How Two Young And Eager Dentonites Turned 35 Denton Into The Hottest Ticket In The Region.
DENTON — It's a couple minutes after 4 o'clock on Friday afternoon, and Kyle La Valley is shuffling about her offices housed in the old Gulf gas station on North Locust Street, taking care of some final business for the music festival she's been charged with producing.
She's showing off the spot rather proudly — the upgrades she and her fellow 35 Denton staff members have made to the building that most recently housed a towing company — and, to her credit, the place does look pretty cool, its walls awash in tones of teal paint and murals and, in some spots, with pictures from previous years of the now four-year-old event hanging in place.
Employees scutter about the place, dodging tables and chairs and ducking in and out of the main entrance while shouting out updates to La Valley about their progress on their current promotional tasks, which at the moment are mostly centered on hanging posters throughout town.
She handles it all in stride, calmly responding to these queries and status updates and maneuvering about the spot with ease, as if it were her home.
And, in some ways, for the past few months, it has been. Since December 16, when Little Guys Movers, the main financial backers of the 35 Denton festival, came to terms on a three-year lease to house the festival's offices within this spot, La Valley, 25, has spent an average of 13 hours a day here, she guesses.
“Be careful over there,” she says as she walks through the old garage portion of the building. “There's a hole in this drain gate, and a lot of people get tripped up on it. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Back in the main office room, her partner in crime and programming director, Natalie Davila, 23, is focused on her computer screen, taking care of that very business, pouring over an Excel spreadsheet and firing off emails to bands like Built to Spill and The Mountain Goats, filling them in on the final details they'll need to be aware of upon their arrival in Denton.
“Around this time,” La Valley says with a sigh, “things get pretty crazy.”
Perhaps. But, compared to past years of the festival — some of which saw dramatic scenes featuring organizers driving across state lines to confirm at the last minute that previously announced headlining acts were, in fact, actually on board to perform at this upstart Denton event — things actually feel rather calm.
“OK,” La Valley says with the first day of this year's festival — the first in which she's been in the driver's seat as its creative director — looming less than a week out on the horizon, “I'll admit that I'm not as stressed out as I thought I would be.”
* * * * *
Chris Flemmons knows firsthand a thing or two about how stressful it can be to put on a festival like 35 Denton.
As its founder, he helmed the festival's ship, serving as the creative director for each of the event's initial three incarnations — in 2009, when it debuted as the NX35 Conferette, a spin-off of the Denton-focused South by Southwest day party he'd previously thrown; in 2010, when the festival scored The Flaming Lips as the headlining act for its first-ever outdoor stage; and last year, in 2011, when it was branded as the 35 Conferette and his vision for a downtown Denton-hosted, walkable festival with two outdoor stages finally became a reality.
This year, with the festival again rebranded, this time as the 35 Denton festival, Flemmons has taken a self-imposed backseat on the event staff. He remains in place as an adviser, ready and willing and able to help his newer, younger counterparts with any questions or needs they may approach him with. But his role has largely been reduced to that of a figurehead.
And he's fine with that. With 35 Denton no longer on his plate, Flemmons happily proclaims that he has been able to restore some sanity back into his life, which for the previous three years was wholly consumed by this event.
“The intensity and amount of work involved in pulling off an event like that will wear anyone out,” he says while driving around and running errands, very much living the life of a normal Dentonite. “My time had just come. I really wanted younger blood in on this thing at this point.”
At 42 years old, he's content to return his focus back to his own life.
He's been able to do so, too. This week, as La Valley and Davila, hopped up on caffeine and cigarettes, handle the hectic, last-minute festival demands Flemmons became all too familiar with in recent years, Flemmons has actually spent the bulk of his time outside of the city he's lived in and adored since moving to it in 1987. His days have been spent a little farther south on Interstate 35E, down in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, where he and his band, the Baptist Generals, are wrapping up the recording and production of their first album since 2003's No Silver/No Gold.
To speak with him about his departure from the festival is to speak with a man renewed. His voice isn't weary. His sentences don't trail off. His train of thought never wavers.
He sounds relieved. He sounds healthy. He sounds happy.
And he has every right to come off this way. In mid-December, when he formally announced to the core 35 Denton staff — a staff that had been undyingly loyal to him in prior years — that La Valley would be taking over his duties, a major weight was removed from his shoulders.
“I try to check in with them from time to time, but it's all them,” he says, specifically referring to La Valley and Davila. “They're making all the decisions. And, fortunately, I think they're making all of the right decisions. I just think they're amazing.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Chris and I spent a lot of time together when we started to restructure things and when Little Guys started getting more involved in the actual planning of how we were going to be staffed and everything,” La Valley says. “There was a lot of stress on the staff. Chris just came to me and said he wanted it to be in younger hands. I'd told him the hopes I had for the festival moving forward — right on the back patio of [revered Denton bar and venue] Dan's [Silverleaf] this past winter — and he just cried and was like, 'This is awesome. This is what I wanted. This is it. I feel OK about this.' I think it was just a big release for him. He just wanted someone else to step up.
