Le Butcherettes’ Teri Gender Bender on Discovering Punk and Feminism
The ferocious frontwoman peels back the emotional influences on her music
Le Butcherettes is the name of the band, but this confrontational Mexican garage punk outfit has always revolved around the artistic vision of founder and frontwoman Teri Gender Bender. Hailing from Zapopan, a town just outside of Guadalajara, she formed the group in 2007 and quickly attracted lots of attention, both for the band’s blazing, guitar-driven sound and her own onstage antics, which included performing in a bloody apron and employing raw meat, fake blood and a pig’s head, amongst other things, as props.
Simply put, there’s nothing polite about the band, but that didn’t bother Omar Rodríguez-López of At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, who produced and contributed bass guitar to Le Butcherettes’ debut full-length album, Sin Sin Sin, and ultimately issued the record via his own label. He’s remained behind the boards for subsequent albums Cry Is for the Flies (2014) and A Raw Youth (2015), the latter of which featured guest appearances from Iggy Pop and John Frusciante. Throughout it all, the group has gone through numerous lineup changes, but Gender Bender remains a constant, her commanding presence all but impossible to ignore. In this excerpt from her Fireside Chat with Vivian Host on RBMA Radio, Gender Bender discusses the angelic symbolism of her birth time, her introduction to feminism in Guadalajara and the influence of emotional guilt on her music.
When and where were you born?
I was born in Denver, Colorado in 1989. I think it was at 9:06 in the morning. I remember my mom being very prideful, because according to her mother, my grandmother, when you’re born in the morning, it means that an angel can possess your body. If you’re born at the nighttime, the devil will possess your mind. I don’t know. They really strongly believed in that and so ever since I was little, my mom would always say, “You’re an angel, you’re an angel,” to the point where I didn’t want to be an angel. Basically, I think that’s why I started doing punk rock music, because I don’t want to be an angel at all.
How long did you live in Denver before you moved to Mexico? Tell me a little bit about how that worked.
Basically, while I was growing up in Denver, we’d go back and forth a lot between the States and Mexico. Eventually, my dad found a stable job in Denver in the prison industry. He was a prison guard. He would overlook the kitchen area to make sure none of the inmates, while cleaning the dishes, would take the knife or anything, because then that would be on his head. He could even end up in prison if he let that pass by.
I hated going to Mexico at first. I was very ashamed of my own culture and I think that was very embedded in me in Denver from going to public schools and being bullied. That made me ashamed of speaking Spanish, for example. I tried to hide it. I’d lie to my teachers and tell them my father’s name was Mark, when in fact it was Roberto. It took him passing away for us to go back to our roots and that’s when I most embraced the Mexican style of life, which is basically obsessed with death. That explains why, ever since I was little, I would think about death a lot.
What was the first music that you ever fell in love with?
The first type of music that I fell in love with that I can remember was classical music. I think it was more related to the fact of how he reacted, my father, while listening to classical music. It’d make him breathe heavy, fill his lungs up with air. I always pictured him as being a bull, snorting and exhaling the fumes coming from his nostrils, and I thought, “This man is never going to die. This man’s immortal.” Even though he’s not here, when I listen to classical music, I see that image of him, like a bull walking around a ring, looking for the guy in the red cape to kill him. That’s what classical music does. It brings you back to the past – imaginary memories that you created when you were little.
What got you into punk rock?
It was a yearning to be included in a group of people that were classified as rebels. I was very much wanting to be a part of something because at school, being bullied or even bullying myself, I never felt included in a tribe. Punk offered that escape for me. After school, I started asking, “What’s new here in this town, Guadalajara? Tell me what I can do to get out of my house. I can’t be here.” They were like, “Let’s go to the rock show. Let’s do it.” We’d go, 13-year-olds going into the alley to see kids just get together just to make music. The cover charge was for the beers. I didn’t drink, but people wanted to have a good time. It was wanting to feel included in something, some type of ritual.
