Keanu Reeves's band, Dogstar, isn't very good--but since he's in it, who cares?
by Susan Dunlap
Okay, let's get this out of the way right from the start. For years, I've had a crush on Keanu Reeves.
My infatuation hasn't blinded me to Reeves's limitations: I didn't come out of the 1994 film Little Buddha, in which Keanu portrayed Prince Siddhartha, declaring him to be the one true lord. But neither did I feel ripped off. After all, I had gotten the opportunity to spend two hours in a dark room with images of Reeves that at times were thirty feet high.
I was somewhat more wary about attending a 1995 concert by Reeves's rock trio, Dogstar--or, as it was billed in local advertisements, "Dogstar, featuring Keanu Reeves." (Apparently, local promoters doubted that just plain "Dogstar" would draw much of a crowd.) After all, it's usually a cause for leeriness when celebrities switch genres: Think about Cindy Crawford as an action-flick heroine, Sonny Bono running for office or William Shatner belting out "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and you'll understand what I mean. But I went to the show anyway, if for no other reason than to bask in the physical presence of the Man Who Would Be Keanu.
Predictably, I was not alone. Although Dogstar hadn't even recorded a CD yet, the Ogden Theatre was packed, albeit mainly with impressionable teenage girls and twentysomething gay men. The crowd was exceedingly polite: There was no shoving, no stepping on toes, no heaving unmentionables onto the stage. For the most part, the ticket-buyers were too awestruck to do anything other than scream or swoon whenever Reeves spoke into his microphone--which wasn't often. For the majority of the performance, the actor, who had the movies Johnny Mnemonic and A Walk in the Clouds in release at the time, kept his eye on his bass guitar, focusing intently on hitting the correct strings. He and his supporting cast--drummer Robert Mailhouse and singer-songwriter/guitarist Bret Domrose--stuck chiefly to original material, which at that time was unfamiliar even to Reeves's most dedicated fans (like, for instance, me). Worse, Dogstar's sound came across as a weak attempt at folksy blues rock. But the musicians could have been performing opera in Sanskrit for all we cared. This was one time when looks were about all that mattered.
In the two years since then, Dogstar has responded to the vanity-project charges that virtually every reviewer in the United States hurled against it by releasing two CDs on the now-defunct Zoo Records: 1996's Quattro Formaggi (Italian for "Four Cheeses"), a four-song enhanced disc that contains "exclusive interactive videos," and Our Little Visionary, a full-length from this year. The latter isn't what you'd call a masterpiece, but at least it's not Reeves's fault: Domrose, who writes all of the three-piece's rather wussy material, deserves most of the blame. His singing might appeal to Dave Matthews's mother, but to no one else, and his lyrics are unimaginative, unimportant--un-everything. He writes songs with almost-promising titles like "32 Stories" and "Honesty Anyway," but then fills them with tepid lines such as "Excuse me my dear--just had to say/It's hell without you here/And all my dreams are full of fear/But there's honesty anyway." Domrose's guitar skills are adequate, as he proves on a decent cover of Badfinger's "No Matter What," and while "Denial" and "Forgive" are woefully short on substance, they're as radio-friendly as anything Hootie's even played on his Blowfish. But "Bleeding Soul" doesn't reveal any suffering--unless you count the people listening to it, that is.
In other words, the recording would not normally have inspired me to write about the band. But when I was told that Dogstar was returning to Denver and that Keanu (fresh from filming The Last Time I Committed Suicide, which had a limited release last month, and Devil's Advocate, set to appear this fall) was doing press to support the tour--well, suddenly all my critical reservations went straight out the window. So I sat down and did some research. I learned that one of the reasons Reeves turned down the millions of dollars he would have received for starring in Speed 2: Cruise Control was his Dogstar commitments. I discovered that Mailhouse is also an actor: He played Brian Scofield, Tanner's big brother, on Days of Our Lives, and appeared in Love and War, Picket Fences, Melrose Place, Seinfeld (as a gay man Elaine slept with), the made-for-TV movie See Jane Run and the big-screen effort The Glimmer Man. (He showed up in Speed as well; he was the smart-alecky "young executive" trapped in an elevator in the thriller's opening sequence.) And I unearthed information about a lost Dogstar member, Gregg Miller, who left the group because, in Mailhouse's words, he "just went a different way. He was more into slow ballads and stuff. His music changed a lot since we were with him. When we first got together, it was more crazy or punky stuff, but then I don't know what happened. I think it was around the time Jerry Garcia died. He went south after that and wanted to become Jerry. I don't get that."
