Armageddom + An interview with Amber Valentine of Jucifer

Some things are worth the wait.  For many years, it seemed that I was doomed to miss Jucifer every time they came to lay waste to the fair city of Toronto.  Sickness, conflicting out of town travel or the dreaded late shift all seemed to conspire against me.  Thankfully, 2012 was the year that the stars aligned and I FINALLY heard the ear-splitting majesty of Jucifer in a live scenario.

Even after so many years, my expectations were still in line with the band’s legendary status among those who know.  The truth of the matter is that expectation was no match for reality.  Jucifer don’t just “perform”, they act as a gateway to an altered state – a transcendental experience.  What’s more, they’ve been doing it for 20 years now.

This interview began very shortly after the new year but with everything that they have had on the go, it took a bit of time and some of their of their fabled tenacity to see it through.  Read on, read on…  Some things are worth the wait.

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TBR: First of all, congratulations! This year is the band’s 20th anniversary. When you look back on it, what are a few of the highlights or your proudest moments that you have?

Gazelle Amber Valentine: Thank you! It is pretty amazing to have reached that milestone. Looking back there are so many things… it’s a very long time and we’ve stayed busy enough and enthusiastic enough that almost every day has some kind of highlight. A proud moment can be anything from surviving a breakdown to getting through a difficult show, to writing one of your own favorite songs, to hearing someone else say your work has affected their life. That last one, that’s a really meaningful thing. Especially in context of the post internet bitch-about-everything world, when someone takes time out to say something positive about a band it’s a big deal.

TBR: So here we are in 2013 – the “post apocalypse”, as it were. Now that the Gregorian calendar has turned over, what is your sense about where we’re at and where things are headed for the human species?

Gazelle:  As a history buff and a lifelong amateur sociologist, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the future of humankind. At the same time, I’m aware that this pessimistic outlook has been present for centuries without us actually self-destructing. Haha. So, who knows? Speaking of the internet… the worst thing about it for me has been getting exposed to so many nasty, small-minded, bigoted, and just plain idiotic perceptions. Of course I’m not talking about the people I personally socialize with. But evil voices are inescapable, blaring at you anytime you check out a story or post online. It’s really a double edged sword, this new reality where everyone can voice their opinion for the world to see. One can discover great intellectual and ethical allies, but never without also discovering one’s nemeses. I think it has become more difficult to feel optimism about human beings now that their worst nature is so omnipresent.

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TBR: OK, enough small talk. Let’s talk first about the new album. First of all, can you share the title? Are there any conceptual or lyrical themes?  …and the story behind them, if any?

Gazelle:  As with all our other records, there’s a very definite conceptual and lyrical theme. I can tell you, for now, that it is a Russian topic. And we were fortunate to be able to tour Russia twice since deciding on the idea, so we obtained an extra-personal feel for the culture and meaning around this historical subject. We’re super stoked on the record both as a whole piece and as a group of songs. It’s our favorite thing ever right now.

TBR: Can you tell us a bit about the direction that the songs are taking this time around? Are there a lot of broad variations throughout the album or did you keep a tight focus and direction in so far as the sound? 

Gazelle:  We feel like we perfected a new way to marry the dichotomies inherent to our band. It’s like a further alchemy, like our sorcery has advanced to a new level. I think this is because it’s a relatively current album; unlike everything else we’ve released, there are no super old songs included. We’ve finally almost finished harvesting our separate 80′s and beginning-of-90′s writing… there may be a couple more gems to discover on the old tapes, but in terms of this album, though the concept is one we’ve planned to do for a long time, the writing was no older than a few years. We always felt a duty to our individual old material, even stuff that we’d written as high school kids. As fans of each other we encouraged one another to mine that early stuff. On all our albums we found places for some of it. And we’re glad we did our young kid selves justice. But after 20 years recording, it feels good to finally be working in the now.

TBR: During the actual writing process, do you guys tend to think about where you’re at and how you want things to sound in the end and then work towards it or do you keep it very loose and just see where the muse takes you?

