SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE POWER LINES AND PALM TREES
Everything you know about Dogstar is probably wrong.
Here in 2023, Dogstar – guitarist/vocalist Bret Domrose, drummer Robert Mailhouse and bassist Keanu Reeves – epitomize the quintessential Southern California storytelling rock band they’ve always been in their hearts, making deeply resonant music that literally comes from Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees. Yet had you Googled this long-on-hiatus, now happily reunited trio anytime during the past decade, you almost certainly would have found Dogstar being described as a Nineties “grunge band.” Should you have dared to push your dogged Dogstar research any further, you likely would have come across vague yet slightly barbed references to the group being some sort of “vanity project.”
Thankfully, “Everything Turns Around,” to quote the title of the first track on Dogstar’s new, compelling album Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees. And with their positive new turn, this formerly promising power trio of friends finally delivers on that promise and finds their power. One fair listen to Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees reveals Dogstar’s beautiful sonic truth. Nearly a quarter century after what seemed to be their final album, Happy Ending (released in 2000), Dogstar has reformed and taken a great creative leap forward, establishing an entirely new path.
In truth, Dogstar was never a vanity project, but a sincere passion play – a band of buddies who came together organically in a garage in Southern California and simply dreamed of playing music together and making a little noise. Now, all these years later and seemingly out of nowhere, Domrose, Mailhouse and Reeves took some time at the tail end of a historic lockdown to become the band they always dreamed they could be.
“Our earlier records were almost in the wrong decade,” says Rob Mailhouse. “Looking back, it’s almost like we started a Seventies band that somehow got lost in the Nineties. When everybody else was shouting, we were trying to tell stories because in Bret, we’ve always had a singer-songwriter in the Jackson Browne tradition. But people kept saying `grunge’ because of the times we were in – or maybe because of the clothes we were wearing.”
But a couple of decades later, mistaken identity has given away to brand new clarity and stronger tunes. “This music just sounds like us,” says Bret Domrose with a smile.
More specifically, Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Tree sounds like a varied yet somehow cohesive and, at times, radiant set of songs by a band whose time has finally arrived.
“One of the things I love about this album is the variety of feel,” says Keanu Reeves. “Every song is not the same – you can hear our diverse influences and a lot of different tones here. And I feel like finally on this album, we’ve managed to take all those influences and our passion for playing together and once and for all turned it all into Dogstar.”
As it turns out, there’s quite a lot happening on Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees, from the sensitive musical character study of “Dillon St.,” and the redemptive power of love in “Everything Turns Around,’ to the Pink Floyd-tinged “Glimmer” and the raw aggression of ‘Breach.” Echoes of classic L.A. rock abound, with sonic textures and flourishes reflecting the group’s shared love of Brit Rock from The Cure and The Smiths, to Joy Division and New Order. Something on Somewhere – between songs like “Sunrise” and “Sleep” – will hit you hard. As Domrose sings on “Dillon St.,” a shimmering folk rock gem inspired by his father’s musical dreams, “And you don’t have to feel so alone/There’s a song for everyone that can bring them home.”
You reappear when I am down
Like a favorite memory I have found –
–”Upside” by Dogstar from Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees
Dogstar’s origin story dates back to a chance meeting between Robert Mailhouse and Keanu Reeves in the aisles of a Gelson’s grocery store in Los Angeles. Discovering a shared love of hockey and, before long, of music, the two new friends soon started jamming in Reeves’ garage in a scene that sounds sort of like I Love You, Man, albeit with different leading men. Ultimately, they found a key addition in the form of Bret Domrose, who became Dogstar’s frontman and guitarist in 1995, a year after he toured with the group to support the band’s then-lead singer and guitarist Gregg Miller.
1996 saw the release of Dogstar’s first EP Quattro Formaggi and, soon enough, Our Little Visionary, their debut album for upstart Zoo Entertainment where their labelmates included everyone from Tool to Matthew Sweet. There were TV appearances, interviews, and international tours opening for David Bowie and Bon Jovi, with Weezer and Rancid opening for them. Our Little Visionary featured some promising originals, as well as a lovely version of Badfinger’s Seventies power pop classic “No Matter What.”
“That cover was a tell,” Mailhouse says with a smile. “Remember Myspace? That’s all we had back in the day and I got an inbox from the drummer of Badfinger, Mike Gibbens who’d retired, but he said, ‘Best cover of the band EVER.’ Which was nice to hear because often we got the opposite of that. At the time, it was tough with some critics saying, ‘How dare you make music?’”
