Dogstar: Beyond the Happy Ending

Dogstar: Beyond the Happy Ending

photo: Brian Bowen Smith


“We’re back.”

This was the simple, direct message that Dogstar posted to Instagram on July 7, 2022, accompanied by a vintage photo of Bret Domrose, Rob Mailhouse and Keanu Reeves taken more than 25 years earlier.

Five days later, the trio reported that they were “heading into the studio,” affirming this wasn’t a fleeting assemblage for purposes of nostalgia. Instead, the band intended to reconvene and create anew.

Domrose (guitar, vocals), Mailhouse (drums) and Reeves (bass) hadn’t recorded an album since 2000’s soon-to-be anachronistically titled Happy Ending. Nor had Dogstar gigged publicly in over two decades.

Given the span of their hiatus, the three musicians availed themselves of this opportunity for collective expression with abandon. But rather than looking to the static past, the trio focused on the dynamic present.

This shouldn’t be surprising as Dogstar embraced the temporal moment from the get-go. A fortuitous encounter at a grocery store between Mailhouse and Reeves, initially grounded in a love for hockey, eventually became a source of artistic liberation and exaltation.

Dogstar originated as a garage band. That’s no euphemism—it reflects the locale where the pair initially joined forces in 1991. Later, as their vision began to coalesce, they invited original guitarist and vocalist Gregg Miller to join them and it all progressed from there.

Mailhouse recalls, “For me, being able to get out of the garage and into a club was such a huge thing because we all had discussed ‘When are we going to get out?’ We knew that the first time people were there, it would be odd because we’d never done it together as a band. That was at Raji’s [in 1992] when we played with Weezer [at what is believed to be Weezer’s first gig]. I just remember how interesting it felt going out for the first time and having people look at us.”

“That was exciting, and then to later find out about Weezer, was even more exciting,” he adds with a laugh.

Domrose soon entered the fold via another moment of serendipity. The guitarist, who owned a similar amplifier as Miller, was solicited by his friend and fellow guitarist to provide technical assistance, and in the process won everyone over with his instrumental prowess. As he recently told EW: “I went over to the house to help him fix it, and that’s where I met these two guys. I just thought I was going to help some guy fix a piece of equipment. I didn’t know I was about to change the rest of my life.”

By 1996, Miller had moved on and the trio recorded their debut, Our Little Visionary, which bridged ‘70s rock and the alternative sounds of the mid-‘90s, although Dogstar’s music was often characterized as grunge by default and convenience. A second album followed, along with a steady spate of touring in North America and beyond, until the project quietly dissipated in 2003, when the three musicians gave themselves over to other projects in music and film.

While they remained in communication over the intervening years, and even did some playing in other contexts, it wasn’t until the pandemic that Dogstar finally reassembled. Initially offering some creative release and bliss during lockdown—echoing Mailhouse and Reeves’ early jam sessions—the collaboration continued down a parallel path, taking on its own momentum.

This resulted in the creation of the group’s third album, Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees, which was released in October. Dave Trumfio (Wilco, Built to Spill, American Music Club) produced and engineered the record, which offers a range of moods and tones, including the bright energy of first single “Everything Turns Around,” the atmospheric “Glimmer” and the taut, pulsating “Breach.”

Reeves points to the album’s many feels, observing, “It’s kind of laid out like a story with the ebbs and flows. That’s also become the architecture of our sets.”

Indeed, after an extended absence from the concert stage, Dogstar returned to that setting in May, with a performance at BottleRock. This led to a sold-out tour extending from August into October, with more dates to follow in December. The penultimate night was streamed from The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., allowing a global audience to revisit the band.

The following conversation with Domrose, Mailhouse and Reeves, which took place on Zoom, centers on the live experience.

Was there a particular show you attended while growing up that helped you to set your sights on doing this one day?

