Dogstar Sound Off
Say it over and over — "Keanu is not the only member of Dogstar, Keanu is not the only member of Dogstar" — and maybe you'll get it. Or maybe not. The three members of Dogstar — which, yes, features excellent adventurer and Matrix man Keanu Reeves on bass, along with singer-guitarist Bret Domrose and drummer Rob Mailhouse — have certainly resigned themselves to the fact that the spotlight will probably always shine a little brighter on Reeves. The group's challenge, then, is to hook those star-watchers into the music once they're in the house, which Dogstar hopes to do with Happy Ending, the trio's first U.S. album after the overseas-only release of Our Little Visionary in 1996. When it comes to the music, Domrose, as the main voice and chief songwriter, is the dominant personality, bringing Dogstar its tales of loves lost and won and endowed with the rare ability to sing about good times without lapsing into maudlin clichés; the group even gives the Carpenters' "Superstar" a berth in the modern rock realm with its treatment. The world may be apt to focus on the bass player, but if Dogstar comes out of all this with some recognition as a band, that will indeed be a Happy Ending for the project.
It must be nice to finally have a record out in the U.S., eh?
Rob Mailhouse: Yeah, because the last experience we had was so disappointing. The record label went out of business, it was sold or whatever the hell happened to it, and you work so hard and your dreams are high and, boom, you get shot down and you have to recover.
Bret Domrose: We were also waiting for the right label, one we were comfortable with. There was a creepy guy from a major label I won't mention that wanted to sign us, but he was like, "We're going to work the Keanu angle, and we want you to write with Diane Warren and we're going to squeeze a hit out of you. And we were like, "No, get out of here."
Can you get to a point where Dogstar starts to be viewed as a band rather than Keanu's band?
Mailhouse: Yeah, right now it's my band. [Laughs] It's always going to be that way, man, rightfully so.
Domrose: It's not nearly as bad as it used to be now. The questions are so music-based right now, and three years ago we couldn't even get people to notice a song title. We've also noticed the fans have changed from "Let's go see Keanu live and in person." The attendance has severely dropped because people who like the songs come back but people who came just to see Keanu don't. So it's nice, in a sense; we're not selling as many tickets, but the tickets we are selling are real. It's actually starting to become about the music.
Mailhouse: That's why we're so happy to have something coming out. Before, we were just being judged on live performances all the time, and people were wondering, "Why aren't they recording?" We never got a chance to show our skills in the studio.
That must be a change Keanu welcomes, too.
Keanu Reeves: I guess it just makes me feel more like I'm playing in a band, playing bass with my friends, and less of a spectacle. I guess I get subsumed by the band, which is great.
How hard is it to get the band together, and is there more pressure to accomplish something when you do?
Reeves: Sure. I guess over the past five years, we've averaged about five months together a year. And when we're all in town, the band, we get super-concentrated. We'll be together constantly for like three months; we'll tour the States and then go to Europe, and before we do those tours, we'll be in Rob's house, in his rehearsal studio, for a month writing songs and rehearsing.
What kind of growth do you see between Our Little Visionary and Happy Ending?
Reeves: I think there's more texture in the music and the guitars, and the song structures are more sophisticated. And I think Bret, you were speaking about the scope of your lyrics.
Domrose: Yeah, they extend beyond my personal experiences. Some are fiction and some involve strangers, news items, people I run across. I like to hear people's stories and draw from that. Like "Stagger," that's about when we were in Japan and the bomb that went off at the Atlanta Olympics; people were trying to live their lives and have a good time, and somebody had to come and screw that sideways. Somebody actually died. To me, that's America: You're dreaming your dream, and it's dangerous — why does it have to be dangerous to live and be happy? So I was inspired by that terrorist act upon innocents in my own country.
One of the album's best songs, "Cornerstore," is a group composition. How did that come about?
Reeves: We were writing that in Australia, while I was doing The Matrix. I had a riff and a simple, sweet melody that I started to play, and Robert started to play along with it, and Bret looked over like, "What was that?" We all just started to play, and Bret grabbed some paper and started writing lyrics.
Domrose: That's the cool thing about Dogstar — we don't put any boundaries or limitations on our songwriting. Sometimes we're writing something and it's totally corny, but we won't stop ourselves. We'll just keep going with it and make a decision later. We don't think, "Oh, that sounds too heavy metal" or "That sounds too soft" or "That sounds too this or too that." We just play it and see what it develops into, and sometimes it's a good song.
Reeves: What I enjoy about "Cornerstore" is this kind of melodic opposition. Bret came up with a lyric about a blind girl in a store, and somehow matching that music with those lyrics, I thought, was really cool.
You worked with two producers on Happy Ending, Richie Zito and Michael Vail Blum. Were they different experiences?
Domrose: Well, one's really good …
Mailhouse: OK, let's not be mean here. [Laughs]
Domrose: I think we entered Michael Vail Blum's life at a very stressful period; I know he was going through some heavy personal issues, and I don't think Dogstar got the attention it needed. He turned in an album that sounded worse than some demo tapes that we've done. For whatever the reason, his head wasn't in it. Richie Zito came in and picked up the pieces and, I think, surprised the whole band with the sonics and the tones. We re-cut three tracks, put another $30,000 into it, and got a borderline masterpiece.
Reeves: [Zito] introduced drum loops and had some other texture ideas that were nice touches, whereas Michael Vail Blum was more of, "I like this song, but I want to completely restructure it. With him it was more like the band either was the band or a cubist painting of the band. Zito left some songs alone, and had ideas for certain songs. He was creative, positive, and inventive.
Does covering "Superstar" mean you're closet Carpenters fans?
Domrose: Aren't we all? I grew up hearing that song on the radio, constantly. It was in my head whether I liked it or not. We put some cool drums with it and picked it up a bit. Very cool.
Mailhouse: I remember hearing Sonic Youth's version (on the If I Were a Carpenter tribute album), and I thought, "Well, there's so much beautiful melody." I can't remember how we ended up actually doing it and how it came about. We just learned it. All three of us had a thing for it in a weird, subliminal way.