Dustin Bates, who fronts the Columbus, Ohio-based sci-fi obsessed hard rock band Starset, can remember the moment when he knew he wanted to be in a rock band. It came when his high school band competed in the annual High School Rock Off, a battle of the bands for teens that’s put on by the folks at the local Live Nation office.
“I have ties to the Cleveland,” he says in a recent phone interview from Florida, where he had taken a few days off to work on a side project. Starset performs with Year of the Locust at 8 p.m. on Feb. 3, at House of Blues
. “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.”
Growing up, Bates says he went through “various stages of interest” when it came to music.
“I think my story is like a lot of people’s,” he says. “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.”
He formed a band called Downplay that had a deal with Epic Records. That fell apart, so he “went back to the drawing board.”
“Because of the desperation or something, this much more ambitious and wild project coalesced,” he says of Starset.
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 set his studies aside to pursue Starset. But his background clearly influences the band. Live performances follow a space-themed narrative as the song’s themes center on how science and technology affect society.
“In various ways. I approach a lot of the songs in an engineering kind of way,” says Bates. “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.”
Bates took a DIY approach to the band’s debut, Transmissions
“It was especially crazy for a number of reasons,” he says. “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. 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.”
Bates also collaborated with Marvel Comics to release a Starset-themed graphic comic book last fall.
The music on the band’s latest effort, Vessels
, has a cinematic quality as it opens with “Orbits,” an ominous dirge that sounds like the kind of track that would play during the opening credits of a science fiction flick. The Filter-like single “Satellite,” however, comes off as more accessible thanks to its catchy melody and soaring vocals.
“My approach for the sound changed,” Bates explains. “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 of certain styles when they attach themselves to a style of music. We want to challenge that.”
Recording in a remote part of Maine contributed to the themes about isolation.
“We recorded a lot of it as a base of a ski mountain in Maine,” says Bates. “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.”
Centering on a lost astronaut wandering on a barren landscape, the video for
“Satellite” comes across like it’s a short film. It was filmed in the Mojave desert, which substitutes for Mars.
“That’s the goal with all of the videos,” says Bates. “We’re working on one now that we hope is just as good. That one with the budget we had, they hit a home run. 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 and 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.
The ‘Satellite' video is a huge step up from the one I shot myself, 'My Demon,'" says Bates. "I did that in a rock quarry in Akron.”
Bates says the band will always embrace a sci-fi theme of some sort.
“People often mistake the band for being a space band,” he says. “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.”
Starset, Year of the Locust, 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $22 ADV, $27 DOS, houseofblues.com.