Teri Gender Bender Is No Bloody Gimmick – Boxx Magazine
By Chelsea Spear
In her performances with the band Bosnian Rainbows, vocalist Teri Gender Bender has the appearance of a caged animal. She stomps about the stage, pumping her arms and flicking her gaze across the audience; at other times, she stands stock still, her eyes glazing over and her hands curling into fists as she unleashes a deep wail. Crowds hang on to her every move because they don’t know what she’ll do next.
Gender Bender’s unpredictable nature extends into her conversational style, too, as was discovered in this interview. Sometimes she speaks in a rapid-fire voice about family, feminist theory and the duties of fronting a band before doubling back on her declarations to add depth and clarity to her epigrammatic statements. At other times, the silence as she ruminates on a question is so thick you can practically hear the singer furrow her brow and bite her lip.
Bosnian Rainbows represents Gender Bender’s latest collaboration with noted musician Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, who first gained prominence as the frontman for At The Drive-In and later, Mars Volta. Rodriguez-Lopez caught an early show with Gender Bender’s previous band, Le Bucherettes. As Gender Bender recalls, “We were in Guadalajara playing a little show, and he was there for it. It wasn’t his intention to see us — he was there for his friend’s band, but he stayed to watch us perform after. He just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and apparently we caught his attention.” Since that show, Rodriguez-Lopez produced Le Bucherettes’ subsequent albums and released them through his record label. “After years of being in Mexico, no label wanted to take us up. They thought it was risky and it wouldn’t sell. Finally, he said, ‘I’ll produce them,’” says Gender Bender.
The pair’s latest venture developed “organically.” At the Drive-In had gone on hiatus and Les Bucherettes’ most recent tour had wound down. Though Rodriguez-Lopez had developed a reputation as a dictatorial bandleader, Gender Bender describes their working relationship in more simpatico terms. “With Bosnian Rainbows, I’m constantly looking up to Omar, [drummer] Deantoni [Parks] and [keyboardist] Nicci [Kasper], because they’ve been on the road so much longer than I have….it’s like they’re my uncles.”
Indeed, filial relationships have always informed Gender Bender’s creative life. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants who fled to Colorado, the singer born Teresa Suarez had received mixed messages from her parents early on. “My mother has been telling me to expect the worst my whole life. My father was the opposite. He said to expect the best.” Unfortunately, her relationship with her father — who bought the singer her first guitar when she was ten — was cut short when she was 14. “My father died and we never really ever got to say goodbye. We left off on very bad terms and I felt very selfish,” recalls Gender Bender.
To some extent, the “angst” she felt as a teenager and her need for family has come full circle. As the onstage focal point for Bosnian Rainbows, Gender Bender frequently finds herself in “a trance” onstage. “For me, being up there and being able to move around without really knowing what I’m doing, it’s like I’m free. I’m able to tap into my father in a way,” she says.
Currently, the four members of Bosnian Rainbows live in a house off the coast of California. Gender Bender’s description of their current living arrangements makes the band sound like another family for her. “Every morning, we have breakfast together, we work out together. It’s really important for us to be healthy and support one another….When we’re on tour and we get back on the bus at night, we’ll get together and pull out our instruments and jam or write songs.”
It’s a different setup than Gender Bender may have been used to in her former band. In Le Butcherettes, her songs welded cerebral, confrontational lyrics with buzzsawing, bubblegummy guitar licks, but her onstage antics and a blood-strewn stage setup took the attention away from her musical skills. “I wanted to bring elements onstage to express what I felt,” Gender Bender rationalizes. “I felt like a piece of meat at the time. … It was my way of screaming out to the world, ‘You may see me as this, but I’m going to put it on my head, put it in my mouth, and I’m making fun of you by making fun of myself.’” In spite of the satirical aspects of her unusual mise en scene, some audiences still wrote her off as gimmicky.
Thankfully, Teri Gender Bender’s allies recognize her innate musical abilities. As Bosnian Rainbows was forming, the frontwoman had another high-profile opportunity to collaborate with an up-and-coming singer/songwriter. “Carla Morrison saw Le Bucherettes at [music festival] Vive Latino, and she said ‘we have to work together,’” she relates. And so, in November of 2012, right before Morrison won two Latin Grammys, she invited Gender Bender (and Nina Diaz of Girl in a Coma) to perform with her in a Red Bull Studios session that appeared on YouTube. “So many people see me as ‘just’ a performer. I was really excited that Carla sees me as a musician as well.”
With Bosnian Rainbows taking off, this seems like an exciting time to be Teri Gender Bender. The vocalist espouses an admirably down-to-earth attitude towards the success coming her way, though: “I just want to enjoy the simple things. I’m just trying to understand myself as well, you know?”
Cover photo by Robin Laananen