Gazelle:  We keep it loose. We are always writing, and not always recording. So our concept generally follows the direction we’ve been writing, rather than us deciding on a concept and then trying to fill it out. When we decide on, or realize, the concept for our next album we already have a lot written that fits. Once we become aware of the conceptual trajectory we’re on, we then begin writing more purposefully within that idea; but the later material will usually comprise only 10-20% of the record. By the time we hit the studio we have a really distinct plan for the album… not only how it will sound, but even titles and how the art will look.

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TBR: You guys are widely known for having an absolutely massive sound in a live setting. Realizing that you don’t need to bring a wall of amps and cabinets into the studio with you, is it a lot of work for you to capture that same kind of energy in the studio? Did you guys do anything different this time around?

Gazelle:  We realized early on that it is impossible to exactly transfer our live sound to a recording. To include the amount of low frequencies my guitar can generate live would destroy people’s speakers and completely overwhelm the rest of the mix… something we’re OK with to a point during the show, but is fairly useless on a record where people are listening with just their ears, not their whole bodies. We approach recording as a different entity altogether, because it’s necessary to do so to create a good recording. At this point we’ve spent enough time in the studio to know what works and what doesn’t, and how to achieve whatever sound we’re going for whether drums, guitar, vocals, or anything else we want to add. As long as the engineer isn’t having gear problems, the process of dialing in sounds is very quick.

TBR: From what I understand, all the tracking is done and you’re mixing down at the moment… Who did you work with this time in the studio? What are their strengths as a producer? Honestly speaking, you guys have a very DIY ethic and live perfomance is such a huge part what Jucifer is all about… is it difficult for you to turn control over or add someone else into the creative process?

Gazelle:  We don’t use producers and never have. We’ve always had a very strict vision for what the songs and the albums will sound like: the arrangements, sequence, space or lack of space between tracks, instruments to be used, the way they should sound, effects to be added and every other aspect of the process. We listen when an engineer has an idea, and if it’s in line with our vision we of course don’t reject that input. But as far as turning control over or having someone really interjected into the creative side, that’s something we’ve never wanted or allowed. We perceived early on that producers put their own stamp on every band they work with. We didn’t ever want to make somebody else’s idea of a Jucifer record.

Instead, we work with engineers who are confident in simply being excellent engineers, have their own creative outlets and so don’t have that need to control the session. We also only work with people we like and enjoy spending time with. Making an album means spending a lot of hours together in a close space and under some pressure… you want to be in the trenches with a competent and loyal friend!

Most of the new album was recorded with Joe Byrne at The Farm in Windsor, ON, Canada. We did additional tracking with Jason Tedford at Wolfman Studios in Little Rock, Arkansas. And we mixed with Mike Radka and his partner Frank Phobia at Akdar Studios in Bernville, Pennsylvania, the same studio where we recorded 2010′s ‘Throned in Blood’. All those dudes are talented and great people we had a blast with.

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TBR: When will it be released and which label is releasing it?

Gazelle:  The release date is set for July 17th.

Our own label Nomadic Fortress has teamed up with Mutants of the Monster, a new label formed by David Hall of the Canadian film company Handshake Inc (‘Maryland Deathfest: The Movie’ series) and his partner Christopher “C.T.” Terry, singer for Rwake and also a film producer (‘Slow Southern Steel’). Nomadic Fortress is distributed by Relapse Records, and Mutants of the Monster by Sony RED. We’re all friends combining forces to destroy.

TBR: I’m curious to know about your relationship with Alternative Tentacles. How did you guys hook up with them?

Gazelle:  We’re still in an awesome relationship with AT! They have a very DIY ethic which means we can work together when we want, basically as independent contractors rather than being “signed” into an exclusive deal. We will definitely be doing more with them in the future… meantime it’s cool to be able to work with some other friends. We hooked up with Alternative Tentacles because Jello came out to one of our shows in SF a few years back. That was our first contact, and since then they’ve issued two beautiful vinyl releases for us. They are a dream to work with, very great people.

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TBR: Jello Biafara is obviously quite an icon and from where I stand, a pretty cool cat. What are the things that stand out in your mind when it comes to Jello? Any stories to share?

