"Melvins saved my life": An interview with Crystal Fairy's Teri Gender Bender
, February 14th, 2017 12:10
Before her alt-rock supergroup release their debut LP, Teri Gender Bender speaks to JR Moores about the magic of collaboration
Portrait by David Goldman
No member of Crystal Fairy considers Teri Gender Bender to be an asshole. Not so far, at least. That was the singer, guitarist and keyboardist's main concern when interviewed by Glide Magazine in 2015. At the time, Gender Bender's alt-punk trio Le Butcherettes were set to embark on their second US support stint for avant-rock veterans Melvins. The two groups had just produced a split 10-inch for the tour and their interviewer was pushing the idea of a future collaboration. The only reason that a creative crossover wouldn't happen, concluded Gender Bender, would be "because I end up being an asshole".
Gender Bender (born Teresa Suárez) must have successfully evaded all assholery because this month sees the release of Crystal Fairy's debut album. For once, here is a supergroup truly worthy of that habitually deceptive "super" prefix so often applied to bands as objectively terrible as Chickenfoot or Dave Stewart's highly-shitty SuperHeavy. Joining core Melvins duo Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover in Crystal Fairy's line-up is Omar Rodríguez-López (At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta, etc.), with whom Suárez has collaborated in prior projects such as Bosnian Rainbows.
The participants' respective discographies may be a lot to live up to. Crystal Fairy's self-titled debut does not disappoint. Across the record's neat 40-minute running time, Suárez gives what is arguably the finest vocal performance of her career, soaring like Robert Plant one minute, snarling like Donita Sparks from L7 the next, switching seamlessly between Ozzy wails, PJ Harvey siren calls and Geddy Lee extravagance. Buzz and Dale are an ever-reliable pair but even they bring their absolute A-game to the Crystal table, powering through their most consistently satisfying studio recording since around 2008's Nude With Boots. (By which I basically mean they resist the temptation to indulge in a rendition of '99 Bottles Of Beer' or anything of that silly nature. There is a cover of 'Possession' by cult Sacramento hardcore outfit Tales Of Terror, mind, and that blasts harder than Billy Blastoff blasting at full blast headfirst into a bloody blast furnace.) Rodríguez-López, meanwhile, who was originally the bassist for At The Drive-In before he switched to guitar following the release of their 1996 debut, moves back to four-string duties to provide the perfect rumbling low-end compliment to Buzz's signature Iommi-gone-Dalí riffwork.
In the week that the furious petite-handed fake-tan disaster who calls himself President OTUS took his first steps towards rolling back women's rights and constructing that farcical border wall, Terri, shared her thoughts about magic, feminism and taking care of one's space suit.
How long have you been a Melvins fan?
Teri Gender Bender: Since I was 13 years old. Just two months before my father died, I was listening heavily to The Melvins and Nirvana. When Roberto, my dad, died unexpectedly, with denial in one hand and anger in the other, I dove much deeper into The Melvins' music. I could relate to the rage and conviction sown within their music. They saved my life. They gave me hope that it would be all right and that grief is an untouchable gift.
How does one go from being a Melvins fan to recording an album with Buzz and Dale?
TGB: I believe in magic. Somehow my wishing and yearning to be able to be around inspiring people has been granted to me. Sometimes I think my father has been involved in this. My hard work, of course. Luck, of course. Am I good person? Of course. I don't know. All these elements add up. Being at the right place at the right time. It is all magic.
How does the songwriting work in Crystal Fairy? Do any members turn up with practically fully-formed songs or is it a case of thrashing stuff out together in rehearsal?
TGB: Aha! Magic. It's very scary how sometimes we read each other's minds. I wish I could describe it. It's very surreal but with Buzz and Dale it just comes out. We did four songs in two days. I really wish I was a scientist to be able to explain it, but even then it would be impossible to convey how oddly easy it was to come up with the songs.
You've said before that both you and Omar have a very easygoing attitude ("Since we're Latinos we're really chill at taking things really slow. It can be really annoying to a lot of people"). Did this conflict with Buzz and Dale's serious, hard-driven work ethic at all?
