For two weeks in El Paso, Teri Gender Bender was having an emergency. Her solution was to go underground. She locked her doors, covered the windows, turned the phone off and began writing songs.
For the leader of Le Butcherettes — a band of anxious pop and garage rock, sharp edges and searing melodies — this wasn’t all that strange.
But this time, the solitude was to escape the reach of her mother, who she said had flown into an inexplicable rage that she later understood was caused by bipolar disorder. Her latest work deals with such emotional struggles and looks at how to learn from them.
The singer, born Teresa Suárez Cosío, wrote 60 songs and fragments during those weeks. One of them was called “strong/ENOUGH” and started like this: “I’m not the kind of girl you thought I was ... My heart is headed out the door/Don’t need your abuse no more/Won’t take your disrespect/I’m smart enough, grown enough."
The song, she says, is a statement on self-empowerment. “When I was growing up, my mom said that I would always be reliant on others,” she explains. “In a way, I am reliant on others but not in a sick way. There's nothing wrong with being reliant, but I'm strong enough to be relied on as well.”
The song comes early on the latest Le Butcherettes album, “bi/MENTAL,” which layers lyrics that are confessional and confrontational within 13 tracks of forceful hooks and wild experiments. Produced by Jerry Harrison – formerly of the Talking Heads and Modern Lovers – the album presents Suárez Cosío as an increasingly sophisticated songwriter and performer.
“The songs started from this really dark place,” she says, “and then towards the end, while we were actually making the record, it was really happy and light, despite our own little demons in the mind.”
"If it’s a crazy scenario, we're in,” she says of the Cinco de Mayo-themed nights of music, comedy, burlesque and the luchadore wrestling the singer has come to admire.
Her songs are aggressive and playful enough to easily fit in that festive scenario, despite the chaos and tension that inspired them. “bi/MENTAL” was recorded by the ocean in a converted home-studio called Panoramic House, just north of San Francisco -- far from the band’s beginnings in Guadalajara, Mexico, a dozen years ago.
“I know it's too much of an open book, but the thing is that my story is not unique,” she says of sharing her family conflict. “There's lots of people with very interesting stories regarding their families and hopefully this will help people feel a little less alone.”
Before recording sessions began with the full band, she worked with Harrison on fine-tuning the songs. One musical flashpoint comes with the song “mother/HOLDS,” a duet with L.A. punk icon Alice Bag. The key lyric: “Mother holds my only life line/Won’t you take her away?/Place her under the flat-line!”
“I feel like she’s an artist who cuts open her chest, rips out her beating heart and holds it out to the audience, every night,” says Bag. “Every note she sings, every movement she makes, is deliberate and delivered with complete conviction and honesty.”
Suárez Cosío discovered Bag as a teenager in Mexico, watching and re-watching a VHS tape of the classic 1981 L.A. punk rock documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization,” which presented the Latina singer alongside X, Black Flag and the Germs. In 2017, Suarez was invited to interview Bag onstage in Los Angeles about her career for the Red Bull Music Academy.
“It was instant chemistry,” Suárez Cosío says of that first meeting, leading to their appearance together on “mother/HOLDS.”
They recorded vocals in Los Angeles, and inverted their roles in life: Suárez Cosío singing as the mother, Bag as the daughter, screaming at each other. “By the end of it we were all, like, covered in sweat. Even the owner of the studio knocked on the door, checking in to see if we were OK because it's really loud screams,” says Suárez Cosío with a laugh. “Oh my God, Alice gave that song life.”
Live, Suárez Cosío’s been known to frequently crowd-surf, climb the rafters, even to suddenly take her concert out onto the sidewalk.
“It's almost like a little antidepressant,” she says of performing. “It’s like exercise, the blood flowing through the body, and then all of us looking at each other and just smiling: a reassurance of, ‘Hey, we're going to be OK. We're not alone.’ There could be only two people in the room and that can be just as intense as a full room.”
Before she began playing music at 17, that energy could come out in self-destructive ways. She had spent much of her life in Denver growing up. When her father died, the family returned to Guadalajara and a more chauvinistic society. Punk rock and poetry were her salvation.
Le Butcherettes began as an all-female duo making flinty post-punk in the tradition of early PJ Harvey and the Kills. The music was supercharged guitar rock with a distinctive brand of radical feminism, and they appeared onstage in blood-soaked aprons and carrying severed pigs’ heads, which she plucked from the sides of households as a teenager in Guadalajara.
Le Butcherettes have now settled into a quartet of young players, including drummer Alejandra Robles Luna, and brothers Marfred Rodríguez-López (bass) and Riko Rodríguez-López (guitar, keyboards).
Harrison calls what the singer does “not just music but performance art.” It’s one reason why Suárez Cosío has drawn the attention of a long roster of collaborators, beginning with Mars Volta/At the Drive In guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López, who discovered Le Butcherettes onstage in a small Guadalajara club. He also produced the band’s first three albums and was their bassist for a time.
Suárez Cosío has also recorded a duet with Iggy Pop. “I think Iggy and the others see a new artist who's embracing what they've spent their whole careers making,” says Harrison. “She just seems really honest.”
Lucha VaVoom with Le Butcherettes
Where: The Mayan, 1030 S. Hill St.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday