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.
Wesley Willis, with 34 Satellite and Friends Forever, 10 p.m. Saturday, May 31, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $8, 303-291-0959.
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."
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.
"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.
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"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.