BY JOSH PELTA-HELLER Teresa Suárez considers her home country of Mexico to be a place of brutal contradictions. The Le Butcherettes frontwoman, better known as Teri Gender Bender, started her band in Guadalajara, and to hear her describe it, between the intractable sexism and misogyny, violence, and law enforcement corruption that she regularly encountered, establishing a recognizable public persona in Mexico wasn’t without its hurdles.
Having survived a couple lineup changes to their original incarnation in 2007, Le Butcherettes have since relocated to Los Angeles. They’ve toured extensively in Europe, Mexico, and the US, and opened for and recorded with indie-rock and punk royalty, including John Frusciante and Iggy Pop, both of whom appeared on the third and most recent studio album A Raw Youth. Theirs is unabashed, guns-out rock and roll, radio-ready punk with pop appeal, all in the context of concept.
The details aren’t lost on Suárez, who is, at her very best, a performance artist inspired and informed by diversity of culture and genre, and who considers carefully the contributions that poetry, persona, color, visual and auditory textures, and the power of images all make toward the potent public persona she presents.
As though in parallel to her beloved Mexico, Suárez is open about her own contradictions as well. A stunning poster girl for rock-and-roll, she seems to strive nevertheless to challenge and reinvent cultural norms both in music and stagecraft. She’ll stand tall on stage, brandishing an electric guitar and a snarl, with her middle fingers in the air and her heart on her sleeve. Fighting hard through a head cold and a Dayquil trip recently, Suárez spoke at length with Phawker about overcoming hurdles both internal and external, about the hospitality of her heroes, and what it means to her to be — or not to be — a punk rock star.
TERI GENDER BENDER: Well I was born in Denver, Colorado. My father was from Spain but my mother is from Mexico, but when my father died we moved back to Mexico. I grew up in Guadalajara, that’s where I started the band.
PHAWKER: What were your influences as a kid growing up in Mexico, and what steered you into rock music?
TERI GENDER BENDER: Oh, the Beatles, Cream, The Rolling Stones — basically anything my dad would listen to, I would copy him. And sometimes when I was very little, my dad would drink a lot, and he would get carried away and he would put classical music on the speakers full blast, making the neighbors complain and sometimes sending the police over. And my mom hated it, she was like, ‘Roberto, por favor, bájale volumen!’ (‘Turn down the volume, please!’) And the way that I saw how music created some type of chaos but at the same time sounding so powerful and so good was very intriguing to me. So that was what inspired me to start making music, just to start some kind of chaotic element.
PHAWKER: You’ve been labeled “punk” often. Would you consider yourself “punk?”
TERI GENDER BENDER: Mhm. Yeah, I don’t know. When I was going through my teenage phase I always wanted to be punk, but I could never relate to punk crowds. When I tried to go to Mexican punk tokines (or shows) I was always alienated because I didn’t “look punk.” They were like ‘where’s your accessories, or your mohawk?’ I think honestly, punk, for me, is the spirit, the conviction behind something. Like Fela Kuti, he’s punker than most bands that you see out there today, because of the message that he carried across. Or like David Bowie, that’s to me someone that’s the true essence of punk, or Iggy Pop. Not someone that just looks like it and then just has no real philosophy behind. But honestly, I don’t want to just label myself something, because then that would be restricting myself.
Violeta Parra is a Chilean songwriter. Her music’s not considered punk at all — it’s actually folk — but the messages that she was conveying are punk as hell, because she was speaking against her government and about the economic injustice against the indigenous people.
PHAWKER: Speaking of Iggy Pop, you got to work with him on your last album. What was his process like?
TERI GENDER BENDER: Oh yes yes, he’s a pure joy to be around. He’s very open to any kind of suggestions. The process started awhile back when we started touring together, and the chemistry was great — I think it’s really important to first get along as people, before you do anything. And we ended up crossing paths in the future, and I asked him to sing him a song in Spanish, because I remember in the process of getting to know him, he really wanted to do more things in Spanish, because he lived in Mexico a long time so he speaks the language fluently. So when I sent him the song, he would tell me that he’d go on long drives in Miami and just sing along to the song, to start learning it. So when we got there — me and producer Omar Rodríguez — when we got there to get his takes, he already knew the words by heart, so he didn’t even need the lyrics sheet — because I printed out some lyrics sheets for him — he was like ‘oh no, I have the words memorized.’ And every take that he’d do, he’d make a different character, like one voice was a little higher pitched, one was spoken, and then one was very very low, very baritone. And we didn’t bring our cell phones or anything, because we didn’t wanna ruin the process by recording it, but then he said, ‘oh, why don’t we film this, let’s make a little video out of this,’ and so Omar was like ‘oh well I have my camera in my car’ — he’s a camera geek. So he went to get the camera and [Iggy] let us film the process of being able to do like another take of us singing it together, and… I’m sorry I’m ranting a lot, it’s just, the guy is so… he’s like an uncle. He was very open to just trying new things. And then after we were done with the session, he looked out the window and he sighed and he said, ‘aww, I feel bad that you guys are here in Miami in South Beach, I wanna take you to the real-deal Miami.’ So he drove us around the Haitian area, the Cuban area, the Italian, all the barrios, of where he basically spent his time at. And then he had no reason to, but then he took us to his house, I dunno, he was just very welcoming. And it’s kind of weird in the music industry where people welcome you like that. Sometimes people just want to show you an illusion of what they are and then they kick you out.
