“We foresee a time when brain-machine interfaces will read our brain waves and essentially be the next level of cellphone. What will that mean, when you can access memories and thoughts, when you can communicate telepathically? What happens when you can emulate the brain and upload the mind into a computer? What is death then? What is consciousness?” I’m being quizzed by Dustin Bates, frontman and mastermind behind Starset, musical faction of the Starset Society.
Starset’s origin story is more tantalising than most; the band emerged from the [fictional] Starset Society, a highly intelligent organisation which aims to publicly educate and inform about the importance, uses and philosophical debates surrounding technologies related to four distinct categories: space, automation, brain and body.
The Society primarily uses public outreach programs which relate the information “in a manner that is both entertaining and informative” – which is where Starset, the band, step in.
Aside from his musical passions, Bates is a PhD candidate in electrical engineering, has worked with the US Air Force, and has taught in France at the International Space University. So it’s unsurprising that his musical output has as much to do with space and tech as it does with distorted riffs and soaring vocals.
The Ohio-based band have just unleashed their immersive, intricate, heavy sophomore album Vessels. Debut album Transmission focused on “overcoming and commencement” of the project as a whole. It laid the foundation for Vessels, which Bates explains to be more of a journey, as well as an exploration of the many definitions of the word ‘vessel’, and the concept of a vessel itself.
The origin story champions all tenets of immersive science fiction, and will be taken even further as part of an unbelievably cool collaboration with comics giant Marvel. Starset will be releasing “at least one” original graphic novel that will “explain part of the overarching narrative. We haven’t publicised the exact contents or focus,” Bates quickly notes, “But it will definitely give readers more insight into our world. We hope that it becomes an ongoing thing, we’re really excited about it.”
On top of the graphic novel, four novellas will be released to delve even deeper into the underlying narratives of both albums, while a newly-expanded Starset Society website, elaborate videos and more are all components of this thorough, intelligent, creative multimedia project.
On paper, this many-armed project feels overwhelming, but it’s far from impenetrable; while Vessels is a lot more than just a record, at the end of the day it’s still a record. Bates assures me that up to 90% of his fans enjoy the music as plain, simple, good ol’ music, without connecting the elaborate concepts in its orbit. “You can absolutely enjoy [Starset’s music] without understanding the overarching narrative,” he says. “As much of a concept project as it is, I didn’t want to alienate people who are enjoying music on a surface level. I really hope that people can make emotive connections to the songs, regardless of understanding the world that we come from. It would be dumb to make it too nerdy!”
That said, he hopes that the backstory and the music’s place among the full narrative will encourage fans to look, listen and learn. He outlines the goals of the Starset Society, intending to look at how technology will affect life in the near future – politically, socially and economically. Though the music, Starset hopes hopes “to educate the public about how fast the world is moving, and to have a more educated populous as we decide on the future. And regardless of the Starset Society, hopefully it will inspire people to take a greater interest in space and science.”
It’s here that the real relationship between Starset’s music and modern technology can be found, and it’s here that its crucial connection to the real world is seen. Bates doesn’t just want his fans to have an interest in science and space because it’s fun and interesting; while the backstory is a clever work of fiction, its themes and concerns are very much anchored in 2017. I ask Bates to provide a real, as opposed to conceptual example, of why it’s important to consider the nature and impact of modern technology – which is when he begins to quiz me. He cites the four tenets again – automation, space, body and brain. “There’s a reduced need for labour due to various types of automation technology,” he begins. “So what happens to society when you can create more, but you need less to do it? How do you arrange society, and how does that impact everything from the economy to philosophy?”
“Even in politics we’re seeing people using the misunderstanding of how automation is changing the economy to gain political power,” he notes, hinting at real-time political events in the USA.
“As far as the mind and brain,” he continues, “Soon, we’re going to see a much greater connection between our electronic devices and our mind. We foresee a time when brain-machine interfaces will read our brain waves and essentially be the next level of a cell phone… What happens when we can further the process of genetic manipulation, and we start to speed up the process of evolution? Where are the ethics there?
“All of these things have pros and cons. We just need to ask them before it happens without our knowledge – that’s how we become manipulated.”
So, where exactly does the music actually fit into this whole project? “For all the methodical things I do as a person with an engineering mind, [the music] is more abstract,” says Bates, noting that all aspects of the project – the tenets of the Starset Society, the focus on technology and future, the novellas, all have a distinct set and form. “The music is based upon that, but loosely. I definitely want people to be able to connect to that without everything else, I don’t want it all to be super literal at all times, as if it were a Rush record!”
For Bates, the music is the least serious aspect of Starset as a whole. But even as he talks about the album as the most fun and creative layer, he seems to only be able to do so in retrospect. “A lot of what the Starset Society does is very serious, a lot of the components of the project are serious. But the music, well, the theme of the record is a journey, but it was also a journey for me. So it’s more fun – but it’s also challenging. Halfway through it I might not say it’s fun. It’s not a lot of fun at the time – I really hold myself to a high standard.”
The entire concept behind Starset and the Starset Society is a really creative, clever way of exposing people to concepts about technology and the world it affects. Set in a futuristic sci-fi environment, though, the ultimate lesson is one about real, tangible humanity.
Starset aims to take fans on a journey toward a better understanding of the world around them. Yet while pushing his audience to look around them, Bates’ own journey also looked inwards. “At times I wasn’t certain if I could achieve my self-created goals or standards,” he says. “So I learned to believe in myself – even more.”
Starset’s album Vessels is out now – stream it below.