In the summer of 1995, Doug Robb and his friends snuck into Agoura High School in the middle of the night. Dressed in all black, they found the set of portable stages their alma mater used for its commencement ceremonies and wheeled them through a dirt track and onto the beds of pickup trucks they’d borrowed for the occasion. The next day, they set up the foldout stages in Robb’s parents’ backyard to play their first show as Hoobastank, a metal-influenced band they’d formed about six months prior. Robb eventually returned the stages to the school, but not before using them during a massive rager that attracted teens and 20-somethings from all over the area. Among them were the then-unknown members of Incubus and Linkin Park—bands that, along with Hoobastank, would go on to produce some of the biggest hits of the next century. What could’ve easily been just another house party thrown by bored kids in a wealthy LA suburb turned out to be the beginning of a rock-music scene that was on the verge of making it big.
“I think there was a lot of camaraderie back then because it wasn't so much like if one band gets popular then we’re screwed, or whatever,” says Robb. In fact, the opposite turned out to be true. Incubus—a hard-rock band that had formed years earlier at nearby Calabasas High School—landed a seven-album deal with Sony Music Entertainment in 1996. Heavy metal was experiencing a mainstream resurgence, thanks in part to Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzfest, which launched that same year, and so-called nu-metal bands that remixed the genre with turntables and rap verses were reaping the benefits. As Incubus’s Southern California sound gained a cult following, record executives looked to its tony hometown as a breeding ground for young, unsigned talent.
“I felt at the time like, by ’97, ’98, ’99, like holy shit, now you can’t throw a rock out your window and not hit a kid in a band,” says Robb. “It became a really cool thing.”
By that point, Hoobastank wasn’t just playing house shows and backyard parties in Agoura Hills anymore. They’d also started performing at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, an after-school hangout a short drive west; the now-shuttered Cobalt Café, an all-ages coffee house several miles northeast in Canoga Park, where teens lined up around the block to see rock bands perform on the weekends; and Sunset Strip venues like the Whisky a Go Go.
“There was not a lot going on out here, and we were pretty good at blatant self-promotion,” says Robb. “I worked at the mom-and-pop record store and we used to sell tickets to our shows ... We’d have these handmade huge banners in the window.”
All that self-promotion paid off: Hoobastank was signed to Island Records, a division of Universal Music Group, in 2000. “Crawling in the Dark,” the first single off its major-label debut, landed on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at No. 3 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. It also, inevitably, drew comparisons to its more established predecessor from Calabasas, with one MTV article suggesting the band was “crawling” out of Incubus’s shadow.
“When we first kind of jumped on the national scene, [people would say], ‘Oh you guys sound so much like Incubus,’” says Robb. “I always go, ‘Look man, we’re from relatively the same part of the world, pretty close. We grew up in the same culture: skating, surfing, the same type of environment… It’s bound to happen.”
Around the same time, Warner Bros. Records signed Linkin Park, another nu-metal band whose founders had graduated from Agoura High School. Its major-label debut, Hybrid Theory, was released in 2000 and went on to become the best-selling album of 2001. Today, it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of the 21st century.
For a time in the early ’aughts, it seemed as if every alternative-rock band from the San Fernando Valley and the coastal suburbs just west of it had been signed by a major label and touted as the voice of a new angst-ridden youth culture. The small, sleepy cities of Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, and Calabasas—the last of which is better known as the playground of the Kardashians and the headquarters of the Cheesecake Factory—did for nu metal in the 2000s what Seattle did for grunge a decade earlier. Yet the rock bands that wailed about depression, insecurity, and fighting battles with inner demons hailed from some of the wealthiest, safest communities in America. How did the West Valley hometowns of Hoobastank, Incubus, and Linkin Park launch some of the most successful alternative-rock bands of the early 2000s?
Before Agoura Hills was a music town, it was a movie town. In 1927, Paramount Pictures bought more than 2,000 acres of chaparral- and valley oak-covered hills in the area once known as Rancho Las Virgenes, named for a 19th-century land grant. Dubbed Paramount Ranch, the set served as a backdrop for more than 100 studio films, sometimes disguising itself as ancient China, as in 1938’s The Adventures of Marco Polo, or 17th-century Massachusetts, as in Maid of Salem (1937). In the 1950s, Paramount Ranch changed ownership and business began to dwindle. The remote locations and relative decline of movie ranches throughout the area later made them an ideal place to hide out: Spahn Ranch, located some 20 miles northeast, near Chatsworth, briefly became the headquarters of the Manson family in 1968.
The decade also marked the beginning of a drastic transformation for the area, starting with the 1960 San Fernando Valley expansion of California’s U.S. Route 101, which cuts directly through Agoura Hills. The expansion of the highway, which begins near downtown Los Angeles and runs west through the San Fernando Valley before veering north along the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Canadian border, spurred an influx of new Agoura Hills residents and the development of its first housing tracts. Alongside the new section of the Ventura Freeway came the string of billboards that greeted commuters between Ventura and Los Angeles counties, eventually earning Agoura Hills the nickname “Billboard Alley.” Residents so loathed the moniker that when Agoura Hills voted to become its own city in 1982—prior to that, the unincorporated area was governed by Los Angeles County—its first order of business was getting rid of the billboards. (In a survey at the time, residents ranked it the No. 1 priority, according to a 1988 Los Angeles Times article.)
