Doug Robb, the crystal-clear-voiced, Southern California-born singer, performer, and frontman for the Los Angeles-based rock band Hoobastank remembers dancing in his room in his “tighty-whiteys” at four years old. He and his family lived in a small apartment at the time and Robb can recall his mother listening to what he remembers as lively Salsa music.
The sounds emanated through his bedroom door and, without even thinking about, Robb says he got up and started dancing. “I still remember that,” Robb tells American Songwriter. “Very vividly.” Something about the music got him to jump out of bed and start to move. Ever since then, Robb has existed in music, from early years making up joke songs with friends to releasing platinum records with some of those same pals a decade-plus later. And on Saturday (November 20), Hoobastank will celebrate two full decades since releasing the self-titled LP that changed the members’ lives with a show at the Whisky A Go-Go in L.A.
“When I was younger,” Robb says, “my first real musical love was Van Halen, the David Lee Roth years. One of my friends introduced me to it, then I would just listen to songs over and over again—certain songs would give me goosebumps.”
Robb remembers trying to explain to his classmates about this music, how affecting it could be. ‘Hey, you got to listen to this!’ But they’d often return blank stares to him. Maybe, he thought, he could just hear something they couldn’t. Or maybe it just affected him differently than most of his peers? Regardless of the actual, perhaps psychological or cellular reason why Robb felt more impacted by music that the kids around him, he continued to follow his instincts.
“Van Halen got me wanting to play guitar,” Robb says.
But almost immediately, he was at a crossroads. At the time, Robb says, it felt like being a professional musician meant being something of a professional athlete: you had the be the best soloist or the best vocalist; only the top one percent could make it. Robb, though, never felt like any virtuoso. He was so-so at guitar but when he met future Hoobastank co-founder and guitarist Dan Estrin, a new future opened.
“He was more into songwriting,” Robb says. “Stuff that was less flashy.”
Around then, Nirvana and Grunge music became big. All of a sudden there was less of a focus on virtuosity and more on raw emotion, evocative vocals and heavy rhythms. You didn’t have to be Van Halen to succeed. Robb gravitated to groups like Faith No More, Mr. Bungle and, of course, the Seattle bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Simultaneously, there was a burbling, burgeoning community of young musicians coming up in Los Angeles, around the suburbs of Hollywood. These bands were comprised of skate punks, non-jocks. It was a growing counter-culture that would turn into a musical movement.
“So many bands ended up getting major label deals from our area,” Robb says. “Whether they had long careers or not, there were so many. That’s when I realized the influence and the effect of Southern California.”
When something big is happening, it can sometimes be hard to tell. With the advantage of hindsight, though, one can see the influence. Groups like Incubus, Linkin Park and Hoobastank, and even others up the coast like Green Day in the Bay Area, all made names for themselves as the ‘90s broke and bled into the early 2000s. For Hoobastank, in particular, the group got its start in high school. Robb and Estrin would play, helping out other friends’ bands. Eventually, they played together in a Battle of the Bands in high school, which was also one of the only places to play music in the area for the teenagers. Later, as their friends went on to graduate, Robb and Estrin decided they wanted to keep making music. While their friends were at house parties, they were grinding away in Robb’s parents’ garage.
“We had a Tascam four-track,” Robb says. “He would play drums and I would play bass and guitar and write the lyrics. Then we’d switch it up and I’d play drums and he’d play guitar. The songs were funny and terrible. But we had so much fun.”
Robb remembers Estrin was particularly serious about wanting to be a professional musician. That helped to especially drive them. Growing up, Robb was introverted. So much so that when his parents first saw him on stage, it surprised them what he was capable of doing. To fill out the band, Estrin put out an ad in the local music paper. Robb remembers feeling a moment of insecurity. Because he wasn’t a virtuoso, he wondered if he’d get left behind if they recruited other members.
“I ended up singing by default,” Robb says. “I could always hold a tune. I understood melody and could sing along with things, like most people. But I almost felt like at the time, ‘shit, I’m going to be left out. Should I try and jump in?’ Like, ‘Can I be in the band?’”
But of course he could be in the band. As such, Robb took full advantage. His aim wasn’t so much to be the center of attention—the almighty frontman—he just wanted to keep making music and he knew that he and Estrin had great chemistry. The duo found a drummer after a few auditions and added a bass player around 1994. They performed their first show at a party in Robb’s parents’ backyard in 1995. But an overnight success the band was not.
“We played for five years,” Robb says. “We got turned down by every label and we were at a crossroads, like, ‘Shit, would we keep doing this?’”
In a moment of crisis, the band members made a decision to remember why they’d gotten into music to begin with. They decided to forget labels, forget the business and just play and perform what they loved. And do you know what happened next? They had a record contract in nine months. Hoobastank put out its debut LP, They Sure Don’t Make Basketball Shorts Like They Used To, in 1998. But the band’s fortunes shifted three years later with the release of its self-titled sophomore album in 2001. That album included the group’s breakout hit, “Crawling in the Dark,” which was the last song recorded at the 11th hour.
“We had the album done,” Robb says. “Then Dan, probably within the last three or four days, came in with an idea. I loved it. I had a melodic idea right away. I went home and wrote some lyrics and came back. The song was written in a day.”
The song became the band’s lead single from the self-titled LP, which soon hit the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart and later went platinum. It took them from touring in a van to a bus and then to touring 300 days a year in that bus for 2002 and 2003 until the release that year of the band’s biggest record to date, The Reason, which contained their mainstream titular hit. The band was now touring the world, making money. Everything was new. Today, Robb enjoys thinking about these remarkable moments in his and the band’s life. Yet, they seem almost part of another existence.
“It’s a little strange,” Robb says. “It does feel when I start to talk about it and think about specific memories, it does seem like a lifetime ago. I almost feel like a different person.” He adds, “So much knowledge has been acquired. I see things so different than I did back then. I miss that innocence for sure.”
Robb is not one to go over old tapes from the band’s shows. He’s not much of a backward-looking person. But when it comes to the future, he says, there is likely more to come from the band. He’s beginning to feel the “itch” to write. During the COVID-19 lockdown, he was focused on health and family. Now, though, he is beginning to hear ideas for new music, saying he definitely thinks something new is in the works.
“Music,” Robb says, “triggers memories that you may not have even thought of if you didn’t hear a certain sound or certain song. That’s pretty fucking amazing.”
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