Fight or Flight, the new album from Hoobastank, marks the beginning of what promises to be a vital new chapter in the nearly two-decade run of the versatile L.A. band. This musically and emotionally intense work is Hoobastank’s initial release on Open E Entertainment (EMI) following a productive decade on Island Records during which they ruled the modern rock charts, crossed over big-time with the iconic smash “The Reason” and sold 10 million albums.
“The time had come to end the relationship with Island,” says lead singer Doug Robb, “and that has led to a new mindset for us. We’re older and wiser, we have families now, we’ve experienced the ups and downs that come with the territory for any successful band, and we couldn’t ask for anything better than where we are now, with new management and our quote/unquote ‘indie’ situation. We’re in a spot where it feels like we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, and that’s exciting.”
The band’s muscular and sensitive modes are both very much in evidence throughout Fight or Flight’s dozen tracks, but here, for the first time, they’ve managed to seamlessly and dramatically fuse these seemingly antithetical impulses on powerful yet heartfelt songs like “You Before Me,” “Magnolia,” “Incomplete” and “No Destination (Fight or Flight).” Other songs eloquently and unflinchingly document the struggle for self-awareness; these include such cathartic cuts as “Slow Down,” “The Fallen” and “This Is Gonna Hurt,” the first single. The expressiveness of the material is masterfully put across by the band—rounded out by bass player Jesse Charland and drummer Chris Hesse —and captured with breathtaking immediacy by producer Gavin Brown (Metric, Billy Talent).
“We didn’t want to make another record that sounded the same as our previous records,” says guitarist Dan Estrin, who founded the band with Robb in 1994. “We did our last three with Howard Benson, who’s an amazing producer, but we decided it was time to work with someone with different ideas. There was something about Gavin that intrigued us.” Robb picks up the thread: “We wanted a producer with a fresh perspective, someone who would take us out of our comfort zone in the studio, and Gavin fit all the criteria.”
The lyrics—primarily written by Robb in response to musical ideas dreamed up and laid down by Estrin and Charland in their respective home studios—tend to function on more than one level. Consider “This Is Gonna Hurt,” which erupts like a napalm attack and bears a nakedly aggressive message that begins, “I’ve been living far too long/with the feeling something’s wrong,” on the way to what comes off like a brutal blow-off note.
“I had some of the words and I liked the phrasing, but I had no emotional connection to them,” Robb recalls. “But there was a point when the band had an argument, which happens from time to time in any family, and all the emotion of that experience got sucked into the song, so that the phrases now had real meaning for me. The song now sounds like it’s about the end of a romantic relationship, but the energy and the anger came out of my relationship with the guys in the band.”
Then there’s the intensely introspective rocker “The Fallen,” which contains psyche-bearing lines like, “How’d I fall so far no one can find me?” and “My ambition is a curse/because it hides the best in me but shows the worst.”
“That song is based on certain emotions that myself and other members of the band have gone through in terms of dealing with the ups and downs we’ve experienced,” Robb explains. “It’s about being obsessed with your career and the jeopardy that puts on your personal life—relationships lost and opportunities missed. The song taps into all of those feelings. It’s not about a specific situation as much as part of an ongoing struggle: does this career define me? The answer is that, although music and my career are a huge part of who I am, they’re not everything I am. And this song falls right before that realization. As it happened, I wrote the lyric while Charlie Sheen was losing it in public—not that it’s specifically about him by any means, but we didn’t have to look too far outside of our own lives to see it happening to other people. So in that sense it reinforced the theme as I was writing it.”
Other songs had their genesis in more intimate first-person experiences. “You Before Me” embeds an expression of devotion and commitment into a sturdy rock structure. “That song was written when my wife was pregnant,” Robb explains. “It sounds more romantic in its final form, but the emotional tone was set with the original theme in mind. It’s an overall statement of how important your significant other is in your life, in the sense of, ‘I’ll put myself on the backburner to make sure everything’s OK with you.’ But it applies to all kinds of relationships, and being a parent, it hits home.”
Which brings us to “Magnolia,” another vibrant uptempo song with a tender core. “That is a very literal song,” says Robb. “Magnolia is my daughter’s name. The first line is, ‘I watch and wonder as you discover’—it’s me looking at my child as an infant discovering the world, and hoping that I find something in her that reminds me of myself. More generally, it’s a father looking at his daughter and realizing how fleeting and precious these moments are.” The rhythmic whooshing sound heard at the beginning of the song and repeated in the bridge is an ultrasound recording of Magnolia’s prenatal heartbeat—a poignant touch indeed. “It wasn’t altered tempo-wise to fit the song,” Robb points out. “It just fit. It’s one of the songs I play for Maggie, and the second she hears the guitar in the beginning, she starts dancing. Maybe it subconsciously reminds her of being in the womb.”
Robb, Estrin and their cohorts have come full circle, taking the reins of their collective destiny, just as they did back in the ’90s when, barely out of high school, they charged out of their West Valley ’hood to become part of a posse of similarly brash and versatile young SoCal hard rock bands like Incubus and Linkin Park. Now, once again, they’re challenging themselves, and they’ve responded with what stands as Hoobastank’s most accomplished and expressive effort.
“We’ve been on this journey for a long time now,” says Robb, “and we’ve come to a greater appreciation of what motivated us when we were first starting out: We play music, enjoy each other’s company, have a good time and let the chips fall where they may. It’s like a clean slate, but not in a bad way—quite the opposite. We’re no longer trying to satisfy others, not even on a subconscious level; we’re comfortable in our own skin. We know who we are and we know what we do, and there’s a certain amount of peace in that.”