ROBERT MAILHOUSE: My dad took me to the Yale Bowl in New Haven to see Chicago and Yes play a double bill. I guess he wanted to go because he loves trumpets, trombones and all that stuff, although he didn’t know what he was getting into. So I think that was the first thing.

Then, when I was 16 years old and catering at the New Haven Coliseum, I was able to see all these different bands like Bad Company, Peter Frampton and Steve Marriott. Going to the Coliseum, hearing all these great acts coming through and seeing the fun that they were having, I had sort of an odd jump into it from the backstage side.

I had sisters who were six years older than me, so I got hand-me-down records from them and heard about the bands they had seen on TV, like The Beatles and the Stones. Then, when I stepped up on my own after listening to all those records, I started seeing live shows as often as I could. For me, it was Toad’s Place in New Haven—where we just played—and seeing NRBQ and the local acts that came through there. If you were of age, you could go see these high quality bands in an intimate environment. I think seeing that stuff, especially NRBQ—they were having so much fun onstage and the music was so good—made me really want to be a part of that kind of a thing.

KEANU REEVES: What comes to mind is being a kid and seeing Alice Cooper at Maple Leaf Gardens, probably in the late ‘70s for the Welcome to My Nightmare Tour. It just looked like that was a lot of fun. Then probably driving to Buffalo from Toronto and seeing The Ramones at a bar, which I remember being called the Salty Dog. That looked like a lot of fun, too.

BRET DOMROSE: I think the first time I knew I wanted to be up on a stage was when I went to the Oakland Coliseum and saw Thompson Twins with Flock of Seagulls opening for them. It was my first big concert, and I remember the sights, the smells and the vastness. It was so overwhelming. I was just awestruck. I thought, “What would it take to get up there on that stage instead of standing down here where I’m being a fan?”

The answer, in part, was really cool ‘80s hair.

KR: Come on, those bands had hooks. Those bands had songs. And hair.

I take nothing away from their songwriting. As a follicly challenged individual, I just can’t look past the hair, particularly in retrospect.

RM: That’s a great name for a punk band—The Follicly Challenged.

BD: So that was my initial introduction when the seed was planted, but I don’t think I took it seriously until I saw U2 at the San Francisco Cow Palace on the Unforgettable Fire tour. They closed out the show with the song “40” where they left the stage one by one and the audience continued to sing the song. So watching 12,000-15,000 people sing the same song in unity, to me, that was the defining moment where I was like, “There’s something here that I need to get involved with.”

Thinking not of your recent touring but rather the band’s earlier years, is there a moment that jumps out at you when it felt like you first realized some of those goals?

BD: From clubs to outdoor soccer stadiums, we’ve been blessed to be able to experience all of that. Those experiences are totally different, but they’re both amazing. The first thing that comes to mind was when we were asked to open for Bon Jovi in Australia and New Zealand. I think of walking out on that huge stage of theirs for our first soundcheck in an outdoor soccer stadium or wherever it was that we were playing. That was kind of an “Oh, shit” moment for me. I remember standing there making a note and going, “Remember this moment, Bret. This is a big deal.” They were super nice to us and it couldn’t have been a more enjoyable experience.

Then on the flip side, going on the first tour with these guys in 1995, it was like the great unknown. We were going into this thing we’d never done before and every night was different. That’s why the club stuff’s fun. Some club nights were unbelievable with people trying to jump on the stage and then other club nights were a little more tame. But the Bon Jovi moment was like the pivotal Dogstar moment where we kind of landed on the moon.

KR: Early Dogstar playing our local bar. I don’t even think we had monitors. Then, getting a chance to play the Troubadour for the first time. It was like, “What?”  

I also remember being on the road in Milwaukee—not the Metal Fest, but the first Milwaukee show. Was that in ‘95? It might’ve been the second tour. There are cities and clubs that stand out to me, like San Francisco with Fillmore West and Chicago with The Metro. There also was a club in Milwaukee that was just insane— people were freaking out. Like Bret was saying, there’s the energy of some club shows where you’re blazing. It’s fun.

