Posted January 29, 2018 by Jeff in Tunes

Starset: A Left and Right Brain Blend

Starset by Steve Gullick
Starset by Steve Gullick

Starset’s songs center thematically on how science and technology affect society. The Columbus, Ohio-based rock band’s performances follow a space-themed narrative and singer Dustin Bates designs much of the automated live show tech elements himself.

The band’s most recent album Vessels debuted at No. 11 on Billboard’s Top 200 Chart last year. Bates also collaborated with Marvel Comics to release a Starset-themed graphic comic book last fall.

A PhD candidate in electrical engineering who’s done research for the U.S. Air Force and taught at the International Space University in France, Bates spoke to us in a recent phone interview from a Florida hotel where he was working on a side project.

What first attracted you to music?
There were various stages of interest, I guess. I think my story is like a lot of people’s. I was subjected to the music that my parents liked — Michael Jackson, Phil Collins and Neil Diamond. The drum break in Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” made me want to play drums. I got a snare drum and joined the school band. From there, I started buying drum sets. I discovered rock and became obsessed with rock and writing music. All the while, I wanted to be a scientist and inventor as a kid, so I pursued both.

How did the band form?
I had a band called Downplay that had a deal with Epic Records. That fell apart, and I went back to the drawing board. I had stopped my PhD program to pursue the music. I got off that track. Because of the desperation or something, this much more ambitious and wild project coalesced.

Are you part of the Columbus music scene?
We were heavily part of the music scene with Downplay. I put the members of Starset with members of bands I had played with from there throughout the years. Since then, we’ve been on the road endlessly.

How does your electrical engineering background influence the band’s music?
In various ways. I approach a lot of the songs in an engineering kind of way. I’m very analytical and theoretical in the way I do it. I approach the songs that will be singles in a certain way. Other ones, I approach in a more creative way. I also design the sound in an engineering-like way. I use science terms for a lot of the metaphors. It opens up the palette a lot. At the same time, I try to blend the right and left brain side of things.

What was the experience of making Transmissions like?
It was especially crazy for a number of reasons. No one knew about it. I had these lofty goals for it. I took loans out and kept doubling down. That year I made $5,000 or maybe a little less personally [so] I was borrowing lots of money. At first, I borrowed $15,000 and then $50,000. Then we started a radio campaign and it became $70,000. That was working a little. At one point, I was up to $110,000. That felt like a zillion dollars, but I believed in it.

The radio thing was stupid and signing a record deal was probably even dumber. I wanted to be on the radio and now it’s not even a big part of the equation.

Did you want to do something different with Vessels?
We’re still not even finished with the Vessels stuff. We’re doing augmented reality things. This new tour will be our first foray into that. I’m not sure how much we’ll unveil on the tour. It will grow. That all culminates and builds up to a new graphic novel.

The music on Vessels has that cinematic quality you talk about.
That’s the case with both of the records; they’re soundtracks to narratives. With Vessels, the narrative shifted. My approach for the sound changed. The electronics on Transmissions are ambient and a little more organic and float-y. With Vessels, I wanted to be direct and more in the DNA and closer to types of EDM. I wanted the guitars to be more direct. I also wanted a wider dynamic of sound, so it can go from dreamy to metal to full-on pop. It’s fun to do that but it hurts us in terms of the industry finding a pocket for us. We don’t care about that. Some fans love it but others get afraid when they’ve attached themselves to a certain style of music. We want to challenge that.

Where did you record?
We did the drums in L.A. and the rest of it in various parts of Maine. We did a lot of it as a base of a ski mountain in Maine. That sounds amazing, I know, but it was five days after the place was closed for the years. I mean closed. There were no human beings. We had to drive 15 minutes to eat at this one bar. It was good. It was secluded and some of that plays out on the record.

The video for “Satellite” is like a short film. What was it like to make it?
That’s the goal with all of the videos. We’re working on one now that we hope is just as good. With the budget we had, they hit a home run with that one. I was really happy with the work. The trick to getting a video of that quality is to find good talent. I write the treatments and after writing them, it’s super critical to find the looks you want. I often have to make sure people really follow their work and don’t drift off and do something crazy. That’s become innate for our video work.

It looks like it was filmed on Mars. Where did you go to shoot it?
The Mojave desert. It’s a huge step up from the one I shot myself, “My Demons.” I did that in a rock quarry in Akron. I have funny ties to the Cleveland scene. My first show outside of parents’ basement and the one that amped my passion for playing live and [made me think] I was fuckin’ Metallica was the High School Rock Off. I’m from Salem and I heard about it on the radio and signed up for it. It was quite an experience. We totally sucked but I thought we were heading for the big time.

Will the band always embrace a sci-fi theme?
I think yes. People often mistake it for being a space band. It’s a science and sci-fi band. On one side of the coin, we use sci-fi narratives to show various dystopias. On the other side, we represent science. I liken it to a Christian band in that we’re one of the only bands I know of that speaks to science in a similar way that a Christian band speaks to Christianity.

Photo provided by Shorefire. Credit Steve Gullick.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.