Walking the Dogstar
Are the crowds lining up to see the L.A. rock band Dogstar because they like the music or because that guy plunking the bass is Keanu Reeves?
by Phil Zabriskie
Dogstar, a three-man band from Los Angeles, has never charted a single and never shown a video on MTV. Their first album wasn’t released in America, and then the label went out of business. Reviews gave been less than kind. "For some reason," says singer and guitarist Bret Domrose, "it’s been like, those guys in that band."
Yet the group has played in most major U.S. cities, including a night at San Francisco’s historic Fillmore West. They’ve played Letterman, Leno, and Regis and Kathie Lee. They’ve played at England’s Glastonbury Festival on a bill with Hole and R.E.M., and in Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Finland, India, Australia, and Japan, where they have something of a following. Producers want to work with them, says drummer Rob Mailhouse, because they have "this notion that they’re definitely going to be heard for some reason."
The "some reason" is bassist and founding member Keanu Reeves, who has made a fair name for himself in the acting trade. Mailhouse and Reeves started playing together six years ago. Then Domrose joined, and the threesome began playing out. Because of the movie star in their midst, they essentially auditioned in public, blessed with opportunities few new bands have, and burdened by the target Reeves wore on stage with him because he designed to step outside his appointed caste and try a new gig. They didn't suffer from anonymity, but neither could they take advantage of it. Reeves was largely derided for dilettantism instead of given credit for trying something new. Maybe it’s Don Johnson’s fault for putting out whatever album he put out in the 80’s. Reeves doesn’t say much – in fact, he stays characteristically quiet during the interview – but he has in the past lashed out at those who "previewed" the band, reflexively writing them of.
Dogstar take certain steps to make sure any spotlight shined on them illuminates all three members. They turned down a second Letterman visit because the producers wanted to talk to Reeves alone afterward. "As much as we can, we focus on opportunities that come from interest in the band," Reeves says, not in his latest project. Adds Domrose: "It's part keeping the band together and keeping the three of us happy," a way to prevent "crazy things like, Wow, the only reason I get to sing my songs is so they can interview Keanu about Speed 2." (Which is funny, because he wasn’t in Speed 2.) "That doesn’t do much for me."
One problem, says Mailhouse, has been that they hadn’t released a record in the U.S. That changed in July with Happy Endings, a collection of 11 songs that veer between a SoCal-Screaming Trees sound ("Slipping Down," "Alarming") and a less cerebral Buffalo Tom ("Cornerstone," "Washington"). Making the album took almost a year. They didn’t love the first mixes, but the big trick was finding uninterrupted time during which they could work together. Domrose began working with another band. Mailhouse, also an actor, got a role on the short-lived NBC sitcom Battery Park. And Reeves was off doing that stuff that he does. When the album came out, they started doing interviews – including a Rolling Stone cover story on Reeves that gave significant attention to the band – playing on live radio stations, and touring off and on. "We’re lucky anyone wants to talk to us about us, so any chance we get to talk about the record, we get a little bit excited," says Domrose. "I’m happy if my parents get one," Mailhouse chimes in.
The following night, the band takes the stage for a full house at New York’s Irving Plaza. The crowd is largely (and vocally) female; the ticket line was well stocked with people $20 poorer who were wondering what kind of music Dogstar played. Had they heard the album, they might have noticed the band's live sound is much fuller and richer – and better frankly – not at all like somebody's vanity project. Before, during, and after each song, the hall fills with shrieks and "we love you"s, mostly aimed at Reeves. Either way, this is the tradeoff: Shed some pride and accept the sideshow and the critiques because it means more listeners and maybe some converts.
And really, they all say, they’re just "playing to play," like when they started. All the better if there’s someone to watch. Perhaps the band wouldn’t consider the guy in the crowd that night who asked me "So, are you here to see Keanu, too?" their ideal fan. But he was there.