Understanding American rock band Starset is a bit like trying to understand space and time itself. Band frontman Dustin Bates is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent men in the music industry, with a master’s degree in electrical engineering to prove it.
Starset’s act extends well beyond the stage, however. Bates has created a fictional backstory to the creation of the band. The Starset Society acts as a group promoting science and certain principles through, amongst other things, Bates and his band. The Starset Society and the band’s backstory are treated as entirely true entities in interviews as it lends to the fully immersive experience Bates is trying to create.
First album Transmissions, released in 2014, was released alongside a graphic novel from the Starset Society called The Prox Transmission. New album Vessels will be accompanied by a graphic novel released by Marvel Comics later this year, as well as four novellas outlining the various tenets of The Starset Society.
It’s better to hear it in Bates’ words, so Music Feeds caught up with him on the eve of Vessels’ release in the USA.
Starset – Back To The Earth
Music Feeds: How are you Dustin, what’s going on?
Dustin Bates: I’m great thank you. Just preparing for tour. We’re in our hometown of Columbus Ohio, we start tour Friday, playing here first and then doing most of the US.
MF: Is that a headlining tour for you guys, or are you supporting as well?
DB: Yeah it’s our first headlining tour, and the fact that it’s coinciding with the release of this record is just craziness. It’s exciting and overwhelming and all of that!
MF: Well, tell me a little more about your non-musical background, I know you’ve got quite an interesting history there?
DB: I have a master’s degree in electrical engineering with a focus on avionics, which is basically robotics and navigations and things like GPS and other navigational systems. I was focusing basically on automation, I wanted to be at the forefront of driverless cars, and I was working on a PHD towards that, and working on my dissertation when I got a record deal and eventually had to stop all that altogether.
MF: So tell me then about your musical background? What kind of upbringing did you have with music?
DB: It was pretty much entirely self-driven. No one in my family was ever that big into music, and I just had a passion for it from a pretty young age… I did some drums and percussion but then I discovered Metallica and I decided I wanted to be in a rock band, and then I discovered a couple other bands like Weezer and I decided I wanted to write songs, then got in some crappy bands locally… I was the drummer at first then the bassist, then the guitarist and eventually realised that I was a terrible singer but I was better than any of the other terrible singers in my band (chuckles) so it was out of necessity.
Then I was [in] even more terrible bands and I started writing terrible songs; fifty terrible songs later they started getting marginally less terrible, and I just kept writing and eventually wrote a couple songs that got some labels interested and just kept writing and got one record deal with Epic Records, and then recorded a record and it went away. I guess they got a new president, and I got dropped the same day they got a new president, and… yeah. And then Starset happened, so… it’s been a long journey.
MF: It certainly has! So what about The Starset Society? How did that whole thing come about?
DB: Well The Starset Society is a group dedicated to publicising various tenets that are basically looking at various technologies and how they might affect our lives in various ways: politically, socially, economically, et cetera. Currently the focus, as will be more obvious later this week when the Starset Society unveils a new website, is upon automation, as it has been for quite a while, and space and the brain and various technologies around the brain, and the body. Starset itself is a promotional arm of that, very much like the various other things that are happening, like the Marvel comic and the novel.
MF: Okay, so how do you incorporate their philosophies and their promotion into Starset the band?
DB: This time around there were four tenets, as I’ve mentioned, and there are four narratives that are built upon the technologies encompassed within those. So those narratives will actually be released as a series of novellas and this record, Vessels, is a soundtrack to those ideas, or those narratives.
MF: It’s quite a fascinating concept, really, like have you ever heard of anyone doing this sort of thing before?
DB: Ahh no. There have been groups that have used multimedia to some extent, and I’m constantly reminded that Coheed And Cambria has a graphic novel, which I actually wasn’t aware of before. Bands like Rush and Pink Floyd have done concept records but in a different way.
This is its own thing. The closest I could almost compare it to, in a weird way, for people that don’t understand the organisation, there are Christian bands that promote Christianity and the bible, and we’re a science band, promoting science and the tenets of The Starset Society.
MF: So what appealed to you about The Starset Society in particular?
DB: Naturally as an engineer, I’m very much aligned with their goals.
