Politics: “If you think it’s not a big deal when candidates for president and VP want to give government the right to outlaw abortion and contraception according to religious whim — if you think that’s not a slippery slope to totalitarian rule — you’re playing ostrich in my opinion.”
Music: “Overall we’re proud of everything we’ve released, but even taken all together the records don’t sum up our band. They’re moments…With art, you’re never safe from criticism. And there’s no true measure of success. You have to be your own arbiter.”
These are just two great quotes from a DEEPLY extensive interview with Jucifer’s always inspiring Amber Valentine! She took the time to share her thoughts on playing foreign countries, avoiding being eaten by wolves and bears, the difference between touring under Republican and Democratic administrations, the extensive history of the band and what it is like to literally ALWAYS be on tour.
For those who don’t know, Jucifer is a married couple who live in their touring vehicle, a metal/punk/alternative institution and, most importantly, one of the most adventurous, important bands in the underground.
Click HERE for an awesome friggin’ read!
Morgan Y. Evans: How are you today? I know you had a van breakdown and missed the recent Vancouver show. That must have been a bummer. Hope things are looking up in Jucifer world!
Amber Valentine: Doin’ fine! Yeah, it really sucked missing Vancouver… not only because we have awesome fans there, and breaking down or missing a show sucks in general, but also because we ended up spending the night way too close to the highway, on a soft shoulder, in a really desolate stretch where the only things passing were rocketing eighteen wheelers that felt like they’d blow us over and — probably — grizzlies. Or wolves; we were next to a spooky-as-hell memorial featuring a cross, a big rig and a wolf all made out of wood. Guessing the trucker wrecked and was eaten!
But we survived. Did a ghetto tourniquet type maneuver on our blown hose, bummed about ten gallons of water from passing cars and managed to limp back to the States. And found out our friends’ van got mutilated by vandals at that show, parked right where we would’ve been. So maybe breaking down was less expensive in the long run! One thing’s for sure, we’ve rarely been so relieved to let U.S. border cops ream our possessions. Sure, fine, hold us all night… at least we know we’ll have food and water.
MYE: Can you talk about some recent shows that HAVE been cool? You did Roadburn early in 2012, right? What has stood out this year for you as life enhancing?
AV: Roadburn was awesome, actually the whole UK / European / Russian / Ukrainian tour we did this year was epic. It was the longest we’ve been overseas in one shot — about three months — and the first time we’ve traveled alone in those places, just hooking up with local supports and doing some festivals.
We played like 70 shows that way and met all the challenges of being our own driver, road manager, and crew. That’s of course how we do it here in North America, but it’s obviously a way more complex thing to deal with all the different international borders and so many languages. And, because we couldn’t find a global phone we could afford, we did it old school!
Western Europe is fairly saturated with English (and other languages I have some rudimentary skills with) but Eastern Europe is another story. Hilariously, our GPS was generally perfect until we reached Poland. From that point on, through Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Czech Republic, the GPS wouldn’t accept street addresses or even intersections. It would only guide us to city centers. Since we didn’t know this ahead of time, we were just thrown into the fire. Asking strangers was mostly met with suspicion and blank stares, so we learned to seek out the golden arches. McDonald’s wifi was our savior, though when you log on to Google maps in Poland / Hungary etcetera, you get directions in their language… I painstakingly transcribed a lot of very long words. To give you an idea, “Hungary” in Hungarian language is “Magyarország”. Fortunately left and right arrows are universal!
In Russia and Ukraine we did the most extensive tour we’ve done there yet. It was amazing traveling by train, often for 20 hours or more. Knowing only four or five words of Russian, surrounded by people who knew no English at all. Sweating our asses off — Russia in summer is desert hot. And playing literally the first metal show EVER in some of the towns! I think there’s something magical about playing for crowds that don’t really speak your language, and you theirs. Not only is there a lot of laughing at the inability to communicate, and the awesome exchange of swear words… but it becomes so apparent that language per se is completely unnecessary. The music is the bond and the conversation. Throwing horns, banging heads and smiling says plenty. It’s a true family feeling.