TGB: I hope not! You can be chill and have a hard work ethic. I think Buzz and Dale are also very chill. It is one thing to be hysterical and another to go with the flow while working hard. I think our track records speak for themselves.
At various points on this record, you seem to be channelling PJ Harvey, Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, Donita Sparks and maybe even Russell Mael. Did you have any specific vocalists in mind as inspiration?
TGB: Honestly, I sang what the music brought out in me. Different styles of music call for different tonalities and I'm sure that I'm unconsciously ripping singers off but while I was growing up I would listen to a lot of Queen, so maybe Freddie Mercury is the one to blame.
If "Teri Gender Bender" and "Crystal Fairy" are the alter-egos of Teresa Suárez, does Teresa Suárez ever worry that her identity might become consumed or permanently confused by these bolder characters, leaving little trace of Suárez's original identity, like the character(s) in a Philip K Dick novel?
TGB: Never. I worry about real and boring things like "Am I loved?", "Am I a good person?", "How can I be a better person?" and "How will I pay back my debts?" I just do what I do, which is sing, write and play instruments. It's my outlet so that I don't end up hanging myself.
In their interviews, Buzz and Dale often mock musicians who take drugs, arguing that in reality such substances only ever hinder creativity and that most bands just get worse with the more drugs they consume. Is that something you identify and agree with?
TGB: I wouldn't know. Buzz and Dale would know because they've lost close friends to hard drugs. I never hung around people who took hard drugs, and much less hung around artists who took hard drugs. All I know is that people should listen to their bodies more. The body is a temple. We aren't here forever. Take care of that space suit and make the best of it till the wheels fall off.
On that topic, what is the song 'Drugs On The Bus' about?
TGB: I only ask that the listeners interpret the lyrics for themselves because every time I rehearse them a new personal meaning is found. Is it about a woman named Anahi running away from something? Is about X? Is it about Y? Who am I? The beauty of interpretation is that a song has many doors to different meanings.
Seeing as feminism has always been key to Le Butcherettes' work, would you say that Crystal Fairy is a feminist project too? Do you consider Buzz, Dale and Omar to be feminists? Do they consider themselves to be feminists?
TGB: Buzz, Dale and Omar are more feminist than many "feminists" I know. Considering yourself a feminist doesn't make you one. Being an empathic human who can see both sides of a coin is feminism's true essence. The bigger a movement gets, the more diluted and meaningless its substance can get. I think we were all born feminists because we all faced discrimination since we can remember, never pertaining to a group, so we made our own. That is feminism to me. They are men who support their families and love their wives. They are good people. They are a team, only trying to help the bigger picture grow. I think no matter where I am or what I do, if I'm writing, I am writing from a woman's perspective.
Before the presidential election, you described Trump as a "clown" and his promises of a US-Mexico wall as "comical". How do you feel now the clown is actually running the show and seems to be pushing forward with making "the wall" a reality?
TGB: It's nothing new in human history. I'm bored to tears by how many clowns have been leaders. That's why it's important to be the best we can be within our own little lives. This divine comic tragedy just keeps getting darker and darker. It's a pattern. What goes up comes down and what comes down goes up. When the wall is finished being built, someday it will get torn down. And then someday it will be built back up again.
Trump's attitudes towards women appear to be lifted straight out of The Caveman's Guide To Pussy-Grabbing Misogyny What challenges do you think feminism will face over the next four years and how can it rise to such challenges?
TGB: There are many challenges, sadly many challenges our mothers were used to but have endured, which is inspiring. Sadly there are many challenges that many of us are already used to and have been fighting for years, yet our strengths will inspire future generations. That's not to forget we will share many more triumphs to come. It is all a process. Ironically enough, situations that violate human philosophy unite people of different backgrounds.
Do you think Le Butcherettes will be around for as long as The Melvins?
TGB: As long as I have life in me, YES! But even when we succumb to death, our music will live on for us.
Crystal Fairy's debut album will be released on 24 February via Ipecac Records