It’s safe to assume there are myriad performers in the world that are products of a neighborhood where feeling safe was never an option. For most of them, though, music (or any form of art) was seen by the community as a gift. However, in the case of Teri Gender Bender (real name Teresa Suaréz), who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, the notion of a female speaking her mind through music were not met with much praise and acceptance.
Admittedly shy and timid when not on stage, Teri has been recording with her avant-garde garage punk outfit Le Butcherettes under the Sargent House/RLP umbrella, garnering praise from all directions — something that, at one time, may have seemed unattainable.
Noted by many as a must-see act, Teri is looking at all the avenues that are opening up for her while keeping herself grounded in the reality her rising fame is creating. Calling from a sunny day in Los Angeles, Teri spoke with us to reflect on how all her new options for the future are affecting her art and her world as a whole.
I was thinking about the last time I saw you perform live; it was back at the Highline Ballroom, opening for the ORLG band. I find it amazing how much power you create from such a minimalist setup. Is that something you specifically strive for?
It’s funny that you mention that. For the few people that we have [onstage], we try to push it as much as we can, and it has always been like that since the old days when I was 17 in Mexico. All I could have at my grasp was a guitar and a bass drum, and I guess the fact that I didn’t have much with me made me push myself even further.
A constant struggle onstage is how to keep the energy flowing, beause it’s always so easy when you have a bunch of musicians — and I have nothing against that at all, but I just like that constant struggle of seeing what I can get out of it. That’s how it is in real life. Offstage, all of us human beings go through that — a constant struggle of living. The simple fact is that when a baby is born, it has a struggle of trying to survive. Having the weak bones and trying to stick to the mother…and I’m going out of context now, but that’s my metaphor.
No, I think that’s great. But there is something I always notice, and I’m not just referring to power as something, like, turning it up to 11. I don’t want to turn this into a gender-specific issue, but a lot of times, you can put a man up on stage with nothing but a guitar, and it will be a good performance, but nothing really happens. Then I look at you — or even someone like Ani Difranco — and there is a lot of movement and power. Do you feel there is something along those lines that you are trying to portray?
All I know is I’m just trying to portray, the act of doing. It took me all of my life to figure this out. In Guadalajara when I played, people would just go there, because they would be like, “Oh, this is different, there’s a female in a third world country, singing about woman’s rights.” And I put myself in that position because I was passionate, and at the same time, naïve. I didn’t know what I had coming my way; I had a lot of people send death threats to my house in Guadalajara saying, “Oh how can you be doing this? If you keep speaking out or playing music, we’re gonna kill your family.”
Now being here, moving to LA, at least temporarily, people don’t see me for my sex, they just see me as a performer. It’s weird because in some countries they see me as a woman playing music and in other places they see me as a performer, but I just see myself as a person that’s just, in the act of doing, or letting it out, and I think it’s a privilege. It’s the greatest job in the world, to be able to express your mind.
Now that you are in this position, has it started to change how you write?
I don’t want to stick to a certain sound forever. Sin Sin Sin — those songs I wrote when I was 17. After years of being in Mexico, no label wanted to take us up. They thought it was risky and it wouldn’t sell. Finally, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez said, “I’ll produce them.” So those songs to me were the sound of my time when I was a teenager.
Now, for the second album, the sound will be different because I don’t want to take the easy route. It would be like being in a relationship with no spice. It might be cool and amazing, but if you don’t use your tool, then you’re gonna be stuck. Maybe the outcome will be cool, but the ideal thing is to look for a different process — because if you are always stuck in the same process, it’s just going to become boring. I’m open to anything, maybe just an a cappella album, or, even if it’s been done to death before, just experiment with my basic tools: guitar, drums, and keys.
Yes, it feels like too many people are afraid to move away from the sound that made them popular.
I’m not afraid to break out. I’ve been around a lot of people who are saying, “Muy bueno, but who cares. You’re a name-dropper for mentioning Rousseau and Henry Miller.” I can’t lie, that’s what I was into at the time when I was writing those songs.
On the second album, there won’t be any of what people call “name-dropping.” When I started traveling, I didn’t have much time to read anymore or to go to school. You know when you move around a lot, whatever surrounds you highly influences you, so now I’ve been going to Australia and different parts of the States; I even went to Asia. I’ve been speaking to a lot of people who have been around some, and that changes one, whether you want it to or not.
Speaking of gathering experiences from other people, you are now with Sargent House. Does that support system weigh heavily in your work?
I know that they have my back because it is a family. I know, no matter what road I choose to take, it is okay. For example Cathy [Pellow], she’s like my mama bear. She’s gonna be like, “Teri, you can do whatever the hell you want — it’s your band, it’s your music.” I tell the same thing to Zach Hill and I tell the same thing to Nick from Tera Melos, “You know, you guys are free to do what ever you want, ’cause we’re a family and life is supposed to mean change, you know we all go through changes.”
It feels so freakin’ awesome to be understood; I’ve been looking for that. And if you’re around people that try to at least understand you, you’re feeding your soul with positive energy. I remember when I was younger, I was around a lot of people, good and negative, and I remember the negative would always disrespect me in a way that my confidence would be shattered. That’s the key: surround yourself with people that care about you.
With all that said, though, you do technically have an alter ego. How does that play into your search?
Teri Gender Bender…it’s weird talking about myself in third-person. It’s kind of my nervous energy, it’s a defense mechanism. It’s like when I’m up there, it’s a way of kind of protecting my music. I’m singing my heart out, and this is what I feel at the moment, and it in no way interferes with my life offstage or making music.
Teri Gender Bender is me, it’s just me being really freaking nervous and transforming that energy into an animal. But offstage, I’m really shy and nervous. I say uncomfortable things to people and sometimes people take advantage of that, because I’m too much of a nice person. But since I’m finding out these things about myself, I’m finally learning how to say “no,” and that’s affected my music writing. Now I know exactly what else I want to write about. It’s strange, all these dimensions of writing and composing and being up there on stage. You are up there presenting yourself to the audience, and people get that idea of you, but it’s not even close to who you really are.
Earlier you mentioned you are in the process of writing your new album — at what stage is it at?
Well, I haven’t said this before, but I chose the new album name, I’ll give it to you. Cry Is for the Flies, that’s the name of the album. We [have] selected more than 60 songs of what could potentially be Le Butcherettes songs, because I write a lot a songs. We picked out 60 potential songs, and from those 60, we picked out 30, and we sent those tracks to Lia Braswell, our new drummer. Right now, she’s just going over them and she’s feeling them out. In a week we are going to start recording them and then after that, it will just come out — but you know how long that takes.
So I imagine some new stuff will be premiered at Coachella?
That’s the plan. Yeah, a lot of rehearsing awaits us. That means a lot of forgetting to eat sometimes, [due to] the nervousness of all the work that’s ahead of us. It’s not even work, you know — I’m acting as if it were a bad thing. No, it’s a great thing; it’s what we do, and we’re privileged people.