In early January, 35 Denton festival founder Chris Flemmons addressed about 30 folks who showed up for the opening party for 35 Denton's new office. The spot is in a renovated old Gulf Oil service station on the corner of N. Locust and W. McKinney, less than a minute walk from Denton's historic town square. In the freshly repainted office, Flemmons "officially" announced he had passed the title of Creative Director on to Kyle La Valley.
His announcement came as a shock for some friends, fans and future volunteers of the four-day walkable festival, but top brass and core staff of 35 Denton already knew that La Valley, who first joined the festival as photo editor for last year's 35 Conferette, had been passed the torch.
The restructuring at the top, paired with Little Guys Movers' bigger role, represents a major sea change for this year's festival and the future of the brand. The 35 Denton camp is really firing on all pistons this year. It's beginning to look a helluva lot more official.
In his current role as "founder," Flemmons says he's still "very interested in the developmental side of things." But when it comes to the day-to-day operations of putting the festival together, meetings are very optional. Instead of being up to his neck in a dizzying array of festival duties like the past few years, he and the rest of the Baptist Generals spent last week in Oak Cliff with Stuart Sikes, recording the Generals' follow-up to 2003's No Silver/No Gold.
"When I started this, I didn't want to be a Creative Director, I just wanted to get it going, and kind of see it through the hardest parts of it, and see it get to a place where it could kind of stand on its own," Flemmons said while sitting on the patio of Dan's Silverleaf a few weeks ago. "And I think we're here. I mean, we've got a lot of work to do, and every year has its own set of struggles. But it's a pretty big year for us, and I just felt like it was time."
The festival continues to grow in both scope and appeal. This year more than 150 bands will perform in 11 venues and two main outdoor stages. According to organizers, nearly 500 bands applied to play through Sonic Bids this year, up from about 250 in 2011.
"This year we only had 100 spots," La Valley tells me, after wrapping up an early February volunteer meeting on the patio of The Labb (one of the 11 participating venues). The first time through the vetting process, based on listening alone, more than 300 bands made the cut. "That was the hardest thing," she says. "We had to turn away a lot of bands who are incredibly talented."
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Natalie Dávila joins our conversation. Dávila, former booker for DIY venue The Majestic Dwelling of Doom and current Director of Programming for 35 Denton, echoes La Valley's sentiments: "There were a lot of bands who may not have been selected this year who were last year, but we have to make room for new bands. It's not a personal thing, it's literally a space issue."
At meetings over the summer, organizers established a structure based on five departments - press, content, programming, ops and social media - with a director over each responsible for planning and executing ideas, as well as overseeing the volunteer staff. Directors have met with volunteers nearly every Sunday since the summer. "We discuss what's happening in our realms of production and debrief each other," La Valley says. "It's certainly helped things move forward at a better pace." This year, organizers say the bulk of the "major hurdles" happened early on, as 35 Denton began to restructure the staff. "Beginning planning further in advance than anyone had ever thought to in the past was a shock to some," La Valley says.
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In the past - the first two years at least - the planning meetings I sat in on in weeks before the festival often seemed to end with a discussion of all the "fires," emergencies and hoop-jumping that still needed attention. Te planning meeting at The Labb a few weeks ago seemed like a completely different animal, with lots of breakout groups chatting about their roles, high-fiving and taking shots after wrapping up business early. There's also all the new promotional stuff, like the traveling 35 Denton Button-O-Matic machine and the Instagram 35 Contest, where fans send in their best 35-inspired shots.
"I feel a strange sense of calm going into the festival this year," La Valley told me over the weekend. "We are undoubtedly more organized and have a lot of really exciting line-ups and surprises in store."
After next week she says the 35 Denton crew will take a short break for "a week or so," before immediately getting back to work on prepping for the fifth annual festival with 35 in the title.
35 Denton starts Thursday and runs through Sunday.