I Was in a Band With Keanu Reeves
by Lucas Fothergill
Being in a garage band is rad. You hang out in a space normally reserved for storing motor vehicles and paint stripper, you slay the guitar and assault the drums until the entire street's aware of your presence, and you drink truckloads of beer within walking distance of the couch. It's pretty great. As Rob Mailhouse will tell you, though, being in a garage band with Keanu Reeves is undeniably better.
Before The Matrix, the money, the memes, Rob and Keanu were in a band together called 'Dogstar'. Considering the fact Keanu would go on to play the lead in one of the most succesful movie franchises of all time, Dogstar's career is pretty incredible. They've supported some of the most iconic names in music and played some of the biggest festivals in the world. One time they even played in Fukashima. Essentially: Dogstar are a hella lot better than, say, the music released by Bruce Willis.
Eager to find out exactly what it's like to play in a band with The One, I called up Rob Mailhouse to find out.
Noisey: So, Rob, how did you end up in a band with Keanu Reeves?
Rob: It started back in the 90s. I had moved from Manhattan to LA to do this soap opera Days Of Our Lives. I also play ice hockey, and apparently I was wearing this Detroit Red Wings t-shirt when I was shopping at my local supermarket. This guy comes up to me and says, “Hey, do you play hockey” and I said “yeah, I do actually” and he said “I’d like to play in a pick up game” - basically these leagues in Burbank - and it was Keanu Reeves.
Whoa. What happened next?
We ended up playing a few pick up games together and became friends. We were both young, and I didn’t really know much about him, but he was in Bill & Ted at the time. He was renting this place literally underneath the Hollywood sign, so I went up there and he had all this musical equipment. I was a musician myself, and we just started playing music in his garage, friends started joining us and before you knew it, we had this sloppy garage punk-y band going.
Do you remember how your first gig went?
We were not ready. Keanu calls it the "exuberance of youth" where we were full of piss and vinegar, and you'd think you could do things. We were more interested in the emotion of it, rather than actually listening to what we were doing at that particular time. It was just that period of the 90s where you just wanted to smash everything. We were a little too aggressive in that way.
But check this out. The first gig we did was at this place called Rodgies in Los Angeles - it was this dump-y, but very cool club - and Weezer opened up for us. I’ll never forget them, really nice guys. I actually ended up becoming friends with the bass player and he played bass in another band I was in. There were maybe 60 people, most of whom were our friends, and the reaction was like (unenthusiastic) “yayyy”.
And was it at this point that you started recording?
Yeah, so a friend of mine who I was working with on the soap had another friend who worked this record company called Zoo Records. She kept coming to the shows and somehow convinced her boss to sign us to a record deal. Which was fantastic. So we made a record. We kind of weren't really ready, we were still really green. This guy, from the band, Brett Domrose was writing some pretty interesting lyrics and storied songs - which actually sound better now then they did then. You can find all our stuff on iTunes. We got to work with some amazing people over time, like Rich Parashar who did the Pearl Jam Ten record. We recorded everything analogue, no pro tools, straight to tape.
While all this with the band was happening, Keanu kept getting these acting parts. So as we were starting out as a band, he was skyrocketing as an actor. It was kind of extraordinary to watch. But his goal all along was to do music parallel as well. Then, some really good things started to happen to us. Bon Jovi asked us to tour around with them, so we went to Australia and New Zealand.
How did that come about?
We have no idea. It was the oddest pairing. This Los Angeles bar band opening up for Bon Jovi…I'm sure a lot of it had to do with Jon wanting to get into the acting world, he had started to do that. I think he saw what Keanu was trying to do (an actor trying to be a musician), which was the opposite of what he was trying to do. So he gave us a little shot. Which was really generous of him to do.
What was touring with Bon Jovi like? Did you get to know them well?
We spent most of our time with Jon mostly. The rest of them kept to themselves. We were like a band of chickpeas, running around, doing everything together. They were more separate; I noticed they weren't having as much fun as us, but they'd probably been around each other so long. They were very polite and professional. It was kind of nice.
