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For Russ College alum and Starset frontman Dustin Bates, creativity takes center stage

Pete Shooner | Sep 3, 2015
Dustin Bates
Photos by Rob Hardin

For Russ College alum and Starset frontman Dustin Bates, creativity takes center stage

Pete Shooner | Sep 3, 2015

Photos by Rob Hardin

His mission was simple. He was to use his unique combination of musical ability and scientific knowledge to form a band as part of the Starset Society’s public outreach campaign -- to share with the world the fact that human life exists on another planet, and that our government knows about it.

Accepting the task, Dustin Bates, BSEE ’05, MSEE ’08, formed Starset. The aptly-named first album, “Transmissions,” hit airwaves in July 2014.

People listened. Gaining popularity among independent hard and alternative rock fans, the record climbed the Billboard charts, breaking into the top 50 on the Billboard 200 with the single “My Demons” landing in the top 5 Mainstream Rock Songs.

For Bates, spreading the message of the Starset Society, which provided all the lyrics for the album, turned out to be a good gig.

There’s just one thing – there is no Starset Society.

---

Dustin Bates performing

 

“Are we ready to take down the fourth wall?” Bates asks, as he draws up his pint for a swig. The truth is that Bates is the fourth wall, and the Starset Society, along with its extensive mythology, is entirely his creation.

Until now, Bates had maintained that Dr. Aston Wise, a researcher and entrepreneur, approached him in early 2013 to join the Starset Society. The Starset Society’s leaders possessed a secret radio transmission, picked up by the Allen Telescope Array, that they said will change our understanding of the universe.

Sitting in a corner booth at Casa Nueva in Athens, Bates goes for it. He pulls back the veil, explaining how what started as a daydream about technology turned into an international, multimedia, chart-topping creative project.

 “I keep becoming more aware of how odd this all is,” he says, coming to a conclusion. “I feel like an atypical engineer.”

Jump back to the summer before his fifth grade. Reading more than 100 biographies in just those few warm months, Bates found he was most interested in self-made inventors like Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone.

“That’s when I became radicalized -- not only to pursue science and engineering, but also to find my own niche in the world, where I could be memorialized in my own biography,” Bates says. “That’s a ridiculously tall order, but in fifth grade I didn’t realize it,” he adds with a laugh.

So the intrepid 10-year-old set out to make a name for himself – and didn’t waste any time. While still feeding his passion for all things science, he explored other interests. Like rock and roll. Learning from his self-made idols, Bates spent a summer picking strawberries and selling them roadside. He’d soon save enough to buy his first guitar.

His passion for science and music only grew stronger as he did.

“I was a 16-year-old kid, loving rock and obsessed with it. I was also programming on my computer in Qbasic, using mathematical functions to make screensavers,” Bates recalls.

Bates talking with fans

 

At the Russ College during his electrical engineering studies, he started a band called Downplay. He lived a relatively typical college life – working hard in class, with ample time devoted to entertainment.

For his senior capstone design course project, he chose to build an autonomous robotic lawnmower -- because it seemed like the most challenging. Meanwhile, Downplay was growing in popularity.

“My life was dichotomous at that point. I was partying and playing rock music, then doing research into this lawnmower,” Bates says.

Bates participated in International Space University’s Space Studies Program the summer after senior year. Working in Australia with more than 100 space professionals solidified his interest in engineering. He returned to OHIO and began his master’s research on using scanning lasers to enable automatic navigation indoors, eventually developing a statistics-based algorithm that can help a robot determine its possible location without GPS.

 “I didn’t just want a thesis that was a book report on the state of the art. I wanted to push the state of the art. That goes back to the fifth-grade me,” Bates says.

By then, numerous record labels had heard one of Downplay’s more popular songs. Eventually, Epic Records took notice and after an audition in New York City, Downplay signed a contract in 2011.

Bates’ dream seemed to be within reach. “For a year, I wrote songs and recorded this record I was really proud of -- then we lost the deal right after it was done. That was Downplay,” Bates recalls.

Epic dropped Downplay from its label to make room in the budget for contracts developed from The X-Factor talent show. The loss sent Bates into a freefall.

“I had fallen off the rails. I sat there for about three months,” Bates says.

Moving back into his parent’s house, he began daydreaming in the spare bedroom. He wrote some music but spent most of his time sketching out ideas that would eventually become the narrative of the Starset Society.

“It started with thought experiments on what technology could look like in the near future,” Bates says. “What if amazing technology came online, but it was monopolized and manipulated for the benefit of a few even though it could easily and without cost benefit the many?”

Filling dry erase boards in his parents’ garage with drawings and story outlines, Bates didn’t know where his creativity was leading him, but he knew to follow it.

“Eventually, I realized I wanted to create this multimedia project that used scientific and space themes, where the music was the soundtrack to the overarching narrative, and all these other multimedia elements.”

Starset’s first album and music video were independently produced. Soon after, though, Starset signed with Razor and Tie. The next stop was the top of the Billboard charts.

Now writing a novel – the “message” that the Starset Society intends to release to the public – Bates explains how the project’s core themes focus on the dual nature of technology; humans will always have the choice to use technological advancements to create for good or for evil.

What’s the next transmission? Bates hasn’t ruled out the silver screen. But for now, he’s focusing on Starset’s twenty-three-date summer tour, which includes a stop at Columbus, Ohio’s “Rock on the Range” May 17.

Bates says, with any luck, his work will inspire more atypical engineers.

“Kids are coming to Starset shows and getting scientific thinking, but they’re just looking for rock,” Bates says. “The science is sci-fi and hyperbolic at times, but I think it can inspire kids into real science and engineering – and I hope to.”

 This story originally appeared in the 2015 issue of Ingenuity, the Russ College’s alumni magazine.