Interview | Teri Gender Bender

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Le Butcherettes’ Teri Gender Bender talks to TGA about the incident that changed the course of her career, and how the best way to fight the feminist cause is by loving what she does 

Guadalajara, 2009: something is happening tonight. The lights are out, the crowd is murmuring and the Mexican city’s slickest underground rock music venue, F.Bolko, is packed to the rafters. Giant framed art pieces featuring S&M gimp suits adorn the walls, and tonight the stage is complete with mesh fence and severed pig’s head. These aren’t arbitrary additions – they’re representative of the way women are seen as pieces of meat.

The woman on stage is American-born Mexican singer and musician Teresa Suárez aka Teri Gender Bender. She has spent much of the last year building a fan base the way all bands do – by playing gigs constantly. So far, the strategy has been working.

Her band, Le Butcherettes, are local, and they’ve become known for their venomous live performances, in which Teri Gender Bender takes to the stage covered in blood. It’s usually fake, although tonight it’s real (more on that in a minute), and the band are gearing up to spit forth their signature punk-rock walls of feedback, which provide the backdrop to songs about sexism, racial injustice and poverty.

But a power cut disrupts proceedings and the band can’t play. Teri stands on stage regardless, stock-still in darkness, looking wild-eyed at the audience. She gestures that she’s ready. Leaning over as if she might vomit, she screws her eyes tight and starts pushing words from her body – it’s visceral and the audience watches, awestruck. Sweat drips as she starts to shout. She smears pig blood on her face and climbs the mesh fence structure. She’s roaring now. The atmosphere’s tense. The fence gives way; she looks set to crack her head but quickly finds her footing as the audience gasps. Buoyed by renewed clamour, Teri Gender Bender is back in motion, in an instant. After the improvised set ends, she shifts unsteadily and turns away from the audience, wondering, perhaps, if she has revealed too much of herself.

Those up front cheer and yell. She’s been playing gigs at F.Bolko for months and in that time, feminism has become her life. While tonight’s set may have been an impromptu, half-formed thing, it catches the attention of one audience member in particular – Omar Rodríguez-López. The At the Drive-In and Mars Volta experimentalist seeks her out and tells her he’s interested in producing an album with the band. The rest is history.

Fast forward to 2016, and the one and only Teri Gender Bender is sitting chatting to TGA about that moment. To her, the incident seems funny, because Rodríguez-López didn’t actually hear any of her music. “Just grunts and vocal hymns and prattling wire fence,” she says.

But it was a meeting that would shape Teri’s future. Omar would later go on to sign Le Butcherettes to his label, Nadie, and tonight, seven years after that historic performance, Teri is about to play a gig with him again. She is opening for At The Drive In and then heading out on tour for the rest of the year.

“He has been such a consistent supporter of my band and as a friend he has nurtured me,” she says, ahead of their London Roundhouse gig. But despite being “very excited” to get out on the road with her old friend, today Teri is having a reflective moment. This is precipitated by both Women’s History Month and a recent feature by writer Tatiana Tanreyro, in which Le Butcherettes were name checked in a discussion about the importance of feminist Latino rock bands.

“Tatiana Tanreyro is a great writer and I am so lucky to have come across her,” she enthuses. “It’s because of interest and support from people like her that art can be nurtured. In knowing your history better you become more aware of your roots. It’s a historical fact that women along the long lines of our race have been the most subjected and mistreated.”

The face of this struggle comes in the form of structural and everyday discrimination and violence. Latin American women have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world and are at higher risk of unsafe abortions. Around the time that Le Butcherettes formed, Mexico City had to introduce women-only buses as street harassment had become such a big issue. Worse still, more than half of gender-motivated killings of women stem from Latin America, particularly in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The statistics are chilling. And while culture-specific ideologies are not easy to change, Teri believes it is possible to implement simple steps to tackle the problem, such as increasing awareness and generally taking affirmative action in support of women.

She says, “Some can debate that [these attitudes to women] are culturally ingrained and to change that will take a lot of time. But that starts with awareness. Even if at the moment it is viewed as a radical idea.”

A similar problem is inherent in music. But while the conventional box that the industry seems to refuse to look beyond may have stifled individualism and women in mainstream Latino music, creativity has always prevailed on the outskirts. Teri and Le Butcherettes, along with other bands like Las Ultrasónicas, contribute to the movement of women working to ensure the respect of women, and they have connected with fans worldwide; even when the front line could be a punishing, thankless place.

“In many places, it is still very rare to see women involved in the music industry let alone in the tour managing or artist realm,” says Teri. “It’s definitely something I have noticed while travelling. In some places, the mental oppression of gender roles in the music world is stronger than in other regions.”

