HIDE’s Heather Gabel is taking a chainsaw to rape culture

Feed Me Weird Things: HIDE w/ White Batzzz

Trumpet Blossom Cafe — Thursday, July 18 at 9 p.m.

HIDE’s Heather Gabel performs at the Yacht Club during Mission Creek Festival, Friday, April 5, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Heather Gabel, one-half of the Chicago-based industrial EDM duo HIDE, has an affinity for the haunting, empowering and confrontational.

You may have seen Gabel between flashes of strobe lights and clouds of dry ice in the Yacht Club basement during Mission Creek Festival 2019: glimpses of black-smudged lips yelling “Bound/severed, a martyr to whomever”; of blood dripping from thin cuts on her torso; of a silver lock glinting on a black chastity belt.

Gabel has made art virtually her whole life, but HIDE — featuring Gabel as vocalist and Seth Sher as percussionist — was an exciting new project for the artist. Gabel was raised primarily in Michigan, just outside of Detroit, and earned a bachelor’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. Gabel is also the parent to Evelyn, a Nine-Inch-Nails-loving 9-year-old.

Elements of Gabel’s visual art can be found in HIDE’s abrasive lyrics, sound and shows as well, including a Gothic tinge and a subversive view of femininity. “Just because something is lovely,” Gabel said of the female form, “doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have power.”

We caught up with Gabel in a phone interview ahead of HIDE’s July 18 show at Trumpet Blossom Café (and the release of the duo’s second full-length album, Hell is Here, on Aug. 23, with L.A.’s Dais Records), to discuss parenthood, “penis envy” and a prevailing theme in Gabel’s work: toxic masculinity.

EM: Could you tell us a little about your life before HIDE? What influenced you as an artist?

My first job out of college was graphic design for a band. I was still doing my own work, touring in group shows, still doing photography, doing paintings. I moved to Oakland and that’s when I started doing more collages. I guess I was starting to get sick of making things for other people.

Then I met someone and I fell in love, and I moved to Florida, and we got married and had a baby. My partner was in a band and still doing everything they were doing before we were married and had a kid and I just wasn’t able to anymore. It was the catalyst for me, sort of like exploding into my own self, in a way. Having my daughter made me realize, this person is watching everything that I’m doing, and I am their example. All the bullshit fell away, and I could see what was really important to me, and how important it was to be the rawest, most honest version of myself in my work, the way that I lived my life, everything.

The band started four years ago, right after I moved to Chicago and separated from my partner at the time. I had never been in a band before. I was kind of freaked out at the idea of it, but that’s what was exciting about it to me. I’ve always been an interdisciplinary artist, but I needed something more visceral at the time. There were times when the only time I felt OK was when I was working on art. The band kind of came out of that.

EM: What are you processing through your music?

These are all things that make me feel bad or angry, speaking generally: patriarchy, misogyny, racism, police brutality, inequalities, transphobia, every sort of bad thing you can think of. We have an EP [Black Flame] that’s all about human rights violations in Iran and specifically about this woman Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was hung for allegedly killing someone who was trying to rape her. The single off our new record is “Chainsaw” — I didn’t write the lyrics [“Smile / You’re too good for me? / Bitch / You’re too ugly for me anyways / Bitch / How much? / Fuck you then”], they are things men have yelled at me on the streets, sometimes when I’m with my daughter. Recontextualizing that and using that as a way to make a statement about rape culture in our society and how that contributes to people dying.

EM: I saw the music video for “Chainsaw” and it was very moving, obviously a little disturbing, to hear those words over video of a child. And then all the interspersed images of women who were raped and murdered last year — one was an Iowan, Celia Barquin Arozamena, so that of course stopped my breath, too. I’m guessing that’s kind of the reaction you were hoping to provoke?

It’s filmed just around my neighborhood where I’ve been verbally assaulted with my daughter. We just walked around the neighborhood and filmed [my friend and her daughter] — just like normal stuff you would do with your kid, like going to the park, walking down the street. It’s almost a banal situation.

Evelyn knows what sexual harassment is; she’s 9 years old. She understands this stuff because she’s already experienced it with me, and it’s heartbreaking. With that video, I just wanted to show this is something that happens every day, this is ingrained in our society and these faces, these people, these names — these are people who are just like anybody. That’s just a fraction of victims from that year. I didn’t want it to come across as exploitative in any way, but I did feel like it was important to show people this could be your neighbor, this could be anyone you know.

NB: I have an 8-year-old, and I’m just wondering: We have this horrifying context where our young children are being exposed to the reality of our culture. Obviously respond at your comfort level, but how do you raise a sexually healthy child within this context?

I’m honest about my feelings about things and what’s right and what’s wrong in regards to your own body and your autonomy and your control. When Evelyn was in second grade there was a kid at school who told her, “You have a hairy vagina that smells like fish.” She’s 6. She doesn’t know what is going on … I explained it to Evelyn, “This is not just someone making fun of someone, this was not just someone being mean or being a bully, but this was sexual harassment, and it’s wrong and part of the problem.” I try to be honest with her. I’m really open. I’m really comfortable with myself, finally, at 42. She knows so many different kinds of people and I think gets that a lot of people are discriminated against because of who they are. I just try to work through it situation by situation.

I was walking down the street with her and this guy said something about my tattoos and said, “Smile.” Evelyn looked up at me and rolled her eyes, just kind of like, “Here we go.” I was like, “Don’t tell me what to do with my fucking face, man!”

My mom is still scared of men and that breaks my heart. It’s affected every life decision she’s ever made. I saw that growing up and I was like, fuck no. Since I was little, if somebody messed with me, I messed with them back. It may not be the safest way to go, but that’s how I deal with it with Evelyn — I just try to confront it when it happens so she sees that example. At least acknowledging that it’s wrong.

