Interview with frontwoman Teresa Suárez Cosío | By John Silva | Photos by Michael Thorn
When Teresa Suárez Cosío—known to fans as Teri Gender Bender—takes the stage, people pay attention. Whether her band Le Butcherettes are headlining the show or opening for another act, whether concert attendees came to see Le Butcherettes or one of the other bands on the bill, when she walks out, the audience’s anticipation becomes so thick, it feels like smoke. Maybe they’ve seen Le Butcherettes before, or maybe they’ve just heard rumors, murmurs throughout the crowd of the various onstage antics for which Cosío is known. Because when Teresa Suárez Cosío takes the stage, she becomes possessed by Teri Gender Bender, and there’s no predicting what she will do.
When she’s not performing, the way Cosío presents herself is the complete opposite: she is warm, kind, and loves to laugh. In anticipation of Le Butcherettes’ new album, bi/MENTAL—out Feb. 1 on Rise Records—she takes a moment to talk about the Guadalajara band’s forthcoming LP, her onstage persona, working with Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison, and more.
You’ve collaborated with At The Drive-In’s Omar Rodríguez-López on your past few records, and this is the first album you’ve done with Jerry Harrison as the producer. How did working with him change or affect the sound? What aspects of Le Butcherettes did Harrison bring out that Rodríguez-López might not have?
One of the first things that I can think of is, for me, just getting out of my comfort zone. Because with Omar, he’s more of a friend. We’ve been in bands together, we have friends in common. I guess I wasn’t too comfortable at first—I was scared in a way, even though that’s what I wanted to do, to work with Jerry Harrison for this record, because I’m a big Talking Heads fan. I love his production. I was scared, because I’m a very nervous person as it is, so to just open myself up to a new person, that was very worth it. It was worth the anxiety at the beginning. He’s always been [like] an old friend. Even his wife made dinner for us. It was very communal, very welcoming. So that’s what I feel, maybe this record has more of a—like, that fatherly presence in it.
He considered it his own record, even. Like when we were in the mixing process, he’d always check in and be like, “Hey, so, you know I consider this my record too, and you need to be very careful with this mixing process,” ’cause I’m also very possessive and very neurotic, so most of the time, I try to overpower in that scenario. So, with Jerry, it was good to be like, “I’m gonna let go a little bit.” Omar respects the freedom, and same with Jerry, [but] I guess that’s the difference: with Jerry, it was much more fatherly, and with Omar, it’s more like, “Hey, we’re just here, not overthinking it.”
I’m not saying we overthought it with Jerry, but you know, he would try different—like for example, with “struggle/STRUGGLE,” we did different versions of it until we found something that we loved. With Omar, it was like, “OK, cool, we’ve got this, one take. Let’s move on.”
bi/MENTAL features several notable guests, including Mon Laferte and Jello Biafra. How did those collaborations come about? Was that a planned thing or was it more spontaneous?
That came spontaneously. I guess I’m just very lucky in the sense that most of my friends are artists. So, for me, it was just like, we’re hanging out; it comes out naturally. Like, “Oh, we should be on this song” or “Oh, help me out with this.” So, it’s very reciprocal. It came naturally. With Jello, it was perfect, because he’s—I mean, both of them, for example, both would go to Le Butcherettes shows whenever we’d be in town. Jello, he’d go to the shows, and so would Mon, and we’d hang out, and it just came naturally, like, “Hey, why don’t you do something with this song?”
It’s gotta be so cool that those sorts of legends are fans of your music. Doesn’t Henry Rollins come out to your shows?
Yeah! Henry is super supportive. Iggy Pop too. It’s very insane and very humbling at the same time, because you meet these people, and they’re super humble, and sometimes—like, there’s all these bands who are super talented, and there’s this big portion where, yes, they’re talented, but you can’t have this big ego to you. You can’t think you’re better than everyone else. I’m sure that happens everywhere. I’m sure in L.A. there’s also this scene of people who think they’re better. But ironically enough, the more famous somebody is, the more humble they are. I don’t know why—it’s pretty interesting.
Maybe because they don’t have anything to prove?
bi/MENTAL seems a bit more accessible than your previous records. Some of the past records were more experimental. Is that the direction you see the band going from here? Did some of that come from working with Harrison?
It was definitely a compromise. Going back to your first question, that’s another good thing—Jerry helped make the songs more accessible, because when I turned in the demos, they were a lot weirder. One of them was a demo where it was just verse, verse, verse; there’s no chorus. Which, I don’t want to alienate anyone. I want someone from 90 to 5 years old to be able to finish the record like a movie. So, we had to make the structure of it simple—verse, chorus, verse, bridge, and chorus—and keep it to that. It was really fun for me, because now that we had the beautiful, polished structure that Jerry gave to the songs, I was still able to create atonal references or effects in the background here and there—which I love doing, same as Omar [laughs].
