Teri Suarez doesn’t like to talk about her penchant for losing control, but if asked, she will recall when it first began happening.
It was long before the hard-hitting, Mexican American songwriter ever took the stage covered in blood — the blood was most often fake (except when she used real pig blood) — and even before that 2009 Mexico City show where she licked the hands and arms of every audience member despite a countrywide swine flu epidemic.
She was 12 or 13 when it started, a victim of bullying at a middle school in Denver. One particular boy liked to tell her she was fat — “piggy,” to be exact. Without thinking, she grabbed the nearest lunch tray, swung it and connected it to the boy’s face.
“He was knocked down to the floor,” she relayed this month, sitting cross-legged at a recording studio in Silver Lake. “I kicked him in the stomach. I kicked him. I kicked him and screamed at him. The teachers came up to me and pulled me off.
“From that day forward people would say, ‘You don’t want me to pull “the Teri” on you.’”
An alter-ego was born.
This incident occurred shortly before Suarez moved with her mother to Guadalajara, Mexico, where she would eventually pick up a guitar and form a band with the explicit intent to rail against sexism, poverty and racial injustice. Suarez, as leader of Le Butcherettes, today performs under the stage name Teri Gender Bender, her harder-to-control alter-ego who favors punk rock with the edges at their most jagged. Over the course of two albums — the latest of which, “Cry Is for the Flies,” was released online May 15 — Teri Gender Bender sees a lot she doesn’t like about our cultural state of affairs.
As Teri Gender Bender, Suarez’s musical venom is inspiring fear and gradually winning admirers. Her only other official bandmate, drummer Lia Braswell, laughed that there have been times she’s been “frightened,” namely when the frontwoman will suddenly start urinating on stage. Suarez’s mother nearly had a panic attack after hearing that her daughter climbed to the top of lighting rig at 2012’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival to latch her legs around a rung and sing while hanging upside down.
Omar Rodríguez-López, known for his experimentally aggressive work in rock acts At the Drive-In and Mars Volta, signed Le Butcherettes to his label, Nadie Sound (the album is for sale on the label’s site, nadiesound.com/). Rodríguez-López describes Suarez’s music as possessing a “dedication to the spirit of the moment.”
And while the band’s fame is of the cult variety, Le Butcherettes has a host of influential fans, including Garbage’s Shirley Manson and Henry Rollins of Black Flag notoriety, both of whom guest on the new work. Rollins, a master of rock intensity himself, praises, Suarez’s “powerful intellect” and compares her stage presence to that of Iggy Pop.
“She’s something,” he said. “She’s a star. It’s like a great character in a movie. You want to know what happens when the movie is over. You want to know the rest of the story with her.”
On an early May afternoon, most of Suarez’s stories revolve around guilt.
She feels guilty her onstage persona has a reputation for recklessness, and she’s nervous that fans will expect her to act crazy when the band tours this summer. She also feels guilty she spends more time in Los Angeles than with her mother, who recently moved from Guadalajara to El Paso, Texas, and there’s even a little guilt that her rock ‘n’ roll activism isn’t yet changing the world.
Suarez reminds herself daily to relax, to remember that she’s fortunate to be making music. “I’m not off fighting the war. I’m not killing anyone. I’m not stealing chocolate candy from a broke baby,” she said.
She paused, cocked her head and added an addendum to the last sentence. “But if he was a rich baby, I wouldn’t mind stealing it.”
When Suarez talks about the personal, as she does on “Cry Is for the Flies,” she mixes it with the political, the worldly and whatever piece of classical literature she was reading that day.
“Demon Stuck in Your Eye” is high-energy blues at its most weaponized, as Suarez howls through multiple registers at those who can live without remorse. Her voice is lower, more sinister on “The Gold Chair Ate the Fire Man,” as themes of personal disappointment gets mixed-up with thoughts of upper-crust greed over a melody that stops and starts, as if to catch a breath between punches.
“There’s so many demons I have inside — they’re little gods,” she said as she mimed the act of holding a baby when asked about her songwriting approach. “There’s a god of evil, the god of good, the god of sex, the god of lust. With music, I tap into those god demons. It’s therapy. Did I answer the question?”
In person and offstage, there’s no indication that Suarez is someone who could ever pull ‘the Teri’ on you. Suarez insists that these days she’s more anxious and shy than angry.
Her arms will shake during an interview, and she’ll offer up her “leg sweat” as evidence of her nerves. She slips into Spanish when she’s at a loss for words, and she finishes most every statement with her head slightly hunched into her shoulders, at which point she will say something apologetic like, “Am I making sense? If I’m not making sense, stop me and say, ‘Hey, Teri, make sense.’”
Throughout the course of an afternoon, the 24-year-old may ask you about the biographies of dead U.S. presidents. She’ll also make quite a few poop jokes. But she still rages. The teeth-baring guitars and carnival-esque keyboards throughout “Cry Is for the Flies” are evidence. Consider each song and performance a response to the bullies, the cat-callers and the racial epithets she heard slung at her Spanish father, a prison cook, and Mexican mother, a post office clerk.
She no longer performs in blood, real or fake, and she promises to never again bring a severed pig’s head on stage, which she plucked from the sides of households as a teenager in Guadalajara. “Women are compared to meat every day on the streets,” she said to matter-of-factly explain the artistic choice. “I would walk and take the bus and men would scream, ‘Ay mamacita!’ I was defensive. I wanted to be heard.”
And she has things to say.
“Normal You Were” could be read as rewinding the clock on the life of a mass shooter. Guitars clank and churn before exploding around an angelic choir, as Suarez seeks the find the moment where someone was pushed to the edge of sanity. “Poet From Nowhere” feels like a generational wake-up call as Suarez sings with upper-register paranoia as her dreams of being an artist clash with images of dead-end jobs in developing countries.
She’s asked near the end of an interview if she feels as if she’s giving voice to those ignored by the current pop-cultural landscape, one that’s obsessed with more frivolous matters than tales of the working class, let alone intent on conveying the Mexican American experience.
“Do I represent that? Do I represent the voice of this particular group in this particular country? I wish. I wish I had that power. But I don’t think so. I don’t deny that part of me wants it. Yes, I want that.”
She said this as she looked down at ground and picked at the fray of her nearly knee-high tube sock. Then she looked up to make direct eye contact.
“I want to be in the picture frame of a heartbroken girl who is angry at the world. That girl, it’d be super cool if that girl looked up to me.”