Gazelle:  It was amazing meeting him the first time because I had been such a huge DK fan as a kid. But having gotten to hang out with him several times over the years, it’s more amazing just conversing with him. He’s a genius and has a really odd but great sense of humor. One of my favorite Jello idiosyncrasies is that he hates computers. He always listens to an album before deciding to release it, but he won’t listen to digital files. You gotta send him a physical copy.

TBR: It’s been awhile now but I’ve always been curious: What prompted the move away from Relapse. I can’t imagine that they’d want to let you guys to get away easily. Was it an amicable sort of move or…?

Gazelle:  We still have a great relationship with Relapse as well. They’re our distributor. The move to that relationship was a mutual one: for us, a greater freedom to chart our own path and control our own catalog, and for them, the ability to maintain our connection without as much financial commitment. Relapse was at that point considerably shrinking its staff, and at the same time we, having been in strict contracts for a decade, were itching to be at the helm of our own career.

For a band like us with a really established fanbase, it’s becoming difficult to reconcile what a traditional label deal can offer these days with what the band gives up. Back in the day there was a lot of money behind a signed band: now, the industry is deeply depleted and the idea of a label as all-powerful middleman between us and our fans looks a lot less advantageous. It seems better to have real ownership over our music; to be able to choose how and where it’s used, and decide for ourselves how it’s marketed.

TBR: There are probably experienced interstate truckers who have logged less miles than you guys have! With the sort of knowledge that you guys have, have you ever considered writing a book?

Gazelle:  YES. I have even published a few excerpts from one book I’ve been writing via various music sites. Writing was one of my earliest passions. Eventually, several books may be expected. Edgar is also a great writer, and photographer too: so the possibilities of what we could produce given time and a publishing deal are endless!

TBR: What sorts of things do you do to pass the time on the road when you’re not actually driving?

Gazelle:  There is very little of that kind of time. Most of it is spent doing different band-related work, such as interviews like this, dealing with planning tours, advancing shows, answering emails, stuff like that. Or just sleeping, eating, and doing laundry! We enjoy a lot of other things but find there’s not usually much time to do them. Among these: reading, writing, painting, making jewelry, riding BMX, tennis, shooting hoops, hitting up flea markets and record stores, listening to LPs, and the one thing we always *make* time for — walks with our dogs.

Van 1

TBR: How many different vans or RV’s have you guys gone through in the past 20 years? Is there any one make or model that you feel particularly partial towards… or prefer to stay away from?

Gazelle:  We had three vans before we got the Winnebago that we’ve had since 2000. The first van was a ’77 Chevy, spray painted black with psychedelic flower decals, teardrop window, shag carpet allover interior, four-barrel carb and glass pack. Bitchin. We toured around the east coast with it but it was a total cop magnet and didn’t even have seatbelts, haha! I actually got pulled over by police with GUNS DRAWN in the tag office parking lot the very first day I drove it… to get a tag.

Our next van was the van R.E.M. had bought after signing their first big record deal, an ’83 Dodge. When we got it about twelve years later we thought it was the fanciest thing we’d ever seen. It had track lighting, a sofabed in the back and sealed cargo hold. The problem with that was the door lock into the cargo hold was finicky. It would sometimes, literally, only open after a female kissed the lock (which we discovered by accident when I, in desperation, tried this method of coercion). Needless to say this made for some scary moments loading in or out. We sold this van to another band years later, and they had the same experience. Fortunately they also had a female member. To our knowledge this van is still running and still has original everything, with an estimated rollover mileage above 600,000.

When we signed our first record deal, we bought a ’98 Dodge. It was barely used and very nice, but we realized pretty fast that if we wanted to tour full time, we needed something more suited to actually living in. We traded in the van as a downpayment on the Winnebago, and the rest is history.

The Chevy had some problems but it was just damned old. The Dodges were very reliable. The Winnebago is on a Ford chassis and although the V10 engine has some design flaws, overall it’s good and has amazing torque for a gas truck. We’re on our second motor and really hoping it hangs in there until a time we’d be able to afford a third… only 10 grand, haha.