After such an experience overseas, it was equally incredible to come home. Home at this point is the whole upper part of our continent, and it was a relaxing feeling to be back on super-familiar turf. Every day on the road is a battle no matter where you are, but it feels much simpler when you have little conveniences like phones… and signs in your own language!
MYE: I’ve been watching a lot of Sons Of Anarchy lately, and that show definitely makes you ponder rebellious lifestyle choices. Coming up on a big anniversary for the band, how does it feel to reflect upon the victories you have had following your own path? What made you so hell-bent on being such die-hard road warriors? Is it a Zen thing where music and travel just spoke to you as “the truth”?
AV: Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty accurate. Playing music was the calling for both of us. As soon as we’d found each other, the next move was to make it encompass as much of life as possible. So many people told us our ideas were impossible, whether in the sense that our creativity was too chaotic and we should be more predictable… or in the sense that we intended to move into a vehicle. When we started talking about that, I remember some seasoned musician friends saying, you can’t do that. You can’t make a living as an underground band. And you know what? It’s a shitty living, for sure, but here we are! Disaster is always around the next corner, but… we keep moving. We’re either heroes or idiots. Maybe both. There’s a quote I came across years ago from a Romanian Gypsy, some unnamed guy whose words were handed down: “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees”. And that’s us.
MYE: As a band that tours so much (always!) you got to do a lot of traveling under Bush and Obama. I was wondering, close to election time, did you notice any different national mood in different places while touring during either presidency?
AV: Traveling so continuously, we might not always register changes in mood… sort of like being around a little kid all the time as opposed to seeing them once a year and they’ve grown four inches. But one thing that’s a constant is the division of Republicans and Democrats. The Midwest and the inland West are staunchly, consistently Republican: pro-NRA, pro-life, anti-gay. Yet in the West, the hostility seems dialed down a notch or two from that of Midwest or Southern conservatives. We theorize that the literal space out here (stopped near the CO / KS border as we speak!) makes people a little less desperate in their fear and dislike of those they don’t agree with.
I think we have a far better grasp on the actual state of the economy than do people staying in one place. Reality is, there are lots of people struggling, but also lots of people experiencing recovery. Of course the people struggling don’t believe in any recovery. But we’ve seen some of Obama’s successes… especially the eponymous federally funded road projects. We also see clearly the delineation of Red, oil-manufacturing states by their markedly lower fuel prices. And we witness for ourselves, thanks to local billboards, the more insular problems in certain areas: Detroit’s abandoned neighborhoods, Birmingham’s gonorrhea epidemic, meth problems in the Northwest, and unsolved murders in South Texas.
Every election year, there are vitriolic handmade signs along some roadsides. Uniformly, the signage vitriol is from the right. As fervent as some lefties indisputably are, they tend to spew forth on iPads and webcams rather than painted signs on boards and cars. (P.S. A shotgun was just fired somewhere close by!!)
MYE: So, you have been making music together for many years. How do you keep challenging yourselves? Is each composition or show different? Like, “let’s have fun” one day or “let’s do something tricky” or “moody” the next? Any songs which have messages you feel you really captured and said something well that you wanted to say? How do you keep evolving so fluidly?! It is awesome to behold.
AV: Thank you! I guess there’s always a challenge as long as you push yourself. We’ve never been content to stay still, musically as much as physically. It’s more natural than planned — just hits us and behold, we’re on stage doing some grindcore improv which magically transitions into the best doom riff ever, which we promptly forget after the show. The tricky stuff is generally what we do when we “jam”… when we just start playing our instruments together without a plan. Something like ‘Queen B’ for example, just flew out of us in one shot. When that happens we try to form mnemonics to hang onto the magic, like actually as we’re playing a part, we’re each trying to make it stick in our minds. Other songs are written more traditionally… one or both of us developing an idea in a less stressful setting. When it comes to subject matter, it seems to arrive with the music. Like ‘Noyade’… I’m thinking about what happened when revolutionaries were drowning all these innocent people, tricking them into thinking they’re being taken somewhere better. Pick up my classical guitar and the song is just there, whole.
