Sky High

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

The situation was even more unstable outside. On September 10, 2001, the Satellites were in New York mixing the Stop tune "Smoke From a Funeral." They left it on the board at about 2 a.m. with plans to finish up the next morning, "but obviously, we didn't make it back," Benning says. He was staying in the Lower East Village on the day September 11 was transformed into 9/11 -- "not close enough to the Trade Center to get hit by debris, but close enough to walk out of my sublet and see ash and smoke. It just goes to show how quickly things can change."

The same proved to be true with 34 Satellite. Benning parted ways with his previous collaborators, but soon met more -- not just Mascis and MacPherson, but also Aikin, whom he encountered during a visit to Lawrence, Kansas. Aikin, a Lawrence resident who's spent several years playing with a group christened Panel Donor, heard through mutual friends that Benning wanted to make an experimental recording and needed someone to play keyboards. When he turned up with the device in question, though, Aikin told Benning "that I'm a lot better guitar player."

Benning soon learned not only of Aikin's skills, but about those of cohorts like drummer Kliph Scurlock. There was talk for a time that Scurlock might hook up with 34 Satellite more permanently, but Aikin says, "his favorite band asked him to play with them, and he couldn't really say no." That band was none other than the Flaming Lips, which happens to be the favorite of many folks with uncommonly good taste. In addition to pounding the skins for Wayne Coyne and company on the Lips' recent tour, he also backed up headliner Beck. Still, Scurlock hasn't lost interest in 34 Satellite. This week, he's scheduled to record with Benning, as is drummer Don Coffey Jr., who keeps time for another prominent group, Superdrag.

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.

"We're borrowing a lot of drummers," Benning explains nonchalantly -- and that's not all. Assisting with production and engineering chores are John Agnello, whose list of credits range from the Hooters to Patti Smith, and Jim Vollentine, an Austin-based dial twister for And They Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, among many others. As Benning puts it, "Some really cool people came out of the woodwork."

Those who are curious as to why so many prominent talents would go out of their way to associate themselves with an obscure singer-songwriter like Benning will find plenty of answers in his latest batch of songs. He's adept at pitting his wispy, echoey crooning against majestic guitar racket, as he does to great effect on "The Colors in the Sky" and "I Could See India." Likewise, the arrangements at the heart of "Make Believe," exemplified by droning chords and humming feedback, and the smile-inducing "The Sun is Gonna Shine" give head music a good name. Better still is "Going to California," a nearly orchestral excursion that's sweet and sensitive without once descending into wimpiness. For 34 Satellite, noise is the great equalizer.

"We definitely like to play loud," Benning says. "We play on great, old tube amps that sound better when they get to a certain volume. The whole sound of the band, its tonality, has a lot to do with our electronics." Another key ingredient is improvisation: "We definitely like to do that, because it puts us into a completely different space. When we do it as a band, everything becomes more intricate."

Of course, cutting loose live becomes much more difficult when the bass and drums are on Memorex. That's why Benning dreams of eventually finding kindred spirits in Colorado, "so, that way, no one would have to fly or drive out before we can get something together." But with a virtual all-star squad taking the field for 34 Satellite's next full-length, this task is an awfully difficult one. Then again, there are far worse problems. As Benning puts it, "I feel like I've found what I want to do and the sounds I want to make."

Whether everyone on his team takes the stage with him or not.

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