I remember we were in New Zealand, and the Queen of England was 'in town', and we got kicked out of our hotel. I guess we had to change hotels because the Queen was there. So they put us all, including Bon Jovi, out on this vineyard somewhere near Auckland. We had a couple days to kill, so we just sat around there, playing tennis and drinking wine with Bon Jovi. We had a lot of fun. And then we got to open up for David Bowie, that was the biggest thrill for me.
How the hell did that happen?
He was on tour with Nine Inch Nails, and we were just doing a lot of shows here in Los Angeles, and I don't know why but he decided to do a Halloween show at the Hollywood palladium. Which is a venue here in LA, it holds around 5000. It's an old venue. I remember just getting a call from our manager, and she was just like, “you're not going to believe this, but David Bowie” - she didn't even pronounce his name right – “has requested you guys to open up”.
So yeah, I met the thin white duke. He was a gentleman. He was everything that you'd think he is. Everything that you can imagine. Just the greatest performer. For me: John Lennon and David Bowie - they're the top of the mountain. I remember watching him sound check, standing by the mic with a cigarette in his hand, just crooning through the set. It was pretty amazing.
That was about as nervous as I ever was. I was like, “wait, he doesn't need US to open up for him. What the hell is going on here? Are we being used? Is this bullshit? Is this the Keanu Reeves thing?” But he just said “I heard some of your music. Pretty c o o l.” and I was like “okay”. Maybe he just wanted to meet Keanu. But he let us do it. It was a great night. I'll never forget when we came onstage, because nobody knew we were opening up for him. So we took the stage and we didn't even get introduced. The crowd were like 'who the fuck is this?' But it went really well actually.
That’s amazing. Would that rank as your best moment from the 12 years Dogstar lasted for then?
Being on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was pretty exciting for me. So many people could see and hear the music. But I think the top moment for me was when we were in India and we were asked to do this Bollywood award show. We were there and it was such a magical place, to be in Mumbai and to play for a television audience of millions of people…it was such a crazy week. I remember before the gig, we were going to go on, and Keanu needed the bathroom really bad and he was saying 'THERE'S NO BATHROOM ANYWHERE AROUND HERE' so he pissed in a water bottle and hid it behind a chair. Then we went on and we played. It was really spiritual and mystical. It felt like we were doing well. After the gig, Keanu was like 'I've got to go and get the water bottle and throw it out', but some guy told him that some girl had ran in and stole his pee.
That’s pretty weird.
The weirdest things used to happen to us. That was one of the weirdest though. After that gig, we had this party on a rooftop and I was jamming with this famous Indian drummer, I can't remember his name, but we were having this experience...everyone had their Indian moment. I remember we were in New Orleans, and this girl got on the tour bus and she had these fangs in her mouth, and she just bit Keanu in the neck and bit off her teeth.
Are these weird things always solely directed at Keanu?
Yeah, unbelievable shit would happen to us. I remember this one lady used to follow us around all the time in America. She would always try to get backstage. This one time, she brought her kid to the show and tossed her kid onstage. The security guard picked up her kid, he didn't want the kid to get injured, and he took the kid backstage - so then the lady would say “I need to get my kid” and come backstage. That happened. Twice. We had to ban her from the shows. She was just trying to get close to Reeves. Who would throw their kid on stage like that? So weird, right?
What's the weirdest thing that happened?
I think when we were in Japan - that was the weirdest. The fans went mental. They loved the band and they knew all the lyrics. They just knew everything about us, which was so different to the United States. It was like, wow, they really dig us here. Keanu was so popular he could barely leave his room, so we had to do all these things like change cars - get the black car, the fake car, have it go through the train station and then dress up our sound guy like Keanu so that all the people would run towards him and then Keanu would run the other way. We had fake Keanu beards and everything. We did this to diverge the crowds and protect Keanu. It was really nuts. It was like something out of that Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.
What did Keanu think about all of this? How did all the fame and attention make him feel?
He's not into it. He's very gracious, and when he was younger he was like 'this is great'. But then after a while it's like 'wow, I have no privacy anymore'. I mean he had none. Zero.
Where else did you go on tour?
I went through my notes, and we actually played in Fukushima. God, when you think about that now. It's a nuclear dead zone. Nobody will be able to go back there, ever. And to think that we were there. It's so weird. Like Chernobyl or something.
But we did get to go to England, which was a huge thing for me, because all my favourite artists are British, even the blueprints to the music they were playing was African American blues, but the way the British, with bands like Led Zeppelin, turned American blues around in the 70s and made it mainstream, just blew me away. So when I went over there… that was my youth! We played Shepherds Bush, and I was so nervous. It was great, one of the best shows we ever played.
We also ended up playing Glastonbury. God, that was interesting. I said to the guys, “you know they're going to throw shit at us, right? They threw shit at REM. They're going to destroy us. We're going to get pelted. They'll be like 'ooo, actor in a band trying to be a musician. LET'S DESTROY THEM'” I mean they threw shit at The Who! So sure enough, we started playing and little pieces of things started flying up on stage. But then it turned, because instead of us getting all weird and angry, like 'HEY MAN! DON'T THROW THAT' we were just laughing the whole time, and I think they picked up on that, because they just stopped throwing shit and they started cheering. We turned the crowd, which was really cool. And of course, the cover of the magazine or newspaper was of a piece of lettuce almost hitting Keanu in the head, which wasn't the experience at all, because if it was, I would have been severely depressed.
So what happened next for Dogstar?
We recorded two albums and an EP. We had a lot more material to record, but back then it was hard - you needed a studio and everything cost so much money. I think our first records cost the record company $200,000 or something. Now you can record a record for like $4000. Upload it onto TuneCore and get worldwide distribution on iTunes. For 60 bucks. Which is good and bad. Great that anyone who's creative can have an outlet to get people to hear the stuff, but it's sort of weird that it's hard for people to get paid for what they do. People won't even pay a $1 on a song someone spent months and months on, something that's taken craft, and people won't even pay a $1 for it! You'll pay $5 for a fucking latte but not for a song? So it's hard for older bands and newer bands to actually make a living as a musician now. How do they make a living? They certainly don't get it form record sales…
Why did Dogstar break up?
So we had ended up doing a bunch of tours: we did the United States, Australia, New Zealand; we did Europe twice and Japan 5 times. Then the record starting doing pretty good and people started to know the words and songs. But then, just when it was turning a corner, I met this girl and I wanted to do different music.
I ended up playing in this band called Becky with my girlfriend at the time, and Keanu actually ended up playing bass in that for a short period of time. We were starting to have some success with that, but then we split up and I ended up hooking up with the actress Illeana Douglas, and we started doing a web series.
My buddy Todd Spahr and we did music for this Ikea web series for 3 years. It was a lot of fun. I was scoring this web series called Easy To Assemble back in 2009/10, it was one of the first branded web series, so I ended up doing music for that. Now I'm just making a record on my own, writing stuff. It's kind of like Phillip Glass piano and arpeggiated - cool stuff like that. But my heart is in playing drums, and that's hard to do by yourself. It's fun for like 10 minutes, but you need a band. So we got Dogstar back together. we rehearsed last month. Isn't that weird? I'm still friends with the guys, we still hang out all the time. There was just a period of 10 years where we didn't play music together.
How have these new sessions been with Dogstar?
They've been good - just trying to relearn some of the old songs. Trying to write some new songs too.
Is there a new tour in the works?
We'll maybe do a local show here. We're just trying to get our feet back in. But I haven't stopped playing music.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know, just before we finish up?
Being in Dogstar was really an amazing experience for me. We got to do a lot of travelling, and we really didn’t know if the band would take us anywhere when we started out. It was interesting to see your best friend become a huge international film star. But Keanu...he was just the guy from Bill & Ted! To see him go from a young actor playing music to The Matrix, that ride, to watch that happen was incredible. And along the way, we stuck together as a band.
A lot of the times people, in the beginning, it was a bit of a double-edged sword because you kept asking - were these people here for the music or were they here for Keanu? It got a little murky. But we kept ploughing ahead. That's the part that I liked best. We never sold out to a certain way of making music. We never hired someone to write us a pop hit and make tonnes of money. You know what I mean? We turned down a lot of stuff that was related to Keanu, and just tried to stick with it. That's probably why we're all still friends. We all just looked through all the bullshit. We just wanted to play music and that's what kept us all together as friends today.
Thanks for your time, Rob.