Dogstar are Sirius
by Tom Lanham
Aside from a few tech people tinkering with drums and wires, the sprawling set of Jay Leno's Tonight Show is deserted this weekday afternoon; Leno and most of his minions have yet to arrive, and the evening's key cameo, George Clooney, won't show up until a few minutes before the taping. Only one upstairs dressing room shows any signs of life – it's where the reclusive actor Keanu Reeves has hidden himself for some whisper-personal cellphone calls. And no, he's not on set to promote his new flicks The Watcher or The Replacements – he's here in a completely different official capacity: His jangly rock band Dogstar are tonight's special musical guest and he had to arrive early for rehearsals.
Later that same evening, ooh-ahing women will claw, kick and elbow their way to the front of the stage at L.A.'s packed Key Club, just to get a better look at the hunky, stubble-jawed Reeves as he studiously thunders away on his instrument. But they're missing the point – surfer-blond Bret Domrose is the group's gravely Westerberg-schooled singer/songwriter; Rob Mailhouse slaps skins for the percolating combo; and Reeves just happens to be their most well-known member.
Respect hasn't come easy for the tireless trio. Courtesy of label snafus, Dogstar's '96 bow Our Little Visionary was never released in the States, and their new Happy Ending "comeback" on Ultimatum Music had to be sculpted around Reeves' jumping filming schedule. Two things the members want to clarify, right of the bat: Unlike Bill and Ted's Wild Stallyns, Dogstar are not "Keanu's band, dude." And – get ready for astronomy pun – Dogstar are Sirius.
You just got back from Japan, where it seems Dogstar are bigger and more menacing than Mothra. Did you bring that nation to its weeping hi-tech knees?
Keanu: It was tough, but fun. It was great, because the band hadn't played for awhile – those were the first shows we'd done in almost a year. So it was nice to be back onstage. We got a really good reception. The fans were really into it, and they were getting more into it as we were playing – the houses were getting bigger, the people were getting louder from city to city.
But aren't the Japanese fans traditionally obsessive? The following-you-all-the-way-home kind?
Bret: They followed you everywhere. And they get there before you – that's the scary part. You see someone at the train station, and you'll get thrown into this turbo van that goes straight across town, and these people will already be there, wherever it is that we're going.
Keanu: They're like holograms.
Going through all this in Japan, did you get a taste of what Keanu probably goes through on a daily basis in public? The nutty followers who are just waiting for you to lead them?
Rob: Yeah, we got a good idea of the invasion of privacy that can occur.
And what's that like for Keanu himself?
Keanu: I don't get it that regularly – Japan is an extraordinary situation. But as long as the person who's coming up to you isn't throwing off too freaky of an energy, I usually try to say hello and participate as much as I can. But some people truly scare me.
The "Hi, Brad Pitt, mind if I climb into your bedroom?" type?
Keanu: Yeah. But I haven't had that yet. I've had'em not quite in my house, but usually I get more letters and stuff like that – like "I know you, surely you know me!" I haven't really had the super freaks.
Let's play devil's advocate here: With Keanu's busy filming schedule, he didn't have to maintain his position in Dogstar. By the same token, the rest of you guys didn't really have to wait around for him, either. Has it been a struggle staying together?
Rob: It hasn't been a struggle for us to stay together. It's just everything else around Dogstar that's been a struggle.
Bret: Yeah. We've never had any infighting or turmoil – there's always been a lotta love. And a lot of that may be due to our time away from each other.
How have you guys spent all that down time?
Rob: Acting. I've done a lot of television; Battery Park, a lot of comedy guest spots. I played a cross-dresser on a show called Picket Fences with Lauren Holly – that was pretty strange. On Seinfeld, I played Elaine's date, but I was gay and she tried to switch me over. I even played an NBA basketball player on Love and War, and the way I could play well was if I had sex with this one particular woman. So I had to constantly have sex with this girl, and the whole city ended up trying to hook me up with this girl so that I could score.
Bret: I write songs. I write lots of songs. Truthfully, we almost didn't make this last record, because we were debating exactly how much energy we still had as a collective. Did we really wanna go through this whole thing again – trying to find a label, hoping that the label's actually gonna do what they promise? So the whole question for us became, "Are we gonna be able to find the right label?" But we decided to go the independent route, because we thought we might have more control over how we were represented. As opposed to Epic Records. Epic called and said, "We'll sign the band, but we're gonna put you into songwriting with Diane Warren." And that's exactly what we'd just come through – a whole misrepresentation of who we really are. So we made the decision that, if we were gonna do another record, we were gonna do it as much our way as possible.
