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Starset’s Dustin Bates on playing under a dome, putting off the degree and why his band isn’t an ‘X-Files’ episode in disguise

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Starset brings their appropriately named band to the Fiske Planetarium.
Courtesy of Jonathan Weiner

After more than a year of interviews and a handful of tantalizingly oblique online manifestos aligned with the mission of a shadowy group called The Starset Society, Dustin Bates, lead singer and concepteur behind the Columbus, Ohio-based quartet Starset, wants everything to be clear.

It’s not about conspiracies, or an impending alien invasion, or a World Order takeover. It’s not, so just have a craft brew and relax.

The Message will be revealed shortly. Everything will make sense then. That’s all they can tell you for now.

“I have to admit,” Bates says, “that [the scarcity of information] is intentional. The band Starset, like the other outreach campaign, is sort of a marketing tool for this outlook, this narrative, this philosophy. And it’s kind of waiting for a critical mass, before delving into greater specifics, for numerous reasons that will be more apparent, when those specifics are put out there.”

Bates is an interesting fellow. Thirtyish, a veteran of earlier bands in Ohio (including his most recent, Downplay, with whom Epic Records flirted for a brief spell). Bates is also a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering with some research experience with the Air Force, as well as some relationship with the International Space University. He formed the band, according to their self-published bio, after being contacted a couple of years ago by someone named Dr. Aston Wise, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur heading up something called the Starset Society, a grassroots organization chartered to thwart the hijacking and/or stifling of privately developed technologies by the government.

The Starset Society has a website (apart from the band’s own site) and a physical address, which looks a lot like the back of a warehouse on Google Earth, and their chief nemesis is something awkwardly titled the United States Capitalism Oversight Organization (USCOO), an equally shadowy cabal of corporate elites and off-hours government bigwigs allegedly playing larceny with technological breakthroughs, intimidating patent petitioners and (presumably under-lawyered) high-tech corporate officers.

The USCOO also has a website — down for maintenance, if you go out and check for yourself.

Hmmm.

“I understand that it’s vague,” Bates concedes, “and the band has had to deal with some of the negative aspects that come from that. People attaching their own paranoia or conspiracies to our movement, which is absolutely not the goal. … Standard government paranoia stuff, Illuminati. That’s not what this is.”

Well, that’s kind of what it looks like, but no matter. One presumes that a cabal of government MIB types hijacking and manipulating technology on any scale capable of bending the arc of history wouldn’t bother naming their club, let alone give themselves a logo and host a website they evidently can’t keep on the air. The band’s own website links to the Society, so readers are free to follow the URLs and judge for themselves.

All of this is immaterial to the fact that the band, mission statement or no, is on a roll. Their debut album Transmissions dropped about 15 months ago, sending its first single “My Demons” into the Billboard charts for an unprecedented 43 weeks and following up since with two more charting singles. Forged in a gleaming, bracingly assaultive alloy of craft metal and edgy electronica a la NiN, Starset manages to stamp a kind of sci-fi futurism on angsty self-identity testimony without sounding pretentious or hackneyed.

Starset returns for a follow-up engagement at Fiske Planetarium, after a thunderously received set there back in February of this year. Playing planetariums is a cool idea in the abstract, but Bates agrees, acoustically anyway, it’s harder than it looks.

“For one thing, [planetarium P.A.] systems are not made for a rock show in general,” Bates says. “So we have to augment them with our own P.A. and extra equipment. And add to that, the science of the acoustics is very unique. Like, when you’re in Grand Central Station, under the dome, and someone on one side is whispering and someone on the other side can hear it, that essentially is happening at all points along the dome. And there’s this crazy reflection because of the omni-directional aspect of it. We work hard to dial it in.”

With a second album in the works, as well a graphic novel, tour dates deep into the fall and a continued focus on aligning the band’s fortunes with those of the Starset Society, Bates himself is riding a wave that he admits has taken him pretty far from his Ph.D. campaign.

“Well, I’ve done all the course work for the Ph.D., and I was ramping up for the dissertation, and I had funding from the Air Force… and then this happened. It’s funny, because some of my old professors still want me to do it. One of them told me they had a bet whether I’d come back to it.

“I sometimes worry that my brain… may be losing some of that pinpoint ‘engineeriness.’”

On the Bill: 8 P.m. Aug. 27-28, fiske Planetarium, 414 Regent Drive, Boulder, 303-494-5002. Tickets are $25 at fiske.colorado.edu/