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Cover Story: Dreamcar

| April 1, 2017 | 0 Comments

Dreamcar (from left: Adrian Young, Davey Havok, Tony Kanal and Tom Dumont) Photo by Steve Erle

The universe may seem unfathomably complex. But sometimes, it’s much simpler – and more understandably linear – than we could ever dare to imagine.

A couple of decades ago, for instance, No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal bought himself a house in Los Angeles, and unwittingly became the owner of an initially feral cat left behind by a previous tenant. Since she viewed his back yard as her home turf, he began feeding her, named her Kitzie, and gradually trained her to be an indoor cat. “So she basically moved in and we became good friends for many years, and she lived with me until she….she passed, I guess,” he says. His pause signifying the closure he never got once she disappeared one rainy night, even after he consulted a pet psychic in answer-seeking frustration.

Cut to 2004, when the musician and his missus, Erin Lokitz, rescued three kittens from the same litter, Donatella, Jupiter, and Waffles, who quickly proved himself to be the alpha-male instigator of any feline mischief. And all three sleep with Kanal in bed every night, one on his head, another beside him, and the third in his arms. “They’re still with us, and they’re going to be 13 in May,” he adds, proudly. “They’re a part of the family, and they were our kids long before our human kids came along.” But the couple has raised their daughters Coco, 6, and Saffron, 3, to treat the pets like siblings. “And obviously, being the animal-rights proponents that we are, that’s been a big part of my daughters’ growing up – having them respect all species,  and seeing that firsthand with our cats I think is a great life lesson for my girls,” he reckons.

What does this have to do with Dreamcar, you may ask?  The surprise supergroup that Kanal quietly put together over the past three years, featuring himself on bass, plus fellow No Doubt members Adrian Young on drums and keyboardist/guitarist Tom Dumont (sans Gwen Stefani, who is currently pursuing a solo career and a stint on TV singing competition (The Voice) and the unexpected addition of AFI frontman Davey Havok on vocals? Everything or nothing, depending on how you view the synchronicity of daily events, it appears. Because the Dreamcar debut disc for Columbia feels as if it was simply fated to serendipitously coalesce; It’s awash in playful ‘80s Gothic/New Wave riffs and melodies, often recalling the retro-chic brilliance of Bauhaus (“All of the Dead Girls”), The Cure (“Kill For Candy”), Human League (“Slip on the Moon”), Duran Duran (“Don’t Let Me Love”), even The Thompson Twins (the slap-and-pluck funky “The Preferred” and “On the Charts”). With – given Havok’s preference for the darker side of that halcyon decade’s music – a little Wayne Hussey/Mission and Andrew Eldritch/Sisters of Mercy thrown onto the shiny coffin like so many dying roses (“The Assailant,” “Ever Lonely,” “Show Me Mercy”). Without Kanal’s deep, abiding love of animals, it’s a summit meeting that might never have taken place. So why question kismet, he’s always figured. Just go with it.

Just as their first daughter was born, the musician and his wife made the wise decision to completely change their diet and go vegan. “So my kids were brought up vegan, with a respect for all species, because we don’t – as humans – have the right to exploit those species,” he declares, adamantly. “And they have to respect the cats, because the cats were here before them.” The kids never catch a whiff of KFC while passing by a restaurant and beg dad to drive in.

“They wouldn’t say that because we don’t go to KFC. They also know the truth behind what happens to those animals, because we have those conversations. And those were the conversations I had with my parents (Kanal’s folks hail from India, although he was born in the city where they first immigrated, London, England), but it took me 35 years to understand how much suffering goes into the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the entertainment that we sometimes partake in. So for me and a lot of my friends who are also raising vegan kids, those discussions of compassion are a very important component of their upbringing. So we don’t limit our compassion – we extend our compassion to all species,” he adds. “There’s no, ‘Oh, we love our dogs and cats, but yet we eat these other animals.’ That makes no sense, especially when you have a choice not to do so.”

As a staunch vegan, Kanal started frequenting hip Los Angeles eateries whose menus catered to that lifestyle. Meanwhile, No Doubt went on hiatus, Stefani stayed busy in her own demanding realms, and the members – instead of twiddling their thumbs — began working on new music without visualizing her as its mouthpiece. And who should he bump into on a regular basis at various vegan restaurants but Havok, who had recently relocated to Hollywood and was himself a firm animal-rights activist, living a straight-edge existence that also precluded alcohol. The AFI leader also had three separate lines of vegan clothing, was voted PETA2’s Sexiest Vegetarian two years running, and recently appeared nude in one of the organization’s anti-fur print campaigns. The duo’s conversations at first were cordial but simple, with both just discussing the various albums they had been listening to or films that they’d seen. Then it gradually began to dawn on Kanal – the new vocalist they might soon be auditioning wouldn’t need an audition at all. He was right there in front of him, eating the same healthy food, coming from essentially the same sonic background, and thinking the same envelope-pushing experimental thoughts.

The No Doubt team had come up with four melodic ideas that it was proud of. So rather than blindside Havok with them over lunch, Kanal and pals invited him out to dinner, which felt almost like a first date. They were no stranger to Havok’s performing prowess – his techno-punk side project Blaqk Audio had opened for No Doubt at the Universal Amphitheatre in 2012, and the members, watching his set from the side of the stage, were suitably impressed. So that fateful evening, Havok was asked about joining the new group, although they weren’t even sure it was a group yet, and he was handed the four snippets of music. Busy as he was with a new AFI effort underway – the new AFI (The Blood Album), he nevertheless pounced on the chance to see where the trio’s as-yet-unformed concept might lead. “And in a couple of days, he sent us his ideas back, and the rest is history,” says Kanal. “We got in a room and started working on stuff, and all four of those initial ideas made the album. Then we went on to write 25 more ideas together, so we had close to 30 songs, of which 12 made the album.”

There were two difficult aspects to launching the franchise, Kanal, 46, explains. The first was secrecy, recognizable musicians from two such high-profile groups getting together in an L.A. studio without arousing any ‘What are these guys up to?’ suspicion. The music came easy. The camaraderie came easy. Playing organic, unforced music together in one room came easy. But keeping it all on the down-low did not. But over nearly three hush-hush years, the quartet mapped out its retro-hip ‘80s-reverent path, and put the finishing touches on its eponymous full-lengther, which it will be premiering via a handful of West coast club dates, which Kanal couldn’t wait to play.

“We haven’t done clubs for a long time,” he sighs. “So I’m excited to get back onstage so my girls can see me play and go, ‘Oh – so that’s what my dad does.’” Still, there were a couple of close calls, where certain outsiders nearly caught on to the truth. Like the time in 2015, when all four performers left their studio sanctuary (where Tim Pagnotta was producing) to grab some coffee at a nearby roastery. “The kid who was working there kind of put it all together, but we were like, ‘Oh, we’re just hanging out,’ but he still suspected something more,” he adds.

“But for the most part, we were able to keep it secret for a really long time.”

The second obstacle? Kanal laughs. Believe it or not, the simple act of choosing a name. No sooner had they settled on a particular moniker than they would discover that it was already being used by another group elsewhere in the world, or that – upon reflection – it didn’t sound so cool after all. Sometimes it took a significant other chiming in, calling it the worst title they’d ever heard, to dissuade them from proceeding with it. Eventually, it was up to Havok to choose the winning Dreamcar, perhaps a subtle homage to Peter Murphy’s old spinoff with the late Mick Karn, Dalis Car. But one thing’s for certain – Dreamcar allowed Havok to stretch his full vampiric wingspan, as he flutters Bela Lugosi-like over the group’s often upbeat Modern English-textured tones. And Kanal loves that light/dark contrast.