In the years that followed, Agoura Hills became the fastest-growing city in the county, Dave Brown, the then-president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. One reason for incorporation was fairly simple: It allowed the wealthy community to control how its taxes were spent and on which services, as opposed to having the nation’s most populous county decide on its behalf. Agoura Hills used its newfound civic power to battle state legislators and property owners to remove the billboards. It also worked to push out adult industries and other businesses it deemed unsavory, giving itself a makeover not unlike the fantasy movie sets created at Paramount Ranch. The city rebranded itself as a safe, suburban community nestled idyllically between the beaches and the mountains, like a dream landscape from a California postcard. Today its motto is “Gateway to the Santa Monica National Mountains Recreation Area,” a nod to the abundance of wildlife just beyond the cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs and upscale outdoor shopping malls.
Agoura Hills is bordered by Westlake Village, which marks one of the western borders of Los Angeles County, to the west and Calabasas—with which it shares a community center, a result of the cities’ close relationship—to the east. Westlake Village declared cityhood a year before Agoura Hills did, and Calabasas became a city a decade after that, following years of failed campaigns for independence from Los Angeles County’s zoning authority. The three near-indistinguishable cities of Westlake Village, Agoura Hills, and Calabasas, all suburbs of Los Angeles, are often referred to as the West Valley, a misnomer since they’re technically just west of the San Fernando Valley, a majority of which is under the jurisdiction of the city of Los Angeles. Each of the cities is bisected by U.S. Route 101, with much of the desirable land on either side of the highway owned and protected by state or federal agencies: The National Park Service operates Paramount Ranch and the sprawling Santa Monica Mountains that run north and south of the 101, and about 10 miles south, in Malibu, are a smattering of state parks and beaches nestled along the Pacific coastline near multimillion-dollar homes.
Like Agoura Hills, Calabasas benefited from the ability to decide how its funds were spent. (Its median household income in 1990—$66,421—was nearly double that of the county as a whole—$34,965—according to a general plan the city published in 1993.) Today, the median household income is $126,178, making it one of the more affluent cities in the county, with no shortage of gated communities. Celebrity homeowners include Drake, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and a handful of Kardashians. But part of Calabasas’s impetus for cityhood was to curb development, which many community activists felt had grown out of hand over the previous decade. Calabasas’s population doubled between 1980 and 1990, with nearly half of its existing housing stock having been constructed over that same time period, according to its general plan. Single-family detached homes comprised the overwhelming majority of housing in Calabasas—more than 5,000 units compared to 830 for single-family attached homes, and far fewer for multiple-unit apartment buildings. Both its percentage of single-family dwellings and its percentage of owner-occupied units far exceeded LA County’s average.
As Calabasas grew, so did its schools. In 1982, Calabasas High School hired John Mosley to spearhead and expand its music program. He was so successful at it that four years later, Agoura High School, in the same district, hired him to do essentially the same thing on their campus. “A lot of kids were really excited,” says Mosley, who retired in 2013. “The middle school kids, they had a dominant program for years, but unfortunately when the kids got to the high school, it was a disappointment. But when I arrived, they found they had somewhere to go.”
The program gathered support from parents, who formed booster groups to fundraise for uniforms and instruments, which typically weren’t included in the public school’s budget. “As you well know, what happens when you cut education? The arts are the first to be hurt,” says Mosley. “The boosters had to start paying for everything, and we had a nice little budget because the parents were so supportive. So that’s the key.”
While the funding came largely from parents, the motivation came almost entirely from Mosley, who is credited with cultivating one of the most accomplished high school band programs in the country. In 1989, the Agoura High School marching band was the only high school band chosen to greet former President Ronald Reagan during a ceremony as he landed at LAX marking the end of his second term, according to a Los Angeles Times article published that January. By 1990, the Agoura High School jazz band was earning top awards at national competitions like Musicfest U.S.A. While the jazz band was flourishing, the rock music scene was just getting off the ground, with some teenage musicians shifting between the two.
“What happens is every rock band always wanted a nice drummer and then they wanted a nice horn player,” says Mosley. “They wanted sax and those types of players to play in their bands to add to their music. And the jazz bands at that time all could improvise.”
Robb and Dan Estrin, the guitarist with whom he formed Hoobastank, started playing music together after competing against each other in a high school Battle of the Bands contest. “When most kids were out at parties,” says Robb, “we were at my parents’ house trying to write songs and record them in a four-track in our garage. They were all joke songs. It [wasn’t] like we wanted to get a record deal.”