Throughout many cultures, music has historically been infused with masculinity at the expense of femininity, and – despite being 2016 – there are certain places where this is still the case. But through her experience of touring non-stop over the years, Teri has come to realise that the best way for somebody like her to counteract this is to keep on gigging and recording, and to love what she does.

“I was raised to expect the worst,” she says. “So I’m always ready for the heat and the controversy. You can never make everyone happy: that’s what makes everything so exciting. You never know what you are going to get. I’m so lucky there are haters and lovers. The face-to-face feeding: being on stage and being able to connect with strangers gets better with time.”

It’s been almost nine years since Le Butcherettes formed with ambitions to confront the world’s wrongs by enumerating them over deafening funnels of rock spread across three albums and two EPs.  Even so, it was last year’s split 7” with Melvins that was one of the most accomplished affairs.

“Buzz mentioned they were making a split vinyl and wanted to know if I would send two songs,” explains Teri. “I was completely thrilled. I am very proud of Chaos As Usual and it is very special for us to be a grain of sand in the Melvins world.”

Elsewhere, Gender Bender has been the head of steam for supergroup Bosnian Rainbows. Featuring Omar Rodríguez-López, Deantoni Parks (The Mars Volta) and Nicci Kasper (KUDU, Dark Angels), the creative overspill and sheer determination of each member resulted in some of the mellowest experimentalist jangles in her extensive discography. One listen to their self-titled 2012 album reveals that Teri and Omar are able to turn their hands to any musical form, from synth-led art rock crossovers to Siouxie-and-the-Banshees vocals and Can-like textures, and wield the persuasive power of success. With a second album in the pipeline and with producers Johann Scheerer (Faust, Gallon Drunk) and Rafael Arcaute (Distinto) on board, the project is set to continue yielding listenable results.

“The reason we all came to the decision of embarking on a different path was to be able to experiment with different musical textures and to explore the collaborative spirit with three other entities,” says Teri of the band’s formation. “Bosnian Rainbows definitely helped me grow as an artist.”

While Le Butcherettes and Bosnian Rainbows both have more albums in the pipeline, Teri is keen to keep re-emerging as something new, living the life of a songwriter, performer and female polemicist. Until everyone benefits from the talents of women and a diversity of ideas and musical parity, her work will continue. Everything she has done to date points to the importance of getting women and men to understand equality and in the process create some truly unique and inspiring music. While her power comes from her lyrics and words, Teri has surrounded herself with likeminded people that she can turn to and look to for inspiration.

“I am surrounded by people who are in constant motion, living within the craft,” she explains. “I tend to be harsher on myself now, whereas when I was 17 I couldn’t give a fuck about tuning my guitar. Which was something I was proud of at the time, but not now!” she laughs.

There is an ever-present strength that emanates from Teri, but somehow you feel she’s stronger when she deals with people and cultures that understand her mindset. While many people think long-term collaborations are unsustainable, Teri draws strength in the collaborative mentality. Where certain cultures stigmatise Latin America, she sees them as a space for challenging attitudes. While men continue to dominate stages across the world, Teri becomes more visible and refuses to leak out of the proverbial pipeline. In all this she never loses sight of who she is and remains humble.

“I can’t wait to tour again in Tokyo and Osaka because it is a whole otherworldly world over there,” she says. “I can really relate to their social customs of being self-aware and courteous – and, most important of all, respectful. Walking around the streets in Japan is a good reminder that we are all just going to be alive for a moment but that death is also beautiful; welcomed, much like in Mexican culture.”

While there is still a long way to go in Latino countries where demand-side factors impose on women externally, often due to stereotyping, there are also countless voices that are driving change and addressing gender imbalance. Most importantly, on 8 March 2015, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet symbolically signed into law the creation of the Women’s and Gender Equality Ministry. Institutionalising this and making it a public service means advancing issues of gender, sexual identity and civil rights is not something that can go ignored.

While musicians such as Teri have a continuing and crucial role to play out on the battlegrounds for change, for her, music does more than simply channel her frustrations and feelings. It gives her life a higher purpose.

“I am hard-headed enough to believe that everything that has happened to on my journey has happened because it was meant to happen. I go through bouts of guilt, cursing myself for having been so quiet, for not having stood up for myself enough. Of course. But only because what is important for me is justice getting served,” she considers. “For me, music helps me feel like justice is getting served and it connects me with God.”

Amen to that.

Faye Lewis

Follow our New Music Editor Faye on Twitter – @fayelewis85

Le Butcherettes are currently on tour in the US and you can catch them live across Europe this autumn.

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