Then there was this big crazy moment playing the Forum opening for Bon Jovi.

RM: I’m with Bret and Keanu on all those moments. I think that’s probably why we’re still together. We share a lot of the same feelings. I would check all those boxes off as well because they’re all so important for all of us, and we all felt them at the exact same time.

I think everyone has a personal moment—going to your hometown and seeing people in the audience that you used to play air guitar with in your bedroom when you were 10 years old. That is really fun because it all comes full circle with the things that you were dreaming about when you were little, and then all of a sudden, you’re kind of doing it and they’re there with you. It’s that moment of looking out and going, “I remember that kid. We used to sit in my living room and listen to Joe Walsh records, then pick up lacrosse sticks and jump around and pretend that we’re in a band.” When that comes full circle, especially at the clubs that you used to attend, it’s really special.

Then there are places where you’ve gone to see other bands and you’re like, “Oh, now I’m on that stage.” I can remember talking with Bret, saying, “The Greek Theatre is sort of a dream that we’ll never attain.” Then all of a sudden, just recently, we got to do a charity event [Will Ferrell’s Best Night of Your Life to benefit Cancer for College] and it just came out of nowhere. So when we walked onto the Greek stage with the other musicians, it felt like that was a cathedral for us in Los Angeles. That was one of the most incredible feelings, just being on the stage and realizing how beautiful that experience was.

Speaking of the Metal Fest in Milwaukee…

RM: Thanks, Keanu.

[Ed note: This is a show from Dogstar’s early days where the band found itself in front a hostile crowd on a bill with Agnostic Front, Cannibal Corpse, Deicide and others. In response, Reeves called an audible and Dogstar gleefully performed “New Minglewood Blues,” cognizant of its place in the Grateful Dead catalog and the fury this would elicit from the audience.]

Your experience reminds me of something that happened to me around that same time. A friend of mine was a college DJ and his two favorite bands were Minutemen and the Grateful Dead. He’d play them back to back on the air and then he’d receive menacing phone calls. However, it seems like something has changed in the culture these days where tastes have broadened and people are far more receptive to that sort of juxtaposition. Did your appearance at BottleRock bring any of that to mind?

RM: I’ve noticed what you were saying. I feel that as well. D. Boon and Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime, that’s one of my favorite records. But it’s not like a club or a gang anymore.

I’ve also noticed that young kids don’t care what age you are anymore— if you’re 18 or you’re 56—they just want to experience what they like. Those are the two things that I’ve noticed this time around.

Then when you look at these festival bookings, they’re more all-inclusive with different genres. The audience will listen to Green Day, then maybe a ska band and then maybe a rock band at the same festival. So that’s a good thing, but I don’t know why that happened. I can’t explain that, other than I’m glad it’s that way.

KR: When we walked out at BottleRock, or on the couple of tours that we’ve done so far, audiences have been nice to us. It’s been really cool. They’ve been present and supportive and it’s been a joy to play live and to have that interaction with them.

Dogstar at the Capitol Theatre (photo: Geoff Tischman)

Your setlists have not only featured the latest record but you’ve played new songs for your encores, which is a bold decision.

RM: We recently added a few songs from a couple of our older albums. We’re also going to slip in a few covers for the next go around.

KR: But also, when we were first going out on the road—especially before the album came out—all of the songs were new. So regardless if it was a set song or an encore song, it didn’t matter.

But we’ve always done things the way that we feel. So it’s like, “Yeah, man, let’s play the album, we love the new stuff. We’ve also written these new songs, so let’s play those.”

We want to tell a story during the set with highs, lows, quiet, loud. The album kind of does that with its feels.

Is there a narrative component to the song sequencing on the record?

RM: Bret and Keanu spent a lot of time thinking about it. They’re really good at that.

KR: We didn’t look to the lyrics to tell the story in terms of the sequence. It was more about the dynamics.

