HE'S ON BASS
FOR DOGSTAR, KEANU REEVES IS A MIXED BLESSING
by Moira McCormick. Special to the Tribune
Dateline: LOS ANGELES
Dogstar isn't much different from other new rock 'n' roll bands with a major record label deal. Its three members are proud and busy promoting their first full-length album, "Our Little Visionary," which is scheduled to hit stores May 20 (a four-song enhanced CD, "Quattro Formaggi," came out last July).
But Dogstar isn't just any band, because one of the members is Keanu Reeves. Far from trading on his presence, though, Dogstar has been trying mightily to play down the fact that the bass player is a cinematic superstar. They vehemently do not want to be perceived as Reeves' vanity project, as celeb-member bands usually are (e.g., Johnny Depp's group P); they only do group interviews. "Keanu's just our bass player," says boyish drummer Rob Mailhouse. "He's just trying to blend into the background here," says surfer-blond singer, guitarist and songwriter Bret Domrose.
Perhaps idealistically, all three say they believe that at some point Reeves' presence will no longer be the media's (and the public's) focal point.
"Hopefully, after this record comes out," says Domrose, "everyone will realize there's something there besides (Reeves') face."
But without Reeves' face, many contend, there wouldn't even be a record contract. Certainly, the inexperienced and then-unsigned group could never have sold out a national club tour, as it did a year ago, without the matinee idol in its midst. But Lou Maglia, president of Dogstar's label Zoo Entertainment, insists, "I signed them because I thought they were a credible band. They are serious about their music."
In 1993, Reeves and actor buddies Mailhouse and Gregg Miller (the latter a singer-guitarist) began playing together in "a jam space in a house I was renting," Reeves says. "One day, as a lark, we went, 'Let's play live. For fun.' We did, and it kind of kept going."
Domrose, who'd logged time in a latter-day lineup of veteran San Francisco punk outfit the Nuns, joined at the behest of Miller. Domrose says he had his doubts: "I was fighting to make music a career, for myself, and was really concerned that this . . . would not be the way to do it."
But with three songwriters and vocalists (everyone but Reeves), Dogstar was musically schizophrenic--which was evident during last summer's club tour. A Park West date in early August exhibited a well-rehearsed yet stylistically scattershot group, which careened between scrappy guitar pop, busy art rock, and arena-ish bombast. "Like a bad version of the Eagles," quips Domrose of the too-many-chiefs situation. "Twelve different singers, everybody bickering." Except that it really was no joke to Domrose, who "kind of left the band" post-tour. He returned shortly thereafter, when Reeves and Mailhouse parted ways with Miller and offered Domrose the dual role of sole singer and songwriter. Now a trio, Dogstar began leaning more toward Domrose's scrappy-guitar-pop side of things.
A scant 11 days after paring down to a threesome, Dogstar opened for Bon Jovi in front of 75,000 people in Australia in November 1995. "This band has a certain element of folly," says Reeves with a laugh, acknowledging, "We have been kind of cart-before-the-horse, sometimes--when we toured without a record, things like that."
Now there is a record, of course, and "Our Little Visionary"--produced by veteran Ed Stasium (Soul Asylum, Ramones)--offers a dozen cohesive, guitar-driven, suitably unpolished tunes, like leadoff track "Forgive" and the projected first single "Honesty Anyway." While not staggeringly original, "Visionary" is a respectable debut, movie-star bassist and all.
Reeves has been playing bass for the last five years or so, and except for one lesson from someone whose name he no longer recalls, is self-taught. As for what attracted him to that particular instrument, Reeves says it was "the sound and, once you start picking it up, the physicality of playing it."
He is self-effacing on the subject of his performing chops, as revealed in the following anecdote: While filming "Chain Reaction" in Chicago last year, Reeves occasionally hit the blues bars, and one night took in Buddy Guy's set at the master's own club Legends. Guy, aware of Reeves' musical leanings, asked if he wanted to jam. Reeves respectfully declined.
"Oh, boy, did I decline," he says, recalling the moment. "I just didn't feel worthy to stand up there playing the blues with Buddy Guy; there's something wrong about that. Maybe if I was a monster blues bass player, I would have jumped onstage and said, `Let's go, Buddy!' But I don't have the confidence in my ability."
What Reeves does have is an evidently herculean ability to shake off bad press, from music writers (who've routinely panned Dogstar) and movie critics alike. When asked how he manages to ignore reviewers' slights on, first of all, the acting front, he all but collapses in howls of merriment. "On the acting front, on the band front, on the way I dress, on the way I bathe, on the . . ." Reeves subsides, noting diplomatically that Dogstar's notices "have been really, um, funny."
"If you want to say our music sucks, fine," he snaps. "But if you're gonna write a review, at least say the word 'music,' y'know?"
Indeed, Reeves' presence in Dogstar has been a mixed blessing. Los Angeles Times rock critic Robert Hilburn, for instance, "came to see our first show--we never got a break," says Mailhouse, who gripes that most of Dogstar's critics focused on "what color pants (Reeves) was wearing and what movie he was doing. We never had a chance to grow (naturally)--we just wanted to play, not be on the news."
What inquiring minds really want to know is, what does Reeves get from music that he doesn't from acting? Immediacy, maybe, as opposed to the often painstaking process of moviemaking? "They both involve immediacy," he points out. "One of the tenets of acting is, 'Be in the moment.' . . . They're both completely different, but they have similarities in the sense that they're both emotional expressions."
"There are so many different moments involved in this," Reeves says of his Dogstar life. "Rehearsal, performance, being with friends, traveling. Being able to express--or fighting to express--(ideas) through music, but also just hanging out, and playing together, and . . . free beer. (This last item, Reeves notes with paid-his-dues pride, has at times been accepted by Dogstar in lieu of a performance fee.)
"When it's good," he concludes, "it's really good."