The artist behind Alkaline Trio’s logo and hundreds of band T-shirts talks about her life’s work
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Given their name, Chicago punk legends Alkaline Trio are known for having three members. That being said, artist Heather Gabel is probably the closest thing the band has to a fourth. Since the band’s 1996 inception, Gabel has designed the lion’s share of its graphic work (more than 100 designs for T-shirts alone), going so far as to create the Trio’s iconic heart-and-skull logo.
This Friday, Oct. 7, Johalla Projects will host Black And White And Red All Over, a retrospective on the impressive canon that Gabel has put together since the band’s inception. The A.V. Club talked to her about punk’s place in art, leaving the road behind, and 15 years of Alkaline Trio.
The A.V. Club: You’re probably best known for creating the logo for Alkaline Trio, and legend has it that you did that by some sort of accident. How did that go about?
Heather Gabel: I don’t know if it was an accident, really. [Laughs.] They kind of already had a heart with the little devil tail, and it was kind of bubbly. I guess it sort of was an accident. I was making a flyer for a show that they had coming up, and I was cutting a bunch of stuff up—I was at the Kinko’s on North Avenue in Wicker Park—and I was cutting a bunch of stuff out, and I had a little skull, and I just put it in the middle, and it looked awesome. So, I mean, I changed the heart. The rest is history.
AVC: You’ve known the band, really, since it started. How has its succes affected you? You’ve done a lot of its merch designs.
HG: I was friends with the band before they ever had released anything, and before they had played their first show. I sold their demo tape at their first show at the Fireside. I don’t know what I would really be doing now if it weren’t for them. I traveled all over the world with them; I’ve met so many people—like, all the bands that I’ve ever done stuff for—it’s always been, like, just people that I’ve met from touring. I’ve never solicited any jobs or anything, so it’s always been like the people asking me. That never, I don’t think, would have happened if I didn’t tour with them for 10 years, or if they didn’t let me do whatever I want. They would never really see the shirts until they showed up at the shows. They never approved anything, and let me do whatever I wanted.
AVC: Did you ever expect all of your art to be on the T-shirts of more than half of anyone at any given Warped Tour?
HG: No, no, not at all. I still get stoked if I see somebody wearing one I made. I’m like “Oh wow.” It’s like this little, tiny club still.
AVC: It’s like hearing your song on the radio, just seeing someone walking around wearing your art?
HG: Totally! I’m always kind of stoked. I do shirts on my own that just have my art on them, or whatever, that I have on my website—sometimes those people will know. They’ll notice that I noticed. It’s cool. It’s still pretty thrilling. And my husband [Tom Gabel], he’s in a band [Against Me!], and if he sees somebody wearing one of my shirts he’s like, “My wife made that!”
AVC: Do you ever feel the need to stop someone on the street when they’re wearing a shirt with your design and say, “That was me”?
HG: [Laughs.] No, it’s kind of awkward sometimes. Like sometimes my husband will threaten to do that, and I’ll be like, “Shut up, shut up!” He’ll be like, “What?” And I’ll be like, “Oh, that one’s really awesome; that’s a really old one. I probably sold that to them. That’s so cool!” And he’s just like, “I’m saying something.” And I’m like, “Dude, don’t go over there!”
AVC: Of all the work you’ve done, what has proved more of a recognition point for you, the sheer volume of everything you’ve done for Alkaline Trio, or work for bigger acts like Green Day or Joan Jett?
HG: I think the sheer volume of it, because I’ve just put all this stuff together for the Alkaline Trio retrospective, and just looking at all these things. I don’t think most bands ever have a hundred shirts in their career, let alone have the same person do it. I’m stoked that I’ve gotten to do stuff for bigger bands, but I think I’m more proud of that aesthetic legacy of Alkaline Trio.
AVC: For the retrospective you have coming up, what types of things are going to be in that? Flyers and shirt designs, and what else?
Yeah, it’s like all the—well, there’s a few that I don’t know what happened to—but it’s all the original T-shirt designs that I have, and then sketches for stuff—ideas and pages out of notebooks, and then some flyers. I think I’m going to put up a couple shirts, too, because I have the old shirts, and then I put together a book of all of them. It’s like 96 of them I think, because, like I said, I lost some of them. But it’s a limited-edition book. I only made a hundred of them of all the designs that I have, and then I’m making prints of 10 of the designs that the band and I chose together. Just sort of like our favorites, or what we thought were most reflective of the style, or whatever.
AVC: You’ve done so much for them—how much of it have you kept over the years?
HG: The actual T-shirts?
AVC: Just the designs.
HG: All of them. I have all of them except for, as I said, like four that I just don’t know where the art went. I still do them all, like, I have a copy machine—like a little Xerox machine—and I do them all on that. You know, photocopy whatever, and then put it all together with like scissors and glue sticks and Sharpies. So I have all these Xeroxes that I colored in, so I have like a stack of them. It’s not that hard to keep them, because it’s just like a stack of paper, you know? So I have all of them, and because I would send them to the printer just as the piece of paper. I just started e-mailing them as JPEGs probably like five years ago.
