Mad Axe Attack!(also published in January 1996 as a shorter version under the title 'Hot Dogstar! - On The Road With Keanu's Band!')
Keanu Reeves runs off with rock band
by Lesley O'Toole. Photos by Michael Seagal.
Keanu Reeves has consistently claimed in interviews that his band Dogstar "sucks." But they've kept on practising and playing anyway, and now they're touring Japan and the US. Is Keanu serious after all?
Think West Coast rock, and the name Dogstar doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Yet when the band played at tiny Los Angeles club The Troubadour last October, you couldn't buy tickets for love nor money. Probably not even for sex. A message on the club's recorded information line proclaimed gleefully, "Not a ticket in the universe!" Then a strange bloke cackled wildly.
The Troubadour was on to a good thing. For a time, Dogstar had something of an exclusive -- if sporadic -- residency there. The shows rarely needed to be advertised, for the band have an attraction apart from their enjoyably energetic thrash rock. Their bass player is called Keanu Reeves. The Women Who Love Keanu Too Much would call the club weekly, awaiting news of the next show and board planes from all over the North American continent for the chance to see their Love God up close and sweaty.
Keanu, of course, is not the only Hollywood babe pursuing a side career in music. Johnny Depp's band P has already signed a deal with Capitol Records when no one besides regulars at his Viper Room club has even seen them play. Brad Pitt is a self-confessed appalling guitarist while the younger, hipper thesps like Stephen Dorff and Ethan Hawke are already directing music videos. For Hollywood names in search of credibility, it seems rock will always be cooler than film. Dogstar, though, *are* different -- they're out there working at it, playing shows and impressing the vast majority of cooler-than-thou curiosity-seekers who expect to scoff.
At The Troubadour, by the time they cover The Jam's "This Is The Modern World", my cynicism has evaporated: any musicianly shortcomings are more than compensated for by their boundless enthusiasm. Gregg Miller and Bret Domrose share frontperson's duties. Miller gives all the right cocky but not *too* cocky attitude; Domrose is the band's youngest member and serious muso. Tall, gangly, good-looking Robert Mailhouse drums. And Reeves plays bass, well enough to have been invited to play -- under a false name if he liked, so his celebrity wasn't the reason -- on a Sting record. (He was flattered, but was unable to find the time.)
Like Reeves, both Mailhouse and Miller are actors. Mailhouse is best-known for his award-winning turn on the phenomenally popular US daytime soap Days Of Our Lives. He has guest starred on Seinfeld -- "as Elaine's gay boyfriend!" -- and a bevy of Aaron Spelling shows including Models Inc. He's also a young exec in the opening scenes of Speed, stuck in the lift Dennis Hopper is attempting to obliterate. And no, Reeves insists, he pulled no strings to get him the part, merely alerted him to the project. Miller, meanwhile, made his feature film debut in Who Shot Pat? opposite his band mate's later co-star, Sandra Bullock.
February this year finds Dogstar at San Diego's Belly Up club, where the audience is infinitely cooler than the teenybop posse in LA. Their numbers still feature the besotted, of course, including one poor female specimen who holds a video of Speed aloft for virtually the duration of the set. And then there are the blokes; whole posses of them trying to fathom exactly what it is about this Reeves guy their girlfriends have candlelit shrines to back home. "Huh, even *I* can play bass better than him," snorts one, failing to realise that the girl he's trying to impress is Domrose's sister Tash.
A succession of nubile young women dash onstage to grab Keanu and all but stick their tongues down his throat. There being the omnipresent threat of a besotted knife-wielding fruitcake in the audience, I ask later if he isn't at all concerned for his personal safety. He brushes off the stage invasions, not altogether convincingly. "Oh, I was the luckiest guy in the world. I know that if one of them had pulled a knife out, my band mates would have been the first to jump in and wrestle it from her hand. I'd have pointed out the culprit and said, 'Stop! Hurry! Get her number!'" Security around the band has, however, become noticeably tighter since this gig.
There is constant jesting about the Reeves-induced volume of scantily-clad, gorgeous young females who tail Dogstar wherever they go. In San Diego, literally hundreds of them prowl the corridors of Dogstar's hotel an hour or so after the show. Some, claims Mailhouse, have been given the address by their practical joker tour manager. Others have scoped out Dogstar's vehicles during soundcheck and followed the convoy back to the hotel. These girls are smart, if scary in their singlemindedness.
The morning after, we're all sitting at a restaurant just outside San Diego. The guys are a little the worse for wear. Sunglasses hide bleary eyes, Bloody Marys litter the table. "Pwooarrggh!" says Reeves, making his version of that universal babe-appreciation utterance. He cranes his neck to get a better look at the woman who inspired it, but is too shy to make any approach. Drummer Mailhouse is less reticent. When said babe gets up to leave, he sprints off to persuade her to join us. Evidently, he didn't drop Reeves' name as she never materialises.