NB: And she knows it, it sounds like, ’cause she’s rolling her eyes.

Yeah, totally! I was almost like, “Sorry, bub, I got to go off on this guy now.”

HIDE’s Heather Gabel performs at the Yacht Club during Mission Creek Festival, Friday, April 5, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

EM: When you perform, would you say you have a stage persona, or is it just you?

Yeah, that’s just me! When we first started the band, I felt like I was in drag. I would wear seven-inch heels and it was more overtly sexualized, but that was my response to the inescapability of the male gaze and so I was like, yo, I know you’re going to objectify me so I’m just going to get that out of the way. Here it all is. I could be wearing a snowsuit going down the street and people would say something to me. So it’s like, here, I’m not afraid of my body and how you’re going to receive it. It was empowering in a way to just go, “Fuck you, I don’t care.”

Now, I don’t think about it like that. I’ve been cutting myself on stage; I put dirt all over my face. I’m still trying to subvert the male gaze in some way, and I’m still kind of trying to figure it out, but I’m not, like, getting into character. If you could imagine yourself as a kid in your room, listening to something that really moved you and you’re all alone, just thrashing — that’s what it feels like to me when we perform.

EM: Do you have a favorite outfit or article of clothing?

No, and everyone always focuses on what I’m wearing and I don’t like it. I think it’s a distraction. I don’t think people ask men what they’re wearing and why they’re wearing it. It’s something that I’m usually like, “I’m not talking to you about it,” but I feel like that’s not as productive as talking about why I don’t want to talk about it, you know? And I don’t identify as female. I’m nonbinary or genderfluid, I would say, but I feel like I’ve sort of been pushed into that — that that’s a reaction to the way our society treats women. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about anything that people are interested in based on their assumption of my gender, as a woman. Of course, that’s a part of me, but it’s not the total package.

It’s something I sort of struggle with, especially in music. Everyone thinks it’s this underground community and everything’s cool, people are respectful. It’s not like that at all. It’s all the same as the regular world; it’s just a microcosm of it and there’s the same problems and everything, and I deal with it daily when we’re playing shows. Like, people won’t talk to me, they’ll only talk to my bandmate because as far as they’re concerned, he’s male and I’m female.

HIDE’s Heather Gabel performs at the Yacht Club during Mission Creek Festival, Friday, April 5, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

NB: How do you navigate those situations where someone only wants to talk to your bandmate?

It’s not Seth’s fault, but I started talking to Seth and being like, “Hey, when people do this, it’s a problem. Maybe rethink how you are dealing with these situations because these people won’t even look at me, let alone have a conversation.” At first he was like, “Well, is that really happening?” and then after a while Seth was like, “This is totally happening and it’s insane.”

When we were booking our own shows, if it was a show I had booked, they wouldn’t even know Seth’s name, but they would come up to Seth and try to pay him at the end of the night. Seth would be like what, “Huh?” Now, Seth will be like, “Go find Heather.”

In interviews, most of the questions will be directed at me, usually there’ll be a question about my outfits, and then they’ll ask about the music, and that question will be directed at Seth. And I get that when we perform, Seth is doing all the electronics and I’ll be doing the vocals, so people assume Seth’s making all the music. But he’s not, we make it together. Seth is a drummer. I don’t know how to use all the equipment we have, but we compose songs together, we find samples together. If I say in interviews, “Why are you assuming that Seth wrote everything? This is how we write songs,” then they’ll take that out. Leave it in! You just did something not very cool. I’m explaining to you why it’s not very cool.

There are no credits on the record as to who does what. We don’t even have our names on some of the things we’ve put out, and it’s for that reason: because it’s not about us. I don’t care if people know my name.

EM: We’ll never make the mistake of asking you “How do you manage to balance parenthood and working?!”

[Laughs] I don’t even mind that, though! I think there’s a lot of parents in bands, and that part of it is really interesting. Everything is potentially problematic, I suppose, depending on where someone is coming from.

EM: Do you have an affinity for Freud? I noticed that influence in your album title [Castration Anxiety], and I saw you have a “penis envy” tattoo.

[Laughs] Penis Envy is my favorite Crass record. But yeah, it’s from Freud — that’s where they got it. When I had my daughter, I had to have a C-section after almost two days of labor. I had a bald spot from the incision and it really bothered me for a while. Then I thought, oh, this is perfect for my Penis Envy tattoo. Some people were like, “Why? Vaginas are magical.” And I’m like, “Well, I didn’t say I only want a penis!” I want it all; I don’t want to have my experience be colored by my gender. I want everything: I want the respect that a man gets for not doing anything except walking in a room.

Castration Anxiety, that album title — I was thinking a lot about how so many power struggles are coming from that fear that men have of being emasculated, and the way that plays out in the world is violent and horrible.

EM: What do you hope people bring to a HIDE show? How do you hope they behave, and what do you hope they leave on the dance floor?

I hope that people maybe just feel inspired to do whatever they want to do, to feel empowered to do what they want to do, because that’s what this does for me. It’s coming from a place in me that’s raw and real, and I don’t have an expectation of how that’s going to make people feel listening to our music or witnessing a performance. But a lot of women do come up to me and tell me, “You make me proud to be a woman,” and that kind of fucks me up. They don’t know that I don’t identify as female, and that’s fine, because I’m genderfluid, so that’s a part of me.

When women tell me it makes them feel good, that makes me happy: That makes me feel good. Because if you can catch a good vibe these days, and I can be part of it, that’s huge.

Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.

Emma McClatchey feels like an ass for asking the “outfit” question; in her defense, she contracted some serious outfit envy from Heather Gabel’s Instagram. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 267.