BD: We were listening to it almost as if it were an instrumental album and seeing which songs could segue into others and what moods could be grouped together. We thought about when we wanted to make a left turn or a right turn. It’s not a concept album per se, but we went for the mood with the chord changes, the tempos and that kind of stuff.

RM: It wasn’t like Tommy, where the third act…

BD: Next album, though.

Lou Reed said that someone should be able to enjoy a rock song without hearing the words.

BD: That sounds pretty rock-and-roll.

I think the idea is that if you walk into the back of a crowded club where the sound is somewhat muffled, you can still respond to the feel, the texture and the vibrations.

BD: I like that. I got a visual when you just said that where you walk into a club and you’re already bobbing your head and you don’t know what the band looks like or what anyone’s singing. I think there’s an innate connection to music that way. Then, when you get deeper into it—where now you’re looking and listening and connecting with lyrics and a vocalist—that’s more of a cerebral connection. So you have the body and the mind with the body being the music and the mind being the nuances. Maybe that’s what Lou Reed was talking about and I would agree with that.

To what extent have you been surprised by the new material in the live setting?

RM: It’s very emotional for me, as far as being in the back playing drums. I pay more attention to what Bret’s singing and what he’s doing than in the studio, where everything was so quick. Now I’m really getting the story in my head, and it’s taken me on a little bit more of a journey. I almost feel like an audience member. I’m getting different interpretations and emotions from the lyrics and living with that on the road. It’s a tribute to Bret’s lyrics and I hope that translates to the audience.

KR: I think what has surprised me in a really cool way has been the song “Glimmer,” and the way the audiences have reacted to it. Also, the way people have reacted to “Dillon Street,” with Robert playing harmonica on that track live. It’s been really fun.

There have been comments about Bret’s guitar and his shredding solos. We also have a lot of people saying, “You guys are a fucking three-piece?”—just commenting on the wall of textured sound that the band can make. It’s been surprising to hear that so often.

Did you have a chance to look back at The Capitol Theatre show and, if so, what were your takeaways?

BD: I watched it once, and I remember thinking it looked cooler than what I thought it was when I was playing it. [Laughs.] So I was pleasantly surprised to watch us, and I got to look at us almost as if I wasn’t in the band. So I tried to have a very objective viewpoint, and I was like, “I think we put on a pretty good show.”

I remember being a little more serious about it at the time, knowing it was a big livestream and all this stuff was happening, so I was concentrating on things and worrying a little more. But then getting to watch it back, I was like, “Oh man, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I could lighten up a little bit.”

RM: I wanted to see the lights package and all the new stuff that was just added, which is really helpful, because when you’re back there, you don’t really see that because you get blinded by it all. So I was pleased with that visually but I always get a little weird watching myself do anything. I was also listening for certain things—we had a new front of house guy, so I was like, “This sounds great. He’s doing this with Bret’s vocals and Keanu’s bass sounds deep on this song.”

So I noticed what our front-of-house guy was doing and was really pleased. I was looking at it more like that rather than celebrating whatever it was that we were doing.

I agree with Bret that it was a little bit of pressure. We had a show the next night in New Haven, and I could tell that we felt a bit of relief that there wasn’t some sort of big thing we had to do. So we had a party show after that, which I thought was a little looser and rowdier. At first, I was like, “I wish that show was livestreamed.” But then again, if it had been, we probably would have been nervous.

I’m just happy that everything came together. We’re really lucky. We have such a good group and crew around us. It’s making us feel good while we play.

KR: I had thought I was doing more moving around than it turned out I was. So I was like, “OK, I might want to move around a little bit more.” [Laughs.] From Rob’s point of view, it was also like, “OK, what can I do differently in the performance?”

But I like the pressure that Robert’s talking about. I felt it put us in the world, and it was a cool way for people to see the band. I liked the variety of music that we played and I thought the songs sounded good. I thought it was cool that we got to do something like that.

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