How Keanu Reeves’ Mediocre ’90s Rock Band Dogstar Conquered the World

Keanu sings a song or two with Dogstar, as bass players are often permitted to do. He handles lead vocals on “Isabelle,” which he tells people is about his friend’s three-year-old daughter, and “Round C,” which he tells people is about cheese. Singing onstage feels amazing, he says, because it reminds him of the best parts of being an actor: “When you can feel it, your blood thrills, it’s physical, your heart is open.” But mostly he keeps his head down and plays the bass. Domrose likes to say that when he’s onstage with Dogstar he’s always looking out at a sea of left ears, because everyone’s eyes are locked on Keanu as he thumps away at stage right.

In 1997, Spin sends the writer Benjamin Weissman to follow the band on tour. Denied an interview, Weissman files a “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”–style write-around that lands on the ostensibly perplexing question of what it is Keanu sees in these doofs he’s sharing a bus with. The answer actually seems pretty clear: these doofs afford Keanu the chance to hang out and be a doof as well, to drink beer on a bus while postponing answering the larger and more difficult question of how he’s going to make a living as an actor if he no longer feels like making movies like Chain Reaction and nobody wants to pay to see him in Feeling Minnesota.

What the guys in the band get out of this is obvious. They’re in their thirties and have been kicking around the entertainment industry for a while and one imagines that when the offers start coming in, Keanu can’t just turn them down unilaterally and forsake commercial advancement to play by Fugazi rules just because he makes $10 million per picture and doesn’t need the money. So Dogstar tours before they’ve even released a record and signs a deal with the major-label- affiliated Zoo Entertainment, and generally ends up sending out mixed signals about how serious a band they’re supposed to be. Their debut album, Our Little Visionary, is released only in Japan. It sounds a little like a store-brand Foo Fighters and a little like a generic Goo Goo Dolls and a little like any of a thousand other less fortunate postgrunge outfits who managed a hit song or two before tumbling back into the crab-bucket of the midnineties alternative-rock scene, except instead of a hit single Dogstar had Keanu.

This is obviously a double-edged sword for the guys in the band who were not the star of Speed. They have access to unbelievable opportunities that only a masochist would take advantage of. Because they’re Keanu’s band, many people are eager for them to suck, and this is especially true of the big, mixed crowds they play in front of at rock festivals. They get pelted with fruit at Glastonbury and splattered with mud at Milwaukee Metal Fest, where they’ve somehow been booked as part of a lineup that includes bands like Cannibal Corpse and Deicide, and where they annoy everybody by playing a cover of “New Minglewood Blues” by the Grateful Dead. Another cover song in their repertoire is the Carpenters hit “Superstar,” a depressive ballad about a pop singer who abandons the narrator after a one-night stand but continues to haunt her as a voice on the radio. In interviews Keanu denies that there’s any particular reason they decide to record this one. It’s on their second album, Happy Ending, which comes out in 2000. The cover is a simple black-and-white photo of the band standing against a stone wall; Keanu is on the left, eyes downcast, still trying to go unnoticed.

Dogstar played their final US show in July 2001, in Laughlin, Nevada, and—while it’s somehow difficult to imagine a band this extremely nineties existing after 9/11—played their final show ever in 2002, at the Ebisu Garden Hall in Tokyo. Mailhouse goes on to play drums in a band called Becky; the singer is his girlfriend, Real World: Seattle alumnus Rebecca Lord, and Keanu plays a little bass on their one album, 2006’s Take It on the Chin. Years later, when the public-facing part of the Dogstar thing is all over, the guys in the band who weren’t Keanu will give interviews saying it was hard to know if they were ever really reaching people as a band, or if people would have paid to stand in a small club or a giant arena and watch Keanu do just about anything—card tricks, sock puppetry, mime. They will say this as if they didn’t know what the answer was the whole time.

Excerpt from the new book Keanu Reeves: Most Triumphant by Alex Pappademas published by Abrams Image ©2022.

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