What were the first punk bands you were hearing?
It all happened so suddenly. It’s because of the internet, too. While I was looking for music online, I’d put the same question: What other bands are like that, but in Mexico? Myspace was big at the time, and I found a group called Lesbian Bitches From Mars. They were great. They were ahead of their time because they dressed as women; they had dildos hanging from their underwear and had very long hair and sang in very operatic... They sounded like the band Sparks, but with a Ramones punch. They were basically one of the bands that I saw that made me want to up my game, as they say, and not be ashamed of being whoever you want to be on stage.
Was Le Butcherettes your first serious band?
Le Butcherettes was my first band, but it’s changed so much. I was 17 years old when I first started Le Butcherettes.
One thing that really interested me about your story of starting the band when you were 17, is that I felt very similar. I was really angry at that age because I felt like, as a woman, I wasn’t taken seriously and I was always just dismissed. I grew up in LA – there were always dudes following me down the street and I just felt in danger all the time, like I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t just ride the bus. Literally, I’d be wearing pajama pants and a long T-shirt, looking like hell, trying to go to school in the morning, and I’d be at the bus stop with some guy harassing me. It was infuriating. When I was reading about the kind of topics you were addressing in the first Butcherettes record, I thought, “Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt at that age.”
This is LA you’re talking about? Wow. You’d expect more of LA, how it’s painted, at least from Mexico’s point of view. LA is the savior; city of opportunity and equality. Sometimes [in America], I feel like it’s also a little more psychological, too, a little more ingrained beneath the lines. Whereas in Mexico, I feel that sexism is just outright. “Here it is! Hi, I’m sexist.” It’s part of my culture and yeah… “la chingada.” Even those words. The literal translation of that means “the raped one,” “the raped woman.” That’s how ingrained sexism is into our language. It’s pretty much in the open. Whereas I feel that what you’re saying, it’s a different type of sexism.
The butchering, the cutting up the meat, for me represented the cutting up of prejudice, the cutting up of hate.
How do people use that phrase, “la chingada”?
It can be more like, “Ah, I could care less.” What would you say?
Like “Fuck it,” kind of?
Yeah, kind of like that.
Wow. That’s so dark. Tell me about being in Le Butcherettes when you were 17. You wore some special outfits… Like, you wore a pig’s head and did stage shows with a lot of blood.
When I first started Le Butcherettes, I had a whole nerd concept behind it. I would write a lot in journals in my classrooms instead of paying attention. I was reading, combing Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique into it and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Also, even things that were the complete opposite of the feminist culture literature world. I’d go to Karl Marx and be like, “I want to see what this guy is saying about communism. OK, it’s interesting.” I’d just take whatever I liked from certain things and start making songs from certain phrases.
The apron with the blood [that I wore] represented the missing women of Mexico. It was an apron because of the common housewife that’s sweeping silently, but her head is somewhere else. That image always stood out to me because my mom also professed that she didn’t want to be like that. Sometimes she’d even tell me, “You shouldn’t have children,” which would project a lot of what she was thinking. I was like, “Damn. Those are some real hardcore, intense thoughts to have.” My thought on a darkest day is, “Oh, I don’t like myself.”
What’s the significance of the butcher or butcherettes concept to you?
For me the whole significance behind “butcherettes” was the image of a superhero-type woman with a broomstick in her hand, ready to kill anyone that dares try to defy her. It might not seem threatening at first because, yes, there’s the sweetness of a woman’s grace where she’s cleaning, but even she has an animal inside of her and it may not be pretty.
The butchering, the cutting up the meat, for me represented the cutting up of prejudice, the cutting up of hate. Butcher that pain away, put it away, throw it away, cut it up, grill it, eat it, put it out, cycle, life, end, death, blood, birth... It should really be Les Butcherettes, but that S was taken out because it signified the mutilation. That word was mutilated – it’s not an it, it’s not a her, it’s not a he, it’s been broken. It’s been missing.
