Interviewing Gazelle Amber Valentine of Jucifer

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We check in with the lady-half of the 17-years-and-counting metal road warriors.

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Zeena Koda | September 24, 2010

jucifer

Jucifer. Photo by Edgar Livengood.

Some call me a power dyke, some call me a new age Betty, but at the end of the day seeing a woman rock out fearlessly is ammo for my feminist arsenal. Making a career out of being a musician – difficult. Finding a husband, especially one who will understand you as a female musician and front woman – very difficult. Combining marriage, music, business, artistry, alongside touring – almost impossible, unless you're Jucifer of course. Gazelle Amber Valentine and Edgar Livengood have been giving it the ol' valiant effort for 17 years now, beginning as life partners and blossoming into the distinctive musical duo we see today. Equal parts doom, 90s alt rock, folk and stoner metal, there truly is nothing like Jucifer. Remaining constantly “nomadic” these two lovebirds keep pumping out the hits and pummeling walls of sound worldwide. Their latest, Throned In Blood dropped in the spring on their own imprint, Nomadic Fortress Records. Amber, whom I'd rather refer to by her real first name, Gazelle, took some time out during tour to answer my most pressing questions.

Do you ever find it difficult being a woman in heavy music? What is one of the benefits and one of the downfalls?

I'd love to say gender doesn't matter, because it shouldn't. But that would be a lie.

Pitfalls… First, everybody assumes that you're getting preferential treatment. You can't take credit for anything good that happens to your career, because it obviously wouldn't have happened if you were a guy. Second, you have no safe options with your appearance. Stereotypically feminine or sexy? Sellout, fake – obviously not talented. Butch? Ugly and a dyke. Middle ground? Safer than the first two, but you're still gonna get called a slut. If one person says you're pretty, nine others are in line to caustically disagree. If you're too pretty, it's obviously the reason you were able to cheat your way into whatever success you've got. If you're not pretty enough, it's a travesty, and guys will joke about putting a bag over your head to screw you. If you're fronting a band and want attention you'd better give some T&A. And if you do give the T&A, on purpose or by accident, it just proves you have no other abilities.

You'll be expected to play on female theme nights and female theme tours. Even if your band has five guys and you in it or, like mine, is half male. And when promoters tell you they've included you in an “all-chick night”, you're supposed to think that's awesome. (Try that one with any other minority and see how it goes!)

If you play a traditionally male instrument you can never play it well enough to get credit simply as a musician. You're gonna always be a female guitarist or a female drummer, and reviews of your performance will often talk more about what you looked like than what you played. Your contributions and innovations will be largely overlooked until a guy you've influenced does what you did and makes it trendy. Then they will be attributed to him and you'll be expected to talk about how he influenced you.

If you're a singer, people will dismiss you out of hand because they don't like the female voice. Even when these same people are fans of high-voiced male singers that sound like women.

99% of the time you deal with male agents, male promoters, male venue managers, stage managers, and sound crew. When you walk in as a female and they know who you are, it's fine. Otherwise get ready to have them assume you're the merch girl.

On top of everything else you're supposed to pretend things are all good. That being female has no effect at all. If you don't keep up that pretense you'll probably get pegged as having some militant agenda or just being a bitch. (But here goes anyway.) Besides: you know you're not actually inferior, so you want to go along as if things are fine. You just wanna do your thing and have it be what it is. For hours, even days at a time this works. You can live life without being reminded that your femaleness is a problem. Then somebody beats you over the head with it again.

Women are still not equal in the world. They can at times hold great power and surpass male rivals for position, but that's exceptional. We haven't even been allowed to vote in this country for a full century yet. The vote was given to black men on the heels of the Civil War, but females were treated as chattel here long after slavery was abolished. During westward expansion American soldiers captured Native women along with their horses – just another possession to be taken as spoils of war. On the frontiers, pioneer widows faced prostitution or rape (the unpaid version of prostitution) unless they could marry a new protector.

Why isn't this kind of historical exploitation an enduring source of mainstream guilt in the way that slavery is? Maybe because we're still considered of lesser importance. Worldwide, there are still millions of females living in cultures where their inferior status is legally enforced and socially accepted. Where girls are mutilated or murdered and even their own families defend those actions as correct.

In heavy music there's a substantial subculture of lyrics and artwork about mutilated females. Women like me have wisdom enough to let that stuff slide. We understand that it's calculated to be ridiculously sick. It's a joke. Usually. But the fact that so many dudes are attracted to that kind of concept, and simultaneously so unwelcoming to females in the metal world, indicates a disturbing continuation of male-against-female prejudice.

There's a traditional view of the female as sex object. As soft. As weak. There's no tradition of the female as a suitable role model for a man. So some dudes can't figure out what to do with us when we invade “their” territory, especially when we do it well. It makes them second guess their own concept of badass. Like, is this still badass if a chick can do it? Which explains why hundreds of guys over the years have looked at my huge wall of amps and immediately made a point of telling me that some male musician “has more”… when in fact they don't use even half as much. It's like, young dudes have these man-crushes on guy musicians. Somebody they can aspire to be like. But a girl taking on that kind of energy freaks them out. They don't aspire to be a girl, so it's hard to accept one as a guitar god.

Jucifer, “Fleur de Lis”

Unfortunately as many women as there are playing and supporting heavy music, we're still very much the minority. Which means that all those dudes who'll dismiss you or hate on you are gonna actually have an effect on what you can get done. That's the big downfall. You always have to be doing ten times as much as a guy would have to to get respect. And even if you're kicking dudes' asses left and right, you still won't get respect from some.

