It’s like Batman: You lose a big battle, reflect, and then get out of the Bat Cave to fight again.
Le Butcherettes’ founder, leader, guitarist, vocalist, and agitator Teri Gender Bender (Teri Suarez) has one foot in the old world of Mexico, and the other in the United States. Her nomadic life has seen her variously call Guadalajara, El Paso, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Denver home. She draws on her heritage and experiences as an outsider, as well as the Mexican culture of mystic Catholicism, narco violence, mariachi music, magic, and Aztec sacrifice, and combines it with the fury, edge, and power of 1980s L.A. punk rock. Imagine if Frieda Kahlo had chosen to strap on a guitar and put down the paintbrush, or if Sylvia Plath had written tortured lyrics and fronted a band instead of writing dark poetry and prose. Suarez was in the middle of a fury of activity as I caught up with her at her El Paso hub. She was busy rehearsing, writing, doing interviews, and taking care of her mom before embarking on the #ARAWYOUTHTOUR.
Where are you today?
I’m in El Paso with my mom and just trying to spend time with her in between rehearsing and packing for the tour. It’s crazy but exciting.
How safe is Guadalajara, your home base?
If you’re a woman, it’s dangerous. If you do go out, it’s always best to be accompanied by a man. My mother was kidnapped there before.
I’ve had a couple of scares. One time, I had a couple of guys following behind me. I started to run, and they started running after me. Luckily, I saw a security guard and yelled for him. They saw him and the cowards took off. There’s a lot of petty crime, and I don’t even want to get started on that. Watch your tongue, or lose your tongue.
How does being part of two worlds and two separate cultures inform your music and writing on A Raw Youth?
That’s definitely a huge part of my music and writing. Mexico is full of inspiration, but it also has so many contradictions. Even [Salvador] Dali said Mexico was more surreal than his paintings. I remember one time when I saw a giant toothbrush in the middle of the highway [in Guadalajara]. I guess it must have fallen off a truck, but no one really knew how it got there.
Corruption and betrayal seem to be culturally ingrained in Mexico. It’s like the Aztecs betraying their leaders to the Spaniards in their quest for gold. If you think about it, human sacrifices or dying to serve your gods, it’s kind of noble. I guess it’s easier to understand if you can put your head in those times.
At the same time, Mexicans are the most giving people. The bourgeois people don’t even want to give you a glass of water, whereas the poor will give you everything. Why are we the way we are? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
What is the music scene like in Mexico?
In the slums, there are great punk rock clubs. They create their own scene, bring in their own power generators, and do DIY concerts. The fashion plazas are full of fake punks. The TV people are ripping off the look and fashion of the real punks from the street. In Mexico City, if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll definitely find it.
Zoes is the biggest and most popular alternative band in Mexico and they play big festivals. You don’t usually see punk bands in Mexico. There’s so much national and upcoming talent, and yet even bands that have been around for many years don’t get the attention they deserve. They’re [Zoes] singing in Spanish against the government, so they don’t get any airplay. The government owns the stations and bans that kind of music.
You seem to be a fan of Sylvia Plath and other serious writers and artists. Does that inform your writing and music?
I do love Sylvia Plath, Dostoyevsky, and Russian old tales. I love myths and stories that have been passed down. I’m a sucker for people that can move me, and that’s usually tortured artists and dark subject matter.
Now, I’m trying to become happier and focus on the light. I admire Carl Jung. I love the fact that he was a rebel and he dared to question his mentor, Freud. You have to stay quiet and observe your mentor, and then you can start your own thing when you’re ready.
Are you the same person offstage as you are onstage?
I’m always the same, but the stage lets me vent in a more acceptable way. It’s always a great battle and really psychological to go out on stage, especially if it’s in front of an audience that doesn’t know you. I’m feeding off their energy, and it’s a very heavy and social thing.
I’m trying to communicate better in all my interactions. I wonder if feeling sad is in the genes or if it’s brain chemistry that makes me feel things in a heavy manner. I believe you need both things in the world, the good and the bad.
Do you feel part of both American and Mexican culture?
Yes, my parents worked hard to make sure I had a great background and upbringing. I also grew up in Denver, but I hated it. I came to one point and I lied to my friends and said my dad’s name was Mark; his real name was Roberto. [Laughs] I was so embarrassed by being different or an outsider. You can’t let yourself succumb to those feelings too much, or it’s unhealthy. When my dad died, that’s when it all hit me and I realized how good we had it. I went back to Mexico and started all over again. We all go through phases in life where we hate everything and everyone, but it’s like Batman: You lose a big battle, reflect, and then get out of the Bat Cave to fight again.
