Teresa Suárez Cosío, the woman behind Gender Bender, frequently delineates the two. Not that she particularly needs to: Suárez Cosío is polite, forthcoming and accommodating. She lets a curse word slip and apologizes for it in the same breath, then calls swearing “the sign of a lazy mind.” She gushes about feminist punk icons Kathleen Hanna and Alice Bag, the latter of whom contributed vocals to Le Butcherettes' fourth full-length album, bi/MENTAL, which came out February 1.
Teri Gender Bender, on the other hand, likes fake blood. Lots of it. And face paint, preferably red. She dresses herself in fishnets and headdresses and selects symbolic outfits for her band; for years, it was bloody aprons. Now, drummer Alejandra Robles-Luna wears white for purity and innocence, bassist Marfred Rodriguez Lopez wears an army-green jumpsuit for emotional avoidance, and multi-instrumentalist Rikardo Rodriguez Lopez wears dark red, representing history, death and injustice. On multiple occasions, Gender Bender and the group have cannibalized Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball," transforming it into a gleefully unhinged grunge anthem; on one such occasion, at the Hi-Hat in Los Angeles, Gender Bender paused just before the chorus to bark and beat her chest at the audience.
Back to Suárez Cosío, who loves pop: She discovered the Spice Girls before the Beatles and considers Cher and Madonna standout influences. “Pop, for me, is something that I love just as much as punk,” she says.
But it’s her punk side, aka Teri Gender Bender, that is the truest and best version of her.
“That’s the real me. Without any barriers or anything. It’s almost as if my bipolar disorder comes over, like a good version of me,” she says. “I do all this work off stage to be able to do that.”
Suárez Cosío was born in Denver of Spanish-Mexican heritage; addiction and mental illness marked her chaotic upbringing. Her mother, a former stage actress, suffered from untreated bipolar disorder and isolated the family from relatives; her prison-guard father drank heavily, becoming alternately violent and spirited when he did. When he decided to marry her mother, his family cut him off.
"They told my father, 'We’d rather you marry an ugly European than a beautiful Mexican woman,'" Suárez Cosío says. "Of course he knew it was all B.S., but he grew up in a household where Mexican heritage is a mistake done by Spanish conquistadores."
But all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and Suárez Cosío's was no different. She clashed violently with her brothers — "like a feral cat," she says — and remembers explosive fights between her parents, her mother pleading with her father not to give the neighbors a free show. It didn't work. The neighbors, she reports, were captive audiences on multiple occasions.
“When he’d come back from work, he would drink himself silly and then start reciting poetry. My father was my first experience of a poet, a spoken-word artist. He'd dictate whatever poetry would come to his head,” Suárez Cosío recalls. He loved classical music and Mozart, and suffered a fatal heart attack when Suárez Cosío was twelve. Her mother promptly relocated the family to Guadalajara, where Suárez Cosío retreated into magical thinking, acting as though her father had never died in the first place.
“Eventually that started turning into some sickness,” she says. “I started entering into this weird void of not knowing what was real and what wasn’t.”
Seeking solace, she dove into the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and Sylvia Plath — “Her poem ‘Daddy’ would always make me cry,” she recalls — and went through a Riot Grrrl phase. Conflict with her mother and brothers wreaked havoc on her mental health.
“This might sound fatalistic, but you know how teenagers are. I wasn’t planning on being on earth for a long time,” she says. “It was definitely not the quote-unquote normal family structure.”
But it is the one she mined for bi/MENTAL, where bipolar disorder provides both the structure and the vantage point. For starters, Le Butcherettes' raucous garage punk lends itself easily to mania. Not unlike the disorder itself, bi/MENTAL offers few steadying moments and never points due north, swinging between euphoria and rage. It sounds like catharsis writ large, a hard-fought deliverance years in the making.
Suárez Cosío has plenty to say. “I’ve been putting off for days/A visitation to your grave,” she sings to her father on album standout “give/UP." She turns her attention to her mother on the Alice Bag-assisted “mother/HOLDS”: “Give me milk/Without any panic attacks,” she demands over disembodied wails.
Suárez Cosío remembers the session for “mother/HOLDS” fondly, crediting Bag for taking it from the “weakest song of the record” to one of the strongest. The pair met in a Los Angeles studio and spent the day screaming into the microphone.
“By the end of the session, we were covered in sweat, we were breathless, even a little snot was coming out,” she says, laughing. “That was really humbling.”
Beyond the confines of the album, Suárez Cosío is working on herself. She’s reading Philip Freeman’s biography of Alexander the Great. She's become a fan of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. She’s reconnected with her maternal grandmother, who's shared stories of her indigenous Chichimeca heritage. She’s preparing for the Butcherettes' tour, which kicks off in Mexico City before heading to the United States.
“It’s not really a touring culture in Mexico. If you tour within Mexico, you will be pulled over with a gun to your head,” she says, citing the time federal police robbed the members of the Mexican rock band Molotov within the first two weeks they were on the road. “It’s so corrupt. We would play Mexico more if it was permitted, culturally speaking.”
But she does appreciate Mexican audiences' unbridled passion, citing both the time she saw a pregnant woman sob over how much she loved Metallica and the time a bassist friend became the target of a fistful of feces while opening for the Exploited.
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“I was like, ‘When that happens to you, you've got to own it!’” she says. “I hope I get shit thrown at me. Mark my words: I will own it. I will wear that shit with pride.”
A momentary pause.
“But it’s all about perspective,” she concludes.