Bend the Gender
She walked into the Lollapalooza media compound on a warm August third. Tall and slender, one could only assume that this woman was a performer; someone meant to be on stage. Her hair was long and brown and her skin paler than a lot of the sun-kissed people under the white canvas tents. She had black heels on that hurt; she had the bloody bandages to prove it. Her lips were colored a classic rosy red; her eyes were wide and lined in classic black. Her beige-colored knee length dress complimented her figure.
Teri Gender Bender smiled as she finally got to sit down at the table. With her bottle of water, she kept telling her assistant or public relations representative, or whatever he really was, to find her sun screen to protect her from the Chicago sun. For those of you who live in Chicago during the summer, you know it’s brutal and just plain mean sometimes.
Teri is the lead singer of Le Butcherettes, now a trio originally formed as a duo in Guadalajara, Mexico only a few years ago. Teri, of Mexican descent, moved to Mexico with her mother and brother at 14 when her father died. Born in Denver, Teri’s adolescent life revealed similar experiences to many Latinos in the United States. She explains that not many people around her spoke Spanish, even though she did at home because of her Mexican parents. She was different; strange.
“’We can’t speak a language they can’t understand.’ That’s how I was raised at school,” she said, “learning to be ashamed of myself.”
About half of all Latinos are bilingual, thanks to parents who keep the language alive at home, accounting for the 63 percent of Latinos who were born State side. For Teri, whose parents were both immigrants to the United States, speaking Spanish at home was necessary.
Taking the dramatic experience of losing her father and adding the fact that their mother decided to move them to Guadalajara to be closer to family, Teri found herself in a teenage state of attempting to define who she was. Mexico was no different from Denver, in a sense that she didn’t feel like she belonged very much there either. In fact, she was the gringa, the girl who had a weird accent born State side.
“It was a rude awakening. The poverty everywhere, the rich a block away; just the two extremes,” she explained. “There was a lot of alienation there. People saw me as the gringa. ‘What are you doing here? Go back to the States.’ Or why is your Spanish poor?”
Then began her musical exploration, which, she explained thoroughly, she had done as a mode of rebellion. So, firstly, no, the music was not in Spanish. It was sung in English and still is. Secondly, she used her intelligence and philosophical insight to express what she was feeling through her music, focusing on her womanhood but not taking a feminist movement approach. Thirdly, the fact that her music was rough and (what the US would call) garage-band like and punkish called attention to her a little more. At the beginning, it was Teri on guitar and vocals with a female drummer. That was it. The dark underground emo movement that has been alive and well in Mexico was of no interest to Le Butcherettes. In fact, she rebelled against that, too.
“There’s a theme going on; an emo theme that I never related to so that made me want to rebel against it,” she explained moving her hands about. “Some people took it the wrong way because, ‘Oh, how could I not relate to the emo theme?’ That’s how people get started, some people join music just to be like everyone else and then there are artists that join music to do something different. I want to keep changing.”
Teri noticed that her gender said a lot about her without even opening her mouth. The Mexican culture, one that caters more to men than women, was not welcoming to her ways and she felt it. At a young age she decided that whether you were a man or a woman would not be a deciding factor in her judgment of a person. She plays the role of a stereotypical woman because that’s what she was taught to do; but on stage, it all changed for her. Performing with the head of a pig (to represent male chauvinism and drug lords in Mexico) she declared the idea of individuality, independence and a rebellion against the societal standards.
“I consider myself a self-proclaimed feminist but not in the same way that other people would think of a feminist. I’m not a man-hater. To me, being a feminist is living your own life for yourself, be it a man or a woman or whatever you are…” she explained.
With the voice of a strong woman, she’s been compared to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and has played with them as well as Iggy and the Stooges. From Mexico to Barcelona, Teri, who gave herself the name Gender Bender (formerly Suarez), has displayed a rambunctious and un-ladylike attitude while strumming her guitar with her additional band mates, now both male.
“I realized that ‘Gender Bender’ for me meant that I’m not going to care whether you’re a man or a woman because it’s stupid to think of or keep labeling people by sexes,” she said.
It was a show in Guadalajara where Le Butcherettes were first seen by a strong individual in the mainstream music industry. Teri knew that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez was in the audience and she tried not to freak out. Beginning the show with the lights off, Teri kept telling herself and her drummer to play the show like they would any other night.
“[Before the show] I was like, ‘Don’t stress, he’s here’ and there was something in my gut that was telling me, ‘This guy is special,’” she remembered. “And I wasn’t just thinking about my band, but this guy had the ability to be a good friend. He had a different view on things that many people in that crowd were reserved and small-thinking.”
Rodriguez-Lopez expanded her knowledge and idea of music, if nothing else. She knew that she would learn a lot from working with him and although she hadn’t heard his music, she’d heard of his band The Mars Volta.
“His philosophy is essence is more than music. He gave me examples like Siouxsie and the Banshees,” said Teri. “Like the drums are very minimal but Siouxsie’s voice just overcame it all. He believed in [our music] and not a lot of people did.”
After they went to lunch the day after the show, Rodriguez-Lopez ultimately decided to produce Le Butcherettes’ album, Sin, Sin, Sin, where he played the bass on all 13 tracks.
The performance at Lollapalooza hailed praise from audience members who screamed, “Te queremos!” We love you! In between each song, Teri spoke to the crowd in Spanish, explaining that making music in Spanish is something that she’s now exploring to expand on the audience and those who listen to her music. If anything, Teri has learned to accept and embrace her differences.
“Now I’m so proud of myself. Living in Mexico has made me really proud to be a Mexican, actually challenging myself as an artist,” she said.
In the hot sun, Teri screamed into the microphone, did somersaults, threw her black heels she so painfully wore into the crowd and body surfed, being as rowdy, yet as classically talented as any female performer. She strummed hard, yet never missed a note.
The future of Le Butcherettes is bright and ever changing. Music, for Teri, is about self-expression and the ability to communicate a message to her audience. In the future, Teri is willing to explore the different mediums of making music, whether it’s her on her own or bringing in a 10-piece band.
“It might just be me playing a bass drum and singing with my two guys doing yoga in the background,” she said. “You never know.”