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Forging Silver Bullets: Teri Gender Bender on Art, Life, and Survival

A look back on a decade of Le Butcherettes

/ May 15, 2017

Photo by Cesar Rojas

When I call Teresa Suárez on Good Friday, the musician better known as Teri Gender Bender and the leader of Le Butcherettes is in Mexico City. In between tour dates as a headliner and a support act (for legends and friends At The Drive-In), Suárez and her band are hard at work on pre-production for Le Butcherettes’ next album. The record’s still in its early days, she tells me: the band and their producer have been whittling down a hundred demos to sixty, and rehearsing the songs in fragments. So far the band is exploring more electronics and synths, the music loosely influenced by Fela Kuti and David Byrne.

This will be the fourth full-length album from Le Butcherettes, the ship Suárez has steered since 2007. A listen through Le Butcherettes’ discography, from the spiky punk of 2011’s Sin Sin Sin to the ambitious rock territory of 2015’s A Raw Youth, shows the project has undeniably grown in sound and scope. But Suárez has also lost none of her urgency and acute understanding of death and violence, especially as meted out upon the bodies of women. She and her team are now back in Mexico, where Le Butcherettes first came up, working on the next thing and getting around town by motorcycle. “It’s pretty crazy. You have to go on a mindset that everyone’s gonna kill you,” Suárez said. “You have to be on the defense. It’s amazing though. You feel so free, and the scenery, and different colors… It’s been raining a lot, so it smells like earth.”

Suárez was talking about transportation, but when she spoke of a vibrant combination of threat and thrill, she also supplied an oddly precise description of her approach to life and music. We talked about her early artistic decisions in Le Butcherettes, how she’s changed as a musician over the past decade, and the importance of bearing witness to the horrors of our current age.

KAREN GWEE: It’s been 10 years since you founded this band and now you’re preparing for a new album. How has the journey has been? What do you remember most about your initial motivations to create Le Butcherettes?

TERESA SUÁREZ: I think it’s being able to take pleasure in the constant obstacles that are put in front of you. Starting in 2007, I wouldn’t even see them as obstacles. I thought that was just the way things were. And what kind of obstacles am I talking about? I’m talking about being constantly underestimated, and getting used to that feeling that you’re worthless. But somewhere in there while you’re playing the music, you get lost in that hypnotic state where you know it’s going to be ok. Because music, or whatever art form, will reunite you with people, even people you’ve never even met before. And so just thinking of the constant struggle of just trying to play everywhere – people sometimes closed their doors in our faces, but I’d take that energy, that negative energy that was being thrown at me, and make it into a bullet, a silver bullet that I’d use as a defense mechanism.

The overwhelming struggle – you have to make it into something beautiful, something positive, and I know it’s easy to say, but it’s all about that state of mind. You make it what it is. For example, constant lineup changes. In a way that’s what this project has turned into: ever-changing lineups. But it means that it’s growing and constantly changing. Even though I’m writing the songs, people that are playing in the band have all added their own body to it. I’m lucky enough to say it’s been like school, as well. That’s what this 10-year journey has taught me a lot. It’s been like school, my passport, my opportunity to go to different countries and learn about different cultures. And that’s what I love about it.

Right now, being back in Mexico, being back where my roots are, I’m noticing a lot of things I wouldn’t have noticed before when I started off here, that I took for granted. The people are so hospitable. A friend of ours invited us to his family get-together. All his family, they’d never met us before but they’re very welcoming: giving us food, telling us the stories of their grandparents, what it was like back in the day. I guess it’s very moving.

You said you’re noticing things that you missed out back in the day. Have you become more open to your environment? What has changed over that ten years, do you think?

I just learnt to be more observant and talk less (laughs). It might not seem the case right now because look at me, I’m all chattery. But it’s the same way with music. Before, my music was way more infantile, you could say. I wanted to skip the foreplay, let’s just go straight to the climax. And right now everything equals everything, which means the process is super important. Back in the day I didn’t even think of it that way. I just wanted to see results.

Being in a social setting, it’s important to be observant. If you’re walking on the street it’s good to be observant because you don’t know if you’re going to get mugged or not. Survival mode, that’s what I call it. It’s good to be in survival mode. You get more years of life, and you learn more. I’m not saying I’m there yet. I’m aware that that whole other realm of colors and palettes and so many possibilities can make not only the music better, but it can also make me or whoever’s in this world, a better person. In the end that’s what art is all about. It’s the tool to help heal you and make you a better person.

I’m so glad you mentioned survival because that is one thing I wanted to talk to you about. A lot of your music deals with violence and death. And when I hear it in your songs, it feels really real because you’re drawing on your own lived experience and women’s lived experience. It feel particularly painful because of that. Does the heaviness of what you write about hit you when you write, or does it hit you when you perform?

All the time. Because unfortunately and fortunately, it’s something that I hold inside a lot. A lot of times I’m trying to let go, trying not to be bitter about certain circumstances, for example. Going back to feeling underestimated for a long time – you know how people are, they look at you and go, “A woman! What is she capable of?” and it’s sad to say that that’s still a very heavy mindset, especially if you don’t live on the coast of the US, if you’re in Middle America, or in Mexico, or shit, any part of the world that still has heavy mindsets that a lot of people are observing in their psyche. “Okay, my worth is less because of my current social status.” But to use those sentiments into making something good, and be it in writing or, fuck, cooking! Like I’m going to make the best fucking crepe because this is for my taste buds, or something I’m going to make for my mother, that she’s going to enjoy. I guess it’s letting go, learning to use that ill fortune that’s been placed on us to making something like fuel, to run the car. But then also knowing when to park it and get out and get some fresh air.

Personally when I think about what the world is like and what America is like, taking something awful and turning it into something good feels really difficult, but also feels all the more important.

We also have to remind each other that we’re lucky to be living in these times, because we’re witnesses. It’s not all in vain. We’re the eyes of this generation and we’re going to pass it on to our children’s children. For example, I get to ask my grandmother what it was like for her to grow up in the 50s and 60s. She’s a witness from that time. It’ll be our responsibility to conserve this history, this story, and tell it to future humans. That’s why I think even though there are so many horrible things going on, at the same time we’re lucky to witness it, because we’re part of the equation. We’re going to make things better. It’s like a mantra. Be strong, day by day. Do your best as an individual, and make the movement as a whole much stronger. And what movement am I talking about? It depends on what you’re into!

We also have to remind each other that we’re lucky to be living in these times, because we’re witnesses. It’s not all in vain. We’re the eyes of this generation and we’re going to pass it on to our children’s children.

Early on, besides going by Teri Gender Bender, you named your project Le Butcherettes. You made these very clear statements about gender and feminism. You wore an apron, you used props like pig’s heads and fake blood on stage – these were very deliberate choices. What was the thought process, back then, behind those statements you were making?

It had to do with a lot of anger, going from one day to the next. My father passed away in one second. In the days before he passed we had a very big fight. I kept a lot of guilt because the last words I said to him were very awful, and then he passed away alone. That made me feel like I was missing a limb, missing a big part of my history, because I never knew about his mother, for example. I felt like a big part of me was missing. That’s why the phrase, “Le Butcherettes” – ‘le’ should be ‘les.’ It’s a very evident grammatical error, but for me that had a meaning behind it.

Because I had all these meanings to things, a lot of people in La Guadalajara would be like, “Oh, you’re so pretentious,” which only made me angrier. It just gave me more of a reason. “Oh, so if you’re an expressive being, you’re pretentious?” Well you know what, fuck it, art has every right to be pretentious because in a way there’s also a comedic element. It gives us the right to make fun of ourselves and also fun of our surroundings. “Le Butcherettes” – everything’s butchered, everything’s done half-assed nowadays. Information is being altered. The meaning of the way things are perceived – especially here on the streets, in downtown La Guadalajara, walking all by yourself…You’re going to be looked at as a piece of meat.

So all of these elements, we were living them. Me and my girlfriends were living them on a day to day basis. And in the eyes of everyone who has seen everything, it’s not even that bad. In other countries, for example, like the Philippines, or the continent of Africa, things are way worse and it’s fucking 2017. Back when I started the band it was 2007, but still there are all these stories of people feeling oppressed, down. And it’s not just a current theme among women: it’s a human element. The constant of humanity is the loss of a loved one. Death. It’s a constant thing.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s all connected. I started the band with a lot of symbolism and meaning because there’s so much in the world going on now that’s so inspiring. It makes you angry but you want to use it as something to shock people a little bit to ask questions, unfortunately.

Finally, what advice do you have when it comes to survival – physical, spiritual, emotional survival? What gets you through?

Not to react in the sudden moment. When you’re attacked or when something happens and you’re in doubt, don’t react right away with violence. Because that only makes things way worse. For survival I think it’s good to analyze and process first, whatever situation you’re in. It doesn’t even have to be a situation. It could be something simple, like crossing the street. Don’t react and assume you’re going to get hit by a car. Just process everything first. It’s easy to say now, but I say this a lot because I used to be a violent person. Whenever someone made me mad, like my brother, I’d punch a wall. Now, no, stay away from that. Violence only makes more violence.