“He had great intentions starting the festival, but it grew so much and he doesn't pull any punches about the fact that he wanted someone else to take over. And Natalie and I were already operating under the roles that they eventually put us in anyway. We put ourselves in there.”
* * * * *
From the outside looking in — and even from the inside looking out, La Valley is quick to point out — this year's pre-SXSW Denton event may as well be a whole new festival. And not just because of the latest name change.
For starters, there's the lineup, which touches on every genre of note aside from mainstream pop.
Heavy music fans cheered when California doom metal act Om was added to the bill. Lo-fi pop fans shrieked when much-buzzed-about bands Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls were announced. Hip-hop fans delighted at the inclusions of Bun B, Devin The Dude and Danny Brown. Electronic fans cheered the additions of Atlas Sound and Designer Drugs. Indie rock acolytes approved the announcement of Built to Spill and The Mountain Goats. And even national press outlets fawned at perhaps the festival's two biggest scores — the first-ever Texas performance from late-'70s punk rock outfit The Raincoats and the first U.S. gig in four years from late '80s and early '90s shoegaze favorites The Jesus and Mary Chain.
More impressive is the fact that each of these elements has been produced on a dime. The bulk of the festival's budget, offered up by Little Guys and various sponsors, is spent on the acts performing at the fest. But, due to loads of elbow grease, these elements just happen to look expensive and professional.
Much of that came directly from La Valley, who studied photography at Columbia College in Chicago before moving to Denton in late 2009.
“This brand — obviously, because of the name change and everything — just needed it,” she says. “People were joking around about our name changes and everything, but now I don't really hear that any more. The idea was that, visually, they could identify the color or shape [of our logo] and know what we're about.”
Even more important is the fact that the festival's targeted audience embraced these new concepts. A video featuring Dallas punk duo and festival performers Leg Sweeper covering Bun B's “My Block” has garnered almost 6,000 views on video sharing web site Vimeo — not to mention a Tweet of approval from Bun B himself. A video featuring Flemmons' Baptist Generals covering The Jesus and Mary Chain's “Head On” has been viewed almost 10,000 times. And, any second now, a video featuring Denton-based festival performer Jeremy Buller covering Best Coast's “I Want To” could surpass 20,000 views. Even a less star-studded video simply featuring time-lapse shots from last year's event has been viewed over 10,000 times.
Aside from those impressive view counts, the videos have accomplished something else that's fairly remarkable: They've made Denton — a city that's been hailed for decades as one of the best music communities in the world, but one that has been in something of a slump in recent years as its bigger-name acts have bolted for greener pastures — look unquestionably cool again.
“We've been really fortunate,” Davila says. “Little Guys has been great. They've really given Kyle and me a lot of the creative control to do the grassroots and in-your-face promotions we're doing.”
Already, those promotional efforts have paid off.
“Ticket sales have just been off the chain,” La Valley says, her lips curling into a devilish smile.
For this crew, the festival has very much been a labor of love. It shows, too. Sitting by his desk in the back corner of the main office room in the 35 Denton building, director of promotions Bradford Purdom looks half asleep.
He's looked and felt that way for weeks, he admits.
“I've been sleeping on my friend's couch,” he offers with a shrug.
The staff is supporting one another emotionally to cope.
“It's this weird thing where we're all kind of each other's friends and brothers and sisters and uncles and mothers and fathers and stuff,” La Valley says. “Different people, to other people in the group, have different family-type roles in the way that they react to each other and confide in each other and talk to each other when they're stressed out. I needed that, personally. When I moved here, I didn't have a family or a support system or people that I knew had my back. This is my family now. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me.”
* * * * *
La Valley and Davila met in 2010, not long after La Valley first moved to town somewhat reluctantly. She'd move to Texas with her eyes on Dallas and with plans to work on a photography project focusing on rodeos and cowboys.
“Coming from Chicago, I wanted to live in a big city,” La Valley says. “I wanted to live in Dallas and kind of use that as a hub, and go from there to all these weird places. I definitely didn't want to live in a small city.”
Not long into her research on North Texas, though, she, like many before her, found out about Denton and its music scene.
But even after moving to town, she still hadn't really seen it.
“Then my friend Dustin brought me to this place called [The Majestic Dwelling of] Doom,” she says. “As soon as he did, I was like, 'Holy shit. This is it!' It was something grassroots — something DIY, but not just to be DIY.”
The scene reminded her of her friends back in Chicago, she says. And, rather suddenly, enthralled by her discovery of Denton, she'd found a new focus for her photography efforts.
Davila, at the time a student at the University of North Texas, was one of the residents at Doom, a revered house venue not far from campus. More than that, though, she was a driving factor behind the house's strong reputation, comfortably settling into the role of reaching out to touring bands and convincing them to come play shows in her basement.
In 2010, aside from the free-to-attend Flaming Lips show at the North Texas State Fairgrounds, neither Davila nor La Valley actually ended up attending the festival then known as NX35.