One of the things that’s great about this is hopefully it inspires kids to become more interested in science, and that’s always been something that I’ve been interested in. Also doing various research in my graduate career, I guess I began to see some of the pitfalls of technology, in addition to the amazing things.
I’ve also been very intrigued by Carl Sagan, he was always very concerned that we live in a society built entirely around technology but very few of us understand it, including our politicians who tend to vilify it. That’s a dangerous combination. So it’s very easy to become aligned with this.
Starset – Monster
MF: Speaking of your research, I did hear that you spent some time in Australia on a research project?
DB: Yeah! I was in Adelaide a few years ago studying at the International Space University, which goes from city to city every summer and is an interdisciplinary and international school that covers all the various facets of space studies. I went out to Woomera, and we fired a Zuni rocket out there, with a payload that we had designed and yeah, it was really cool.
MF: Haha, that does sound cool. Going back to the record, your first album Transmissions was a great success for you guys, so what can we expect from Vessels?
DB: In concept, I’d say Transmissions was about the reception of something and furthermore the overcoming of some resistance, whether it be known or unknown, in a broad respect. I guess the overall concept of Vessels is more of a journey.
Also, there’s a more human element and I hope that people, regardless of this narrative, which might be overwhelming for some people, I hope it can connect with people on an emotional level without the extraneous things and people can just listen to the music for what it is. On top of that, there’s various sonic differences. I’ve pushed a lot further into various other genres. I wanted to bring more breadth, more depth to this record and hopefully, I achieved it.
MF: Do you think the message with this record is more of a personal or more of a societal story?
DB: I would say it’s collapsed in on itself a little bit from Transmissions. It’s more intimate. It’s more of a personal journey – not me as a person – but in terms of the listener or the narrative, yeah it’s gotten a lot smaller in scope as you journey through it.
MF: What about your song writing process?
DB: I start with sonic goals. This time I had a greater understanding of what instrumentation and even arrangements and genres, to an extent, would be amalgamated into these songs… and then chord structures. Once there’s a great chord structure then I always scat melodies. Then once I have the melody I spend an exorbitant amount of time coming up with lyrics that fit the theme that I want, over that melody. I think it is the way I’ve always written, then after that a readdressing of the musical soundscape and flushing out of the atmosphere of it as well.
MF: It sounds like quite an involved process, how long have you actually spent working on this record?
DB: At least nine months. There were a couple breaks for the European tour and other tours but I would say nine months, yeah.
MF: That’s not too bad. Now, the press release says that you approached this record with “the singular intent of pushing boundaries” so what did they mean by that?
DB: I don’t know ‘cos I didn’t write that (chuckles) but I would say that it’s sort of accurate. Trying to push the sonic boundaries or even the boundaries that were set by Transmissions. Whereas it was centred in the hard rock lane before, now it goes more metal at times, and the guitar work borrows from djent stylings, and it gets more ambient at times, using electronics at a more deeply integrated level. Whereas the strings were more cinematic, there was more of a quartet before, on this record it’s more of an orchestration I would say. Hopefully increasing in breadth and depth and making it more difficult to tie it to a specific genre.
MF: That’s not a bad thing! So what can you tell me about the Marvel Comics deal, that’s pretty exciting?
DB: Yeah! Well, The Starset Society joined up with Marvel to do at least one graphic novel that explains a certain amount of information about Starset Society. We haven’t gone public with the content yet. Suffice to say that people will have a greater understanding of what Starset Society is about once they read it.
There is also a novel that will be released that does a similar thing and we hope that the Marvel collaboration continues and becomes something serialised and becomes a look at futurism and can maybe open some eyes while entertaining.
MF: So what is next for you guys?
DB: Well the record gets released Friday, we start the tour Friday and who knows after that? We hope we’re on a pretty crazy ride this coming year and I guess we’ll just see what happens.
MF: So we may yet see you in Australia?
DB: I hope! I love it there, it’s a beautiful country and I didn’t get to spend enough time there, and I did have enough money last time (laughs) so it would be amazing to come back and really see it.
Not paying lip service but there’s great people there too; I can’t wait to make it back. That’s one of the reasons we’re doing all this press, if we all do our job, maybe there’ll be enough of a crowd to come on over.
‘Vessels’ is out now via Razor & Tie/Cooking Vinyl Australia.
Starset – Ricochet (360 lyric video)