ATTENTION CASHIER: JUCIFER’S AMBER VALENTINE IS NOT A METH-HEAD
Since 1993, the furious duo of Amber Valentine and Edgar Livengood have been confounding and entertaining with their eclectic musical mix that frequently and wantonly crosses the boundaries between metal and rock. Jucifer‘s unrestrained artistry has led to some pretty impressive albums, including two for Relapse Records: 2006’s If Thine Enemy Hunger and last year’s L’Autrichienne. As the band wraps up the latest round of its unending tour, I recently took the chance to pry a few answers out of the loquacious Mrs. Valentine.
As one of the hardest touring bands in the biz, Jucifer essentially live on the road. What are the biggest challenges you face as a result of your nomadic life?
We can never seem to answer the question “where are you from?” with sufficient clarity. We’re entering our 10th year of having no house, no home base at all. We literally do not live anywhere. Have not had any ties to a house or town for almost a decade.
For whatever reason— maybe ’cause it’s insane to live like this?— people can’t usually digest that scenario. We’ll explain that all we own is in this RV and trailer, which is where we live, and that we tour all year except a week or two visiting family at the holidays or when we take time “off” to make a record. And the next thing they ask is “so where are you based out of?” It’s hell. LOL.
But seriously, the hardest part is just keeping up with basic needs. Maintaining our vehicles and gear which are getting beat to shit with constant use. We end up having to just trash stuff sometimes because we can’t stay to wait while it’s fixed. Trying to be organized when we never get more than a couple days without driving. Keeping in touch with people is hard. Sleeping, eating, and bathing happen less than we (and people who smell us) would like. Paying bills on time— super hard. And getting mail is a bitch. We’re constantly running out of merch… good that we sell it, but sucks when we don’t have what people want.
Oh yeah, and I’m a chick whose fingernails are always ripped and dirty from loading gear and playing guitar. Which makes me look like a meth head every time I hand money to a cashier, since they of course all have perfect acrylic nails, with rhinestones and shit. And it’s even worse for Edgar— he cracks sticks and gets his face cut, and his hands are cut from fisting cymbals, so he looks like a bum-fighting meth head.
The other thing that comes to mind is that we’re really bad at self-promotion. We just don’t have that much time to be online or mailing shit or whatever normal bands do either between tours, or because they have more people to drive and less gear to set up when they are on the road.
Your live shows are notoriously, memorably loud. While I commend your devotion to providing an intense concert experience, aren’t you the least bit concerned for your own hearing and health?
We consider it therapeutic.
As Jucifer spend so much time touring, you’ve surely played with all sorts of bands. Have there been any particularly notable ones, good, bad or strange?
One of the best shows ever, to me, was the first time we played with the Melvins back in the early 90’s. Our friends Harvey Milk played too. The Melvins slayed… I love Harvey Milk, had just sung on their record… and playing together with both of those amazing bands was just the shit. Us and Mastodon in Atlanta was another. Brent had played with us in his old band a bunch of times… they were great, and he was always awesome to hang with, such a good dude. It was cool having Mastodon play with us and be so good, and to see them end up getting so huge.
Tours with Meltbanana, High On Fire, and the Melvins were all sick. It’s a gift to tour with bands like that and get to watch them every night. At a later Melvins show we did, they had me come up and sing “Teen Spirit”. I sang the verses like Ethel Merman and choruses in full on death metal voice. The audience looked scared, and the Melvins said I was tied with David Yow for best guest vocalist— fuckin’ cool!
In Germany with Today Is The Day (another show that ruled to see every night) we played at a squat in a building which had been a gas oven factory during the Nazi regime. We were all pretty sickened and unsettled to be there. The green room is decorated with photographs and news stories about the history of the building. It was a real mindfuck to be eating good food, drinking good wine, and gazing at images of workers smiling proudly beside their killing machines.
Next night we played in Slovakia in a WWII bunker, and an old lady tried to write down the cure for Parkinson’s disease for our merch dude so that he could pass it on to Michael J. Fox. But apparently she was illiterate. And our bus driver had to bribe a border guard with beer to let us cross the border.
Though Relapse is a not as myopic as other heavy music label, Jucifer stands out compared to the grindcore, death metal, and black metal acts on the roster. Being such a difficult band to categorize, has this affected your experience with Relapse or its other artists?
Yeah, it’s affected our experience with every label. Not so much with other bands. Even though we incorporate things from multiple genres, in our live set those genres are all metal. So we were doing shows and tours with Relapse bands even when we were on other labels. But we’ve done hugely eclectic records, and labels have gotten excited about the fact that we can write “catchy” stuff too.
All our most heavily promoted songs were chosen by the labels because they were radio friendly. It makes sense from a label point of view. They see accessible tracks as a step to the next level. And in Relapse’s case, it’s rare to have a band that non-metal fans can like. So they want to build on that. But it’s really deceptive for someone who knows nothing about us.
So labels end up not necessarily marketing us in a way that serves us long term. Because of that discord between the albums and the way we are live, which of course is our own fault. We haven’t approached making records as commerce, haven’t respected the rule of being predictable to put listeners at ease.
It’s a bummer if people can’t accept us as “true” or whatever because we choose to play more than one kind of music, or write us off because someone (whether label, writer or fan) has appreciated and focused on our lighter side. Or if people who hate metal are drawn to us by an album track and then can’t stand us live. But I’m not gonna blame them, and definitely not gonna blame record labels. We present them with a conundrum— a band that has NOT designed itself to be sold. Yeah, we’re dumb. But we love what we do, so fuck it!
By the way, I find it pretty funny (in a sad way) that for some in the metal community, it’s considered artistic and ground-breaking when an all-male band does soft or pop-tinged songs, but that when a female fronted band does them, it’s “fake” or “gay”. Also that a number of dudes hate female vocalists while loving high-voiced man singers and claiming to be straight. Just putting that out there.
Your latest album L’Autrichienne is a concept record about Marie Antoinette. What is it about the figure that inspired you most about her or her life to warrant an entire album’s worth of songs?
Well, the record is actually about the entire French Revolution. We just chose Marie Antoinette’s nickname for the title because…it sounds a lot cooler than “The French Revolution”. Ha ha. And, as further indication of our perverseness, because we knew no one (including us) would probably be able to pronounce it.
It’s a vile, inspiring, depressing, uplifting, blood soaked period in history. Again perversely, that’s the kind of shit that we like to write about. And, as a woman who has seen a decent amount of gender-based discrimination, I can’t help but relate to the false image of Marie Antoinette that was propagated by her detractors. You know— when a female gets under your skin because she’s got power— just denounce her as a shallow, gold-digging, Satanic lesbian witch.
When the hell are you going to start working on a follow-up to L’Autrichienne?
We’ve already got some of it in the can (giggle) and we’re gonna come off the road to finish recording at the end of December. Which means we’ll be parking our house in the yard of the dude we’re recording with in Pennsylvania. We’re very stoked on this next record.
How much do you love Shadows Fall?
More than I can say.