A couple of my favorite songs I’ve written are ‘Throned In Blood’ and ‘My Stars’. Just because I feel the music is really seamless with the subject, and in both cases I think the lyrics are evocative in the way I’d hoped to make them. I guess the key to fluidity in what we do is just that it’s never bullshit. We don’t write or play to be liked, or to make money, or to impress people. We do it because we need to and because we believe in what’s being expressed. I think when you work from that intensely personal perspective you can really go anywhere while never straying from your truth.
MYE: You are the greatest. In America there has been more debate about sexism this year than in the recent past. I was tweeting with you recently due to some thread via Lambgoat where people had made truly sexist comments on a message board about the female singer of a certain metal band. Do you think it is important to speak out when people are that narrow-minded or is it like pissing in the ocean and just futile? Also, care to comment about the national sexism debate at the moment? Obviously the two party system is flawed, but I think the Dems certainly care more about women and also minorities as human beings.
AV: I think speaking out is both necessary and futile. Certainly pissing in the ocean is a good analogy! But once in a hundred times, speaking out will actually make someone rethink his or her bigotry. And that gamble is always worth taking for me.
Yes, the two party system is flawed. And in my lifetime it seems that any divide between the agendas of the two parties’ politicians grows ever more narrow. In a capitalist society, corporate lobbies rule us much more than party ideology. Yet I think you’re right that Democrats are the better representatives for civil rights and human rights in general. It’s the ‘bleeding heart liberals’ who worry about equality and education, clean air and worker safety, and people in need. Conservatives seem focused on money first, then forcing the rest of the world to live as they think best. And that model’s archaic; 1950’s sometimes, straight medieval, weird shit at others.
This current right wing jihad against women’s right to control their own reproduction — led with bilious irony by people who claim to want smaller government — is one of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in my lifetime. The Reagan and Tipper Gore era was a cakewalk next to today. George W laid the groundwork for citizens’ rights to become secondary at all times to “national security”; these guys trying to form an all-Republican government have the capacity to push us over the edge. If you think it’s not a big deal when candidates for president and VP want to give government the right to outlaw abortion and contraception according to religious whim — if you think that’s not a slippery slope to totalitarian rule — you’re playing ostrich in my opinion.
MYE: How do you think the band has grown most release to release? Care to comment on each album? I mean, you have had re-releases recently so I thought it appropriate. How did it feel doing new music videos for older material? Do the songs grow with you and reveal new layers of meaning as you have aged with them?
AV: Our releases have always happened years after the actual recording. So even by the time fans are getting their ‘brand new’ copy, it’s always kind of distant for us. ‘Throned In Blood’ and ‘War Bird’ were the fastest from session to pressing, and therefore the most immediately satisfying for us.
Like what I was saying about constant travel, being a band that writes and records and tours all the time (instead of in ‘album cycles’ as I cringingly saw someone say on Twitter today!) it’s hard to mark growth. Even harder because we’ve never had a point A to point B and onward approach. I’ve said before that we evolve sideways, backwards, forwards, up and down… all directions at once. We’ve always been like that. Any given album has some songs one or the other of us wrote in the 80’s, along with stuff concurrent with the recording. And what we write today might be highly consistent with something we wrote in 1990, or completely unrelated.
With ‘Nadir’ which we’ve recently reissued in digital and cassette form (LP to be released on Halloween) … it wasn’t a conceptual group of songs like the stuff we did afterward when we were consciously making themed albums. It was basically a demo. Our first proper album was ‘Calling All Cars On The Vegas Strip’ which had a lot of our songs we’d written in the 80’s, when we were still basically kids. Oddly enough many of our individual kid songs fit well with this screenplay idea that Edgar had and shared with me. We hired a local bartender to be photographed for the cover, because we would’ve cast her as the main character had we actually been making the movie! That album was recorded in ‘95 and ‘96, got pressed in ‘98 and finally a real release on a major label in 2000… a really weird longevity that didn’t necessarily serve it or us that well, especially considering that we put so much 80’s material on it.
‘I Name You Destroyer’ was kind of a bookend story to ‘Cars’… set in the present of that time (cusp of 2000) though, where ‘Cars’ was set in the 80’s. Again documenting a fucked up female lead character. Unfortunately for me, people often assumed both albums were autobiographical. Part of why we eventually, circa 2008, started including scrupulous explanations and lyrics with our releases.
‘Lambs’ was recorded after but released before ‘Destroyer’. All hell broke loose with the label we’d signed to and they wanted to wait on releasing the full length, thinking they’d be able to support it better after everything shook down. Meanwhile we’d only released one official album 5 years earlier and been touring quite a bit. We had a huge backlog of songs and were going insane wanting to make records! So they agreed to put out an EP, kind of a stopgap. We conceived of ‘Lambs’ as the antithesis of what we felt pushed toward at that moment: being a radio friendly band. We were well aware of the expectations some of our recorded songs had created and were totally uncomfortable being pushed to fulfill them. We felt that we were a heavy band who could also make pretty songs, not vice versa. The music industry terrain at that time was wild for cutely packaged bullshit (as I guess it always is!) and we were getting some pressure to be cutely packaged. ‘Lambs’ wasn’t entirely our live sound, but it definitely wasn’t X station material either. And execution style hoods on our heads dissuaded ‘cute couple’ thoughts, we figured.
Once ‘Destroyer’ did come out, it was on a super shrunken version of the label. They put it out but couldn’t do much to promote it… there still hasn’t been an official video made! Sometimes we think it’s a real shame because it was kind of the right time for that record. Although recorded in 98 – 99, by 2002 radio was ripe for the retro-80’s-future production vibe we’d channeled. If the album had been promoted like ‘Cars’, we might’ve had a radio hit and been in a better place financially. But had that happened, we’d also be that-band-with-that-one-song. In the end we think it’s probably better not to have any “hit” in our past. Talk about false expectations!
So we recorded ‘If Thine Enemy Hunger’ not knowing what would happen with the label. The theme was based on mining… by 2003 – 4 we’d done a lot of traveling and happened across a lot of historic mine sites. Visiting Ludlow was a big catalyst to wanting to make this record. Again, once we had a theme, we realized a lot of our old material suited it perfectly. Almost all the songs on ‘Enemy’ were written in the 80’s and 90’s, with the exception of ‘Centralia’, which was written in 2003.
During the same recording session we tracked ‘War Bird’. Again our label decided to put out the EP and wait on the full length, hoping to build their strength. As it turned out, ‘War Bird’ was their final release. The theme of that one was pretty evident from the title and songs. We were deep in the throes of post-911 George W. Bush machismo. And very disturbed by things we saw happening in our country.
‘War Bird’ was poorly promoted and ‘Enemy’ was languishing unreleased. The label ended up owing us half the recording advance for it, which we never got. Meanwhile we’d had interest from Relapse for a few years, and the time seemed right for a new home. In order to get out of our old school 6 album contract with the former label, we agreed to let the money owed slide (they didn’t have it anyway) and give them some outtakes. In 2006 the deal was done and Relapse issued ‘If Thine Enemy Hunger’.
We kinda hated that we were finally, appropriately, on a metal label and they were going to present us to their fans with this album. Almost entirely, it wasn’t representative of our live sound… the thing that in our minds made us a good fit for the label. ‘Enemy’ was purposefully sparse, traditional… a rock and folk record. Which fit the theme but seemed all wrong for a Relapse debut. And we were itching to record newer stuff. But they assured us releasing ‘Enemy’ was the right move. In retrospect — as usual — who knows? Some were super turned off by the album, some became our diehard fans at that moment. Either way, we made the piece we wanted to make about mining. And Relapse did a beautiful design and pressing for the LP. On to the next.
