Sky High

A new record deal and some famous friends may put 34 Satellite into orbit.

The building blocks of rock music -- a guitar or two, a bass, some drums -- haven't changed much in the half-century or so since the genre emerged and drew its first independent breath. The difference in the case of 34 Satellite's recent turn at the Larimer Lounge was that only some of those playing the instruments in question showed up for the gig.

Vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Marc Benning kept a rather low profile during the set, generally doing his best to blend in with a quixotic series of films projected against the wall behind him -- but those with sharp eyesight could find him behind the microphone if they looked closely enough. (He wasn't moving quickly, because he had recently suffered a broken bone in his ankle.) Attentive Lounge habitues were also able to spot astonishing lead guitarist Brandon Aikin, who supplemented an impressionistic array of ax tones with heroic poses that looked even better in silhouette.

In contrast, the men behind the powerful yet complex rhythm section were heard but not seen doing their beat-keeping duty, although one of them was actually present. Benning recorded the bass himself, during an earlier session that paired him with Jim MacPherson, who handled the drum kit for 34 Satellite with the same aggressiveness and aplomb that he brought to the Breeders on albums like The Last Splash and that he currently displays as a member of Guided by Voices.

Transmissions from the art: Denver's 34 Satellite is ready to launch.
Aspen Campbell
Transmissions from the art: Denver's 34 Satellite is ready to launch.

The oddness of this partly visible, partly invisible configuration was more than compensated for by hearing the music, which melded deeply personal lyricism, pinwheeling psychedelia and brawny grooves into a thoroughly mesmerizing whole. Clearly, 34 Satellite is among the most compelling acts on the local scene, even though comparatively few locals are familiar with the group. "We're better known in other places than we are here," Benning notes, "which is something I really want to change."

Denver is definitely behind the curve. Benning's creation recently signed with Darla Records, a highly regarded imprint in Fallbrook, California, that's extolled for past affiliations with acts like the Grifters, as well as a current roster that features Cex (an idiosyncratic white rapper who received the Rolling Stone treatment earlier this year), and cult darlings Flowchart and Biting Tongues. At this point, no firm date has been set for the release of 34 Satellite's Darla debut -- Benning hopes it'll be out in early fall -- but the demo that should form its backbone sports twelve impressive songs, not to mention contributions from MacPherson and indie guitar god J Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr. fame. "J Mascis doesn't usually play on anyone's records except his own, so that's the greatest compliment," Benning allows.

A Pittsburgh native who was part of a few bands in San Francisco, where he attended high school, Benning came to Colorado because of a family connection to Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, a rock outfit that could hardly be more dissimilar from his own. His cousin, Linn "Spike" Phillips, was a longtime passenger in this musical vehicle, which was assembled in Boulder circa 1969 and rode to national prominence four years later after appearing in American Graffiti. In March 1993, Linn suffered a heart attack during the encore of a concert that paired Flash Cadillac with the Tulsa Symphony; he died two days later. However, Linn's brother, Charlie Phillips, remained involved with the group's studio, a facility near Deckers that was named Cadillac Ranch at the time, but is now dubbed Hideaway Studio. Benning subsequently accepted Charlie's invitation to help out at the Ranch, and he liked the area so much that he decided to stick around.

Hideaway narrowly escaped destruction last year during the wave of forest fires that swept the state; flames crept to within three feet of its back door. That it survived so well is great news for Benning, whose own musical ambitions have been greatly aided by his proximity to top-notch equipment. "I live right by the studio, in a little geodesic dome," Benning says. "It's like a round warehouse -- just a big, open space with a lot of windows. There's even windows in the ceiling, so you can see the stars."

Given this spectacular view, it's no surprise that Stars was chosen as the title for the initial salvo from 34 Satellite. That disc, issued in 1998 on the appropriately named Hideaway label, featured input from Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos, a rootsy New York combo, and Denver wildman Mike Elkerton, who put the swerve into several defunct Denver collectives, including Babihed, Electrolux and Thee Lovely Lads. The platter juxtaposed "Wonderful" and other alt-country outings with rockier efforts typified by the glam-inspired title cut.

To promote Stars, Benning headed to New York to perform some solo acoustic shows. While there, he met Mark Boquist, who'd been playing with Mark Lanegan, formerly of the grungy Screaming Trees. They clicked so well that Benning and Boquist decided to form a new version of 34 Satellite that was filled out by guitarist Marc Smith and bassist Mike Santoro. The quartet went on to make two discs, 2000's Radar and 2002's Stop, that were tougher and better reviewed than Stars, but Benning admits he was "kind of unhappy" at the end of this period. "Stop was a really tricky record to make, and there was a lot of emotion in the studio, for sure."

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