When did you first become aware of the concept of something like feminism existing?
I first became fully aware of the feminist movement when I went to Guadalajara and I started taking social science classes, and my teacher was a very open Mexican, feminist, hardworking, independent woman in a college area where most of the people that worked on the board were men. It was really beautiful to see how even they supported her outspokenness. They all made a great team, it was a very forward-thinking school. Her classes really opened me up to wanting to know about women’s studies and anthropology. Why is Émile Durkheim so insistent that weather changes everybody’s perspective? Maybe he has a point. It was all really nice to learn so much from this great woman.
The punk rock scene, Bikini Kill, also introduced me to it. Their lyrics introduced me a lot to Sylvia Plath. Kathleen [Hanna] kind of mentioned Sylvia Plath in one of their songs and I was like, “Whoa, Sylvia Plath, that’s the woman that my dad loved!” When my dad would get drunk he would recite Sylvia Plath poems, but I was a rebel, I didn’t want to read what he was reading. But when Kathleen Hanna said it was cool, I ran to Sylvia Plath and started an obsession with wanting to read more about women’s suffering. You relate to it! You’re like, “Hey, I’m not alone! It’s okay to hurt, because that hurt will make us great.”
It’s all about being easygoing and not taking yourself serious at all, to a point where we’re, like, farting and recording the farts and making little songs from them.
How did you meet Omar Rodríguez-López?
I met him at a show in Guadalajara. It happened randomly because his friend was playing the night as well. It was a five-band bill. When he got there to watch his friend, the lights had died. It was going to be their turn, but they couldn’t play anymore, so they disconnected their music instruments. I said to myself, “Screw it. It’s technically our turn.” I got on, and I did an a cappella show. I had the pig’s head at the time, so it was kind of surreal, just me putting on the pig head and singing.
Omar was there and at the end of the show, he approached us. He said, “Oh, let’s have some lunch or something.” Ironically enough, we’re vegetarians and we ended up eating at a fish joint, so we only had the tostadas with the salsa. We’re like, “Mmm, OK. We can’t really eat anything from the menu, but let’s work together.” We felt each other out first, the vibe, because who knows? We’re very easygoing people [though]. Good sense of humor. I think that’s what it takes.
He lived in Guadalajara. I was like, “Wow. We live here too.” He had a studio. Everything was set in place to start recording. We did the album recording in one week in his house because we were up against time. He was going to start touring right after. We managed to do 14 songs in seven days. I think only 12 made it on.
What were the themes of that first record, Sin Sin Sin?
It had a lot to do with an obsession with philosophers. Throughout the songs there’s a constant theme of Rousseau or Mr. Leo Tolstoy. There were mentions of Dostoyevsky. It could come off as pretentious to a lot of people that aren’t really into literature, but I just did it as a tribute to them because, in a way, they were my mourning buddies. When my father passed away, I could read them and feel better and feel connected to my dad.
It’s also a theme of just feeling... I hate saying I was a victim. I’m not a victim, but just a feeling like a piece of rug fur. That’s basically what I think the theme is. That no matter what you do, it feels like you’re causing a disturbance to someone, that you’re a pest. You’re wrong because of the sex that you were born in. Sin Sin Sin alludes to the theme of religion. Especially growing up in a Catholic family, you really feel the fear of the devil when you’re growing up. That could kind of have a traumatizing effect on you – at least the nightmares, repeated ones – and so it touches those themes, religion, female empowerment and just going forward despite what the white sheep say. “Baa.” I mean, it’s an honor to be a black sheep, a black star, like David Bowie says.
What’s your working relationship like with Omar? How are you guys similar or different? How do you complement each other when you are working together?