I tried to simplify my lyrics too—which, at the beginning, I come from a punk rock spirit, I was very against it in my youth. But you go back to The Beatles, they’re a great example: super accessible and dark at the same time. Especially Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That’s a really great example, and I was listening to that album a lot during the nighttime while we were recording bi/MENTAL.
That’s a great example, because Sgt. Pepper’s… is such a creative album, but the songs are still catchy. That’s something Le Butcherettes do really well too.
Awww, well, thank you so much.
At your live shows, you always wear interesting outfits or costumes—I don’t know if “costumes” is the right word, but you know what I mean. The first time I saw Le Butcherettes was in 2011, and you were wearing a bloody apron, and you’ve done different things since then. Do you consider the fashion element to be part of the overall artistic experience? Can you speak to how that visual aspect complements the music?
That’s a good one. I think, for me, it’s definitely part of the whole circle, the whole universe that I’m trying to create. For example, the butcher apron, all of that had a meaning behind it. It wasn’t like, “I wanna set a trend” or “I’m copying someone else.”
It was symbolism?
Exactly, it was symbolism. It was my plea of “This is how I’m feeling. I feel like I’m a torn-up mess. I feel like a piece of meat.” Having to walk to school and walk back having people yell degrading things like “mamacita!” All those things sort of building up, and also coming from a very dysfunctional family. So, that inspired me to wear it. What I’m wearing or what I’m doing now comes from a whole different symbolism of honoring my roots, my grandmother. Not in a very—’cause I also heard a judgement of “Oh, you’re…” What is that word? “You’re taking from another person’s culture”?
Yes, that, exactly. But it’s me! Like, just because I have light skin doesn’t mean that it’s like, “Oh, there’s no way that you’re indigenous.” There’s all this ignorance of what should be what or who should look like what. So, for me, it’s being able to be proud of my roots without being ashamed anymore, because when I was living in Denver, there was a lot of shame, especially when my mom would pick me up from school. She didn’t really know how to speak English, and the teachers even would make fun of me for that. The teachers, for god’s sake!
So, all of that anger starts building up, because I’m also—I’m trying not to be a pushover. For me, being able to wear these different—like you said, they’re not exactly costumes. For me, it’s much more than that. I’m wearing this to heal myself. I want to be connected to my grandmother. Or when I was wearing the apron with the blood on it, I wanted to just release myself of feeling like a mutilated woman. It was metaphoric. So, to answer your question, it’s part of the music, because, for me, it’s not just the music, it’s not just the band, it’s an art thing. It’s an art world.
It sounds like it goes along with the theme of the record. When you were touring with the bloody apron for Sin Sin Sin, you had that song about the dress and school uniforms. Now, what you’re wearing is to honor your family, and this record has a lot to do with family.
Definitely, and I think it just gradually comes to that. It’s not like I sat down and realized, “OK, this is gonna be the new thing.” This was after years of self-hatred and confusion of my roots, because even when I moved back to Mexico, at school, they would pick on me for having very light skin. So, I was confused, because like—in the States, they pick on me because of my English, my mother’s English, my Mexican roots, and in Mexico, they’re picking on me because I’m not Mexican enough. But it was so beautiful to be able to reconnect with my grandparents and know about the origin of my culture. I saw pictures of my grandmother playing at the pyramids, playing the drums and the percussion, and I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing. I didn’t even know she played percussion.”
It also seems like you’re almost playing a character onstage. Is that perception accurate, that you have sort of an onstage persona?
I hope it’s a character. I’m not gonna lie to you, because I’m telling you—if it weren’t for this outlet of me being able to express myself, I don’t know if I would be that same way at home, like banging the doors or breaking stuff, because I’m a very angry person. I’m trying to let go, but it’s very hard to let go. Thank god for the music and being able to find other artists who have become my best friends who are in the band right now. We’re all helping one another to be able to live the dream, which is to be able to travel and leave our demons at home and to just be together and enjoy the moment. I hope it’s a character, because I realize that when I’m not on tour or if I’m at home for bits of time or if I’m not exercising—I get the Gender Bender [laughs]. I get that character. So, I’ve realized that I do have some of those traits. I’m very histrionic, and it helps me to just get all of that out of my system while playing music, and then, I can try to be as normal as possible, my best self, when I’m in a social family-gathering situation.