Perhaps inevitably, there was always the vague sense that this band of brothers was feeling overwhelmed by the fame of their bass player who could be the world’s most famous bass player since another highly Beatlesque band – namely, The Beatles. “But definitely not for being a bass player,” Reeves adds with a laugh.
“Nobody should or ever would ever feel bad for us,” says Mailhouse. “Because that attention definitely helped more than it hurt, but as a young band, we did find ourselves in a pretty unique circumstance if we ever wanted to be taken seriously.
As Domrose recalls wryly, “There were times in The Nineties when interviewers would say things like, ‘Great album, guys . . . So KEANU, when is the new Speed coming out?’
Reeves smiles, before adding, “I think that was true for a while, but after we’d been around for four or five years, it was certainly starting to change. We don’t know what the response will be this time.”
Yet, Dogstar has never really lost their shine for the fans who managed to pick up their scent along the way. As Reeves explains with a smile, “I run into people all the time who say, ‘Oh yeah, my mom went to your show’ or ‘My mom loved your show.’ Or ‘I may have been conceived at one of your shows.’”
“That’s great,” Domrose responds, cracking up. “What do you tell them, `Thanks’ or `I’m sorry?’”
“All you hold dear – time don’t mean nothin here”
–“Breach” by Dogstar
By early on in the 21st Century, Dogstar drifted apart as a band, but never broke up as friends.
“Dogstar was like a chapter, and we just took a break and turned that page,” Mailhouse says.
“We all just veered off into different areas. I started another band with my then-girlfriend. Bret got into writing music for film and loved it. And Keanu remains . . . Keanu.. But we’re all friends, we’ve stayed in touch, and we’ve never stopped making music one way or another.
Occasionally, we sort of got together and played, woodshedded in the basement, but nothing stuck and time just sort of blew by. I think that was a good thing because it allowed us to get past the whole vanity unfair thing and grunge.”
And that could have been that but, thankfully, that’s not “How The Story Ends,” to borrow the title from another one of Dogstar’s new songs.
Hard cut to post Lockdown in L.A. in the artist-friendly neighborhood of Silver Lake.
“Lockdown sort of dictated how we got here,” Mailhouse explains. “No one knew what to do early on. Everyone was at home. So at some point, I decided to set up my keyboards because I’m a piano player too. I did little mini-concerts for my canyon. And my neighbor Ryan during the lockdown asked about what was going on with Dogstar. Ryan ultimately hooked us up with Dave Trumfio (Wilco, The Rentals and Built to Spill) who ended up producing and engineering. Somehow, a neighbor from those free lockdown concerts led to all of this in the weirdest possible, but most organic way.”
In 2022, Domrose – who moved away from Los Angeles temporarily to take care of some pressing family business – came back to L.A. again. As Mailhouse explains, “When Bret came back, he stayed in my house and that sort of brought us all back together locked in my basement.”
“The hardest thing was getting us all in the room together,” Domrose says. “The rest feel pretty natural – even supernatural.” “For me, this album feels like it’s a terroir of Silver Lake,” Reeves adds. “It’s like these songs came from the earth and the air. And the sunlight. It all inspired us to just be open and listen to things and collaborate with each other, saying yes to the possibilities and crafting these songs together.”
“I feel like I’ve become a fan of my own band,” adds Mailhouse. “And that’s a great feeling.”
For Reeves, “the spirit in which the songs were written was very open. And for me, it was very influenced by a sense of good vibes. I think it’s about the storytelling of each song. And I think together they take you on a trip. We just hope you enjoy each song and wherever it goes.”
Asked for details of the recording schedule, the band praises the ideal, creative and fun atmosphere created by Trumfio and engineer Ruddy Cullers at Kingsize Sound in Glassell Park.
“It took a few weeks,” says Mailhouse.
Reeves pulls out an old school notebook from his black leather jacket and begins to read the precise dates aloud: “We wrote new songs January 5th to 10th, and April 16 to 21st. On July 14th, we started rehearsing the album – 13 new songs. On July 23, we started pre-pro with Dave Trumfio. July 25th – we started with drums and went to August 13th. Then we did a hiatus. Then we started recording Part Two September 26th to October 1 . . .”
“This was all in 1957, right Keanu?” Mailhouse says, amused by all the detail his partner in Dogstar’s rhythm section is laying down.
“No, that was all in 2022,” Reeves continues with mock solemnity. “And the masters were delivered January 4th, 2023.
“Which we can’t find,” jokes Domrose, “But hey, at least we had fun.”
“Wow,” Mailhouse says. “At least somebody is paying attention to Dogstar!”
Find them Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees.
Attention must be paid.