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A Dogged Journey

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For a young, modest, straightforward rock ‘n’ roll band, Dogstar has endured an unusual number of critical kickings, beatings and scoldings in its three-year existence.

The band’s sold-out club tours have been routinely ridiculed, and many believed that its opening slots on bills with such major draws as David Bowie and Bon Jovi were unmerited.

The reason for such negative attention can be found at the bottom end of Dogstar’s sound: Movie star Keanu Reeves is the trio’s bass player, opening the band to charges that it’s nothing more than a celebrity vanity project.

Singer-guitarist Bret Domrose, who writes the band’s material, shrugs off the flak. “I would have taken all our press a lot harder if they’d actually reviewed the songs,” he says. “We get all these terrible reviews that never mention the music. They talk about what Keanu’s wearing. I think we should get nailed for any crap we try to pull; we’d accept that. But a Dogstar review shouldn’t just be a Keanu fashion report.”

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Reeves agrees. “This is my first band, and it would be really satisfying if the music actually got heard. I’m striving to be ‘the guy who plays bass in Dogstar.’ ”

Dogstar has ignored the lousy press and forged ahead. Its members tour whenever Reeves’ schedule permits, and they’ve taken their music to the recording studio. A four-song EP, “Quattro Formaggi,” was released in July, and its debut album, “Our Little Visionary,” was produced by esteemed veteran Ed Stasium and will be released by Zoo Records on Sept. 17. The members are hoping that with the records out, they will finally be judged by the music rather than by their bassist’s day job.

Domrose, Reeves and drummer Rob Mailhouse are certainly acting band-like during an interview at Zoo’s Beverly Hills offices, cutting up and riffing off one another like best buddies. The new album showcases material of sturdy, earnest guitar-driven radio-rock that falls somewhere between early U2 and the Gin Blossoms--the bubbly exception being a version of Badfinger’s “No Matter What.”

The earnestness fades in person, though, and the band clearly has made it through the critical harangues with an intact sense of humor. When the high-spirited Mailhouse, also an actor, threatens to turn serious for a moment and speaks of “believing in the music,” Reeves is all over him. “Whoa, whoa. I want to check that,” the “Speed” star interjects. “We believe in the music?”

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Mailhouse reconsiders. “Well, we don’t get as drunk as we used to before we play.”

Reeves breaks into smiles when he’s asked to describe the Dogstar sound. “Well, there’s something there. Good or bad, it’s something. We’re playing pop songs that are a little bit of a departure. They’re not super-sophisticated, but you can’t always tell which way they’re going to go.”

Now it’s Domrose’s turn to offer a check. “Keanu, I think most musicians could play our songs,” he says, chuckling.

“Oh hell, yeah,” Reeves snorts. “We’re right out of ‘Romper Room.’ But it’s got some nice push and pull. Our music stays interesting, for me anyway.”

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Reeves has stayed interested enough in Dogstar (Mailhouse plucked the name from Henry Miller’s “Sexus”) that he’s made a point of balancing his rock passions and his film career. While he was in Chicago last winter filming the recently released “Chain Reaction,” he rented warehouse space so Domrose and Mailhouse could come out and rehearse whenever he had free time.

“We ended up getting half the album written in a week in that warehouse,” Reeves says, “which I think shows how well we can work together. I feel like we’re starting over now with the record, but I don’t really know how things will work out.”

Reeves says that, contrary to rumors, he did not turn down a role in the sequel to “Speed” in order to play with Dogstar. However, he did create enough room in his busy schedule of film work so that the band could set out on a recently completed five-week tour of Europe and Japan.

“I’m probably going to start another film in October, and we’ll see what happens. As soon as I start missing these guys, I’ll look for more warehouse space,” he says.

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Reviews of the recent tour weren’t much kinder than previous ones, but Domrose says that the crowds’ reactions may indicate that Dogstar is starting to be heard favorably.

“I used to sing to a sea of left ears; everyone’s head was turned in Keanu’s direction. Now I’m actually starting to see some faces at our shows, and some of them are even singing along with the lyrics. It’s a little harder to tell who’s there for Keanu and who’s there for the music. I guess that’s forward progress.”


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