Starset, the Columbus, Ohio-based band whose unique style has been dubbed "cinematic rock," isn't your average rock band. That's thanks in large part to lead singer Dustin Bates, who as a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and a former teacher at the International Space University, is anything but your average musician.
Equal parts Matthew Bellamy, H.G. Wells, and Elon Musk, Bates is on a mission to redefine modern rock music: and he's got the goods to do it.
In 2014, Starset's debut single, "My Demons," became the longest-running Top 5 song ever at rock radio, spending 43 weeks on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Radio chart--shattering every endurance record since the magazine originated the chart in 1981.
The band's anthemic follow-ups, "Carnivore" and "Halo," both from the group's debut album Transmissions, have also resonated with fans, racking up tens of millions of streams online. Interestingly, the songs have also provided the score to thousands of fan-generated videos, with the futuristic-yet-dystopian sound backing everything from gaming montages to anime art videos. Given the band's scientific undertones and interactive nature (its fans are invited to join The Starset Society: "a collective of like-minded individuals dedicated to publicizing scientific discoveries which have been silenced or otherwise stolen by public or private agents."), the circle of creation between band and fans is unsurprising.
Despite the band's solid track record at radio and on YouTube, the music is only part of the story. The band's "Mission," it explains on its website, is "to spread broad awareness of the Message" through music and media." "The Message"--which has not yet been released to fans--"contains the knowledge necessary to spare the future of humanity, and we will do whatever we must to inform the public," the band explains.
Music fans have been enthusiastically devouring both the music and the Message, flocking to the band's spacesuit-clad, electronic-Emulator-based live concerts, dubbed "demonstrations." The band has opened for acts including In This Moment, Halestorm, and Razor & Tie labelmates The Pretty Reckless, and has earned rave reviews at rock festivals across the country.
On June 25, Starset will take its live show to the next level, combining music, visuals, and intergalactic theatrics into a special performance at the Vanderbilt Museum Planetarium on Long Island, New York. It's the second such performance for the band, who staged its inaugural planetarium demonstration at the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, Colorado earlier this year.
I spoke with lead singer Bates, who told me he hopes to one day launch a national planetarium tour. Below is an excerpt from our interview, covering the band's Message, its storied origin, and Bates' love of science fiction.
Tell me about The Starset Society and Wise Engineering.
The Starset Society was formed in 2013 with the intent of publicizing topics of a scientific nature that might otherwise be outside of most mainstream discussions.
Wise Engineering is merely one of the companies owned by its founder, research engineer Dr. Aston Wise. Currently, Dr. Wise and the Starset Society are looking at the near future and the ways in which technology may affect our society economically, philosophically, and politically.
Your album Transmissions tells a story and is sonically very cinematic. What is "The Message" and how did you develop your unique sound?
I approached the record with the goal of making it the soundtrack of the Starset Society's current campaign. We set out to achieve this goal sonically by blending symphonic, electronic, and rock elements, which culminated into 'cinematic rock,' a moniker which we think fits well.
"The Message" itself is part of this outreach campaign--specifically, the perceptive warning of a potentially negative future at the hands of manipulated technology. It was this Message which inspired much of the lyrical and conceptual content of the record. There will be a novel out later this year that explains all of this in detail.
Your third single, "Halo," is climbing the radio charts now. What is that song about?
"Halo" is inspired by the life of Thomas Bell, the man who provided the Message to the Society. Wrapped within this Message was a compelling love story that inspired me to write the song. Essentially, it is about the dichotomous relationship of a superhero whose power comes from his damsel in distress.
You're a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering. Do you use your engineering skills in designing and programming your live shows?
As for my engineering skills in the live show, yes, I absolutely use them--just not nearly to the same degree that I once did. Our computer controlled space suits, transparent DJ touch screen, and various other electronic equipment all require various levels of technical know-how and inventiveness.
What are you most excited about for the show at the Vanderbilt Museum Planetarium on June 25?
I love the immersion that a planetarium provides. The Starset live show is intended to be an experience--an escape from the tediousness of everyday life into the world of Starset--a world that has been heavily inspired by the Message. The planetarium is the closest we have come towards realizing this ever-expanding goal.
The Emulator you use in your live shows in awesome--it's almost Minority Report-esque. How does that help amplify the live Starset experience?
We wanted the electronic components of the music to have a presence in the live show that is equivalent to the other elements such as the guitars, drums, piano, and cello. The Emulator provides that, allowing me to DJ the electronic components of the music right out in the front of the stage. The fact that it actually looks like the future is an added bonus.
Where did the idea to have your band wear spacesuits on stage come from?
Like everything else, the spacesuits harken back to the Message. There is a strong space element to the narrative, lyrics, and concepts that I felt was imperative to represent in the live setting. This is a large part of the "escape" that I mentioned earlier.
If you could travel quickly and safely to anywhere in the cosmos, where would it be and why?
Anywhere that life exists, if it does. It would be fascinating to see an alien ecosystem, given the astounding differences that are possible. Visiting a planet with hyper-intelligent life would be the icing on the cake. I would love to see the technology and philosophy that such a civilization could create.
What's your favorite science fiction movie?
This is practically impossible to answer. As boring as this answer is, I would have to say Star Wars, though I have a multitude of other titles ready to go, should I need to affirm my hipster nerd cred.
Do you have a favorite science fiction novel?
Also difficult. The first sci-fi book I ever read was The Sphere by Michael Crichton, so it holds a special place in my heart. Other than that, my favorites are typically my most recent reads, which are currently Wool, Fuzzy Nation, and Ready Player One. I'm just now starting The Martian, and I think I'm going to dig it.
I know you're a big fan of comics. What's your favorite?
My first love was Superman, so I'm sticking with that.
How can fans apply for membership in the Starset Society, should they choose to accept the mission?
Visit thestarsetsociety.org and fill out the form. Membership is typically granted within days.