top of page
  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Building the Milwaukee Dream

How folk musician and carpenter Nathaniel Heuer leaned into Milwaukee’s uniqueness to craft a multidisciplinary artistic life  

Nathaniel Heuer has long been a visible player within the creative community in Milwaukee for his myriad musical contributions within bands Group of the Altos, Hello Death, and Marielle Allschwang and the Visitations. Others know Heuer as one of the owners and operators of the Chair Company recording studio, Meltwater Studios, or as the manager of mixed-used artist and entrepreneurial spaces located in an old warehouse called Fourth Floor Studios. Others still would recognize Heuer from his work as a fine woodworker who ran his own company, Heuer Woodwork LLC, and now works as the Wood Shop Foreman for Sid Grinker Restoration. With his creative energies directed into all of these pursuits, Heuer is a multidimensional artist who’s been to do it all in Milwaukee. 

I met Nathaniel in the Chair Company recording studio which he owns and operates with business partner and friend Lawton Hall, a composer, researcher and instructor at UWM. Together, Heuer and Hall conceptualized a vision for the space and each contributed complimentary skills and expertise to its creation. Hall was the lead on obtaining and installing sound recording equipment, and Heuer built out the space including constructing walls and extensive soundproofing. It’s a project that drew on his passion for music, community-building and his skillset as a carpenter.  

“I have relatively unique skillsets 'cause I've been in the trades for so long,” said Heuer. Problem-solving in construction is one of the hats that he gets to wear, both inside and outside of his day job.  

The Sweet Smoke BBQ food truck is parked on a Milwaukee street in front of a cream city brick building and blue sky.
Heuer's food truck build for Sweet Smoke, which is operated by Heuer's family members. Photo courtesy Nathaniel Heuer.
A photo of the Sweet Smoke BBQ food truck internal infrastructure.
A process photo from the Sweet Smoke food truck build. Photo courtesy Nathaniel Heuer.

Heuer took a full time job with Sid Grinker Restoration in May of 2023. The move was a calculation to both provide for his family, and also to increase his ability to take on more creative and community-centered projects. While he mostly works autonomously in his carpentry day job, Heuer strikes a balance by leaning into longstanding collaborative relationships through his music-making. 

“Music is definitely collaborative for me. I really love seeing how other people express something,” said Heuer. “I love the reinterpretation, or how they decide to voice a chord or write a melody or counter melody over something.” 

Heuer is regarded as a leader and major conduit in the Milwaukee music scene, and it's in large part a result of cultivated connections over time. Heuer has been able to conduct and plug in to projects, taking advantage of the sense of intimacy that exists in the music scene.  

Hello Death's members are gathered in the studio space at their respective instruments.
Hello Death recording in the Chair Company studio. Photo courtesy Nathaniel Heuer.

In “Smallwaukee” fashion, everyone in the music scene is at most one degree separated from each other. Musicians play in multiple bands, and live music audiences are typically filled with musicians who come out to support their friends. The weblike nature of Milwaukee’s music community is supported by venues that double as community-spaces and consciously cultivate a sense of belonging, like Cactus Club. All this is combined with a lack of pressure to conform or compete. Within bands who stick around the city, artistic goals and milestones are largely self- imposed. 

Part of the reason Heuer has been able to build such a richly diverse creative life here in Milwaukee is because of what he called the “opportunity of time” afforded. In Milwaukee, the rhythm of life is different. Though Heuer is hesitant to call it “European,” it feels less urgent and congested than huge metro cities. That openness breeds possibility.  

Heuer is reclined on a gold velvet couch in the Chair Company recording studio, holding his glasses above his face.
Heuer on the couch in the Chair Company recording studio. Photo by Deb Leal.

“I lived in Chicago for almost 10 years. There is a “Milwaukee time,” which can be frustrating sometimes when you want to get something done. But it's also really nice because it allows opportunities for things that you might not normally encounter. You're not battling with traffic every day or all these other bigger city issues and there's a little bit more space.”  

