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Heather Gabel, collage artist and singer of Hide

A black-and-white photo collage of Heather Gabel, tightly focused on their face and hands, which repeat and overlap to create a grimily surreal image that gives the impression they're clawing their own eyes out
Photographic collage of Heather Gabel Credit: Sven Harambašić

Heather Gabel is an icon of the midwestern industrial scene. As singer for Hide, their electronic duo with Seth Sher, they control the stage like a bionic witch who’s just emerged from a scrap heap to reveal truths both prophetic and profane. Offstage they’ve been a support professional in varied musical communities, working as a tour manager and selling or designing merch; they’re also a celebrated collage artist. For a little more than a year, they’ve been operating an underground gallery out of their West Loop studio space, which has shown a variety of punk visionaries (such as locals Chloe Perkis and Mony Kaos) who use populist mediums and imagery to describe the agonies and ecstasies of trying to realize a life doing anything but servicing capitalism, heterosexuality, and white supremacy. No gods, no masters, no W-2s! While the aesthetics of the artists exhibited in the gallery vary, all share a vibe with Gabel. Gabel embodies the working creative who’s made something livable despite capitalistic structures of social control.

As told to Micco Caporale

When I was seven, my family moved to a suburb of Detroit, and I kind of lived there indefinitely until college. Honestly, I only went to school because I got a scholarship, and that made it easy to move out of my mom’s house. I moved out the day after high school, you know? But the scholarship really limited the classes I was able to take, and I wanted to get even further from home. I knew a few people in Chicago, and Columbia [College] was cheap, so I was like, “Let’s go there!”

I started making flyers and stuff in high school. That was collage, which is mostly what I do now. I’ve always been really into punk and punk shows. I love punk’s DIY thing. It’s like, “OK, you don’t have to be an expert or perfect or well-known to do the thing. You can just do the thing.” Your music or art or whatever doesn’t have to be like other people’s or easy to consume. 

I love the collage format too. I enjoy repurposing things. You can take absolute garbage and give it a second or third life. It’s like sampling, right? Or making a field recording and turning it into something completely different.

I moved to Chicago for the first time when I was about 20. It was 1997, I think. I switched from photography to an interdisciplinary major so I could basically do whatever I wanted. I took classes on, like, installation art, ceramics, painting. . . . I don’t feel like school really did anything for me as far as what I do now, though. But who knows? 

I moved to Oakland around 2001, and I was there for six years. Lots of bands I liked at the time were from there, like Econochrist, and I really liked that movie Harold and Maude, which is set in the Bay. I did art for a lot of bands, and when I wasn’t touring, I worked at a video store for a bit. I loved it. I love Oakland.

At the time, I never wanted to be in a band. It just didn’t compel me. I just wanted to go to new places as much as possible, and I had other things I enjoyed doing related to music. Then I met somebody and moved to Florida for a bit, where I had my kid. In 2014, I came back to Chicago. I really wanted to be in a big city again. I had a couple of really good friends here, and Chicago’s not that expensive compared to other cities. 

I had been doing collages for years and years already, and I had a lot of connections to bands that brought me work. But while I was getting settled, I had to hustle constantly. I’d take any paying gig that was art or art adjacent, but eventually I got burnt out. That’s part of why I have this gallery space now. The typical fine-art gallery world . . . just not my scene, you know? A lot of rich people and cool guys. It can be pretty gross. Some of the people are so vile, and I felt so commodified.

I met Seth because he was playing drums in this metal band, Zath. I was so excited to be somewhere with DIY shows again, so I was going to tons of shows—especially noise shows and stuff—and we became friends. And then one day I was like, “Oh . . . I want to sing!” I’d never done it before, so it was kind of scary. But I was in a new place physically and emotionally, and I’m into trying new things. I’m like, “I just want to do it. Let’s see if I can do it.”

I think part of why I make art is not having the words. I need other ways to communicate how I’m experiencing and processing things. I really can’t tell you why I suddenly wanted to be in a band. Maybe because I was hustling so hard and had gone through some abrupt life changes. Singing and performing just felt really good to me at that moment! Like, in my body, almost like a corporeal exploration. When I tried it, it felt good to do, so I kept doing it.

I feel like this is my third life. My first life was all the time I had up until I had my kid, and then total mother mode in Florida—that was my second life. When I moved here and started Hide . . . third life.

The 2021 Hide album Interior Terror, released by bicoastal U.S. indie label Dais Records

It’s bananas that Hide has been going for almost ten years. I feel like we’re only getting rawer and moving further away from making, like, “songs” and more toward sound collages. We’re working more on impulse now. It’s a different medium, but it’s a lot of the same ideas from my visual art, plus moving my body. 

Seth and I are more in tune with the sounds and aesthetics we like and how to identify and combine them, so our process has gotten very organic. But we also work within limitations. I personally like working with extreme limitations, and I love trash. We intentionally keep it all pretty lo-fi, and we know what we like. We’ll just walk by something and be like, “We should sample that!” And Seth crouches down in some hole recording something on his phone. It’s an Android. [Laughs.] So, shitty. Extra shitty! 

There have been times in my life where I was touring and working so much that I didn’t have to worry about money, but that was just a few years. It’s always been this trade-off of, “How do I get to travel and do what I want and still pay my rent?” I’m still asking that daily. But the older I get, the more I realize, like, if you’re willing to have a different mindset about . . . not even success, but pushing yourself for creative answers to, “How can I function in this realm in a way that doesn’t make me feel like shit?” There’s a lot of freedom in that.

Having a kid has definitely changed my relationship to money. It’s a different financial pressure. I have to live in nicer places than I would if it was just me. And if I’m super stressed about money, I have to just keep that to myself, you know? Like, I wouldn’t want to talk to my kid about it, but it’s a weird pressure. I feel an extra level of judgment too, because, like, my kid wears ripped-up clothes all the time and stuff. Being a parent puts so much more social pressure on you to seem like a “normal” person. But I really don’t care what most other people think. I’m proud of us.

At the end of the day, I’m always making things. I have my band and my visual art, and I trade off every other month with my kid’s dad. So when not touring, I’m spending time with my kid and at my studio almost every day. I run a DIY gallery space out of it. I try to always have an art show when I’m home, and I don’t take a cut—I just provide the space. 

It seems like a dream that I get to live like this. The trade-off is financial insecurity, but I’m really happy. Being with my kid and knowing that they’re happy and that I’m living a life I feel happy about and modeling that for them—I feel really good about that.

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