You mentioned earlier that you get nervous a lot. If you’re an anxiety-prone person, if you get stage fright, does getting into some type of—I don’t know if “alter-ego” is the right word, but does creating that kind of distance help make it easier?
Definitely. I guess, in a way, having that anger and not knowing the self very well helps with the anxiety of going onstage, because, for me, it’s like I’m going to war. I have something that I wanna let go of: my old self, the self that was picked on at school or at home. So, for me, it’s like, even though I’m nervous as hell and I have this anxiety, as soon as I step up there, it’s time to be my true self, the self that will win this war. I guess the Spanish in me comes out [laughs].
How do you deal with anxiety? Do you get anxiety sometimes as well? Like before you interview a person, for example?
Yeah, I definitely do, but I just try to compartmentalize it, I guess, and tell myself that a lot of it isn’t real. That sometimes makes it better.
Yeah, that’s true. Exactly. We have to remind ourselves of that. It’s all in our heads; we build it up sometimes, like, “This could go wrong” or “That could go wrong.”
About that onstage persona and whether it’s really part of you or not, do you ever feel like audience members take advantage of that? The same way people can sometimes be really mean online because they’re not seeing the person on the other side, do you feel like people sometimes heckle or harass you because they feel like there’s that distance? Since they feel like it’s not really you?
I’ve had to confront all kinds of situations where maybe they—and that’s a good way of putting it, it’s like they’re taking advantage of that since they probably don’t think I’m a human being in that moment. I’ve had people try to sexually assault me during a show. Like, literally try to take off my dress.
I saw that happen at one of your shows.
Oh, you did? [Laughs] It happens so much. But then, there’s the other extreme, the other end of the spectrum, where I see people cry and weep and connect completely to it. It reminded me that, “Hey, it’s gonna be OK.” There’s gonna be everything, from the people who take advantage of other performers or other—I don’t even know. At the end of the day, it’s probably projecting, because that’s how they feel about themselves. ’Cause I’ve also been yelled at, a bunch of horrible names, but in reality, it’s probably what they really wanna say to themselves.
It’s like an externalization of it.
Yeah, I would never be able to say that to someone. So, maybe that makes me feel a little better, because maybe they really don’t think I’m that bad.
You’re based out of El Paso, Texas, where your friends in At The Drive-In are also from. What’s the music scene like there? Does El Paso being a border city affect the way bands sound? Is there a fusion of different sounds because of that?
Generally, the music scene in El Paso is very rich in culture. It’s very bilingual; there’s a lot of bilingual or “Spanglish” phrases in the music—and in the art too. I think, like in everything, if there’s a tragedy that’s occurring politically, or even just internally, it inspires something beautiful, and I think that in El Paso, there’s so much beautiful art. And food! Let’s not forget about the culinary arts.
A lot of times, people ask me, “Why El Paso? It seems so boring,” and it’s not! It’s the best! I get to speak my language, for example; culturally speaking, I can say some Spanish phrases that might get lost among a different set of people. Of course, the state is huge; there’s so many things, but in El Paso, it’s kind of like living in a personal Mexico, you know? At least there’s more of our taxes going into getting the potholes fixed. As soon as you cross the bridge to Juarez, you see immediately the sudden change of infrastructure. It’s like a shock to see. Crossing the bridge, on the left side, you see the University UTEP, you know, which represents future, hope, the youth, prospering, and then, right on the other side, you see the poverty, the slums on the hills. It’s depressing. It’s very sad, but at the same time, both of those extremes together, at least for a photographer, it would be stunning to look at.
You’ve also made music with Bosnian Rainbows and Crystal Fairy. Can we expect new music from either of those bands, or were they one-off projects?
There’s definitely more material recorded for both projects. I don’t know when, but the plan is definitely to release it. We’re just waiting for the right time, because Melvins are always touring, and then with Omar—At The Drive-In is on hiatus or pause right now, but Omar is focusing on his cinematic career, ’cause he’s a director. So, hopefully, once the stars line up, we’ll release it. We just have those songs sitting there, and I’m like, “Ahhh!” But that’s cool. At least we made them.
To end on a fun question—I mean, obviously, all these questions are fun [laughs]—but I’ve read that you enjoy checking out museums while you’re on tour. Do you have any favorites around the country?
Wooo! That’s a wonderful one! Honestly, the Smithsonian is one of my favorites; it’s a whole different world. The Denver Art Museum; I guess I just have a soft spot for it because my father would take me there a lot. That’s some good research, man. Hell yeah!