In the music video for one of Le Butcherettes’ latest singles, “spider/WAVES,” frontwoman and band leader Teri Gender Bender is her usual raucous howling banshee self, stalking about a dingy hotel bed in fishnets, peering out of a bathtub full of milk in thick red makeup and dancing like a ghost in the desert with only headlights illuminating the way.
With: the Flaming Lips
When: 4:30 p.m. July 14
Where: Taste of Chicago, Petrillo Music Shell, 235 S. Columbus
Throughout the four-minute art piece, the singer’s brazen bravado is matched by her warrior pose and evocative costuming, featuring a full authentic Chichimeca headdress with fringe and chains and colorful tribal patterns that are a portrayal of her maternal grandmother, who wore the traditional pieces while playing percussion in her native Mexico. The aesthetic, like everything Le Butcherettes does, was very intentional, a way to “grab a hold of my roots,” the singer says. “It’s me saying ‘Go away shame, I’m not ashamed anymore.’ And I’m not going to let myself — at least in the sense of Teri Gender Bender — be gentrified anymore. She is free.”
Born Teresa Suárez to a Spanish father and Mexican mother, the singer details years of internal familial and institutional racism as she grew up with immigrant parents in America (Denver to be exact) before moving to Guadalajara as a preteen after her father passed away, always trying to find a way to fit in to her vastly polarizing cultural surroundings. Even today, Suárez lives in El Paso, Texas, on the front lines of the immigration crisis.
“I was always bullied, and the shame was contagious. I would tell my mom, ‘Don’t pick me up from school, don’t speak Spanish.’ I was a sheep in that sense. But I want to get that out, I’m sorry for that,” Suárez admits, saying the character of Teri Gender Bender is her revenge and redemption, inspired by a hodgepodge of icons like Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan and Bikini Kill.
Whereas Suárez is shy and nervous (repeatedly and unnecessarily apologizing for it during our conversation), Teri Gender Bender is the mirror image, Suárez’s bold, feminist alter ego that has been railing against bullying, injustice and racism since the band was formed as a garage rock act in Mexico’s underground scene more than 10 years ago with the debut EP “Kiss & Kill” in 2008.
“When I get on stage there’s all this locked-up, angry energy, angry thoughts and memories, and I put it all out there. Before I know it, it’s not me anymore. It’s almost like my therapy; afterward I feel immediately better,” she says, “But sadly I’m still angry and still have all these scars from the past, and I have to learn to let them. I still put all that in my music, it’s all I really know.”
When Le Butcherettes first started, to really drive the point home, Suárez would dress in bloody aprons and carry around fake meat on stage, alluding to the inequity women faced.
“That was really gross. It was just unfair to people carrying around rotten meat in a carry-on, the smell was terrible. I’m more conscious of people’s space,” she says, chuckling. “Our set now is much more stripped-down. No props, just a new set playing completely new songs and older material we’ve never played live before.”
The band will stick to this formula when opening for the Flaming Lips at the Taste of Chicago on July 14, with music and lyrics their go-to weapons as is evident on the new EP, “struggle/STRUGGLE,” featuring three different, more synth-based takes on the same song about conflict and inner turmoil.
In addition to examples of family mental illness and fear of sexual assault, Suárez also admits part of the thematic journey is about the band overcoming the struggles to stay active. Though the singer has solid musicians backing her up — multi-instrumentalist Riko Rodríguez-López, his brother Marfred Rodríguez-López on bass and drummer Alejandra Robles Luna — and though the band is receiving “emotional, economical and spiritual support” from new label Rise Records, says Suárez, this dynamic is only recent. “It’s always come out of my pocket — touring and recording — and I’ve been very nervous about how long this will last. I’ve had to knock on doors and get into major debt. But it’s worth it. The true meaning of success is when you’re not alone and have people there supporting you.”
Part of that is an army of believers including Omar Rodríguez-López (The Mars Volta, At the Drive-In) who more or less discovered the band and produced early material like the incredible punk zinger “Sin Sin Sin” LP in 2011. Suarez is also in a side project with Rodríguez-López called Bosnian Rainbows; another group, Crystal Fairy, pairs the duo with Melvins members Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover. Iggy Pop also dueted with Suarez on the Le Butcherettes track “La Uva,” and former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison produced the “struggle/STRUGGLE” EP.
“More men have been behind the project ironically,” she jokes, “but I’m so grateful to all the musicians that played in my band or collaborated with me that were able to honor my vision. I have very little self-confidence, but they helped me believe in my songs and my story.”