So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star?
Keanu Reeves takes a break from the big screen and comes to The Edge with his band Dogstar
by Jim Harrington
Movie star Keanu Reeves has outsmarted a deranged genius and saved a group of passengers trapped on a speeding bus; skillfully traded Shakespeare lines with masterful Kenneth Branagh; believably portrayed a bi-sexual male prostitute; surfed Southern California waves with Patrick Swayze; and battled Dracula for the love of fair Winona Ryder.
To put things in Bill and Ted terms, Reeves' film career has truly been much more like an "Excellent Adventure" than a "Bogus Journey." But as one-third of the surprisingly likable band Dogstar (which plays The Edge this Saturday), he still has a way to go before fitting the hard-earned stereotype of a rock 'n' roll bassist.
"I haven't mastered smoking and playing the bass," jokes Reeves, who then adds: "I'm still working on the fourth string. I can drink a beer (and play), though."
During a recent interview, Reeves shows plenty of the low-key humor that made his deadpanned comeback lines in "Speed" so enjoyable, as well as a bit of the hyper-enthusiasm that pleased crowds in the "Bill & Ted" flicks. But the up-beat persona is just one side of this Hollywood heart-throb.
Referring to movies such as "My Own Private Idaho" and "Walk in the Clouds," film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that "generally (Reeves) tends toward dreamy, sensitive characters." And while listening to the star thoughtfully answer questions--ones that he has undoubtedly been volleyed multiple times before--his more reflective side became palpable.
The third side to the Keanu triangle--as Edge patrons are soon to find out--doesn't have anything to do with the movies. It rocks.
Dogstar is not a hobby for this monied movie star. While Reeves is not giving up the silver screen, he's earnest about making it in the rock 'n' roll jungle, and he's definitely putting in the effort. Still, as he participates in this interview, sharing the phone line with Dogstar's other two members, hanging out in a hotel room in Buffalo, before busing off to some other city for yet another show (the band is doing about 50 shows in 70 days), the obvious question to ask him is why?
As a top Hollywood star, Reeves probably earns enough per picture to buy a small island. Why sleep on a moving bus, eating roadside cuisine like waffles and grilled cheese sandwiches, when you can make a mint to star in "Speed 2" and basically have your grapes peeled for you among the beautiful people in Hollywood?
It's an obvious question. And, at least to Keanu, the answer is equally obvious.
"I get to play music," Reeves explains enthusiastically. "It's great to do concerts; it's great to be in the studio; it's great to record; it's great to rehearse; it's great to jam; it's great--all of that, it's, you know, amusing."
Reeves was already a successful actor when he picked up the bass about eight years ago. It was an odd choice for someone who is used to being in the spotlight. Other actors--such as Bruce Willis and John Travolta--have moonlighted in the music business, but it's usually in the lead singer role, not as the cruise-it-in-the-background bass player.
But the difference between some other superstars and Reeves is that he did not pick up the instrument to pump up his already high-profile image, he picked up the bass because he simply felt like playing it.
"I just remember one day walking down the street in Los Angeles (and), I don't know, I had a desire to play it," he said. "I guess it's just from liking the sound of it. My ear was drawn to it in the music I listen to. And I wanted to play an instrument."
Dogstar got its start when Reeves and his friend and fellow actor Rob Mailhouse met up with Bret Domrose, a Santa Clara County-rooted vocalist who graduated from Prospect High School.
"Keanu and Rob had already been jamming together, and I met them through a mutual friend and we jammed a couple times and then we were having a good time," Domrose said. "It kind of got a little more serious every time we played and here we are."
Their first professional offering, the four-song CD "Quattro Formaggi" (which translates to "four cheeses") released in late 1995, was widely seen as Reeves' little side project and justifiably met with quite a bit of critical skepticism. The 1996 full-length, follow-up "Our Little Visionary" underwent the same type of close scrutiny. Surprisingly, both works hold up pretty well under the microscope.
"Our Little Visionary," while not spectacular, is a solid affair that should not disappoint those looking for some straight-up rock 'n' roll with a healthy pop undercurrent. Domrose's deep, often hushed, vocal delivery is the highlight, with his fairly expressive guitar work a close second. That's no knock on Mailhouse, who definitely knows how to keep the sticks and skins steady.
And for those looking for a laugh at Reeves' expense--rent a "Bill & Ted" flick--because this man surely doesn't embarrass himself on record. In fact, check out tracks like "Honesty Anyway" or "No Matter What" and you'll see he's pretty good.
The trio combines a variety of musical tastes. Reeves says he's influenced by the '70s Gothic punk band Joy Division, while Mailhouse grew up listening to mainstream bands such as U2 and Cheap Trick. Domrose is currently listening to cutting-edge groups like the Chemical Brothers and Soul Coughing. Together they create tunes--such as the moody "Breath Tonight" and "The History Light"--that wouldn't sound out of place on alternative radio sandwiched between mega-sellers Bush and Live.
Interestingly, for a band that gets so much media attention, plays venues like the Fillmore in San Francisco, and is also pretty good, Dogstar is no longer signed to a major label--having departed from Zoo Entertainment. "Right now we are an unsigned band. And we are going to finish this tour . . . get back to L.A. and see what our options are," Domrose explained. "I know a lot of people are going to go see our last show in Hollywood at the House of Blues. So hopefully someone will like what they see."
Leave it to the bass player to put the situation in a clearer light.
"We are begging. We are out there begging," Reeves said. "We are selling our CDs at the shows (and) we are selling them over the Internet.
"And we are begging."
Bet all those Hollywood producers would love to see that.
What: Dogstar (featuring Keanu Reeves) in concert; Silver Jet opens
When: Music starts at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2
Where: The Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto
How much: $15 in advance