With Milwaukee’s slower cadence and spaciousness, Heuer is able to take on new projects, but also maintain a certain quality of life —like having time to listen to music, and to spend more time with his children and family. But even less desirable differences of life in Milwaukee are conducive to creation. Heuer credits Milwaukee’s notorious winters with influencing creative production, here.  

“Everybody hibernates a little bit in the winter. There's a sense that if you can utilize that time, you can make a lot of stuff, you know.” 

At the same time, Heuer sees how the musical community in Milwaukee—while naturally prolific—faces issues with sustainability and fair compensation.  

According to Heuer, Milwaukee bands often strategically decide to play for little pay for gigs at more experimental venues, like house shows. The shadow side of this sense of generosity is that larger venues in Milwaukee have been able to get away with paying very low rates to local bands. In exchange for experience, exposure, or the prestige of opening for a touring national act, venues pay a base rate. That bands jump at these opportunities creates a feedback loop in which local artists find themselves without footing to negotiate. His band Group of the Altos, for example, opened a sold-out show for Volcano Choir at the Pabst Theatre. While it was an “incredible” experience, according to Heuer, his band was paid only the guarantee of $500 for the performance. 

“There's this idea that people are gonna do it either way. I think some of that needs to change,” offered Heuer.  He continued. "That kind of exposure really can be a boon to a small local band, and obviously the money is there for higher compensation.  But the manager/agent, (and/or venue management) of a national touring act have no incentive to give a local opening act more money because it pulls from their profit. This is one example of where the business model for arts and culture fails.  If the arts are profit driven, there will always be disincentive to compensate artists."

I asked him to reflect on the prospect of artists banning together to create a set of defined standards for fair compensation. But Heuer is careful to draw a distinction between art-music, and music that is made for entertainment value and aimed at climbing billboard charts inside the machine of a broader music industry.  

Heuer muses with pen in hand as he sits in his music studio space, next to mics and a music stand.
Nathaniel Heuer in the Chair Company studio space. Photo by Deb Leal.

“Any project I'm involved in, it’s not this idea of entertainment. It's community,” said Heuer. “I think part of what happens in Milwaukee is that like the punk scene, the hardcore scene, the folk scene, everybody's amazing. There's, there's so much good stuff and they absolutely could be national acts, but you have to want that. And in some ways you have to be willing to cater to, or to give yourself over to social media interaction, and let industry guide your operations, which to me is a bit antithetical to being an artist in general," reflected Heuer. "This is an oversimplification, but there is a difference between writing jingles, and writing/recording music with a group of musicians you know and trust.  Are you eliciting an emotion with tools of the trade, or are you expressing an emotion?"

According to Heuer, there’s not a realistic prospect of finding a traditional “big break” in Milwaukee. And that’s not what artists who stay here are seeking. Heuer has seen how artists, when they choose to try to “make it” in more traditional ways within the national music industry, end up leaving. 

“I think of The Buffalo Gospel, Buffalo Nichols, and SistaStrings. I would say in each of those cases it's people who knew what they wanted to do and pursued a path to do that thing.”  

Meanwhile, artists remaining in Milwaukee are working within an environment that feels distinct from the increasingly commodified world of the larger music industry. MKE artists are pooling resources to achieve their dreams and leaning into economies of sharing and exchange to do so.  

"People are swapping labor or skills. There's just a DIY kind of attitude. I think that happens especially in recording studios. Little recording studios in town got their starts by essentially working for free for their friends or started because they wanted a professional recording studio to also use as a practice space,” said Heuer.  

Milwaukee’s recording studio scene continues to grow—with Silver City Studios and Howl Street Recordings as two notable local studios that have been in operation over the last ten years or more. Heuer’s own studio is the result of this DIY spirit in action. The collaboration with Hall blossomed into their shared vision for the Chair Company. 

