When last seen at Lollapalooza in Grant Park a few months ago, Le Butcherettes’ Teri Gender Bender was working out a few issues on stage: bending and twisting her body into positions once only attempted by Cirque du Soleil contortionists, pounding the floor like a flamenco dancer in her bare feet, leaping into the audience, and working herself and her band to exhaustion until her drummer literally threw up – and kept playing.
The physicality of her performance matched a voice that seemed to channel a different personality every few verses -- confiding, threatening, soothing, punishing. She was a well-read rabble-rouser, too, dropped literary references to Rousseau and Leibniz while loudly declaring her right to speak up and talk back to those who would underestimate her.
“I have a lot of nervous energy,” says Gender Bender, who was born Teri Suarez 22 years ago in Denver to Mexican parents. “The nervousness pulls something out of me. When I’m up there, that is me. It’s natural for me to look people in the eyes, or lose myself in the moment. I never know when it’s going to be the last time when I do this. My mom says to me, ‘You don’t want to die doing something stupid. Don’t hurt yourself accidentally.’ She’s right, but the kid in me is saying, ‘Do backflips.’ I can’t do backflips, but I still try them. I get so frustrated because I’m not a real musician, so I try to express myself in other ways.”
Suarez grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, but went to a traditional English-speaking school, and found herself an outcast, preferring to stay quiet rather than open her mouth and endure the mockery of her classmates. As a release, she would fantasize about being a pop star.
“I’d go home after school and my dad would put on his VHS of (the Beatles’) ‘Help’ and we’d listen at top volume,” Suarez says. “My mom would want us to turn out down. It was good, causing a reaction, and that’s what I wanted to do with music: cause a reaction.”
Suarez’s father died suddenly when she was 14, and the family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico.
“It made me realize life is too short to dream and wait for dreams to happen,” she says. “I had a purpose to sing after my family crisis happened. I needed to write music, to express myself, to do it on stage, without fearing what people would say. That brought out the ‘Teri Gender Bender.’ ”
She discovered the music of the riot grrrl movement, especially Kathleen Hannah’s Bikini Kill, and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and immersed herself in feminist literature. Suddenly she could see a place for herself in music. She began writing songs on her older brother’s Casio keyboard, and at 17 formed Le Butcherettes with her best friend at the time, drummer Auryn Jolene.
“I was heavily involved with feminism, which confused people, who thought it was about hating men, but it was about self-expression,” Suarez says. “I hate saying ‘feminist’ because that word is so easily misinterpreted. But it inspired me and my drummer at the time, which is why the music was very basic.”
How did these two teen riot grrrls go over on the macho Mexican club scene?
“There was definitely a reaction from the people who saw us; the adrenaline made me think they all loved it,” Suarez says with a laugh. “But now I realize some people thought it was interesting because these two girls were playing. The men were there for the ‘show.’ Some would yell mean things. After the first show I was so excited, and this guy told me afterward that my voice was horrible. It hurt, but it made me work harder. If everyone loved it, there wouldn’t have been any incentive to get better.”
Le Butcherettes enraptured Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez Lopez, who was in attendance during one memorable show. Despite a power outage at the club, the duo carried on and improvised its set in the darkness.
“He was there to see another band, but that got his attention,” Suarez says. “We all went out for breakfast at a shrimp restaurant the next day and Omar said, ‘One day, we should do something with the music.’ He’s a busy guy, so I didn’t think I’d ever hear from him. It was just cool to meet him. But I found out that he’s a man of his word and he touched base again six months later.”
Rodriguez produced and played bass on Le Butcherettes’ debut album, “Sin Sin Sin,” and released it earlier this year on his own label. Since recording the album last year, Suarez moved to Los Angeles from Mexico because she was playing so many shows on the West Coast and retooled her band twice.
“I want to get back to the core of what this is,” she says of the many personnel changes after parting ways with her original drummer in 2009. “I felt I was being targeted as a metal band for a while, but I don’t know metal. So I am stripping it back, and opening the door to make new things.”
Le Butcherettes: 9:30 p.m. Friday at Subterranean, 2011 W. North Av., $10; ticketweb.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye