“It seems to be OK for musicians to act, but it doesn’t seem OK for actors to play music.”
— Rob Mailhouse, Dogstar
Is Dogstar a celebrity vanity project? Or is it a legitimate musical act, hampered by the celebrity of its bass player? After all, that’s Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. Ted, a.k.a. Neo, a.k.a. John Wick, a.k.a. Keanu Reeves’s character from Speed. The answer, in no way surprising to those of us who appreciate life’s gray areas, is that it’s a little bit of both. Per last week’s Dare Me to Write a Terrible Artist Spotlight challenge, here is Dogstar.
The band got its start, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, when Reeves met Rob Mailhouse in a store in 1991. Mailhouse was wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey, and Reeves, a hockey fan, started chatting with him. Mailhouse was himself a working actor who at that time had a small role on Days of Our Lives. The two became friends and started jamming together, eventually adding Gregg Miller as singer and guitarist.
Note that in 1991, Reeves’ film career was minor but successful. He’d been in the Rob Lowe hockey vehicle Youngblood, the indie crime drama River’s Edge, Stephen Frears’s Best Picture-nominated Dangerous Liaisons, the original Parenthood, and, most importantly, his first breakout role as everyone’s favorite San Dimas bonehead in the surprise 1988 hit Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. So he was equivalent to, I don’t know, maybe the McLovin guy today.
But by the end of that same year, Reeves would add to his C.V. starring roles in three major films: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Gus Van Sant’s street-hustler-Shakespeare opus My Own Private Idaho, and the best surfing bank robber movie ever, Point Break. Imagine if Tom Cruise was in a band with some other guys in 1986. Do you think that band would still be around after Top Gun?
Probably not. But among A-listers, Reeves may be the least interested in shining his star. Dogstar kept going, even after 1994’s Speed, which catapulted Reeves from, say, Liam Hemsworth status to full-blown Brad Pitt. This is also when his celebrity started to pay off for Dogstar. Because who would refuse to book Keanu Reeves’s band for a show?
I should stop here and say that Dogstar does not appear to be a terrible band. If anything, they sound like any other mediocre alt-’90s band, and could easily be mentioned in the same breath as a number of lower-tier acts from that era, like That Dog or Tripping Daisy. The above track, “Nobody Home,” off their first record, is pretty grunge-influenced, though overall, their sound hews more toward grunge-adjacent alternative acts, like Live or Sponge.
If anything, it seems that what happened is that while Reeves’s celebrity gave the band a huge boost, it also held them back. In 1995, by which time Bret Domrose had joined as lead vocalist, they opened for David Bowie. But they never got a major label record deal, which meant they never got the songwriting help and studio polish that other bands did. Their debut LP, 1996’s Our Little Visionary, was only distributed in Japan. On the plus side, they worked with Ed Stasium, the producer behind Living Colour’s breakout 1988 album Vivid.
Is it fair that we tend to look down our noses at actors’ musical efforts? You could spend hours making a list of musicians who’ve launched successful acting careers, whether they straddle both fields like Bowie, Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, Jennifer Lopez, Mick Jagger, and Snoop Dogg; or if they abandon music completely, like Mark Wahlberg, Queen Latifah, Kris Kristofferson, Will Smith, and Mandy Moore. It’s probably because being a successful musician typically involves performing in front of an audience, and the ability to do that well translates into acting. In other words, don’t expect to see Buckethead or Cat Power headlining any movies any time soon.
On the other hand, we acknowledge that all the stage presence in the world can’t make you a good musician, due to the fact that musicians need skills, such as technical ability on guitar/piano/vocals, that are not part of the package you automatically develop as an actor. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone did not sing very well in La La Land, and there’s a reason people don’t talk about Seth MacFarlane’s albums. Many musicians who did start out as actors, like Justin Timberlake and Ariane Grande, began in the field of musical theater, where you learn both. Outliers would be someone like Steve Martin, who has won two Grammy awards as a banjo player—but only after playing banjo as a hobby for more than thirty years.
So raise a glass for Dogstar, who called it quits in 2002, after a second album and several world tours. Mailhouse has continued acting, and appeared on numerous network TV shows in one-off or recurring roles, including Bones, Without a Trace, Judging Amy, Dharma and Greg, Melrose Place, Picket Fences, Seinfeld, and three of the CSIs. He had a small part in Speed; no idea how he got that role. Domrose does music for B movies and got a song on the soundtrack to The Replacements—I wonder who hooked him up with that gig?
In conclusion, these guys aren’t terrible (though the mix on The Tonight Show is, you can’t even hear the bass). I definitely heard worse on the radio in 1996.