What Le Butcherettes show or shows stand out and why?
Any shows that we’ve played in Mexico or South America. The crowds there always go crazy. That can be good or bad. I’ve seen some poor openers, especially for big punk bands, get hit with feces.
It can also be the other extreme where everyone strikes his or her lighter and just rocks out. In Croatia, I’ve even seen pregnant women in the crowd, smoking and rocking out with their big pregnant bellies.
You’ve collaborated with some pretty big names, including Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, John Frusciante, and Shirley Manson. How did all of that come about?
It really is a small world and it’s filled with odd connections. When I was young, I listened to Henry Rollins, especially his spoken word. I admire him because he’s not just a singer; he’s also a writer, a poet, a journalist, an actor, and so much more. Henry became aware of us and started to write about us in LA Weekly. I found his email on the Internet and wrote him a thank you. He responded, and we’ve been corresponding since. He’s always out on tour, so we haven’t seen him yet. I want to find out that he’s not just a hologram. [Laughs]
I met and got to work with Shirley Manson [Garbage] because Caesar, who was in my band, helped Mars Volta and Garbage break big in Mexico. His wife interviewed Garbage and encouraged them to give my music a listen. Butch [Vig] and Shirley kept in touch, and Shirley listened to some of my songs. She’s also a big fan of At the Drive-In, so that helped. She ended up doing some vocals on my song, and that was just incredible.
What was it like working with John Frusciante?
He’s very easy to work with. We just chilled and watched Louis CK. He does everything: [plays] guitar, writes, sings, programs, et cetera. He’s a homebody, but he writes about the outer world all the time. He’s a very inspiring man. He does it all; he’s unstoppable and always busy creating music. I admire him so much. He makes electronic music the way I think it should be made.
What was Iggy Pop like?
Iggy’s a total sweetheart. His management and people are very friendly and supportive. When we toured with Iggy, he was always so nice, and we’d have these great conversations in Spanish after the shows. He lived in Mexico for a couple of years and he speaks Spanish really well.
Iggy is so supportive. He shows up on time, works hard, and has great ideas. We went to Miami to work with him and he drove us around and showed us the Haitian and Cuban culture that not everyone sees. He’s such a humble human being and so well known. He makes me wonder why some other musicians have attitudes.
Did you start playing music when you lived in Denver or when you moved to Guadalajara?
Since I was 11. My dad died when I was 13 and we moved back to Guadalajara when I was 17. I got the idea that I would just play house parties and it seemed like fun and an outlet for my feelings.
Do you still wear bloodstained clothes and butcher’s smocks, pig’s heads?
No, not anymore. That was a phase I went through; I felt that it was time to change. I used to listen to the Beatles all the time for months on end, too. I sometimes get obsessed with certain things, but then I move on and keep exploring. I need to change up the aesthetics. I wasn’t even really doing gore things all the time, but I was using mannequin heads and pig heads. I got them from butchers that were throwing them out; I wasn’t killing the pig myself. The metaphor was for sexist pigs. That was when I was 17, and I started with the broom and pigs head as onstage props to express myself. It was representing the violence, missing kids, and the way women are treated.
What are you listening to these days?
Vanessa Samora. Apollo from Mexico City is amazing. There is a great electronic duo called Soto Mayor. They’re a brother and sister duo, and they are using machinery to sound better. I love L.A. Witch, and there are so many wonderful bands and musicians. And, of course, I listen to the Melvins, the Distillers, and Garbage all the time. I still love the Dead Kennedys. Jello [Biafra] has become a friend of mine. I would have never expected that, and he even comes to our shows in San Francisco. He was a game changer and inspired me to be bold and put powerful thinks into my music. I like Kendrick Lamar. I love Kembra from New Zealand.
What is Mexico really like?
There are days when everything is good and safe, then the next day it’s not. People have family members that are kidnapped, and the police may be connected to some of those. If you’re a thinker, a journalist, or really outspoken, you have to watch your back. We had to leave. I felt guilty that I didn’t stand my ground, but it’s hard to blossom globally when your country keeps you down. People are trying to open art galleries and put on festivals and concerts, so there’s still hope. The good are fighting for the future of the country.
Where is home?
Guadalajara and El Paso: two homes. L.A. is a stopping ground when we go on tour. The work comes from L.A., New York, and Mexico City. There’s really no reason to really live [in Los Angeles] any more. El Paso is more of my home, and you can see Mexico from there, too. They’re my people. I like speaking Spanish sometimes and it’s so much easier.
Did you study philosophy in college?
Yes, but I didn’t finish because I always wanted to play music instead. I made it through three years, but there were so many commitments, deadlines, pressures, and assignments that I had to make a choice. I was the only woman in those classes, and many of the other students were studying to become Jesuits.
