It’s likely the rare girl whose dream is to have their mother cook dinner for Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover of the Melvins… and then watch a cannibal movie.
But it was a dream come true for Le Butcherettes frontwoman Teri Gender Bender. As her newly formed alt-cool supergroup Crystal Fairy was writing and recording its self-titled debut in El Paso Texas, Teri’s mom cooked chilaquiles for the band. They then watched Ravenous, a cannibal/dark comedy Osbourne brought along.
But it was another film that inspired the band name (and song). “We’d watched Crystal Fairy [& the Magical Cactus] with Michael Sera and Gaby Hoffman, done by a great Chilean director [Sebastián Silva],” Teri explains. “Then, in the studio, all our writing was real-time and improvised, so when I sang “my name is Crystal Fairy,” Dale just started laughing, like, a genuine ‘this is cool.’”
Almost as cool as Teri herself. Born Teresa Suárez Cosío, she’s lived in both Mexico and the U.S., and is conversant about both Presidents Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto. She’s well-read (citing Sylvia Plath and Portuguese poet/writer Fernando Pessoa) and, while she’s a feminist artist who has been inspired by human tragedy, she says, “nowadays more than ever I’m trying to be inspired by human kindness, which can be hard to find nowadays.” We chatted with the singer/guitarist whose formidable talent is matched only by her humble likability and thoughtful demeanor.
Crystal Fairy’s self-titled debut album is available now through Ipecac Recordings.
She Shreds: The seeds for Crystal Fairy (rounded out by Mars Volta/At The Drive-In’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez), were sown when Le Butcherettes opened for the Melvins. Had you met the band previously?
Teri Gender Bender: No. I opened up a show for Jello Biafra, so Buzz showed up early to support his friend, and he saw our set. Small fricken’ world, we have the same booking agent [Robby Fraser at William Morris Endeavor], so he told Robby, “I’d like the Butcherettes on the tour.” Robby told me “Buzz never does this.” It was very kind of him; he didn’t have a reason to invite us on tour, much less give him the time of day on tour. On tour, they would help us load out and load in. You never get that kind of treatment in the normal world, much less the touring world.
As a kid, what was your first instrument?
I grew up listening to the Dead Kennedys, Bikini Kill, L7. My mom is a big Turkish pop fan; we had a lot of that in the house. [Jello’s] words opened up a lot of portals of interest into poetry, surrealism and politics for me. There’s a lot of angst here, I can relate. I play keyboards and guitar, but I started guitar when I was 12. The reason I picked it up. I kept having a nightmare that I was playing an acoustic guitar, but every time I’d try to strum the strings, they would melt. That horrible feeling of not being satisfied. So I’d wake up angry. So I’d take rubber bands, stretch them out and pluck them to get my anxiety out. Then with my lunch money—my mom wouldn’t let me work, because she was protective—I saved up to buy a guitar.
Being able to strum those strings was another spiritual experience, dare I say a religious experience. I remember the first time I broke a string: I didn’t know you could replace them. I was like, “oh, I just fucked up my guitar.” I cried so much. Until I found out I could replace it.
Tell me about the writing for the Crystal Fairy album.
It was super easy going. Our definition of having a party is locking ourselves in a studio and making music and jamming out. And the cherry on top is a little coffee break in-between! We all wrote. It was great to see the magic happen in front of me. Those moments when Buzz looks at Dale and they kind of giggle like “yes, we have this!” And they can read each other’s body language. Omar is a great bass player, it was interesting to feel these people I admire so much working so well together. And giving me the freedom to work with them. Not one person was telling me, “oh, no, your lyric is dumb.” Which is good, because I’m already my own worst enemy. It was, “We’re all pretty much equal here, this is fucking awesome.” Excuse my language.
It was such a euphoric moment. Because when I started my band in Mexico, it was a constant uphill battle, going against these sexist remarks, a lot of insults: “This whore just wants attention.” “Oh, she only plays two chords, of course she’s doing well because she probably fucks the men who help her out.” Horrible things. I felt like my heart was healing when I could see my work pay off, people I listened to as a little girl [supported me]. A very spiritual moment for me. Of course, there are people who supported me from day one. But overall, it was a constant uphill battle.
You sing one song, “Secret Agent Rat,” in Spanish….
