The trio of Bret Domrose, Robert Mailhouse and Keanu Reeves, known collectively as Dogstar, are in Pittsburgh as part of their first tour in more than 20 years when I jump on a Zoom with the three men.
The band is one of 2023’s most surprising and joyful comeback stories. Twenty-three years after their last album, the group have returned to the music scene with the tour and a sterling new album, Somewhere Between The Power Lines And Palm Trees.
Even they admit to being pleasantly surprised by the strong response to their unexpected reunion. But they are basking in the deserved accolades and buoyed by the reception and their own positive experience making the record, they are already looking to get back in the studio in early 2024 for more new music.
As I found in speaking to all three together, this is a very happy time for Dogstar. We spoke about the new album, their wide array of influences — from The Replacements and Elton John to the Violent Femmes and The Beach Boys — the tour and much more.
Steve Baltin: The record’s really wonderful. I love the timeless feel of it. It’s just great pop rock hooks. Were these songs written over a long period of time or were they written in a concentrated period?
Bret Domrose: Extremely concentrated period [laughter]. I think we had “Lust” early on in the works. But the other ones came quick. They all came real quick. We got together and we did eight -10 hour days, for likee eight or nine days in a row. And we got a lot done. A lot more than I think we expected.
Baltin: Were you guys surprised to find that when you got in the studio and started playing together that it was this concentrated thing, but that it was a little bit like riding a bike?
Domrose: I think, yeah, in terms of being back in Rob’s studio, which we were very familiar with 20 years ago. As Keanu mentioned the other day, we were standing in the same positions. So there was that kind of plug yourself back into it element. But the concentrated aspect I think came because I was living in the San Francisco Bay area, so I flew down and we took that week to just hit it really hard and see what happens. So, that was a part of why it came together the way it did, I think, and how quickly it came together. But it caught us all off guard, I think. How many songs? We got 15 songs in about three different sessions? It was about three different rehearsal writing periods that took about three weeks. So, yeah. It just came in through the window, man. I don’t know what happened.
Robert Mailhouse: Came in through the bathroom. And sometimes the things that you labor over don’t end up being. There’s a reason why they’re so laborious. It’s trying to memorize lines or something you can’t memorize them and then you pick up something and you can memorize it in a few minutes and you’re like, “Why is that?” So sometimes I think with us, I realized some of the things that came quick and natural were just, seemed like they were in our subconscious already. We wanted to get these things out before, but we couldn’t. But this time around Keanu came in with a lot of different bass riffs and different verse riffs and it was very helpful with me on the drums ’cause I was just a listener, I felt. I was like dancing around to these wonderful little rhythms and things that presented to me. So it felt really enjoyable even in the early stages of crafting like the songs.
Baltin: What happens is when you guys come back together, you all have different skills that you can bring to it. Were there things that you guys found that you all really have learned during the time away that made it like that just flowed into this record?
Keanu Reeves: Yeah. I would say what really developed over what we’re calling the hiatus now over the 20 years, I think, I don’t know guys if you agree, but I think definitely, we all were being creative and musical individually and stuff. But I would say the thing that was probably the difference was which was a little more refined, was how the three of us actually started to work together to build up a song. Whether Bret put a capo on the third fret, you can talk about that, Bret. Or I just made a riff that became part of a song for “How The Story Ends.” The opening riff of that. That just got built up with the whole band, with everybody in the room. And I think the way that we interacted with each other to go off of a Bret riff, a Reeves riff, a Robert kind of drumbeat, the way that we built up the songs, I think was a little more refined and maybe a little more, if I can use the word sophisticated than what it was 20 years ago. We collaborated in a real more mature or organic, everyone on the same kind of wavelength to try and listen and also create together. I would say that was probably the biggest thing.
Baltin: So were there songs on this record that come from another place to you?
Domrose: For me, I think “Everything Turns Around” was that song, we had just walked into the studio. I’m not sure, but I think it was the beginning of the day and I just looked over on Rob’s desk and there was a capo sitting there, and I just didn’t even think. That was the beauty of making this record is I didn’t think, I just did. And so I popped that capo on, I don’t know why I picked the third fret, but I did, and my hand just played that riff and it happened like within one minute. And I was like, “Oh, I like this riff.” And these guys were like, “Oh yeah, we like this riff.” And then that song came fast. We worked, we refined it and hammered it on a little bit and got it, different parts here and there and some base harmony ascending parts in there that we decided that really added to it and things like that. But the main meat and potatoes of it came just like that. Yeah. And then we had some others that didn’t make the record where we were laboring over them and Keanu would say, “Let’s leave it and come back and see if it passes the next day test.” We’d come back in the next day and be like, “Yeah, it still sucks” [laughter]. So those didn’t make the record. But yeah, like “Glimmer,” I don’t even remember writing that one. I don’t even remember anything about it happening. So that’s where I feel like that one a came in through the window, played itself in a way.
Baltin: Do you feel like on this record, the not over thinking was easier because you learn to trust your instincts more, you’re just more comfortable? And that of course comes into all aspects of writing, but also the playing as well.
Domrose: I don’t think I would’ve had this relaxation and the ability to not think if this were a different band. Like if I had just joined another band with this group of strangers, I think I’d be like all cerebral and trying to figure it all out and be regimented here and let’s try this. But with these guys, there is the comfort of the past and the comfort of the surroundings. And also we’ve done what we’ve done a couple records and a lot of touring. And so it just felt like for me, I didn’t want to try. I just wanted to do it and hope it works. That was kind of it for me. I wasn’t thinking at all. If nothing happened, I’d love these guys just the same. And we would have a laugh and a beer and that’d be that, but we got real lucky. But yeah. I suppose the maturity of it is it allowed me that carefree, who gives a s**t-ness.