There's a big misconception, of course, that Dogstar are "Keanu's vanity project." Right?
Rob: We turned that into a joke. We've been doing so much press over the last couple of weeks – cramming interviews and photo shoots into every available second – and this morning, we were on a plane from San Diego back to L.A. for the Tonight Show taping, but we were all so fucking wiped out, so absolutely exhausted. We all turned to each other and moaned "vanity project?!" Still, people see Keanu's name and they just go batty.
Keanu: But that's been changing. There's no denying it – it's brought us some opportunities, it's brought us some publicity. But over the last couple of years, just by touring, it's become old news – it's not "Keanu!" It's "Dogstar!" And it's also been the first time I've gotten recognition for being in a band. Somebody in New York came up to me recently and said, "Hey! You're that guy from Dogstar, ain'cha! I saw your show the other night – and you guys were great!" So, yeah, we could've gone our separate ways. But I guess there's something I get from performing. I really enjoy it. In acting, you lose yourself, really get subsumed in these identities each time you go out. And if the role's really good, that's when I'm happiest. But onstage and performing, if you put on a good show you can feel your audience, feel you're connected to your band. And you're sweaty, slammin' on your instrument, just making music…. Well, for me, it's a whole new sense of communion, a higher consciousness, almost. You really open up.
You guys collaborated on the writing of a new song called "Enemies." Describe who or what you would consider an enemy.
Bret: I don't think of an enemy as a person. I think of it as a situation. Anytime where I feel myself having to fight in life. A good example would be; you're doing an interview and you just know the guy asking questions hates you – you know he's gonna destroy you – but you have to sit there and sweat it out. It's a fight. No matter how hard you try – and you give the most earnest, honest answers you can – you're still talking to this guy who's not interviewing; he's sharpening a knife.
Rob: For me, it be my self. When I'm in healthy mode, then I don't have any enemies. But when I'm in a darker place, I seem to be my own worst enemy. Whenever you're going through personal stuff, you tend to attract darkness around you, and you almost take things out on other people. So when I'm not in a healthy spot, I feel like I create my own enemies. Hope that doesn't sound too weird….
Keanu: Oh man… I don't even know. I'm hard pressed to find an example. When I think of an enemy, I think of chess or something - I've never really had an enemy or an arch-rival. And I certainly don't think of someone else going up for a film part as an enemy. I don't even think of someone in this business being two-faced to me as an enemy.
But people in this business can be pretty damn cold….
Rob: Yeah, but you know that going in, don't you? You can go in as an artist, but….
Bret: But can't ya earn anything from all those Behind the Music episodes? Hell, I have! I take notes! It's a hard life, man, a really hard life.
And where's it's all going? The Matrix, of course! The machines have already assumed control, assumed control, assumed control….
Keanu: Yeah, but you have a choice. A choice regarding your involvement in that process.
Rob: I tell ya, I looked out my hotel window in Tokyo, and I was thinking, "I'm in The Matrix now!" I looked out and couldn't see a fucking tree for miles.
Bret: All those big Japanese cities we were in – we traveled to every major city, and they weren't designed for aesthetics; they were designed for productivity. You don't see a tree or park or statues on the street – none of that. You see that, "oh, this is here for this reason, and that's over there for that reason" – as much as they can fit in, and it all has a purpose. There's no art – it's all about commerce.
Which is why the most important subliminal message of The Matrix was a reclamation of human spirituality.
Keanu: And that was one of its main ambitions. It was an honor to be a part of that – the Wachowskis' vision was just fantastic. And from what I've seen of the second Matrix, it's much more dense, has even more ideas like that in it.
One final query to Bret: Why haven't you called in a couple of favors from your high-placed acting pals here to land a few roles for yourself? Has the stage bug bitten you yet?
Rob: He's real good at faking orgasms!
I don't wanna know the details of how you discovered this….
Bret: And I sleep with one eye open, lemme tell ya! But acting? Lately, I've thought about it. And like Keanu spoke of earlier, there's definitely a "lose yourself" aspect to it that appeals to me. It's something I think I could do – I'm pretty emotionally in touch with myself, or in touch with just emotions in general. That's why I love to write. That's the most that I get out of music – the ability to dissect an emotion, explore it, then send that back out to somebody and see how they feel. But part of me is a little apprehensive about acting – I'm not sure I would wanna lose myself that much. I'm afraid I might get too far away from Bret at some point. But I have auditioned for a couple of small little parts here and there….
And the response?
Bret: They're basically like, "Thank you! Next!"