been influencing you?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Oingo Boingo. John Avila is a monster on bass! And also to a lot of Thompson Twins for the time being, but what I listen to constantly changes. That’s just this week. My go-to is always Prince, though. I listen to Prince every day, and I play his music for my daughters constantly. Talk about a monster bass player. That guy made every bass player look like a joke, and that wasn’t even his main instrument.

Photo Credit: Paul Haggard

He co-wrote and produced your song “Waiting Room” [2001, Rock Steady, Interscope].

That was a big one. I have so many amazing Prince stories. He used to come watch us play live, and he’d invite us to come jam at Paisley Park, but we were all too nervous to even pick up our instruments in front of him. On February 23, 1985, I went to see him play at the Forum, and I kept my ticket and framed it. I was 14 years old and that was the first concert I had ever been to. Fast-forward to 2011, and we were in the studio working on No Doubt’s last record, Push and Shove, and Prince was doing 21 nights at the Forum, and he invited Gwen to sing with him, so we tagged along and got to hang with him at soundcheck. I called my wife at home and told her to look at the frame to see where I sat 26 years earlier when I first saw him. I went and sat in that seat and it was a magical feeling. I told him afterwards, and he was really cool about it.

What was it like going to Jamaica to work with reggae legends Sly and Robbie on Rock Steady?

It was amazing. I learned so much from those guys, especially from Robbie [Shakespeare] on the bass side. On our song “Underneath It All,” I play the low bass line and Robbie is playing a strumming bass line on top of it. When we were recording, he didn’t let me cut and paste any of my parts, so I had to play straight through. As studio musicians you take for granted that you can just patch your bass [part] into the chorus, but he wasn’t letting me do that, so that song was all in one take. No matter if I got off or not, it was real, and I learned from that.

How would you say you’ve matured in your playing?

I’ve adapted to the idea that less is more and understated is better. Space is so important, and that’s probably the biggest thing I learned from working with Robbie. Space is just as important as the notes. He would tell me that I didn’t have to play as many notes to get my point across. My early bass lines with No Doubt were so busy, because as a kid you always have something to prove, so I was playing a ton.

What goes through your head when you’re onstage?

When everything is firing on all cylinders, I usually go to another place entirely. That’s where the muscle memory kicks in—you just go with it. Tom and I were writing the early No Doubt stuff when we were teens, so that’s real muscle memory; when you’re still forming physically and mentally, it’s part of your fiber. When we play No Doubt stuff, it’s there. And now it’s getting there with Dreamcar.

Can we expect more from No Doubt?

I definitely think at some point we’ll get back together when things align. No Doubt is a big part of my life. I’ve been in that band longer than I haven’t been.

What advice would you give to an up-and-coming bass player?

You have to be hungry and work hard at what you do. We were just tenacious when we started out. People don’t realize this about us, but we didn’t get on the radio until we had been together for nine years. That’s a long time to be doing something, but we loved what we were doing. I went to college for a little while and I was in psych classes and I was just working on the next No Doubt flyer. It was where my heart was. Love what you do, and don’t stop putting in the work.

INFO

LISTEN

Dreamcar, Dreamcar [2017, Columbia]

EQUIP

Basses Yamaha Tony Kanal Custom BB3000s
Rig Gallien-Krueger 800RB and MB Fusion 500 Heads, Gallien-Krueger Neo 410 cabinets, Ampeg SVT-810E cabinet, Audio-Technica wireless system
Pedals Line 6 POD HD Pro X
Strings GHS (.045–.105)

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