Davila was too focused on preparing her house for her own min-festival jokingly called Fest x Fest Fest and set to take place the day after NX35 wrapped up.
“I was too busy painting the word 'Doom' on the wall,” she says with a chuckle.
La Valley was too busy being enthralled by the exciting new friends she'd found.
“Natalie and I kind of skirted around each other at first,” La Valley says. “I knew who she was and I was always taking pictures at her house, and I thought she was cool, but she was always so quiet.”
Later in the year, when Doom was shut down after police were called in to break up a fight that had taken place at a party the house had thrown, La Valley finally reached out to Davila and made first contact, with the goal of producing a photo series on the lost era at the house.
Their friendship was cemented later in the year when La Valley saw Davila, who had been recruited by the NX35 team to come aid them in the booking of their event, out at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios one night.
“She was celebrating because she had just booked Big Boi [for the 2011 event],” La Valley remembers. “I was like, 'Man, that Natalie, she really lets loose!'”
Davila and La Valley laugh together at the shared memory. But the night was an important one: Landing Big Boi, who served as 35 Conferette's final outdoor performer in 2011, was quite the score for both the festival and for Davila, who'd never before worked in such a formal booking environment.
Lucky for 35 Denton's case, she learned rather quickly.
“It was interesting,” she says with a smirk. “I just dove head-first into it. I did a lot of exploration and found various agencies and really tried to figure it out. I mean, we were working with some agencies and we had standing relationships with some of them, but by all means not even close to all of the ones that are out there. So I just started cold, hitting up agencies. It was definitely a fake-it-till-you-make-it thing, making it up as I went along through a lot of booking.”
She quickly realized, though, that the rest of the team booking the festival was largely in the same boat as she was.
“I kept asking if we had a pitch that we sent to people,” she recalls. “And they were like, 'Well, y'know, no.' So I was like, 'Dude, I'm gonna write something.' So I wrote this thing and I just kind of talked about the festival and our plans — the knowledge that I had of it — just to verbalize and visualize it because we hadn't done this outside [in downtown] before and there was no way to say, 'This is the way it's gonna work or this is the way it's gonna be.'”
This year, though, with Davila in charge of the booking and with her working with a number of the same agents she met through her early experiences in 2011, that has all changed.
“Now a lot of these agents know who we are,” she says. “They know what we're doing. And I'm really proud of the relationships I've developed with them.”
* * * * *
“It's a weird thing when you start working here,” La Valley says from behind her desk in the gas station office. “You think you don't have a say, but then you realize, 'Oh, wow. These people actually listen.'”
That's true of any and all ideas here, actually. La Valley points to a pin placed on the black blouse she's wearing. It's emblazoned with the 35 Denton logo — and it's part of an old-fashioned idea she's updated for her team to utilize.
Not long after saying that, almost on cue, an older man walks into the gas station. Davila, certain he's lost, cautions him and tells him that the building no longer houses the towing business it once did.
“No,” the man says, a little taken aback. “I'm here about your murals.”
He places a card on La Valley's desk, explains that he's a local artist and that he's been impressed by the street art he's seen popping up around town. He'd like to participate in the process — if not this year, then perhaps next.
La Valley smiles, explains that he'll probably have to wait until 2013 and hands him back a business card of her own.
“It's weird,” she says once the man has left the room. “I've always been surprised by the lack of street art and the lack of public art here [in Denton]. There's some of that in our more
vibrant Hispanic communities and neighborhoods, but that's really the only place where that's going on. When you go to Austin, even if there's nothing going on, you see it everywhere: 'Live Music Capital of the World!' Down in Deep Ellum, you know because of the murals and the neon, 'Oh, this is the cool cultural part of town.' Denton just isn't like that.”
If she can, she wants to help Denton move in that direction. She's had some success; the business owners she approached about having murals painted on their buildings' walls for this year's festival were all easily persuaded.
“Having lived in a city like Chicago, where it's all 'Fuck you, this is me, and that's you, and I get mine,' it's so nice to see that things are so supportive here,” she says.
Davila's confident in her, too.
“For me,” Davila says, tears welling up in her eyes and her voice starting to crack, “being able to work with her, to have her come in, it's just been a godsend. As far as her creativity and her ideas, I mean, she's just an idea machine. And she's not just eager, she executes. It's not just talk. She's a leader. It's invaluable to the festival, and so many of the positive things that have changed and come about — the visuals, the videos, the art — it all comes from her and her skill set. And that's something we were missing.”
La Valley, visibly flattered, smiles back at Davila.
“That girl's my sister,” she says, looking back at her friend. “She's family.”
And the plan, for now, is to keep the family together.
“I definitely think I have three years here until I feel like, personally, I've left the mark that I want to leave,” La Valley says. “I think that there's great things in store for this festival, especially if we can keep this group together. And that's how I hope it'll be.”
She glances back over at her programming director.
“I mean, we're a package deal,” La Valley says.
“We're definitely in a good place right now,” Davila responds.
“I know one thing,” La Valley adds, smiling her devilish smile once more. “We're not faking it until we make it any more. We're actually making it now.”