Zoo's Dogstar To Show Its Music Is Up To Speed
by Moira McCormick
CHICAGO - Dogstar is a band. At least, that is what its three Los Angeles-based members hope to prove to the rock world, first with the Tuesday (16) release of the enhanced EP Quattro [Formaggi] and then with their Aug. 27 debut album, Our Little Visionary, both on Zoo Entertainment. Group members agree that Dogstar has its work cut out for it, though, since it is widely perceived as a vanity project for bassist Keanu Reeves.
"He's just our bass player," says drummer Rob Mailhouse (also an actor) of the cinematic heartthrob. "He's not our singer, he's just... back there, playing bass." Nevertheless, Reeves has naturally been the center of attention since Dogstar's inception 3 years ago. And his presence has made things happen for the band much more quickly than they would have for a group without a movie star. A year ago, Dogstar (then a quartet) performed a sold-out national club tour without a record, much less a record deal. Shortly thereafter, the band signed to Zoo, a move that struck many observers as premature and predicated entirely on Reeves' status as a matinee idol.
"We've gotten a lot of advantages because of the situation we're in," acknowledges Mailhouse, "but it's also caused a lot of disadvantages." Foremost among them, he says, is that the spotlight was on Dogstar from its earliest developmental stages. He perhaps naively says, "we just wanted to play and learn, not to be critiqued (in major publications) or be on the news. We've sort of gone through the ringer; we never had a chance to grow (naturally). But we just wouldn't go away because we felt really strong about what we're doing."
Reeves says, "We've kind of (put) the cart before the horse sometimes, doing a headline tour without a record, opening for Bon Jovi at (Los Angeles' Great Western) Forum when it was our second gig as a trio, things like that."
Dogstar has successfully weathered the largely unfavorable reviews that have dogged it from the outset. Reeves, no stranger to critical catcalls on the acting front as well, says circumspectly, "Our press has been really... funny," adding with some vexation, "If you want to say our music sucks, fine. But if you're going to write a review, at least say the word "music" in it."
It was the period following last summer's club tour--which exhibited a well-rehearsed, stylistically scattershot band -- that marked a turning point for Dogstar. Lead singer/guitarist Bret Domrose, dismayed at the band's inconsistent mixture of scrappy garage pop, busy art rock, and Springsteen-ish bombast, briefly quit. "There were so many musical selves fighting each other. I just didn't think it had much of a future at that point," says Domrose, a San Francisco native who had played in seminal Bay Area punk outfit the Nuns. "Then Robert and Keanu said, "We're more interested in the direction you're going, and we'd like to try to make it work." Dogstar proceeded to part with second guitarist Gregg Miller, a founding member whose musical leanings diverged from that of the others.
Domrose, who had alternated lead vocals and songwriting with Miller and Mailhouse, was handed the reins as lead singer and primary songwriter. Now pursuing the rough-edged guitar pop that is Domrose's metier, Dogstar's refocused sound coalesced. Zoo president Lou Maglia signed the band eight months ago.
Maglia, who had experience developing another celebrity-member band -- the late River Phoenix's group Aleka's Attic while he was at Island Records -- says there was "concern that Dogstar wouldn't be taken seriously." He notes, "in such a situation, you can't expect the press to be kind." But as to whether the band would have been offered a contract if Reeves weren't a member, Maglia replies, "Keanu's presence means they'll have a certain amount of attention. But I signed them because I found them to be a credible band." The band is managed by Los Angeles-based Anger Management and booked by Creative Artists Agency.
Domrose says Dogstar had been approached by two other labels, one offering a development deal and the other wanting to push Dogstar as Reeves' band. "No one really came out and said that, but we kind of got that vibe," Reeves says. "Then Zoo came up and was like, "We really like your music. Do what you want to do. And here it is on paper." They gave us complete creative control. We've had no pressure from them."
Producer Rick Parashar (Pearl Jam) helmed the four songs on Quattro [Formaggi], which was recorded in Seattle. Our Little Visionary was produced by veteran Ed Stasium (Living Colour, Soul Asylum). "He's the Zen master," Reeves enthuses. "Sometimes he'll be hyperspecific and sometimes let something go because, as he says, "It grooves." "
The result is a cohesive package of nicely ragged, tuneful guitar rock, all originals except for a cover of Badfinger's No Matter What. Maglia says he is "very encouraged" by the results: "It"s 100% better than I expected. I've seen this band develop in the past eight months in a way I wish other bands would." As to what Zoo would have done if the record had been less than satisfactory, Maglia candidly replies, "We"d have taken more of a foreign marketing approach."
The band departed July 4 for a six-week tour of Europe, Japan, and Taiwan; a U.S. jaunt will likely begin in January. Maglia notes that no radio single is being promoted right away, but that Quattro [Formaggi] leadoff track Honesty Anyway, which also appears on the album as an Ed Stasium mix, is the emphasis track. "We"ll let it breathe on its own," says Maglia, "paving the way. By the time the album's ready to drop, we"ll decide whether Honesty will be the single. We"ll probably do a video of it as well."
One thing Zoo won't do is run ads in teen magazines. "We're sensitive to the fact that Dogstar has three members," Maglia says of the label's policy to not trade on Reeves' pinup image.
But image aside, does Reeves think his busy acting schedule -- he starts a new film in September -- is an obstacle to his music career or vice versa? "I love to act, so that"s pretty much my priority," he says, stressing that he did not, as was reported, drop out of the sequel to his blockbuster hit Speed because of Dogstar. "But that priority can move."
The band and label's top priority now is proving that Dogstar is legit. "Hopefully, people will dig our album and like our show," says Reeves, "so if someone says, "Dogstar sucks!" someone else will say, "No, they don't, actually."