The first time that Marisa Demarco and her bandmates played the Titwrench music festival, they decided to execute a crazy idea that had been stewing in the back of Demarco’s mind. They planned to build their set around a giant bird sculpture, a kind of parade puppet. At the end, all the bandmembers would climb inside the bird puppet, then “fly” it through the now-defunct DIY venue Blast-O-Mat, out the garage doors and down the street.
“I didn’t know anybody up there, and I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but it was what we wanted to do,” Demarco remembers.
Part of the decision to go through with the bird came from Demarco, an experimental musician who performs with the band Chicharra and the art troupe Milch de la Máquina. But another part of making that leap came from the trust that Titwrench and its organizers and attendees would be open to such a spectacle.
Titwrench was founded in 2009 by a loose-knit group of women hoping to create a music festival in Denver to “celebrate and empower women and LGBTQIAP artists/musicians who are pushing the boundaries of genre and form.”
“I wanted to create a festival that I wish would have existed when I was sixteen years old,” says co-founder Sarah Slater, who won a Westword MasterMind award in 2011. “I wanted a festival that created space for people to connect with each other and created room for experimentation and for people to open their minds and go places they weren’t expecting to.”
That festival exists, thanks to Slater and company, and not only does it exist, but it thrives and inspires others. Demarco first went to Titwrench just for the fun opportunity; she has since created her own female-focused festival, Gatas y Vatas, in Shiprock, New Mexico. She also returns annually to Colorado, her “once-a-year temporary home,” as she calls it.
“We were so excited to see so many people doing such amazing things and to see so many women gathered in the same place doing experimental work,” Demarco recalls of the fest’s inaugural year.
In addition to inspiring the New Mexico festival, Titwrench has gone international. In 2014, two fans decided that Stockholm needed a similar experience. The pair was able to get government grants and travel funds for Slater, Demarco, Denver musician Bianca Mikahn and a few others to fly to Sweden to join in the Scandinavian version of Titwrench.
“We stayed in a converted bus on their property that was more beautiful than anything IKEA could imagine, and they treated us like queens throughout our stay,” Slater says. “I was most struck with the very quiet and reverent nature of the audience. People made an effort to go outside if they wanted to talk during a performance, and the venue bar only served between acts. It made for a really engaging experience for the audience.”
While the sounds of Titwrench are slowly soaring around the world, the biggest impact is still here in Denver, in a city where the music scene is bursting at the seams...for some.
“I see and hear more women and queer musicians out there, but the scene here is still as male-dominated as ever,” Slater says. “If you look at the majority of promoters, club owners and musicians — who gets paid the most within it and has a stable income behind the scenes? It’s mostly straight white men.”
There have been efforts to make music festivals in Denver more women- and LGBTQIAP-friendly, but the efforts are few and far between. This year, of the eighty acts performing at Riot Fest Denver, only twelve had non-cis-male members. Project Pabst featured only three female artists, and RiNo Music Festival booked only one. That’s a small sample size, and two of the festivals are run by companies based elsewhere — but for local fans and artists, the dearth of female performers on large stages is noticeable.
“We’ve had an amazing response,” Slater says. “We had an audience before we knew we did. There were a lot of people who were particularly hungry for a festival that wasn’t as commercial. There are people who are not white men who are doing amazing things but don’t have a platform to do their music in public.”
Slater says she no longer attends other music festivals, but when she did, the experience wasn’t always positive.
“I learned exactly what I don’t want to see at Titwrench, which are massive crowds, unsafe and/or inaccessible spaces, lack of water and food,” she says. “These are all things we have discussed and try hard to address as a collective when planning our events.”
Slater created an island that had elements that the rest of the Denver scene did not — a small, DIY-run island that was safe and accessible, with open arms for anyone who wanted to do just about anything, including creating a giant bird puppet. Slater and her co-organizers have also worked to grow that island into an archipelago by hosting a Surfacing event every so often, a “showcase of new and experimental music.” These events have happened at various independent venues around the city; past performers include Future Single Mom, Dagger Dagger, Riverside Drive and Milk Blossoms, among others.
“It’s authentic, and it’s something I value,” says Aleeya Wilson, who fronts Death in Space, a Denver band that has played Titwrench every year. While Wilson doesn’t live in Denver anymore —she’s at graduate school in California — she’s making the trek back to be part of the festival again.
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Titwrench feels like a miniature city. When you walk in, you might find someone getting a manicure in the corner, an abuela making tacos in another corner, a band on stage — maybe Chicharra, playing with three vocalists and three bass players. A kid might be running around, passing old punks chatting over PBRs. It’s Coachella for weirdos, a mecca for those who feel there isn’t a space for them in this music-loving city.
“I started casually attending as a teen,” Wilson says. “And now I’m in grad school, and it’s this thing I keep working back to, like an anchor point in the year.”
The anchor this year is on Saturday, September 17, at Glob. Festivities start with a 10 a.m. yoga class, and from there it’s a full day of music and art for all ages, including a Girls Rock Denver jam, a nail station, a workout area, tacos, tarot readings, an artist talk and more.
“It’s smaller than most festivals, and it’s truly all-ages,” Slater says. “We really do have kids and grandmas come to our festival. We’ve featured some pretty out-there experimental musicians.... I think we’ve cultivated an audience that’s really open and receptive to going to a festival where they might not know any of the musicians, but they know it’s Titwrench, so it’s going to be good.”
Saturday, September 17, various times, Glob, 3551 Brighton Boulevard.