Baltin: What have been the favorite songs to play on the road?
Mailhouse: I like them all, but I love this new song we have called “Jackbox” and I love playing “Breach,” I love playing “Dillon Street.” I honestly like them all. I don’t think we would be playing them if we didn’t like them. I love the set. I love playing “Blonde,” which is the first song that we opened the show with, sort of sets the tone. And so, I’m excited about them. I want to add more, play some covers.
Reeves” The chorus in “How the Story Ends.”
Mailhouse: Oh, that’s so good.
Reeves: I love the introduction and drama of “Glimmer.” I love “Breach” at the end is f**king fun and rocking. And I really love the kind of movie moodiness, but also groove of “Sleep.” Those are what I would say, “How the Story Ends,” “Sleep,” “Glimmer,” “Breach.”
Mailhouse: See, you’re going to name them all [laughter].
Domrose: The thing I’ve been finding about this tour is what’s really interesting and exciting for me is, let’s say I’m about 20 minutes from the stage time and I’m in a bad mood or whatever. Maybe I’m tired or whatever. And then right as we get the guitar, got the walking out on the stage and then that audience can turn it for you. I mean, we were in Columbus, Ohio the other night and the volume of the crowd kind of snapped me into a whole different Bret. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to have some fun now. Okay, I’m not going to be moody, dude.” So that dictates, and then I look down the set list. I’m getting to the answer. And when I look down the set list, I start thinking like, “Oh, tonight I’m really going to be into this one because of the connection I’m having with the energy in the room.” And sometimes knowing the crowd is on your side allows you to be a little more open and a little more emotional. So then the slower songs tend to mean a little more to me, like “Overhang” and “Glimmer.” And then like Keanu said, if you got a really crazy crowd, then you want to rock and you want to play “Breach” and those kinds of songs. But when the crowd’s on your side it really lets you be your best self I think, for sure for me.
Baltin: What’s cool is the audience makes the songs their own. Have there been those ones for you guys that thus far you’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how the audience has responded?
Mailhouse: Yeah, I feel like it doesn’t have to be high in tempo for them to enjoy things. Like I find them enjoying slower tempos, more emotional songs with space. But then “Breach” and “Jackbox,” they do like it when we rock pretty hard. Like Bret was saying, we try not to have like same song syndrome. And so the set is like a journey like the album is. And I think you’re right. I think they’re responding to areas where you just never know. We have a new song called “This Is What Math Is For,” which has not been recorded. And it’s one of the loudest responses and it is completely different in style than anything that we’ve done before. It’s sort of like the direction we were going after the record.
Reeves: I think one of the surprise was during the set is how much people have responded to you playing harmonica, Rob.
Domrose: That’s what I was going to say, “Dillon Street.” Rob has his Neil Young moment where he has his harmonica around him while he’s playing the drums and he takes the harmonica solo on that song and people lose it..
Mailhouse: I don’t know why they do. I love playing harmonica and drums. I don’t know why. When you’re a drummer, you can’t really go down the basement, play by yourself. It gets boring after like five minutes. So I think I stuck a harmonica in my mouth so I have someone to play with. And then during the recording process, this song that Bret brought in, it was just such a beautiful song. And it just sounded like you mentioned, Wilco. So that’s been fun.
Domrose: Yeah, we’ve been very lucky. I didn’t know that the audience would react the way they’re reacting because we’ve been doing this a while. We’ve never had this kind of warm reception. So vocal, it’s just incredible. We’re just very lucky because all that hard work may be paying off, I guess.
Baltin: Do you feel like people are responding to just the humanity in it? The fact that, again, when I say timeless pop/rock the first thing I think of is the Beach Boys.
Domrose: I think that that’s a a great person to bring up like a Brian Wilson because, I know that Brian Wilson went into that studio for all the right reasons. He wasn’t going in there trying to do something other than make the coolest sounds. I’m sure there must’ve been some pressure on him to write a hit here or there or whatever but Pet Sounds is a perfect example of an artist being an artist at their highest level. I think that honesty is the most important quality in songwriting and I think people can tap it for sure. You can’t fool them. And hopefully we got some of that on this record.
Baltin: When you think of that one album that speaks to you so much in its vulnerability, what are the albums for you guys?
Mailhouse: I like David Bowie, Hunky Dory and all. I just love that period. And Ziggy Stardust. I love that period of David Bowie and those records I can listen to every day, all day.
Baltin: It’s so interesting that you choose those because I’m a huge Bowie fan, but it’s interesting because I asked about authenticity. Yet, what’s interesting about Bowie is he was playing a character during that time. That’s what made Bowie so unique in the history of music, is that every time he was playing a character, he was still David Bowie.
Mailhouse: Yeah. But I’m also obsessed with Mick Ronson, so I just love that guitar work on that album. Those two together just for me, I can hear all, listen to all day.
Domrose:: I was always a pop-oriented guy growing up with ’70s AM Radio, Elton John and Billy Joel and all that stuff being shoved in there. So that’s kind of where I inadvertently learned how to write songs probably. But when I heard The Replacements’ Tim, it kind of stopped my world for a minute and I went, “These guys don’t give a shit.” I was loving it. So I felt like that changed my musical world in the sense that I get to take those rough edges and stick them with those beautiful Neil Diamond, Elton John, well-crafted songs. And I think that that combination is this dangerous, beautiful thing of taking both sides of the train tracks. So that album for me would be the one that was like, “Oh, you can do that and still mean it?” [chuckle]
Reeves: I’ve been thinking about it when I was a little kid listening to my mother’s albums, like a personal songwriter. I really responded to the lyrics and the feeling of Randy Newman “Sail Away.” And then as an adolescent in terms of raw hearing an energy out of music, I would say that kind of shifting was probably the first Violent Femmes album.