Le Butcherettes Make Art Out of Trauma and Death
"I'm just happy that we can put something together that represents our vulnerabilities and people can identify with that.”
Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
When Teri Gender Bender takes the stage, she’s clad head to toe in monochromatic red: crimson paint cloaks her bang-framed eyes, creating a bloody mask through which she watches her audience, and a Chichimeca headdress sits at the top of her head. As Le Butcherettes – the garage punk band she started in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2007 – launches into song, the singer/guitarist/pianist begins ritualistically peeling back layers, both physical and emotional.
Her convulsive movements echo the distorted guitar and heavy drums on each song, at one point causing her headdress to fall to the side. She rips off her belt and repeatedly bashes it on the ground while releasing a guttural howl about her toxic relationship with her bipolar mother. During one of several spoken word interludes, she cradles herself on the ground, removes a shoe, and slaps herself with it, seemingly evoking traumatic scenes from her childhood.
The performance is the realisation of bi/MENTAL, the 13-track album produced by Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison and released under Rise Records on February 1. Much like the record itself, Teri’s stage presence brutally exposes her inner turmoil and indigenous heritage. Once a source of shame, her performance becomes a way of reclaiming them – an unsanitised depiction of living with mental illness and battling your own demons.
“That's why we do this – at least for me, I don't want to speak for you guys,” she says, gesturing to her bandmates, who are all hanging out in a dressing room overlooking the stage of Atlanta’s The Masquerade. “But [we do this] to stay in the creative zone because it can be disruptive in there if you don't keep the river flowing.”
At her most susceptible state, Teri Gender Bender is a warrior. Stripped down to fishnet tights and a taut red dress after ripping off part of her costume, her headdress readjusted over her sweat-drenched hair, and a tribal harness strapped around her chest, she finishes the set triumphantly alongside drummer Alejandra Robles Luna, guitarist Rikardo Rodríguez-López, and bassist Marfred Rodríguez-López. The audience cheers wildly throughout messages of violence, isolation, and ultimately, healing, sticking around for several minutes after the last song in hopes of an encore.
“That just says that there's so many people that are suffering from this, and you know, it's just a very extensive communication that needs to be addressed,” Robles Luna tells VICE. “From my part, I'm just happy that we can put something together that represents our vulnerabilities and people can identify with that, you know? That brings us closer together as humans or whatever.”
Teri fronts the band and reveals her individual journey of emotional disquietude, but bi/MENTAL is very much a collective union of Le Butcherettes’s shared experiences. The demos for the record were created in El Paso, where Teri and the Rodríguez-López brothers grew up along with their brothers Omar and Marcel – Omar founded The Mars Volta and played with At The Drive-In while Marcel also played with The Mars Volta. The brothers still live in El Paso while Teri splits her time between the Texas city and LA. In a city like El Paso, that is soaked with religious references – Marfred reminds me of the Cerro Bola mountainside with bold letters that spell out “CD Juárez. La Biblia es la verdad, leela” or “City of Juárez. The Bible is the truth, read it” overlooking El Paso from Ciudad Juárez – it’s clear to see how the musicians’ environment influenced the record on tracks like “Father/ELOHIM” and “spider/WAVES.” Both feature Biblical allusions that parallel the struggle of losing faith in someone else.
Another uniting factor for the band is the loss of a parent. Teri sings painfully about visiting her father’s grave in “give/UP,” and the group laughs when asked about their habit of jokingly referring to themselves as the “dead parents club.”
“It's a way for us to also put things in perspective in terms of whenever we're faced with whatever kind of hardships,” says Rikardo. “It's like ‘oh, we've kind of all been through worse in our own way, so this is nothing.’“
El Paso is also a representation of Le Butcherettes’s bicultural experiences, quite literally overlooking the border between Mexico and the US. As that division has become increasingly politicised since the band’s last full-length album, A Raw Youth, came out in 2015, it’s easy to notice how some of bi/MENTAL’s anger transgresses from personal to political outrage.
The racism and xenophobia expressed by the Trump administration in today’s immigration debate is nothing new to any of the band members. Taking an example from her own lineage, Teri recounts how her Spanish father’s family refused to accept his marriage to her Mexican mother, and how her mother eventually internalised that prejudice by asking Teri to only claim her European ancestry. As an adult, she’s connected more with her Chichimeca grandmother and immersed herself in those traditions, donning the headdress on the bi/MENTAL cover and on stage.
“Essentially, we come from really hard working parents that have always faced these discriminations and that's how we've acquired our characteristics,” she says. “We have characteristics acquired because of those traumatic experiences, which is another thing that brings us together. And now more than ever, we're very proud of our roots, of our Latino culture, and don't hide it.”
For Robles Luna, who is from Monterrey, Mexico, that pressure became especially tangible while recording the album. She was in the midst of dealing with her residency status, and says being around her bandmates and working on their music helped keep her grounded during an otherwise overwhelming situation.
“That was the peak of my anxiety, going through the green card [process]. Being able to just be in the studio with them, with Jerry [Harrison], and the whole experience is just like okay, this is a reminder of why you're doing what you're doing,” she explains.
Harrison is only one of several music icons who joined the band for their fourth full-length album. Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra makes a spoken word appearance on opener “spider/WAVES.” Punk rock trailblazer and feminist archivist Alice Bag joins forces with Teri on “mother/HOLD,” a symbolic union on a track about Teri’s estrangement from her own mom. And during post-production, Teri contacted Chilean singer Mon Laferte, who was on tour in Chihuahua at the time, and asked her to come to El Paso and lend her vocals to the Spanish-language “la/SANDIA.” The song title, which translates to “the/WATERMELON,” feels like the counterpart to 2015’s “La Uva” (“The Grape”) with Iggy Pop in the way that both tracks personify fruit as agents of self-reflection in Spanish rather than English.
Teri traces both titles to the idea of “forbidden fruit” and the shame she had to overcome in order to take ownership of her narrative as a Latina – a Mexicana, specifically. She vividly remembers how one of her first managers in Los Angeles told her to stop saying she was Mexican, and instead hide behind her whiteness. ”And that's when the fury sparked in me,” she says. “So maybe the fruit that is in Spanish is because it's a secret, and you must only be a Spanish listener if you really wanna understand.”
The entire band falls into a quiet moment towards the end of the interview, reflecting on the cultural implications on the record and the shared aspects of Latinx identity that tie them to one another. When asked what they’ve been listening to, their silence subsides and their bond is solidified as they instantly break out in laughter at Teri’s confession that she’s been getting teary-eyed to Ariana Grande’s “Thank You, Next.”
“I found my family with these guys, you know,” says Robles Luna. “There was too many happy accidents that it's like, it was not an accident. We're in this together, and I think the album is the result of it all.”
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This article originally appeared on Noisey US.