DOGSTAR - RISING OR FALLING?
Dogstar Is Out To Prove It Is More Than Just One Star And Two Dogs. The rock trio persists despite negative press, bad amps, old age, and a somewhat popular thespian bass player.
by Andrew Lentz
Why do those actors even bother? They already have solid careers, why do they need another one? It didn't work when Johnny Depp did it. His band, P, bombed bigger than life. Harry Dean Stanton has been schlepping out some extraordinarily banal interpretations of jazz standards at Jack's Sugar Shack for the last year, but seems to be spinning his wheels before even getting started. Shannon Doherty's aspirant Pearl Jamesque band was mostly a tacky tribute to mega-crush Eddie Vedder -- not to mention a pathetic joke, musically speaking. The music biz hasn't been any kinder to sports figures -- neither Shaquille O'Neal (with his foray into the rap game) nor Tonya Harding (as expected) have fared well on the music circuit. It's as though there's an automatic curse on actors and sports heroes; they may achieve success in one field, but the cards are stacked against their striking similar success in music -- that is, beyond the harmless dabbling of an amateur. And the star-turned-rocker should never expect any pity. They're already fortunate as hell to have one muse smile on them, but to invoke another? That's just plain greedy.
The reverse, however, is not true. It seems that a successful music or songwriting career is a perfectly viable avenue into big screen success. Witness Courtney Love in painter-turned-director (can't anybody stick to one thing anymore?) Julien Schnabel's docudrama Basquiat, as well as her co-starring role in the upcoming tale of (girlie-mag mogul) Larry Flynt's rise to sleazoid preeminence. Titan-torsoed, lantern-jawed Henry Rollins is frequently popping up in cameo roles. There's Lyle Lovett and Tom Waits sporting substantial parts alongside big names in the ensemble of Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Even Harry Connick, Jr. is becoming somewhat of a minor-role commodity (Copy Cat, Independence Day).
In response to these incredible odds, Keanu Reeves offers up an indifferent shrug. No journalist can be too shocked at Reeves' reticence, especially after being run through a day-long gauntlet of media interrogation. In fact, the press scrutiny has been so hard on Dogstar that even asking that one irresistible question -- the one that makes Reeves seem like a two-bit dilettante throwing the considerable weight of his name around; the question that makes the remaining two-thirds of Dogstar (guitarist/lead vocalist Bret Domrose and drummer Rob Mailhouse) look like the most heinous and manipulative star fuckers in existence -- has become more than moot. In fact, it's a question that's plain boring. Okay, okay -- so the band did come out of nowhere. So they have a young, rich, and famous heartthrob of a movie star as their bassist. Let's just rise above these mundane details and talk about Dogstar -- not the vanity project of Keanu Reeves -- but a band of three able musicians and the music they make.
A credit to the trio's suspect integrity is the long and exasperating search for the appropriate label. Star power notwithstanding, there was no major-label feeding frenzy taking place over these doggies. "We just wanted someone that wasn't going to exploit the fact that Keanu was in the band, and at the same time stay out of our faces creatively," explains the chatty and generically handsome Domrose. That someone ended up being Zoo Records.
In a rather novel marketing maneuver, Zoo released the band's first recording, the four-song, enhanced CD Quattro Formaggi (translation: four cheeses) at the beginning of the summer, as a teaser before the September release of their full-length debut Our Little Visionary. An odd move, as record companies usually watch the sales of an EP for a good six months to a year before gambling an advance on an LP. But Zoo was willing to throw the dice. As an imprint of international-heavy BMG (and home to critically esteemed, platinum-selling prog rockers Tool, as well as a whole eclectic stable of alterna acts like the sample-savvy Nature, Nashville wunderkind Self, and kings o'cheese Love Jones), Zoo is a label that loosens up the purse strings and takes a few risks on their artists.
Those with the computer capabilities will enjoy the exclusive footage from Dogstar's European, Japanese and Australian tour, by clicking on any four of the "cheese" icons within the multimedia segment of Quattro Formaggi. Attempting to cash in on my limited classical music knowledge, I ask if the title is a pun on Verdi's timeless piece Quattro Stagioni. "That was by Verdi, wasn't it?" I ask, waiting for the band members to confirm my insight. "Vivaldi," corrects Reeves, giving me a sideways glance and a wry half-smile that puts me to shame instantly. "No, it's not a pun on Vivaldi -- but I think I'm gonna start telling people that," laughs Domrose.