I think my relationship with Omar is really interesting because he is often portrayed as someone that’s very controlling. At least that’s his persona: Omar Rodríguez-López, the dictator of Mars Volta. To me, he’s been nothing but nurturing my essence. He’s always been respectful of my sound. He only wants to add greatness to it. It’s been great because I’m always open to his critical notes on certain things. “Oh, do you know what? It’d be cool if you repeat the chorus here because it’ll make it more intense.” Little things like that give it a whole different production level.
It’s also been really easygoing, I think, because of the sense of humor. We’re always making fun of basically anything or everything. Since we’re Latinos we’re really chill at taking things really slow. It can be really annoying to a lot of people, to a point where it’s like, “Oh, wow, we have to be in New York tomorrow. We should book the tickets.” Then, of course, the fee is tremendously expensive. There’s a saying called “Il vago trabaja doble,” which means “the bum works double.” When you’re lazy and you want to take the easy way out, your future self is going to end up paying for it.
Basically that’s the dialogue between us, where it’s like, “Ugh, tomorrow we’ll do it. Don’t worry. Let’s just enjoy the time right now. OK? Cool. Let’s record all these takes. Alright, break, yeah.” It’s all about being easygoing and not taking yourself serious at all, to a point where we’re, like, farting and recording the farts and making little songs from them.
Tell me about your second record, Cry Is for the Flies.
The way Cry Is for the Flies started to be recorded (or even processed through) was in the series of moving back and forth a lot between Los Angeles and Texas. During that time in my life I was actually moving from Guadalajara, Mexico and it was just craziness. It was gypsy lifestyle of, “OK, if I’m not home, I’m going to be touring. This is great, but I don’t have a base or anything stable right now. OK, and I have to help my mom also because she’s also moving from Guadalajara to Texas as well. What am I going to do?” On [top of] all this, at the same time, I was losing a ton of friends. I was becoming very antisocial and hard to relate to, and basically I had this big hole of guilt that made me feel really bad about wanting to succeed and wanting to have a band.
That record was in the closet on hold for a while until, again, we picked it up and I listened through it again. I was like, “OK, alright. That’s not bad. Alright.” That’s when I got that second wind of air, of courage. I asked Shirley Manson from Garbage to sing on the track and she was open to it. That gave me even more motivation to be like, “OK, this is going to be cool. Alright, let’s put this out.” Then Henry Rollins agreed to do a spoken word for the record, which made it really, really liberating for me in a spiritual sense because of the theme that he talks about in his spoken word, which is about guilt. He humanizes guilt as this blob of blackness talking to him and trying to get him to become one of the many affected by his wrath, and it’s all about overcoming it. “No, I won’t let you affect me, Guilt. Go away. You affect yourself, you son of a gun.” Then, yeah, he disappears.
How was it working with Henry Rollins?
I approached Henry Rollins because I admire him. He’s very talented, very well-spoken, great voice, great writer. I can go on. I freaked out the day that I found out that he wrote a review about our show. He said, “I didn’t even know who they were. I went to see Iggy [Pop].” We were opening up for Iggy, so he wrote this really nice thing and I never thanked him for it, because I didn’t know how to reach him. Eventually, after the whole resurrection of feeling empowered to approach people and collaborate, I looked for his information online and couldn’t find it. I basically was asking around for it on the streets. I was like, “Do you have Henry Rollins’s information. No? OK.” Come on, Henry Rollins.
I got my hands on it and I contacted him and I said, “Well, first of all, thank you so much for supporting us, for writing such great things about the band and playing us. It’s so sweet. Now, here. I want to ask this of you. Would you mind doing this?” I explained to him the concept of it. “Hey, this is guilt. This is what I’m going through at the moment. I would love to see your take on it.” Within three days, he had it done. He recorded it from his side of California in his house and he sent it to me. I was like, “Wow. Very sweet.” I was like, “Hey, let me pay you for everything that you’ve done,” because the record came out. And he was like, “No. I’m not taking anything. This is human.” That was really beautiful, especially in this day and age in this music world, where everyone is just looking for a way to suck a penny out of you.