PHAWKER: Did you find that to be case with the other artists that you worked with? I know you’d worked with John Frusciante and The Melvins and others, they must have been heroes of yours growing up, did you find them to be similarly warm toward you?
TERI GENDER BENDER: Oh yeah. I’ve been lucky enough to have similar experiences with The Melvins, with John, with Shirley [Manson], with Henry Rollins — knock on wood, I don’t know about the future — but everyone so far that I’ve been able to work with has been very welcoming. And I think it just has a lot to do with taking the time to know each other first, before going on to the next phase. It’s all about I guess the essence of ‘oh you’re a good human being? Cool, awesome. Let’s get to know each a little bit more. Oh, awesome, we have the same interest in literature, or we like eating a lot of food, alright, awesome, let’s make a song.’ And it’s always been very natural. It was never something pre-fabricated, before it happened, like ‘oh this is gonna be something to sell..’ No! It just naturally happened.
PHAWKER: Did Iggy wear a shirt during the sessions?
TERI GENDER BENDER: Oh, that’s amazing! [laughs] Actually he did wear a shirt.
PHAWKER: Going back to our discussion of punk rock, I know you have strong feelings and opinions about sociopolitics and social consciousness, but it’s not a heavy theme in your music, at least overtly. Do your views influence your writing in any way, maybe ways that aren’t immediately obvious?
TERI GENDER BENDER: Yeah, just to be clear, I admire other artists that do it so directly. But me for example, I’m more of an abstract writer, and I’m glad you don’t get that direct sociopolitical [message] from it, because that’s not the intention at all. I believe in not taking the listener by their hand. Like you know in Hollywood movies — not all Hollywood movies, but big mainstream movies — where they explain everything, like ‘oh someone found the treasure!,’ and then the actual narrator says, ‘I found the treasure!’ No, I like people to interpret the lyrics as they want, and if they take it to be empowerment, oh my god that’s great! I just think there’s beauty to giving the person that listens to the music or watches the movie to be able to interpret it on their own. And that’s what I love about Fela Kuti, and Violeta Parra, because even though in a way they’re very direct, there’s still beautiful poetry to it, where you can also interpret it and apply it to anything else, like to a relationship for example. I love, for example, what influenced me, was Sylvia Plath, her poems were so abstract but at the same time it was very direct sadness, you could obviously tell there was some torture going on in her mind, so it was very attractive to a tortured artist. But I’m trying to be in a better place right now, so I’m reading more positive writers [laughs], like Ouspensky. He basically writes about how man is a machine, and you should find yourself, and look inward instead of outward. But yeah I’m trying not to go down that route or tortured minds. [laughs]
PHAWKER: Some of the spirit of punk is derived from emotional torture, or alienation…
TERI GENDER BENDER: Oh yeah definitely. I just think if you’re gonna be put through a lot of hard situations where you need to be resilient, the last thing you need is to be your own enemy. You don’t need to tell yourself that you’re shit. Or, you know, where sometimes you have those demon voices that try to put you down. If you’re okay with yourself, you can basically take on anything.
PHAWKER: As you were putting your band together in Mexico and starting to tour and play out, I’m wondering about the contrasts trying to be a rock band in the US vs. in Guadalajara, where you’re from. Americans’ understanding of Mexico is so overly informed by commercial films or overwrought media-driven phobias. What sorts of hurdles did you encounter?