But enough about classical music and cheese. Quattro Formaggi, and the twelve tracks from Our Little Visionary, are a tepid serving of conventional lite rock, a middle-of-the-road blend of radio-friendly, alterna-mainstream songs that are innocuous in a way that won't draw the ire of critics; nor will they raise any fan's eyebrows with a fresh, eye-opening sound. In other words, folks, this ain't the future of rock'n roll.
Though the band hasn't had much of a track record, they seemed to have mastered their respective instruments enough to write a spate of listenable songs, book a world tour, and land a major-label signing. All the guys are in their thirties, and Mailhouse, a native of Connecticut, admits this is his first band. 34 is pretty old to start doing the band thing, I say to him as diplomatically as possible, adding that I'm in my twenties and already feeling past my prime. "34 isn't old," Mailhouse snaps back at me, albeit while sprawled harmlessly in couch potato mode, downing a bag of Starbursts. "Old is, like, 86."
"Yeah, I mean, you're as old as you feel," concurs Domrose. "My advice to you, if you feel over the hill, is to eat lots of sugarcoated cereal every morning for a month. That'll make you feel really young." Obviously a wit as well as a musician, it's the wisecracking Domrose who has the deepest roots in the West Coast, as well as the most experience playing in bands. A Bay Area native, he started the well-regarded San Francisco punk band The Nuns in the mid-'80s, then went on to play in a variety of other projects, before birthing Dogstar. "[The Nuns] started-out as a punk band," agrees Domrose, stroking his chin in an unconscious pose of Il Penseroso, "but then we got kind of pop," he adds glumly, suggesting that this was not the intention. But hey, punk is played out these days and pop is back in a big way. But with regard to Dogstar's mission, Domrose is vague. "Personally, my goal is just to write songs that are meaningful. Songs that I'm proud of and that will allow me to earn a modest living."
A living is something their bassist isn't too concerned about. Reeves reportedly turned down 11 million to do Speed II, but make no mistake -- acting is the 31-year-old Toronto native's first passion and it always will be. For a man possessing an unquenchable love of rock'n roll, enough energy for half a dozen teen-agers, and the kind of wildboy daring he exhibits on and off-screen, joining up with a band just seemed a matter of course. Reeves is a hands-on kind of guy. The thrill of his success in pictures is not the recognition it affords him (he is considerably publicity-shy), but the opportunity it affords him to surf in Australia, as he did in Point Break, or spill motorcycles, like in Chain Reaction. Reeves is no delicate soul, showing up late on the set, bitching about the quality of the catered food. He lets his actions speak -- in the tradition of strong, silent types like James Dean and Steve McQueen.
There have, however, been consequences from Reeves' gutsy impulsiveness. The recording of Our Little Visionary was interrupted by a real-life motorcycle accident, when he collided with an unheeding motorist on Sunset Boulevard in July.
"Some idiot pulled right in front of me and..." he claps his hands together with great vigor to illustrate the outcome. The bassist appears to be in fine shape, however, with only a few visible scrapes on his hands. "He's like some sci-fi creature that heals instantly," Domrose interjects, diluting the stressful memory with his stock goofiness. "If you cut him with a knife, the skin just fuses back together before your eyes." Reeves, however, doesn't care to comment about his remarkable ability.
As for Dogstar itself, their ability to fuse in the face of injury will be severely tested in the months ahead. They've already received the official dis from Rolling Stone. "God, I don't even want to hear what they said," Reeves groans, shaking his head. Their gig at Paris' legendary Chesterfield Cafe was a complete dud. "They fuckin' had us using these 300-watt amps. We couldn't even hear ourselves," gripes Reeves. "People were right up next to the stage eating salads and burgers at their tables. It wasn't even like a real venue. It was so ridiculous." But the worst is yet to come. Sales of Quattro Formaggi have been disappointing, and Our Little Visionary could very well flop; the conflicts with Reeves' acting schedule are inevitable; and Reeves himself could conceivably quit after relentless and unjustified hounding from the press. Even the response of other musicians -- persistently mocking Reeves' excursion into music -- could be enough to drive him out of the whole sordid business. Yet the band seems amazingly undaunted by these abysmal prospects. They're just slogging it out day to day, with no big projections or lofty sentiments about the future. Reeves summed it up, nonchalant and sincerely, "We just want to do the best we can."