As the quote above implies, I had to question Mailhouse, too. But I didn't mind. I would have quizzed Martha Stewart about the art of imaginative place settings if I could have shared a few moments of telephone time with Reeves afterward.
Of course, my thorough review of every article and Web page devoted to His Dreaminess prepared me for the possibility that the anticipation of talking to him might be better than actually doing so. In past profiles, he's responded to questions with cordial aloofness, quirky one-word replies or, most distractingly of all, additional questions that helped him avoid answering the ones already put to him. I hoped to do better--to elicit rare and witty examples of Reevesian insight--but I was prepared to be disappointed.
And I was!
Reeves, who was a couple of hours removed from playing a show in Pennsylvania, sounded for all the world like Ted "Theodore" Logan, his character in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. In fact, when he was asked about the current tour, "Excellent!" was the first word out of his mouth. "It's going really well," he went on, "but we've had little goblins along the way. When we departed from L.A., our bus broke down not once, but twice. Generators have been breaking down. In the middle of a show, my bass amp just punked out. Robert now no longer wants to play on risers, because he's bounced off a couple and had near-fatal drumming accidents. And Bret's wah-wah pedal is just a nightmare. It works, it doesn't work, it works, it doesn't work." Suddenly, he segues into a display of poetic gibberish that only his nonexistent twin might understand: "It wah. It just wah-wahs. It wahs, we wah over the wah that we wah." Then, as if some Ritalin had just taken effect, he's back to normal. "But those have been good tests--kind of fun, kind of wacky. We've had some really great shows and met a lot of great people. We're halfway through the tour, and all systems are go."
By the same token, even Reeves recognizes that as a bassist, he's no expert. He admits to having taken only one bass lesson; otherwise, he's self-taught. "I play by accident," he says. "I've been playing for a little bit longer now, so my facility's much better. I just have to start playing songs and learning more about different ways to make different kinds of feels on the bass. I'd say the bass sounds from Joy Division are probably the closest to what I instinctively come out with."
In truth, none of Reeves's thumpings on Visionary call to mind Ian Curtis's art-gloom; the closest he comes is an evocation of the Cure's bass style on "Goodbye." Keanu also takes credit for spawning the title track and "Breathe Tonight"; he refers to his contributions as "Reeves's riffs--as in, they were the root, the earth of the tree. Once in a while, I'll just play something and Bret reacts to it. You know, he'll get excited by it and play off of it."
Because of this improved musical chemistry, Mailhouse vows that Dogstar's playing is "a hundred times better" than it was two years ago. But that doesn't mean that the throngs coming to see the outfit are there to have a mind-blowing sonic experience. "We've been having chick fights lately," the drummer reveals. "Just a lot of hair-pulling and stuff. This one time in Texas, Bret had to stop the show because one big girl was punching this other girl in the face. They were fighting hard--and they weren't even on Keanu's side of the stage." No doubt that was part of the problem.
As the interview wound down, it became abundantly clear that Reeves had little of interest to say about Dogstar. About the best he could manage was a list of items the performers could not live without on the road, which he delivered in classic Ted fashion: "Poker chips, cards, food, Play Station, CDs. Oh, God, we have every CD ever made. What else? Bobby and a couple of guys in the crew like to smoke cigars. But I think the essentials are snack treats, videos, movies, music, Jack Daniel's, beer, water, Gatorade--you know, bodily-like fluids. So you need eye candy, hard candy, stomach candy and, of course, the gambling, which is for all of those fiendish desires."
Desires like being in a rock-and-roll band. It's a common fantasy, and fortunately for Reeves, he has more than enough big Hollywood bucks to make it come true, at least for a while. He's not dependent on the group for his livelihood: "Dogstar bassist" is just another role to him. And as awful as his portrayal can be, I'll be there this week, happily tolerating every minute of it.
Dogstar, with Silver Jet. 8 p.m. Thursday, July 24, Starlight, 167 North College, Fort Collins, $15.25, 1-800-444-SEAT; 8 p.m. Friday, July 25, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, Denver, $16.25, 1-800-444-