Perhaps the only rock band headed by an astronomer and electrical engineer, Starset burst onto the scene in 2014 like gamma rays shearing through the Solar System. With their first album, Transmissions, and its follow-up, 2017’s Vessels, Starset creates an elaborate quasi-futuristic vibe, a cautionary tale about what might befall Homo sapiens if we allow current-day technology to advance until it is we who service it.
Taking it as a given that the galaxy is populated with sentient races capable of interstellar travel and that we exist on the cusp of joining their ranks if only we make the right decisions, Starset is like a version of Rush or David Bowie with fewer operatic indulgences and roots in real science. Frontman Dustin Bates‘ fondness for multimedia production never gets out of hand. SF Weekly spoke to him about what new transmissions the Starset Society may have received, what an atypical engineer he is, and about the dangers of becoming Rush.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Your live show is a very elaborate, multimedia affair with astronauts on stage and the whole nine yards. Can you walk me through it?
I guess the foundational effect of any sci-fi band should be atmosphere, so there is a ton of various atmospheres, cryo and haze and fog — and piercing through that, a series of lasers because you can’t do sci-fi without lasers. We have space suits that are computer-controlled and thrusters that shoot toward the ground. We also have various types of video walls, some of which I invented.
The drummer plays behind a trapezoidal configuration that, whenever he’s drumming, is transparent. Otherwise, he’s opaque and when it’s opaque, there’s projection-mapping on it. Same thing for the violinist and cellist, we haver a violin and cellist playing our more cinematic arrangements with us, so the electronics are represented with a whole DJ. The string quartet is covered by two strings live, for budgetary reasons, and the hard-rock band is all there. We also have numerous LED screens, and there’s a new thing that is I’m super excited about: at least one augmented-reality experience. There should even be some tangible media. We’re not sure which shows we’ll be doing it, but we’ve announced some formation from Starset Society in the form of pamphlets and booklets. We spread the word on science futurism and its pros and cons, similar to the way a Jehovah’s Witness does for Christianity
But with a slightly more rigorous empirical background.
Yeah, but let’s say there is a degree of training to being a Jehovah’s Witness.
Well, I’m sure they have divinity school or internal training programs.
Has the Starset Society received any new transmissions recently, because contemporaneously with Starset’s rise, there’ve been all these articles about alien superstructures that might be cosmic dust and ʻOumuamua, the high-speed, cigar-shaped asteroid that entered the Solar System at such a weird angle it was hypothesized it might be a probe. The amount of stuff out there is percolating to a boil, so have you been privy to any cosmic messages lately?
There’s been a lot of scientific information, and we’ve also created some of our own more sci-fi-leaning content to try to exemplify some of the scientific developments and how they can become dystopian. A lot of the politics and various forces within society that we see, anti-science things and some fingerpointing toward groups for various economic downturns, we have to understand that most of it is due to a changing society at the hands automation. We’ve realized a lot of focus has to be on public outreach. Not really taking a stand on it, but just literally just raise understanding about that. We’ve going to be unveiling a new website that helps us with that. We have a certain campaign on the way that’s a little bit different than we’ve had in the past.
You’ve described yourself as an “atypical engineer.” Is that because you’re also the frontman of a rock band, or because your personal scientific interests take you outside what most of your peers are working on?
Yes to both. The first one is an obvious one. With the second, I think I should have treaded lightly, because it could be taken negatively by my peers. I don’t mean it in a negative way, but some engineers are very focused. They have the opposite of ADD. I have it too; I think there should be a name for it, like “attention-holy-crap-this-is-too-much-disorder,” but I guess a lot of engineers I’ve worked with tend to have highly specialized use of one side of their brains and the other side is not so much. I try to exercise both sides, and I’ve had my work reflect that. I think that’s one of the atypical sides.
Do you have a strong fan base among scientists?
Pretty decent, growing all the time. There’s all kinds of little pockets we have. Scientists for sure. We have NASA people show up at our show and give us cool stuff. SpaceX people.
They give us T-shirts, pins, all that stuff. But we need a No. 1 pop hit.
Have you had a chance to tour the Allen Array in Northern California? It would be a great venue to play at.
No, and I would absolutely love to.
I feel like Starset has an almost inverted-Ziggy Stardust function, where Ziggy was this alien who came to warn the Earth that we have five years left, but you’re humans warning us about potential life elsewhere and the end of life here because of poorly governed technology run amok. I can see why that resonates with people, but at the same time, the history of rock music is littered with the corpses with prog rock bands that became messianic in their ambitions. Do you have an anxiety that you’re going to be Rush without being careful of how these multimedia projects proceed?
Tread lightly! I’m not a huge Rush fan, and everything you’re saying I get. Rush would sacrifice melody to get some weird lyric out. They’re super-literal when they went thematic oftentimes. To answer your question, I don’t think so, I think we’re actually finding new ways to be more entertaining while also being more grounded and having a purpose. I believe more and more we really are becoming the parallel to what a Christian band is for the church in terms of science, and there’s plenty of room for us and anyone else who does that. There are thousand and thousands of Christian bands and not many prophets for science. Prophet is a strong word. Proselytizers?
You are, you’re evangelizing on behalf of science.
Yeah, precisely. And we’re going to be doing it to a greater degree rather than going down our own rabbit hole. Using sci-fi to generate narratives to show worlds and futures and dystopias that could emerge from these various technologies. There’s room for a lot of entertainment and exploration and education. I don’t think we’re going to jump the shark soon.
I hope you get to be the first band to play on Mars.
That would be awesome. Unless it’s a one-way trip.
Starset, with, Year of the Locust, Grabbitz, and Palisades, Saturday, March 3, 8 p.m., at the UC Theatre, 2036 University Ave, Berkeley. $12-$25; theatreberkeley.com