Let’s talk about working with Iggy Pop, because you worked with him on your most recent record.
Working with Iggy Pop has been beautiful. He’s a good person. He’s down-to-earth. He has a wonderful sense of humor. He was considering showing up to the session dressed as Caesar with grapes. He said that he didn’t go through with it because he didn’t want us to judge him. He was like, “I didn’t want you guys to think I was crazy or anything.” I said, “No, you should have. That would have been amazing.” I had the sheets of lyrics printed out, and he said, “No, I don’t need that. I have it all memorized already.” They’re in Spanish. The words are in Spanish. He was right on point. He was open to do as many takes as we wanted, which wasn’t even required because every take was fantastic.
He would tap into a different character. One was a very, very low voice. One he’d do a little high-pitched sinister voice and try out different attitudes and emphasis on certain words, and then at the end of that session, he said, “Oh, why don’t you come in here with me, Teresa, and we can do it live right now.” Omar had his camera with him. He put it on a tripod and he started filming it. We did that video right there in one take. We were like, “Oh, this is so crazy being next to Iggy Pop.” I was so nervous and just kept looking at him and I’m like, “Wow, this is so wonderful.” Sweetheart. He’s one of those people that is like a giant lightbulb and you just can’t stop yourself from heading towards the light. You know he has an answer or he knows something that we don’t, and you just want to know what it is.
Tell me more about the record in general.
A Raw Youth is our third record, and I feel that this record is different from the rest because it involves more experimentation with keyboards and synths, and I’ve been playing around more with pedals. Before the beginning of Le Butcherettes, I would just go direct into the amp. I wouldn’t even bother adjusting the knobs or the tones – it would just be whatever it is.
It was really cool working in the studio, especially on this record, because there were basically so much options to choose from. Omar has one of the biggest pedal collections I’ve ever seen in my life. All the synths that he has... Wow, yeah. There’s so much to take in, and it was definitely more of a gear-oriented process in the making of this record on the technical side.
What is the concept of A Raw Youth?
It’s about the resilience of a spirit that has been with us from the day that we can remember as man. The Revenant is a great example. What drove him to come back from the dead, and still fight for revenge? The resilience that he had inside. Or from women in the Middle East that are going through the daily threats of having your life taken away from you just because you’re in the streets alone. I don’t even have to go so far as the Middle East – for Mexico, also. You’re surrounded by a lot of people that have the will to want to fight to the life or to the death. It can be from the good side or from the bad side.
My mother, she’s an example. She’s always been very resilient. I’ve never really fully understood her ways, but that’s one thing I can always say. She did fight a lot for us, through thick and thin. That’s my question: What is that energy? What is the will that makes us go on? It can be compared to the will of a cockroach, to the will of a God. It can be so controversial, but what is it? What’s inspiring us to fight? It doesn’t matter what age we are, but that youth is what keeps us ready to bite or ready to attack or ready to do something, but not give up.
When did you come up with the name Teri Gender Bender, and why?
I came up with the name Teri Gender Bender when I was 15 years old. This came before creating the name Le Butcherettes or the idea of wanting to start a band. I did it because I wanted to establish my own identity. I was very pissed off at my parents... We all go through that, of course, so I didn’t want to have anything to do with their last names. I didn’t want to feel bound down by psychological, genetic inheritances, where you feel like you’re carrying a whole generation of conflicts on your back. So I said, “No! No more!”
I love Malcolm X too, and I really loved what the X signified to him. He didn’t want to keep his owner’s last name. He said, “No, I want to be X. I’m unknown, that’s me. I relate more to an X than to the last name that was put upon me.” I had that whole thing going on in my head. “I’m Teri... Gender Bender! I’m not a woman or a man, I’m both forces.” I was also reading a lot of comics about empowered women, too. Teri Gender Bender came out of that, and ever since it stuck. I kept my faith and loyalty to that name. Until the day I die I’m going to still have that as my second name, basically.