That came out of nowhere. The funny thing is, while I was doing it, it was like “record a take,” then I said, “let’s do it again,” so quickly I counted the syllables in English and tried to make it fit into Spanish. I did the song in Spanish, and at the end of the take, Buzz was like, “that was weird, really crazy and creepy.” I was like “what?” He said, “I was just about to suggest you sing that in Spanish!”
Growing up, it was 100 percent Spanish in the household. I lived in Denver due to [my] father’s job. And my school 100 percent English. When my dad died, we went back to Guadalajara [Mexico]. Again 100 percent Spanish. Interesting cultural clashes. In the States I never felt like I belonged, because I had an accent. In Mexico, it was like, “you’re like a Gringa, a white woman.” It’s very classist there. Even if you’re Mexican, but have a lighter shade of skin, there’s that type of racism. My mother’s Mexican and my dad was Spanish. It was, “Oh, of course, you have Spanish blood, your men raped our women and girls.” There’s still very much of that ingrained.
Buzz’s guitar sound is legendary and loud. How did your guitar playing change for Crystal Fairy compared to Le Butcherettes?
I’m a very limited guitar player. I made my own way of being able to play. I only play with four strings. It was a slow process, because at first I only played with one string until I got my fingers used to that one string, then I added the second string. And I was able to dominate the second one. Eventually I got to the fourth string, and all my fingers are now preoccupied. So I tune it E C E G sharp, kinda like a banjo tuning, maybe. The way I press it down makes it sound like a chord.
No matter what movement I made on the frets, it sounds pleasing to the ear. This is just in my own ear. I should have gone to [music school]. So when I confessed this to Buzz and showed him what I do, he was like, “cool.” I showed him the song called “Sweet Self,” the chords which was originally a Butcherettes song, and he said, “sweet, keep it like that.” We both played around and added a bridge, and when we finished the rehearsals, he got me a Danelectro, gold colored. That was really sweet. He gave it for me to use for the Crystal Fair entity, but before I’d always play the Squier Jaguar, salmon colored. This is the first interview where I’ve talked about the guitar I play; this is awesome! I’m actually being considered a guitarist! Damn it, I made it work somehow. [The way I play] is super-easy, so I’m sure I could teach someone in five minutes. I’m a cheat guitarist.
Teri Gender Bender’s tuning and finger position for bar chords. Illustration by Frances Kinas
Why didn’t you take lessons?
Money was always an issue. Later on, I was stubborn, so I’d go on YouTube, when I was in Guadalajara. And I don’t know if it’s ADD or I’m too much of a rebel, but I couldn’t pick it up. So I got one of those TAB books. It just didn’t feel natural to me. Now that I’m surrounded by guitarists, like Omar is showing me how to warm up my fingers, while using all the strings, an exercise. Ironically enough, one of the first people to try to give me lessons was a drummer, [Gabe Serbian from The Locust, Cattle Decapitation]. I can play standard guitar a little bit. I want to continue, definitely, I want to get better at all guitar craft. The reason I kept going on with my cheat was that it allowed me to make punk music—anything’s allowed in punk.
So given your low-fi, DIY approach you must use a cracker box for an amp?
Ha! I use a cereal box! Actually, before when I started playing Guadalajara, I’d go straight to the amp. The money issue thing. I was proud, I didn’t want to ask for favors; “oh, lend me your shit.” I didn’t even have my own amps back then. I’d use anything. Show up and plug in. Eventually, Orange was able to cut me a deal. I have an Orange Crush Pro 240. The head for the amp is called Verellen – Skyhammer, by this great boutique company in Seattle. I get this crunchy tone without overdoing it on the distortion. When our front of house/guitar tech guy can’t come on tour, I’m my own guitar tech; if for some reason the jack is screwed up, or whatever, I take my little tweezers and try to fix it. Gotta make it work until the wheels fall off!
You’ve lived in both Mexico and the U.S. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling about President Trump and his policies.
Obviously, I’m completely against the wall, but I’m not going to hate someone who is for it. I’m going to listen to their point. I’m pro-information. On a symbolic level, what’s going on, with the wall, it’s horrible, but at the same time, there are always two sides. And this is coming from a Mexican-Latina feminist! Guatemalans cross to Mexico, the Mexicans have no sympathy; the Mexicans use machetes on the immigrants from Guatemalans who try to get into our country, chopping them into pieces.