I’d been fascinated with the French Revolution since about age six, when my mom got me a paper doll book of historical women. Marie Antoinette’s story intrigued me, and from that point on I read about the time period any chance I got. Consequently I’d written songs inspired by it over the years as well. So it was inevitable we should make a French Revolution album. ‘L’Autrichienne’ was a major production feat, with every instrument tracked by myself or Edgar (like all our albums) and recorded and mixed in just three weeks. Twenty-one songs, each one with multiple layers of instruments and vocal harmonies. Hell of a three weeks! Again this may not have been the best choice for the Relapse fan base, but it was the record we were in the mood to make and the label was game. I do remember them warning us that press wouldn’t like it because it’s so long. We told them to make sure press were given the liner notes so they’d understand it was a concept album. They did, and press ended up really supporting it.
So the pattern of our releases had been raw, polished, raw, polished, raw, polished, polished at this point. Issuing ‘Enemy’ and ‘L’Autrichienne’ back to back left us starving to pound out something more akin to our shows. ‘Throned In Blood’ was the antidote to long, intricately produced albums full of stuff we’d never play live. Our aim was to make one of the bare bones, old school proto-metal / punk records that kicked our asses as kids. And I think we pulled it off.
Overall we’re proud of everything we’ve released, but even taken all together the records don’t sum up our band. They’re moments… not a progression of any kind, really, just a series of thoughts. Stream of consciousness more than any kind of learning process. The best thing about putting time between us and the recordings is that they become pure. We can hear them just as albums, like we didn’t have anything to do with them. And it’s a great feeling. We always set out to make records we would like… to find that we do like them is awesome!
MYE: What are some of your favorite places to eat while on the road? I mean, you always are traveling, so you must do it differently than many bands who will settle for any old crap!
AV: We have some local favorites for sure. The Grit in Athens, GA and The Palomino in Milwaukee, WI are a couple that come to mind. Because we’re in such a huge rig with such a brutal amount of setup and teardown, we don’t get to really seek stuff out like bands who are more mobile and have free time every day. Fortunately we have a kitchen in the RV, which saves us from eating as much shitty desperation food as one does touring in a van. Edgar is a really good cook, and I’m always down to do his prep.
MYE: Do you think people are to quick to forfeit a creative lifestyle instead of trying to integrate it into their day to day scenarios? As kids we all make art and (hopefully) most families encourage kids. Later on in life we are told to be gray suited drones. How do we shake it up and add color at any age? I mean, really, anything should be possible to pull off in 2012 if people have enough passion.
AV: There’s a lot of risk in creativity. By definition it’s painting outside the lines. Which instantly gets some pushback. And, it’s got no safety net. Not only in terms of making it a career, but also in terms of being judged. With art, you’re never safe from criticism. And there’s no true measure of success. You have to be your own arbiter. That’s tough. So I think it’s fairly stressful to be creative. And some people don’t find it rewarding. Like spontaneity, it comes with danger. It’s probably not even necessary for some. But for those who crave it, it’s good to seek out people who are living it. If only to just know they exist. Because when you know someone else is able to do it, you can talk yourself into taking the leap. And you’re right that passion is the key. If you don’t have passion, you really have no business doing something in the first place. You owe it to yourself to do something in life that you can get excited about!
MYE: What can we expect from Jucifer on the horizon?
AV: New album will be soon. We had a studio shut down which we’d planned a session at, but have rescheduled at a different place for November so will hopefully finish up for early spring release. It’s already maybe 2/3 done, so it’s been pretty frustrating sitting on it for over a year. But that’s what happens when you tour constantly (laughing). Not much flexibility with the schedule.
And speaking of, the ‘permatour’ will continue as long as we can keep our bodies intact and the rig rolling. I guess we can make official 20-year tour shirts in a couple months!
MYE: Save me one!
(Author’s Note: This interview was way less existential than the-also awesome-1st time I interviewed Jucifer a few years ago. Check that out HERE.)
Black and white band shot by Shelby Amanda Lee.
Color band shot by Scott Stewart.