While the Chair Company space has many of the expected trappings of a normal recording studio, there’s also a bit of a playful art studio and laboratory feeling to the space. For example, behind the studio couch, there’s a kinetic and audio sculpture—a tall structure with a mic’ed and mounted percussion mallet and wood block. I asked Heuer about it. It’s a sculpture by his studio partner Lawton Hall that’s been activated for musical performances.  

“It's actually a piece that is performed with a composition midi programmed percussion, which are those little servos the mallets hitting the wood blocks, which are tuned. And it's played with a live vibraphone as well,” he reveals.  

Heuer shared with me his favorite thing in the Chair Company space. 

“Definitely my upright base. It's an old Kay from 1942.” 

Heuer holds a Kay upright bass in the studio space at the Chair Company.
Heuer at the Chair Company studio with his upright bass.

Another result of the opportunity of time that Milwaukee musicians enjoy is the chance to experiment and to be industrious in new ways. Heuer is a longtime musician, but only leaned into learning the bass after relocating to Milwaukee. 

“I started playing upright in my mid-thirties. A friend of mine has his Master's in the bass, so I started taking lessons from him once a week." 

When it comes to finding a job that supports one’s creative life, Heuer recognizes how fortunate he is. He encourages other artists to be discerning about the kinds of opportunities they will take on in service of their creative goals. But he also offers that artists might benefit from finding and leaning into a day job that they like, and “enjoying” how it enables the lifestyle they seek. Until there’s a shift towards more public support offered to artists, Heuer sees strategic employment as a practical, necessary pathway to living a satisfying creative life. 

Milwaukee and WI have long suffered from a lack of public funding for the arts. In 2023, WI had the terrible distinction of being ranked last in the nation for per-capita investment in the arts. Within Milwaukee's vast $1.9 billion budget for 2024, there's only $250,000 earmarked for direct arts spending. At the same time, there are initiatives in motion that may move the needle on that, including bill SB1026. The bill provides for the creation of a centralized state film office and film production tax incentives. Imagine MKE is an umbrella organization to Action!Wisconsin, a statewide coalition advocating for filmmakers, producers, industry partners and supporters of film and television projects throughout Wisconsin, whose advocacy efforts have influenced the bill’s creation. As I shared about the bill with Heuer, his eyes lit up.  

“Milwaukee is, as far as I'm concerned, the best city for advertising, film, and video,” said Heuer. “You have every look possible. There's every type of architecture that you can think of here. And then you have the rivers, the beautiful natural spaces, Lake Michigan.”  

Before accepting his current job, Heuer had the opportunity to work as a contractor on Joe Pera Talks with You, which filmed its latter seasons in Milwaukee. The experience highlighted for him how much depth of talent exists in Milwaukee for such creative productions.  

“I got to do some set dressing and set building work for Joe Pera. That was such a great thing for so many talented people. Interdisciplinary artists are abundant in Milwaukee,” he continued. “A lot of people are making art on many fronts. Almost every musician I know is also doing film, or visual art.” 

Handmade ceramic mugs, plates and a bowl are on a table with breakfast items and wooden serving boards.
Heuer's serving boards, created for his wife Diana Ehlers' Future Ceramics. Photo courtesy Nathaniel Heuer.

An interdisciplinary spirit is another defining quality of Milwaukee’s creative community. But according to Heuer, the community continues to be driven to make art for its own sake, with a kind of folk art sensibility.  

“Folk art is an expression of culture. People are doing what they are doing without the expectation of reward,” he remarked.  

At the same time, with prices and the cost of living increasing, without investment from the public sector and other increased support for artists, Heuer sees that our creative community may be at a crucial tipping point. The future of Milwaukee’s as a place for free-thinking, ambitious artists to sustain themselves and flourish hangs in the balance. That means living the kind of dream that Heuer’s been able to realize may soon be unattainable, unless the arts are prioritized by decision-makers within the public and private sectors.  

“The beauty of Milwaukee is that there are still weird places,” reflected Heuer. “People just do what they do and keep doing. But I think we’re going to have to have some sort of reckoning within how the culture expresses itself.” 


bottom of page