In this interview Dustin Bates of Ohio-based rock band Starset chats about the band's elaborate fictional backstory, their unconventional live performances, and the group's relationship with marvel comics.
Guest post by William Glanz of SoundExchange
What better way to generate some buzz than to develop an elaborate back story?
That’s what Starset front man and vocalist Dustin Bates did. In 2013 Bates developed a story about the Starset Society, headed by Dr. Aston Wise. The Ohio-based band’s role is to deliver the Society’s message.
The band’s music and its shows are as elaborate as its fictional story, and their unique multimedia approach – Bates wrote a graphic novel about the Society, and the band teamed up with Marvel Comics to produce a separate graphic novel, released in October 2017 – is helping to drive its popularity.
Bates, bassist Ron DeChant, guitarist Brock Richards and drummer Adam Gilbert released their second album, Vessels, in January 2017. We caught up with Bates and asked about the album, Starset’s unique sound, the cinematic approach the band takes with its shows and what it’s like being the second-most popular band from Columbus, Ohio – 21 Pilots also hails from Ohio’s capital city.
“I tell everybody that we could be the biggest band in our hometown, but we never, ever will be,” Bates joked.
SoundExchange: The band is heavily influenced by science, so I want to ask about the role of science in your music. Vessels, which came out last year, is loaded with astronomical and scientific themes and language, and some of the videos reinforce those themes. Is your music a function of your educational background?
Bates: They work in tandem. For a long time, I was building those two elements of my life independently. I was working on a Ph.D. in engineering, and I also got a major label deal with Epic with a different band. To focus on that deal, I stopped working on the Ph.D., and then the deal went away before the record came out.
So everything sort of collapsed, and Starset is what re-emerged with everything intertwined.
SoundExchange: When did you realize that was the direction you wanted to go musically?
Bates: The themes and goals and the narrative all began to grow independently at first. The style became apparent eventually. If you’re doing a cinematic project with a large over-arching narrative, the best type of music is cinematic. I knew I wanted to do a project that used various dynamics, including heavy guitars. At the center of it is hard rock, but using electronics and quartets in addition to make the experience soundtrack-esque.
SoundExchange: Who are the band’s musical influences?
Bates: It changes for every record. With the changing narrative, I plan to change the sound. I think people understand that we are as much of a lab as a band. So, with every change in the narrative, there will be a changing sound. With the two records that have been completed, the inspirations vary.
One continuous inspiration on the cinematic side would be Hans Zimmer and Sigur Ros.
On the hard rock side, [it’s] groups like Breaking Benjamin, the Deftones and Thirty Seconds to Mars and Muse.
On the electronic side, Transmissions [Starset’s debut album] was heavily influenced by ambient and industrial electronic like Nine Inch Nails. Vessels was influenced more by modern EDM.
SoundExchange: Vessels also has a few tracks that strongly resemble a classic metal sound. I’m thinking of “Frequency” and “Gravity of You.” Are there some metal influences guiding the band, as well?
Bates: “Gravity of You” is like the Deftones. “Frequency” incorporates a lot of the orchestration of EDM. The guitar work, much like a lot of Vessels, is djent.
SoundExchange: Talk a little more about your sound. It sounds like technology plays an important role. What are you using to generate the Starset sound?
Bates: The interesting part of the project is that the mission statement of the Starset Society, our overarching group, is that we need to be aware as a population of the dichotomous effect of technology as we progress into the future.
Even so, we are incredibly pro-technology as a band. In the studio, we’re using as much new technology as possible. That’s only going to get more obvious as we progress and work on future records.
And live [shows], it’s the same thing. There’s an incredible amount of technology on stage.
SoundExchange: How would a Starset acoustic set work out?
Bates: We recently recorded six tracks acoustically. Almost all the electronics were stripped away. But it was still cinematic. It was basically unplugged [and] cinematic, but without over the top doubling and tripling of takes. I think what happened is the lyrics and vocal melodies were able to come to the forefront more.
That’s how you can tell if you have a good song. That was the goal. To show people a different side of it.
SoundExchange: Your shows aren’t traditional concerts, are they? They’re more of a visual, high-tech production. Why do you prefer that cinematic approach, and how does it complement the music?
Bates: We call the shows demonstrations. We want them to be as immersive as possible. We love to make them an experience. We want to bring them into our world and forget about their world. I think it plays perfectly into the sound and the narrative. Everything we do borrows from cinema. We want it to be much more than a show.
We have incredibly lofty goals. We want the experience to begin as soon as you walk in the door, at the latest. We use augmented reality now to bring the stage out over you, but in the future, we hope to use anything at our disposal to add that extra dimension.
Now, we bring live strings. The band wears space suits… the string players wear computer-controlled visors. There’s a laser show, and it’s very atmospheric. There’s plenty of video content.
SoundExchange: Is your work with Marvel Comics continuing, and what’s next with that collaboration?
Bates: The campaign with the first graphic novel just started in October, so we have no idea if they’re happy with the sales or what the sales are. I’m writing the second novel now. I’m not certain if there will be a collaboration in conjunction with that with Marvel, but that would be incredible.
I’m pretty excited about the plan for the third [book], and it’s something that would work incredibly [well] with Marvel.
SoundExchange: Are you working on new music, and what can you say about what’s next?
Bates: I’m actually wrapping up a solo project that’s electronic, and I’m going to be self-releasing that. It’s called MNQN.
For Starset… I’ve been ruminating about the over-arching goals are sonically and letting that form itself over time. I will be working on it, but I hesitate to say when.