The only benefit I really see women gaining from their gender is that the bullshit status quo makes you fight. And when you're fighting all the time, you get stronger.

But I should mention that despite having seen and experienced depressing amounts of anti-female behavior, I've also found lots of support from dudes who are not like that at all. And I definitely don't believe (or mean to imply) that all males are bad. Just describing the effect this entrenched cultural bias still has – because I don't think overlooking it will make it go away.

I always say that being in a band is like being married to each
member, but in your case you are married. How do you balance the
mundane of marriage with the heaviness of building a record and
touring?

It's awesome you use that analogy, because I
always negate the novelty of us being a married band with exactly the
same point. Being in a band is a marriage. So the marriage-marriage
doesn't really change the dynamic of the band-marriage that much.
Except maybe in the sense that there's less life outside the band.
Which can be good or bad depending on your perspective!

The
nature of being married to your musical partner instead of an outsider
is that you don't get as much praise. You tend to take each other's
abilities for granted. You don't have this non-musician at home that's
always impressed by what you do to shore up your ego. Instead you're
with someone that expects your best and shares all your achievements
along with your disappointments. It's extra pressure. A disadvantage, I
guess. But then again, the fact that we're not sitting around
congratulating ourselves with a totally uncritical partner is probably
good for our focus. And the creative action combined with touring year
round adds amazing dimension to our life. We're in the shit together
all the time, and we know we can rely on each other. A lot of couples
are never tested like that. I guess that's why marriage could be
thought of as the mundane part of life… it's anything but mundane for
us.

In your opinion, Is it possible to have a child and raise them on the road?

I think it's possible for some, especially people with wealth and extended family to help make it work. And then there's people like us, who have dogs!

Jucifer have collectively defied the mainstream, even during a time where latching on to major labels was the standard. Do you feel you have survived that long because of your unique approach? Why do you think you have had such longevity?

Probably just because we're stubborn. Out of stubbornness we haven't bowed down to the corporate side of things. And that should have destroyed us, because music biz is about conformity much more than creativity. But our stubbornness keeps us around even though we're not getting the level of support a more kiss-ass band would get. And for every ten people that pass us by because we don't fit whatever mold, there's two that perceive our commitment and our originality. Those two become the ironclad fans, the kind of fans that stay around. We're more than just a summer fling for them. They come out to our shows year after year. They try to indoctrinate their brothers and sisters, their friends, eventually their children. It's a slow burn. Meanwhile other bands come along and rip us off. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. And we're not leaving the field to them. We're on tour, steadily playing for the kids coming up, and letting them know we were here first. It's a drop in the bucket. But we're stubborn.

We've put everything into this band. We're on the road 24/7 and we've been doing this literally half of our lives. The big difference between us and, shit, probably way too many people playing music, is that we do it because it's what we love and believe in. I hate to be so cynical, but experience has shown me that most people are in it for different reasons. For them when the goodies run out, it's time to move on. Maybe do a reunion tour if the demand seems to be there and it looks like a good paycheck.

For us it's a way of life. We're building a legacy that if nothing else, we can look back on knowing what it cost and why it was worth it. We may not get a lot of money. We're probably not even getting the credit we should, because although we've been around a long time, a lot of people don't know about us. But we're still excited about what we do. Still ready to demolish when we play. And stubborn.

Aurally, you guys continue to create tracks that still hold a little crackle, not giving into the Pro Tools polish. What do you think of the current state of heavy music? Do you think Pro Tools has made it easy for bands to take precision over feel?

Well, I think there's a place for clinical sound and for precision. But whenever anything becomes too predictable, it sucks. I hate the environment in music where it's all supposed to sound more and more the same. Where there's a standard sound for every sub-genre along with standards for song structure, playing style, vocals, haircuts, band photos. I think it's pathetic when that happens in heavy music. Fuck, these are the people who're supposed to be badasses. Don't act like the same sheep lining up for pop's flavor of the week.

I can appreciate technicality but not when it's all there is. I don't listen to music to hear people show off. Speed and busy playing can contribute to feel, but they don't replace feel. It's like if a car's really fast but can't turn. What's the point? Where are you gonna go?

Pro Tools and triggers make it possible for people to record music beyond what can be played by a human. I don't have a problem with that. It's just technology. It's a tool. The problem is when technology becomes the point… when form usurps content.

I think there's also a trend toward organic spacious textural music, sorta running parallel to the hypertechnical hypermetal. Those two attitudes are always at odds but both have so much impact when applied to being heavy.

Why the name Jucifer?

Just a stupid made up word we never thought would be our final band name! We came up with it during a time when we changed our name every month or so. There was inspiration for thinking up the word, but the source of inspiration had nothing to do with us. We just kept it because we figured a made-up word would be less likely to belong to anybody else. Which was true. But it's amazing how many people have told us over the years that, before finding out about us, they had named their cat Jucifer . I can't believe we named our band that, but a cat? That's some weird shit.

Because your first name is Gazelle – what is a gazelle to you? How do you catch one?

Gazelles are very fast little deer like creatures with awesome black markings. And amber is petrified tree sap. Maybe my parents were hoping to give me balance? I do love gazelles. If I wanted to catch one, I guess the best way would be to turn myself into a jaguar or a cheetah.

Where can we expect to see Jucifer for the remainder of 2010?

We'll be rolling around stateside for the rest of the year.

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