“I think Davey gets to explore different things with Dreamcar that he doesn’t necessarily get to explore with his other different projects,” says Kanal, a longtime fan of legendary, bass-heavy ‘80s outfits like The Cure, New Order. “So for all of us, this has been a great creative exercise in experimentation, where we got to do things without any limits. Because nobody knew about the band, there was no expectation for so long. We didn’t have a record company that we had to run stuff by, we didn’t have a manager that we had to play stuff to. We were just doing this for the music’s sake. So it was like, ‘Does that sound cool, doing that?’ ‘Yeah. That sounds cool.’ ‘Okay, good.’ So we got to follow our passion, our seeds of passion that were growing. And for four guys that have been in the music industry for such a long time, to press the reset button and start fresh with our creativity?” He sighs. “That is a really rare thing to happen.”

Asked to pinpoint his ‘80s desert island discs, the bassist gets uneasy. He hates that question because he’s certain that he’ll make several glaring omissions that he’ll truly regret later. But he arrives at some interesting choices, like Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s underrated debut Flaunt It, plus classic sets from his hero Prince, like Under the Cherry Moon and the adventurous Around the World in a Day. And he admits to being on a huge Thompson Twins binge for the past several months (“My wife can confirm this,” he adds). Which led to some of the edgier mixes he attempted at Pagnotta’s urging, like the funky fretwork heard throughout “On the Charts.” His initial plan was to waive his No Doubt technique for Dreamcar, and switch to more straightforward, Peter Hook/Simon Gallup basslines instead. But the producer pushed Kanal to add undulating slap-and-pluck filigrees to said track for that vintage Tom Bailey/Alannah Currie feel. And oddly enough, it works perfectly.

Havok, for his part, keeps the wordplay moody, ethereal and decidedly non-specific. The thundering chorus of “I Confess,” for instance builds from skeletal verses yet only hints at any kind of confession – the perfect Gothic-cathedral metaphor to conjure up a miasmic sense of mystery without having to get political or even explain itself in too much detail. The singer penned all the lyrics, and penned them fast, says an awestruck Kanal, sometimes overnight. Ergo, listeners can get suitably creeped out by Dreamcar without fully comprehending why. Or how. And he’s suitably proud of the album, he says. His litmus test? He can still play it, over and again, without once getting tired of it. But he wants to clarify one thing.
“We never set out to make something that people would refer to as ‘80s-sounding,’” Kanal swears. “It was more like, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ But I think inevitably, because we grew up during that (New Wave/Post-punk) movement, that time was so much a part of the fabric of our lives, it was influential and inspiring. Because those are the years when you’re a teenager and that stuff just really embedded itself in us. So it’s going to come out. And it’s good to acknowledge that, and that was just the natural direction that we started going in. There was never an overriding concept of what the band would be – it’s only now that we can look back and see that that was the direction it took, although we never intended it. It just kind of came naturally.”

And what of No Doubt? On March 14, Kanal celebrated his 30th anniversary with the band by posting an online clip recalling how former member Chris Webb invited him to the future supergroup’s first club show, and suggested that he try out as their new bassist. Again, kismet – by the next week he had joined Stefani, whom he would wind up dating, then breaking up with, ironically leading to some of the group’s biggest heartfelt hits. So No Doubt, will continue – ahem, no doubt – with its schedule not only dependent upon Stefani’s, but that of Dreamcar, as well. The album is that good, their future that rosy.

“When you’ve been playing music for a long time, you just realize that what you do is, you keep putting out stuff, you keep working to create this continued history and legacy,” he says. “And Dreamcar is now a part of that. And I am so proud of what we accomplished, and how we got to this point.”

Through a serpentine journey that all started with a feral tabby. And Yes, the zenlike Kanal wholeheartedly agrees, everything in life happens for a reason. One that perhaps only the universe understands at that particular meowing-at-the-back-door moment. But he’s comfortable with not knowing. “I don’t think we can ever figure it out,” he says, comforting himself in the process. “We only get glimpses of clarity every once in a while…”

– Tom Lanham

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