The restaurant's remaining patrons, though, have all noticed the celebrity with the hair leaning over to one side (about which Dogstar tease Reeves mercilessly). At least ten approach over a period of time, nervously requesting the sacred signature. There's not a hint of resentment on Reeves' part, only a little embarrassment that he has to do this in front of everyone. Most movie stars in LA sign their names with nary a glance at the lowly autograph-hunter. He takes time to talk to every one of them.
A few weeks later, it's the eve of Dogstar's first major Los Angeles show. The Troubadour has been forsaken in favour of the much larger, thoroughly in-vogue American Legion Hall, and the band have been rehearsing all week in a grungy rehearsal room miles from civilisation. Over a crate of beer, they take time out to fill me in on the band's history.
Reeves and Mailhouse met in a Hollywood supermarket in 1991. "I saw this guy in a Detroit Redwings hockey sweater and I asked him about it," explains Keanu. Besides music, hockey is Dogstar's main love -- ice-hockey or roller-hockey, not the wimpy stuff we Brits play on grass. When I say that this story sounds unlikely, Reeves protests. "It's so real, it's real. Because I'm from Toronto, Canada, I was looking to play some hockey. Being a goal-tender, the tradition is to ask someone, 'Do you need a goalie?'"
Mailhouse did, and the pair soon became "fast friends". Reeves had just rented a house, "so we started to play together. He would do drums and keyboards and I would play bass". A few weeks later, Mailhouse invited his aspiring actor friend Miller over from New York to join in. The threesome jammed for about six weeks, playing Joy Division covers and a song by The Grateful Dead, and then decided to play live. "Which was a huge mistake," laughs Keanu.
The name Dogstar didn't surface until much later. (It's another name for Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.) "We were called Small Faecal Matter back then," says Mailhouse. "I'm surprised actually that for such clever lads we couldn't come up with a name," adds Reeves. "We were BFS too. I called us Bull Fucking Shit. Or Big Fucking Sound."
It was as BFS that they played at The Roxbury when it was LA's club of the moment, the same night Madonna held a birthday party there. Did she see them? "I think she was playing spin-the-bottle with strippers," jokes Mailhouse. "There we were in this tiny bar at the back and she was having this party where everyone was probably spanking each other."
Miller: "I heard she stood there and watched us for about a minute."
Dogstar have already turned down a couple of album deals, feeling that they were being treated as a novelty act. Though they've been putting down tracks in the studio and want eventually to see them released, they're in no rush to sign their musical lives away. Despite his constant self-deprecating claims in interviews that Dogstar "suck", if they did take off, you get the distinct impression that Keanu would be happy to take a year away from the movies to devote to the band.
Ironically, it was Mailhouse's burgeoning acting career which for some weeks threw Dogstar's first major US tour into chaos. At the end of June, the band set off for six dates in Japan. Then a six- week US tour was planned, but the dates clashed with the filming of Mailhouse's new TV pilot, Road Warriors. Reeves, meanwhile, has set aside at least two months between finishing his latest project Feeling Minnesota in mid-June and starting his next, the action thriller Drop Dead in September. In the end, Mailhouse's pilot wasn't picked up, so the projected series was abandoned and the US tour is on.
Reeves' people, it must be said, are almost certainly less than thrilled at the prospect of their immensely profitable charge slugging round the country to play guitar. Should he agree to shoot Speed 2, his paycheque is rumoured to be around a cool $10 million, while in contrast Dogstar's per-show earnings must be enough to make his accountant weep. He insists though that he is encountering no opposition from his battery of manager, agent and publicist-types. But the bottom line is simple -- they're all working for Reeves. "Oh no, not at all," he says, beaming his butter-wouldn't-melt-in-*this*-mouth grin.
All four members take their turn at vocal duties, though no prizes for guessing whose moment at the mic elicits the most screams. For the most part, each sings the songs he has written. Mailhouse's include "Camp", a flippant tear away pop rant that's the band's catchiest song. Reeves has written two songs -- "Isabelle", about a friend's three-year-old daughter, and "Round C". "That's the name of a Cheddar," he explains helpfully. "But it's really about love."
Domrose's favourite song is his own "History Light". "It provides the most emotional release for me. When I wrote it, it happened in about eight seconds flat. When I do that, I know I have a good song. I feel that song through my entire body and soul."
Reeves: "That's the best moment, isn't it? I'm new to this and I had that experience with 'Isabelle' the first gig at the Belly Up. When I sang that, it was the first time this has really resembled the best part of acting. When you can feel it, your blood thrills, it's physical, your heart is open. It's emotional and sharing and going out."
Domrose: "It's like in sex when you're reaching orgasm and your mind goes blank. That's when you know you have a good song."
The beers have definitely kicked in and I'm all out of tape. The bloke from the rehearsal room wants paying so he can go home. Reeves reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bill. And Dogstar just keep playing.