There's More to Dogstar Than Its Marquee Value
Pop music: Hollywood being what it is, one can't erase the Keanu Connection to the rock band, but one could listen closer.
by Robert Hilburn, Times Pop Music Critic
Keanu Reeves convinced millions of movie fans in "Speed" that he can maintain his cool on a runaway bus and won applause from theater critics for his performance in a 1995 Winnipeg stage production of "Hamlet."
But the crowd at the House of Blues on Monday night got to see the young actor with the devilish good looks in perhaps his most challenging role: as a rock 'n' roll bassist.
When Reeves started the band Dogstar four years ago, most people assumed it would be yet another short-lived vanity project--fodder perhaps for another one of Rhino Records' "Golden Throat" albums that poke fun at pop forays by movie and TV stars.
Yet Reeves has stuck with his music, and it seems time to take a closer look at what's going on with the trio. Monday's concert was the end of a two-month, 48-city tour--quite a commitment from someone who could be earning millions standing in front of a camera rather than performing, in some cases on the tour, to half-empty houses.
Even on those tour nights, like Monday, when the club is packed, there is lingering suspicion that most of the crowd has come mainly to see the sex symbol playing the bass.
In an interview backstage before an afternoon sound check, Reeves, 32, and his Dogstar mates--singer Bret Domrose, 28, and drummer Rob Mailhouse, 35--spoke optimistically about the progress they believe they've made in recent months in getting people to look beyond the Keanu Connection and actually listen to the music.
"There are actually guys at some of the shows now," joked Domrose, who is also the group's guitarist and primary writer.
But the band may be kidding itself.
The House of Blues crowd was overwhelmingly female and all 24 questioned said the reason they bought tickets was to see Reeves. Most didn't even know what instrument he played. They guessed guitar.
In fact, you didn't even have to bother with a survey. All you had to do was look at the audience once Dogstar took the stage. When was the last time you saw all eyes on the bass player? Well, yes, there's Paul McCartney and Sting, but they also write the songs and sing.
On stage, Reeves tries his best to deflect all the attention. He dresses plainly (a T-shirt and jeans without, thankfully, the trendy hole in the knee) and doesn't say anything into the microphone. He doesn't even show the joy that he says he gets from playing music.
Offstage, he's equally reserved. When a photographer tries to place him in the center of the trio, he demurs and nudges Domrose into the center spot. "Hey, I'm just the bass player," he says. "Bret's the singer."
The attitude carries over to the interview, where it's a struggle to get Reeves to talk at length about even the most routine musical questions. He wants to avoid being the star. "How do you guys feel about that?" Reeves will say when he feels he's doing too much of the talking.
"I'm just making it up as I'm going along," he says at one point, when asked how he balances his music and movies.
Reeves put the band on hold for seven months last year to film "Devil's Advocate," a drama, also starring Al Pacino, that is due this fall. He'll take another, hopefully shorter, break early next year for his next film, a science-fiction work titled "Matrix."
These breaks may be one reason Dogstar has had trouble getting a record contract. What if Reeves has to go off for six months just when a song is starting to get exposure? Dogstar recorded an album for Zoo Records last year, but the company went through staff changes and the band ended up leaving the label through mutual agreement before the record got released. The group now sells the collection, titled "Our Little Visionary," for $12 at its shows.
Clearly, Reeves would like to see all the talk about his dual career go away.
"Sure, it's frustrating," he says. "People often say it's a lark or it's a joke, but we've been doing it for [a long] time now and the bottom line should be the music . . . whether you like the music or not. I find the rest of the talk about the band irrelevant . . . the whole issue of whether I'm committed or not."
The only time he loosens up is when he's talking about his musical influences. He remembers music always being around the house during his childhood, partially because his mother designed costumes for entertainers, including Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
It wasn't until he was in his late teens, however, that music became an obsession, citing now the dark, melancholy music of such British bands as Joy Division and the aggression of such punk outfits as the Clash.
"I think it hit me so hard because [the music] was expressing what I felt inside," he says. "I remember listening to the Clash so loud that I blew out the speakers in my car."
But Reeves, a big hockey fan, didn't seriously think about forming a band until he met Mailhouse (an actor who has appeared on numerous TV shows, including "Seinfeld" and "The Larry Sanders Show") through some pickup hockey games in Los Angeles.
About acting vs. music, Reeves says, "On one hand the experiences are completely different, but they have a similarity at the end . . . certain things get created and there's a point where you lose yourself in the moment . . . a sense of community with the audience . . . a joy."
Oddly, Reeves doesn't share that emotion openly with the audience, robbing the show of some of its fun. For all the critical drubbing the band has taken, Dogstar plays a competitive brand of rock--music as solidly framed as scores of groups with major label deals.
The strength is Domrose, whose approach draws upon the '70s-based, introspective songwriter movement in rock. Though there is an element of tension running through such songs as "Forgive" and "Goodbye," there is also a bit of the unyielding positiveness of heartland American rock. His singing is earnest and affecting, but his guitar playing and the arrangements, generally, need to be much brighter. Reeves and Mailhouse are serviceable as musicians, but they tend to be a bit anonymous.
Whatever the frustrations growing out of the Keanu Connection, all three band members say they enjoy playing together--though Reeves' breaks for films raise questions for Domrose.
Unlike the others, music provides Domrose's primary income and he dreads having to go back to working as a bartender. If there's another six- or seven-month interruption, he admits he may have to think about putting together another band.
Domrose, however, hopes that Dogstar can continue.
Of playing with Reeves, he says, "He's so in touch with the emotion of a song. I've auditioned lots of people for bands over the years, and so many of them are in it for the wrong reasons. Keanu is in it for the right ones . . . the music. He won't rest until he's nailed down the exact thing I'm thinking or the feeling in a song, then he'll take that and put himself into it. . . . He's in this for the music, not for a lark."