TERI GENDER BENDER: What I love about Mexico is that, no matter what, Mexicans will always find a way to make things work in a very interesting way. Like, ‘oh, the internet doesn’t work? Okay well let’s see… oh, the neighbor has internet! Ok let’s put those two cables together, ok perfect…’ You know, very ingenious ways of making things work. Or one time we were playing a show in this venue in Guadalajara and the lights went out, and just so you can understand the essence of Mexico, we still played without electricity. Like ok, just a capella then, the show must go on! Like there’s so much conviction in getting things done. They’re gonna be done. Yes, or yes. A lot of bands that are really hungry, they would go to Canada, or try to go to the U.S., and they just would falsify their own papers, do anything to be able to play different places. And of course, one of my friends got caught, so they got deported back to Mexico, but they just kept trying. You can’t say no to a Mexican, they’re gonna find a way to do it, to make it happen. And that’s what I got out of it. The bad thing about the culture there is that it’s very sexist, so playing there, you have to have a thick skin. When we started playing, a lot of people would yell things like, ‘oh, I wanna rape you!,’ or ‘your tits!,’ you know, just the craziest things that could probably scare someone straight to tears if they were like from some other country. But in a way I’m thankful for that, I’m thankful for those sexist people that yell those things at me, because of them I have a thicker skin and now I’m not so easily scared and I can fight back without thinking twice. It’s a country full of contradictions, beauty, delicious food, horrific contamination, pollution — I think Mexico City’s up there as one of the most polluted cities in the world — but yet it’s still a country full of potential. And it’s also based on sacrifice. If you go back in history, the Aztecs would sacrifice their own to the gods, but in a way, even though it’s horrific, there’s some beauty to it, because they believed in something that was far greater than themselves.
PHAWKER: Going back to the culture of sexism, did you find it to be more prevalent in audiences in Mexico than in the United States, when you toured here?
TERI GENDER BENDER: I think it depends, it’s different. I mean at least in Mexico it’s kind of like, yeah this is my culture. Culturally speaking, words like “la chingada” (“raped woman”) [laughs], those words are infiltrated in our speech! So even women or kids, when something goes wrong you’re like ‘aw chingada!’ (‘the raped one!’). So it’s ingrained in the culture, being misogynist, in a way. Even women among themselves try to keep each other down because of competition, like “oh you’re gonna get my man, no bitch, I’m not gonna let you do that!” And in the States I felt like because there are so many different cultures, some people try to hide it more, people are pro-feminism, so there’s lots of different cultures here. Immigrants from Germany, from Poland, or Spain. Mexico I felt like is much more open about it, because it’s accepted. You look at the telenovelas, and you see it’s normal for a woman to have a role of being a passive/aggressive, or very tight clothing and lipstick, big lips, big booty. Quote-unquote normal women aspire to be attractive, because it’s a big part of the culture. When I was younger I wanted to go against it but, you know what, you can’t go against thousands of years of culture, it’s insane. And so, what am I gonna do? Well, I’m just gonna leave my country and just keep traveling the world and move on with my life, and take the things I like from my culture and try to not adopt some things I don’t like about it.
TERI GENDER BENDER: That’s a great question. I guess I wanted to be a little rebel. In Mexico, people kept telling me ‘no, you should write in Spanish!’ And I would write in Spanish! Except I would show them songs in English. And I was like, ‘what, you’re gonna restrict me, and tell me what language to sing in? Well I’m gonna write more in English then!’ But, when I came to the States, that’s when I found myself just writing way more in Spanish and speaking to the audience only in Spanish. It caused a lot of confusion or sometimes there’d be Latinos in the crowd and they’ll be like ‘yeah! I understand what she’s saying, and you guys don’t!’ So I guess it’s just a matter also of when I’m gonna release those Spanish songs. Actually, there’s this band that I have with John Frusciante called Kimono Kult, we released a whole EP in Spanish. Yeah I guess what I’m trying to say is that I write in both languages, but I guess English is more of a universal language, and it’s more of a tool, I guess it opened up the doors for me to be able to play shows in London, for example.
PHAWKER: Certain types of music can inspire reactions from law enforcement at shows, and I’m wondering if that’s a more pronounced issue in Mexico. Do you run into issues, do you have to pay people off?