Have you played Denver lately? Do people remember you?
I still have two friends from primary school [whom] I hadn’t seen in years until we played our first show there. We were so bleary-eyed and crying the whole time. It’s also the city were we sold the most merchandise, so that was great. We were with the Melvins on that tour, and now we’re going back to Denver with At the Drive-In.
Are you still with or collaborating with Bosnian Rainbows?
We’re going to do something in the future, but we’re all working on so many other things. People are working on films, recording, and touring with other artists. We have a record already recorded and it’s all in Spanish. We all wanted a different challenge from other bands we were in. We got good microphones and better gear; Omar was playing guitar and our drummer was playing keys.
What about At the Drive-In?
I met them because of friendship and work with Mars Volta. It’s a great friendship, and all those guys are so supportive. Jim [Ward] actually helps a lot of people in the El Paso local scene.
What is Le Butcherettes’ current lineup?
Chris Common is on drums. He also engineered the last two records, so he really knows our essence and sound. Ricardo Rodriguez is on bass and keyboards, and I’m playing guitar and some keyboards. I play a really crappy Casio keyboard. I can throw it into the crowd, and it’s no big deal. Ricardo can’t throw his nice [Moog] synthesizer into the crowd. [Laughs]
Who would you like to collaborate or play with?
Peter Gabriel would be one. Before I go to bed, I think of all kinds of people. Obviously, I wish I had worked with David Bowie.
Are you more comfortable writing and singing in Spanish?
There’s an EP for a project called Kimono Cult, and that’s all in Spanish. There’s more Spanish material that I’ll eventually release.
Is Catholicism part of your life and art?
Yes, Catholicism is part of my world. I grew up fearing the devil and hell. I sometimes think that I should pray more. [Laughs] I didn’t get baptized until I was 12, so I was considered kind of an outsider by some of our neighbors. I think there is beauty in every religion, but the ways that it’s been interpreted leads to problems and hinders progress. From an artist’s standpoint, it’s beautiful. I wish I could come up with all the characters and big principles of the Bible.
What do you think of the climate in the United States and Mexico?
We’re getting the leaders we deserve. There are Hispanics who would actually support Trump. I know liberals that say they’re going to vote for Trump to just see what happens. Trump doesn’t have a filter, but that’s not necessarily good. There is racism, and it’s ingrained in the culture. There’s some little truth to what he [Trump] says sometimes, but it’s all about perspective at the end of the day.
It’s very common for some people in Mexico to think of themselves as better Mexicans: “I’m a lighter shade than you.” There are class standards and a pecking order. Lots of people think like Cruz, and it’s terrifying. I try to live in a bubble just to maintain my mental health. I get so mad that my hair falls out. [Laughs] That does no good, so I just focus on my music.
How did you learn guitar?
Just from being hungry to play. I started out having dreams of playing guitar; in my dreams, the strings would melt before I could touch them. I just really wanted to play an instrument. I finally saved my lunch money, and my dad chipped in the rest to help me buy my first guitar. My first guitar had only four strings and I tuned it in a completely different way. Some people were saying that I wasn’t a real musician, and maybe they had a point, but I made it work for me. Now I learn guitar from watching Omar ([Rodriguez-Lopez] and John [Frusciante]. An organic way, and I absorb it by watching and seeing it in flesh. That’s how I learn: It’s life school. Someday I would love to go to school for music and really learn.
What concert or band made you say I want to play music?
It had a lot to do with my frustrations. My dad worked all the time [at a correctional facility]; my mom stayed at home and took care of us. I found out recently that my dad had actually been a drummer when he was young. Maybe that’s why I can’t keep a drummer in my band because I have father issues. [Laughs] The Beatles were definitely a reason to play music, and also the Spice Girls. Remember girl power? [Laughs] | Doug Tull
Le Butcherettes kick off their tour in St. Louis on March 2 with an all-ages show at the Firebird.
Le Butcherettes 2016 Spring U.S. Tour
03.02 | Firebird, St. Louis
03.03 | Subterranean, Chicago
03.04 | Ace of Cups, Columbus OH
03.05 | Velvet Underground, Toronto
03.07 | Studio at Webster Hall, New York
03.09 | Rough Trade, Brooklyn
03.10 | Cafe Nine, New Haven
03.11 | Underground Arts – Black Box, Philadelphia
03.13 | DC9 Nightclub, Washington DC
03.15 | The Masquerade – Hell Stage, Atlanta
03.16 | The Stone Fox – The End, Nashville
03.18 | Spillover Fest, Dallas