Robb and Estrin recruited Jeremy Wasser, a lead tenor-saxophone soloist who studied under Mosley and performed at Lincoln Center while still in high school. Wasser played saxophone on Hoobastank’s self-released full-length debut, They Sure Don’t Make Basketball Shorts Like They Used To, which he executive produced in 1998. A year earlier, he also recorded saxophone solos on Incubus’s major-label debut, S.C.I.E.N.C.E., which has since been certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Wasser left the group after it was signed to Island Records in 2000. By that point, the music scene in Agoura Hills and Calabasas had already exploded. “A lot of the record companies’ radars honed in on this area and started to pluck out the bands,” says Robb, who is now married and raising kids of his own in Agoura Hills. “I don't know, I honestly think that's what I think happened. It was really just capitalism at its finest: ‘Oh, there’s something going on there, let’s take it all.’”
It wasn't just that the area had an impressive jazz program that eventually fed into its rock music scene, aiding the major-label phenomenon. It also no doubt helped that lots of teens in the area had disposable incomes to spend on instruments and the time to devote to music when others may have been forced to chase a paycheck. “They weren’t poor kids. They were middle-class kids who lived in a decent West Valley house, you know, who had enough money to be in a rock band, and they weren’t punk kids,” says producer Howard Benson, describing the rash of bands that emerged from the area in the early 2000s. “It’s exactly how rock music should be made. It comes out of a garage. But because in the West Valley, most houses had three-car garages, we call it three-car garage rock.” The bands that started out in gated communities, he says, earned another nickname: “Gated community rock.”
In 2003, Benson recorded Hoobastank’s sophomore album, The Reason, from his West Valley Recording Studio, where he’s also worked with acts from POD and Simple Plan to My Chemical Romance and Papa Roach. “It was weird because it was all being made in my house here in Calabasas and nobody knew it except me,” he says. “I remember hanging out with [Hoobastank] when The Reason went to radio, and it was one of those things that we both knew would change their lives. When we were making the record, honestly, I didn't think it would be anything special.” Benson believes those bands may be experiencing a revival driven in part by 20- and 30-somethings nostalgic for the music of their teenage years.
“What records will stand the test of time? I don't think the West Valley music will stand the test of time,” Benson says. “If there weren’t satellite radio and Spotify and Apple music, this stuff would literally disappear.”
Hoobastank’s sixth studio album is expected to be released this fall, timed to a tour of Japan and Australia. Linkin Park and Incubus released their seventh and eighth studio albums, respectively, last spring. (Linkin Park, through its representatives, declined to be interviewed for this story; Incubus did not respond to requests for interviews.)
Linkin Park had just completed a European tour and were about to kick off the American leg of the tour when lead singer Chester Bennington was found dead of an apparent suicide July 20 in his home near Los Angeles, shocking friends and fans around the world. Bennington, who said in interviews that he experienced childhood trauma and battled drug and alcohol addiction from an early age, was the only member of Linkin Park who wasn’t from Southern California. The singer was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, and was recruited to the Agoura Hills band, then called Xero, in the late 1990s.
Today, young musicians in Agoura Hills enjoy at least one advantage over their predecessors from the 1990s: The live music venue the Canyon, which opened in Agoura Hills in 2001 and has consistently booked local bands as openers for national touring acts like Snoop Dogg, America, and Blue Oyster Cult. “This is the stomping ground for bands trying to become bands,” says Zac Garfinkel, the club’s talent buyer, who remembers seeing Hoobastank play there years ago and eventually opening for them with his former band, Playground Audio, in 2015. “Hundreds of local bands come through the Canyon every year. … One of the missions is to build bands and give bands the chance to open up and play in front of their favorite musicians.”
The latest wave of bands to emerge from Agoura Hills, Calabasas, and Westlake Village sound less like the so-called three-car garage rock and nu-metal of the early 2000s and more like psychedelic garage-rock outfits of the 1970s. Jonathan Rado and Sam France met as sixth graders at Lindero Canyon Middle School and formed the band Foxygen in 2005, while they were still freshmen at Agoura Hills High. Roughly a decade later, they helped the band Dub Thompson, comprising two recent Agoura Hills High graduates, record their debut album, 9 Songs. (Dub Thompson was formerly called Wolf Thompson, named for the dean of Lindero Middle School, according to an interview in the Santa Barbara Independent.)
Rado says that while his band’s sound was never consciously influenced by Linkin Park or Hoobastank, their shadows in Agoura Hills were hard to ignore. “I remember [Robb] was a counselor at the Lindero YMCA. I remember that was kind of like the legend, you know?” he says. “My first job was being a counselor at YMCA at [the now-closed] White Oak, so I guess that’s carrying on his legacy.” Rado spent six years as a musician in New York, but like Robb, he eventually moved back to the area where he grew up. “I think a lot of people move away. I don't know, I mean, it’s the suburbs and it’s not a lot to do,” he says. “If you’re a creative person, you find your outlets.”
Editor: Sara Polsky