Dogstar on Tour
by Jim Sullivan
"What kind of music do you play?" asked the backstage bystander, briefly addressing Dogstar's passing bassist prior to the quartet's sold-out show Tuesday night at a Boston nightclub.
"Punk," answered Keanu Reeves, succinctly, maybe a bit tersely. Dogstar is not yet known for its music. Thus, it's not an untoward question.
Here's the deal: The famous, handsome 30-year-old movie star is on tour with the low-profile punk/grunge band he co-founded more than 3 years ago. This band, Dogstar, remains unsigned, unrecorded and relatively unknown. Except for the celeb factor, which accounts for the packed house and the high-pitched female screams, the hoo-ha and the hoopla.
The Los Angeles-based quartet - with guitarist Gregg Miller, drummer Rob Mailhouse and relative newcomer (and ex-Nuns) singer/guitarist Bret Domrose - is in the midst of its first US tour, a 25-date affair. The group is dodging the critical shrapnel of pre-formed scorn, as it both basks and cringes in the easy-action worship accorded by female fans. It's a rock and hard place and all that. A tough line to straddle.
This is Reeves' take, backstage, post-set, calm and on the couch: "It's not a tough line; it's a new line. I feel like we're in new territory. (The movie and rock) careers are so separate, there's not any connection. If any of the music resonates to my acting career, fine. The only thing I would say for us is we have our own sound; whatever we're doing is original."
And, what about the movie-star-to-budding-rock-star trip, the one River Phoenix once embarked upon with Aleka's Attic and the one Johnny Depp may still be on? Reeves laughs and slaps his right thigh a few times. Then, he turns, fixes you with a gaze, and says, "I'm giving you the Zen answer on that."
Actually, Reeves - sporting black garb, a knit cap and a fashionable 5 o'clock shadow - wasn't slated to chat with us at all Tuesday. Throughout this club tour, the reticent star has been pretty much sequestered. Affable tour manager Ken Funk, guitarist Miller and drummer Mailhouse answered early queries. No, there's no pending album deal with Geffen/DGC, says Funk - and Reeves has "never even met David Geffen," again debunking that rumored romantic link before it was even raised.
Yes, a major-label signing will likely happen in the fall, says Miller. "The situation is simple and the Keanu thing is obvious. But we have something to show, even though we don't feel we're the best band in the world. We think we have something to say. ... It's not a freak show. Keanu doesn't need this to boost his ego."
Miller says Dogstar hasn't rushed to achieve major-label status: "We knew all the riffraff that comes with it. It would have been Keanu Reeves and His Band Dogstar. We want respect. We want to earn it."
"We had no idea it would be this weird," added Mailhouse.
The band could earn respect -though you really wonder how it could ever distance Dogstar from Reeves' celebrity status. Certainly, Reeves is no hop-around Cassidy on bass. He's cut from the John Entwistle/Bill Wyman stoic school and says if he had to pick an idol it'd be Elvis Costello & the Attractions' bassist Bruce Thomas: economical, melodic, unobtrusive. At Tuesday's show, Reeves sang no songs and muttered "thank you" just once into the mike. He mostly gazed at his fretboard or his bandmates, much like Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder did when he toured as quasi-incognito guitarist with Mike Watt recently.
So: Dogstar ain't the Keanu Reeves Experience. It is a decent B/B - plus-level band that has its strengths ("Let It Down" and "Trying to Get Free" early on), plateaued mid-set and rallied some at the end, including a cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." (More credit might have been given if the band included songs it sometimes does, Joy Division's "Transmission," Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get?" and the Jam's "This Is the Modern World" - points for punk history, and all.) The band got the Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium shriek treatment from some of the gals; members soldiered on, seemingly unaffected.
"We're early-exposed," says Mailhouse. "We didn't know it was gonna come to a head this early. When we first played, we just got drunk every day. People say, 'You're the most popular unsigned band in the world,' and we say, 'No, we're just a garage band.'"
Mailhouse pokes fun at other celeb-musicians, John Tesh and Johnny Depp, and says, "A lot of bands have deals that shouldn't have deals. " He assesses Dogstar's Tuesday set as "average," acknowledging the mid-set dip, saying, "It's difficult to play under the circumstances we play. We're a little too cornered by the pop beat."
As it was, Dogstar turned in a fine, rocking set; Reeves stuck to the sidelines; and the girls screamed apropos of nothing but blind hero worship. It was taken in stride.