AVC: Has it been a five-year job to get everything ready for the show? You’ve done so much, it seems it could take forever to get all of it in one place.
HG: It took a really long time to scan them, but I’ve just been working on it for a while. It was weird, because most of the time when I have an art show, I have to make something, and for this I had to do sort of the opposite of what I always do and use a computer. It sucked! I’d complain to all my friends, “I don’t know how people can sit in front of a computer!” And they’re like “Fuck you, I sit in front of a computer all day.” But it was just boring, you know? It wasn’t fun, but it was worth it just to see them all in one place. For the amount of work that I put into it, it seemed like a book should be more epic. I’m sure for a lot of people, to see them will be really cool, because it’s all of them in one place. And no one has ever really seen that except for me—like, not even the bands.
AVC: You said you’ve done art outside of the designs for bands. Have you found any sort of culture shock going between punk rock and art communities?
HG: No, because usually the galleries that want me to show are totally different, so it’s not really a culture shock. It’s cool because I always know that even if there aren’t a ton of people there who know who I am because of my regular art, there’s going to be a couple kids who know who I am because of the shirts that I’ve done. There’s a crossover there. But then I think that for just regular gallery-goers who are into punk bands—I don’t know if we’re calling them that—but I think that my stuff is different enough from what else they’ve seen, because I came from that background.
AVC: Do you think there could be more opportunities for galleries to show flyers and such?
HG: I think so. There’s that book, Fucked Up + Photocopied, and it’s all old flyers. My friend Chris [Norris] and I just did a show in L.A. too. He does work for a lot of bands too. He was in Combat Wounded Veteran, and he does a lot of stuff for my husband’s band. He does fine art now, but he still does work for bands, and in our show, we both had fine art, and then in another room we did an installation of all the band work. Every band we’ve ever worked, everything we’ve ever done for all of them, sketches and things like that. That was really cool. And the gallery was stoked on it. People loved it because it was different. I think that people are interested in it because it’s a viable art form. It’s changing now because everybody does everything on the computer, but people, I think, will always respond to hand-made things.
AVC: You alluded to your husband’s band, which is Against Me!, right?
AVC: Do you do a lot of work for them, or do you like to keep your work and home lives separate?
HG: [Laughs.] I’ve tried, but [Tom Gabel’s] always like “Do shirts for us!” [Laughs.] But yeah, I have done a lot of stuff for them over the past two years. It doesn’t feel like a lot to me, because I’m used to working with Alkaline Trio every time they’d do a tour. I’d do all new shirts, and most other bands will do the same thing for years. Get a new one every couple tours, or something like that. I think I do three or four designs for Against Me! a year, or like a poster or something.
But yeah, [Tom’s] so picky; he always wants his band name bigger. Me and Chris, who was at that show, we always joke around about how the font needs to be bigger, like, always. And [Tom] doesn’t go easy on me because I’m his wife or anything.
AVC: He demands excellence.
HG: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: Do you still tour with Alkaline Trio, then?
HG: I don’t, because now I have a 2-year-old. I stopped right before I got pregnant with her. I haven’t for a few years now, because Tom’s gone like half the year, so I can’t.
We’ll go out with Tom for like a week or something, and Evelyn—our daughter—acts like she owns the place. She walks around and plays everybody’s instruments and gives the security guards dirty looks. It’s pretty awesome.
AVC: Is she just training to ascend to the throne of Against Me! in case Tom ever puts it down?
HG: Oh yeah. 100 percent. They did Warped Tour this summer, and we went to a few shows, and we were like on the side of the stage behind a bunch of stuff, and she found this little mic they had set up for the crowd. It was turned down super-low, but it was just her size. She just walked over to it and just started singing into it. She was like “check…check.” [Laughs.] She’s just singing into it! Somebody in the crowd took a video of it; it’s on YouTube. It’s hilarious, because she’s actually singing. She stopped for minute to ask me something, but she kept both of her hands on the mike stand, and looking back at me, was like “Can you turn this up, my monitor?” Like, totally nailed it. It’s pretty hilarious.
AVC: So obviously you’ve been out with a lot of bands now. What is your craziest tour story?
HG: Oh, man. [Laughs.] I don’t think I’m allowed to tell them, because of personal reasons. Somebody’s going to get in trouble! But yeah, it all kind of blends together, and none of it seems that exciting because, like, crazy stuff would happen all the time, you know what I mean?
AVC: Right. It was all blurred into one crazy moment?
HG: Yeah, pretty much. I remember where a couple of weird things went down, but for the most part, it was like, “Okay, that’s happening”.
AVC: It’s just something that you want to make yourself forget after a while?
HG: Totally, because it’s never really that interesting. It’s just some girl doing something stupid and us trying not to look.