TERI GENDER BENDER: Oh yes, sometimes it’s pretty common. But since it’s part of the culture, you bribe them. [laughs] If they come knocking on your door, you just say ‘hey here’s 500 pesos, just please don’t bother us.’ Because if you don’t, then you know, they will make your life hell, or they’ll stop coming to your neighborhood. And the other type of law enforcement, which is also known as the Narcos, take over. It’s kind of like a system within a system. Like there’s a fake system, like for example people think Peña Nieto is the president, but no, really El Chapo, [laughs] ‘cause he’s actually the one that’s been taking better care of his people than the president has. Like the day that El Chapo was put away, women were crying on the streets, they’re like, ‘what’s gonna happen now, who’s gonna be this new drug lord that’s gonna come?’ Because there’s always gonna be a drug lord, no matter how many of them get put away in jail, there’s always gonna be a new one coming. And the sad thing is that, again, contradictions. The drug people would invest some of their money into their own town, whereas the government, they keep it for themselves. But yeah it’s pretty common where law enforcement comes to a gig or something, or also pretty common — for example, there are stabbings. In Mexico City I finished playing a show and as soon as we were leaving a venue, right outside the venue, there was like a gang of people stabbing one man, but it was drug-related. It’s not that we were cowards in not wanting to help, but we had to all run, because if we get involved somehow, then we could be unlucky.
PHAWKER: I’m curious about that, you being a Mexican American artist, and having dealt with the glamour of being a rockstar in the US, and the glamour of it in Mexico, but also having grown up there and seeing the rise of El Chapo — what was your impression of Sean Penn’s interview with him, and that strange collision and confluence of Hollywood and journalism?
TERI GENDER BENDER: When I first heard of it, I laughed a lot, because I was like, wow, everyone’s looking for him and here Sean Penn easily finds him, well with the help of Kate del Castillo. And I saw the interview — and I know this sounds horrible to say — but I found it pretty endearing that El Chapo was just there chillin’ in the background, you could hear the roosters, and he’s all just very laid back, like a simple man, who’s like, ‘yeah, you know, if it’s not me then it’ll be someone else, it’s a never-ending process, you know I have to do what I gotta do and keep this going.’ So I don’t know, I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit, that out of all the people, Sean Penn was the one to be involved in this. It’s kind of like a joke, almost. I’m like what the hell is going on here, what world are we living in. And I’m telling you this — my mother’s been kidnapped. I’m not talking about this lightheartedly. My mom was a victim of being kidnapped, and luckily enough she escaped. My cousin recently got kidnapped, so all these things about El Chapo — there’s bigger crimes in Mexico. Not just the drug lords, it’s the Wild West! I don’t know how else to describe it. Everyone’s trying to fend for themselves. You can’t say no to someone, like they’re gonna find a way to get your money. It’s really surreal. And I can understand journalists getting offended, because they’re like, ‘what?! How do they take Sean Penn when there’s people that dedicated their life to the actual craft of writing a story, and photojournalism, and actually dedicating themselves to it, and here you have an actor doing it..’ Well, maybe there’s a reason why, and it might come down to something so easy as, well, El Chapo probably had a crush on Kate del Castillo and he was like ‘yeah sure, I’ll do whatever you want! Of course! Oh, Sean Penn? I don’t even know who he is. Yeah, sure I’ll talk to him.’ It’s all about just, you know, favors or connections at the end of the game.
PHAWKER: You mentioned earlier your preference for allowing people to interpret your art for themselves, but I wanted to ask if you could sort of help decipher the video for “Demon Stuck In Your Eye?”
TERI GENDER BENDER: Ohhh, okay! Well I think that one’s kind of like a psychedelic trip. In Mexican culture it’s very common to marry someone that’s really way older than you. Like my dad, he was fifteen years older than her, and that was kind of considered not too much of an age gap. Or my grandfather is twenty years older than my grandmother. Very common. So I guess in the video, I’m being kidnapped by a much older lover, which could be interpreted as my father, or who knows what. But the way I interpret is that maybe I wanna marry an older man, I don’t know! [laughs]
PHAWKER: At the end of the video, you put someone in the trunk of the car…
TERI GENDER BENDER: Yeah because it’s kind of like a kinky couple, they’re like driving around, and at first you think ‘holy crap, he kidnapped her or, he has her there against her will.’ But then throughout the video, you see me smile and then you see that it’s just all play, like a role-play, and they get off on killing the guy that’s helping dig his own grave. And so at the end, it’s kinda like a kinky thing, like he proposes to me, and I say yes… I think maybe I have father issues, I don’t know. [laughs]
PHAWKER: I wanna wrap up with your impressions of Philly — have you toured through here a lot?
TERI GENDER BENDER: Oh yeah! Yeah we played Philly like five times, and two times with a different band — I have another band called Bosnian Rainbows — oh! I love Philly. I don’t know what it is about it. The food. And I’m sure you get it all the time but the crowds there are kind of like Latinos, you know, like they say what’s on their mind [laughs] I love it!