Dismal Niche Festival Brings St. Louis Artists to Multiple Stages in Columbia This Weekend

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Experimental drummer Jon Mueller will headline the event. - Photo by Raphaël Sandler
Photo by Raphaël Sandler
Experimental drummer Jon Mueller will headline the event.
Before its first sighting of the Pacific Ocean, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was shaken off course by a severe winter storm and forced to make camp in a small cove off the Columbia River in Washington State. Named in Clark's journal as “that dismal little nitch,” the area now stands as the Dismal Nitch, a quaint rest stop known for bird watching and stunning views of the river.

The irony of that damning description for such a charming spot struck musician and promoter Matthew Crook, who passed through the region on a road trip and brought the name back home to Columbia, Missouri – with a slight alteration, of course.

Now in its third consecutive year, the Dismal Niche Music and Arts Festival descends on Columbia October 4 through 8 with thirteen separate shows across eleven different venues, including Ragtag Cinema, Eastside Tavern and Cafe Berlin. Consider this long weekend a show crawl with a single ticket price of $45, or a variety of day passes ranging from $10 to $15.

The event sits on the periphery of St. Louis both musically and spatially. Of the 21 acts featured, seven hail from the River City: 18andCounting, Blank Thomas, Solid Waste, Nadir Smith, Jane Wave, Oxherding and Alex Cunningham.

Formed in 2013, Dismal Niche is a natural progression for Crook and artist Ben Chlapek, now a native of Chicago, Illinois. The two first met at a monthly mixtape club at Columbia's community station KOPN 89.5 FM and bonded over similar interests. Months later they formed Nevada Greene, an experimental band that has been prolific ever since with tapes and EPs, including a split LP with Scott Tuma of Souled American.

“We were already making weird slow, droney music and releasing tapes ourselves anyway, so the label just began as labor of love that we felt compelled to take a shot at – it's our Dismal Niche,” Crook says.

At the onset, the Dismal Niche label focused on acts native to Columbia – Neatly Knotted, Hott Lunch and Gran Mal to name a few – but Crook and Chlapek widened the scope, incorporating projects on a regional level.

“A lot of boutique labels have a very specific kind of music they release, and with ours it's more nebulous,” Crook explains. “And even while we'd like to serve as an outlet for showcasing experimental and imminent DIY music from the Midwest, that's not any kind of hard and fast criteria.”

The label, too, seems hardwired to St. Louis music. In the last two years, Hylidae, 18andCounting, Blank Thomas and Solid Waste have all worked with Dismal Niche on limited run cassettes.

“I think that the STL connection happened pretty naturally. We didn't say to ourselves, 'OK now lets go find a bunch of cool musicians in St. Louis whose tapes we can release,'” Crook says. He recalls meeting Jon Burkhart of Hylidae at a house show and Stan Chisholm of 18andCounting at the Screwed Arts Collective. When Nevada Greene played at Schlafly Tap Room with the aforementioned two, Crook then met Mario Martinez of Solid Waste, which led to future collaborations and concerts.

“It's where I was born and most of my family still lives there, so I'm in and around St. Louis a ton and I see us releasing lots more music from folks there,” Crook says.

Both he and Chlapek were also heavily involved at the Hairhole, a now-shuttered venue that was once considered the core of the DIY music community in Columbia. When the space was torn down to make way for luxury student housing in 2013, the two felt compelled to move forward with a label, and eventually, a music festival.

“The first Dismal Niche Festival was almost entirely made up of local and or regional kind of working class weirdos. Beyond that though, we wanted to showcase the immense wealth of talent and absurdity of artists operating within the more general Midwestern DIY circuit,” Crook says. From crowd funding to the integration of visual art through a concurrent exhibition, the inaugural year was very much a testing ground, but also a solid festival.

“Bringing Scott Tuma out from Chicago to play a solo set at Ragtag Cinema was my highlight of the first year,” Crook says. "The audience was mostly either asleep or in tears by the end of the set – both of which were appropriately reverent reactions.”

One way Dismal Niche stands out from the festival pack is its insistence on keeping the visual aspect on par with the music being offered. This year's featured artists include three names St. Louis music fans might know from their work creating show flyers: Theresa Moher, Stan Chisholm and Alex Cunningham. Columbia-natives Nick Potter, Erin Potter and Sasha Goodnow will all have work on display, with the latter hosting a unique video installation at Cafe Berlin all weekend.

With headlining acts in percussionist Jon Mueller and folk legend Kath Bloom, the 2017 Dismal Niche Music and Arts Festival shows distinct progress from Crook and Chlapek's humble start as a small tape label. And while the two show no signs of slowing with releases, the festival has become an exploration of Columbia that features a variety of artists and acts in a wide range of venues. By being tailored for no one specifically, Dismal Niche has become a one-size-fits-all kind of event.

“I think the best thing would be people seeing music they didn't know existed or know that they liked, and coming away from these shows interested and inspired," Chlapek says. "It is very much a labor of love for us, as Matt and I both have multiple other jobs.

"We just want to see cool and weird things happen.”
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