Van 2

TBR: Seeing you guys play live, improvisation is another aspect that I think is really unique to your live shows. Care to talk a bit about your experience an/or your approach to that side of things? Either musical inspirations that you’ve had or your approach to improv?

Gazelle:  I think when you have a natural connection with someone musically, improv is an unavoidable byproduct. It feels good and it works. Neither of us is a music theory type or uses other music as a big foundation for what we do, but I have always appreciated jazz and perceive its relationship to parts of what we do. The beautiful thing about improvising is really risk / reward ratio. After playing together a long time, it’s not insanely dangerous, but it can definitely fall flat. Knowing when you step off that ledge that it could go either way is thrilling, and when you succeed it’s a really great feeling. Over the years we’ve done hours of improvisation, mostly during our shows. I’m glad for YouTube because it’s one of the only sources we have to track some of our past improvs.

TBR: I think that most live concert recordings are dull and gratuitous, but with Jucifer, I think it would really work. Have you guys ever considered it?

Gazelle:  It’s been suggested to us often. It could be cool, I think, but there are many factors about us that make it pretty daunting to pull off and have sound good. We have had a few film crews do it, including the DVD that was released in 2008 ‘Jucifer: Veterans of Volume, Live with Eight Cameras’. Fans seem really happy with that DVD, but I’m not sure if the auditory flaws that seem inherent to recording a super-loud band live would be as forgivable without visual accompaniment. If the circumstances came together to try it, we wouldn’t say no.

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TBR: Seeing you guys at your last show in Toronto, I was really blown away at how “outside” you guys played and how unpredictable your set was. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the free/improvisational jazz of the 50′s and 60′s and I couldn’t help but feel that there were some parallels… How about you? Any other artists that do it for you as far as the ability to improvise? Also, can you give us a taste of what you guys are listening to inside or outside of metal?

Gazelle:  Thanks! Yeah, that’s my favorite era of jazz too. I never consciously sought to incorporate it into what we do, but I’m sure it filtered into my brain on some level. To be honest (and at the risk of sounding like an ass) I don’t know many other artists’ songs well enough to tell if they’re imrovising. I had an early music-listening period which included a handful of albums I know back-to-front: after that (around age 17) I switched focus to my own writing / playing and haven’t had much mind-space to interact deeply with anyone else’s since.

Metal, and metal-influenced punk, were my first great music loves. They still are, but because it’s the genre I live and breathe in my own work, I don’t seek out other people’s. It’s partly because my itch is already scratched, and partly because I want to keep my writing as unadulterated as possible. If it was released after 1987, it literally could not have influenced me because that’s when I stopped engaging with heavy bands’ records! It’s a funny kind of asceticism that I can easily live now, but would probably drop immediately if we stopped playing. And one of the only exciting things about the thought of not playing in Jucifer all the time *is* the idea of being able to explore all the great metal records I’ve missed in the last quarter century. I am literally hoarding a collection of sealed cds by awesome bands for whenever that time comes.

In the meantime I’ve had love affairs with traditional country and the harder side of hip-hop. Gangsta rap has been constant with me ever since I bought the Geto Boys’ cassette ‘We Can’t Be Stopped’ in ’91 or ’92, and seems to push the same buttons for me as metal: it’s sonically aggressive, it’s lyrically aggressive, and it’s in the face of anybody who has a problem with it. And: low end! Old country has some of that badass attitude too, as well as an instinctual pull that I feel when I hear bluegrass and gospel style harmonies, banjo, and fiddle. Probably from being a kid in the Appalachians in the 70′s.

Mostly for time reasons and the fact that I’m always driving (and have found music makes me a worse driver) I don’t keep up with new stuff in any genre. There are two pop artists so big I couldn’t avoid hearing, and that come to mind because I like some of their songs; Adele and Nikki Minaj. Those two are almost polar opposites in what they bring to the table, but both have their own kind of talent and have had some solid catchy songs. Come at me, haters! Haha.

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TBR: I’ve read some interviews about shows that you’ve done over in Eastern Europe that were the first metal shows that people there had ever seen. How do those sorts of things come about? It’s pretty amazing considering that you guys don’t have a manager or booking agent.

Gazelle:  We’ve always been self-managed, and we do book shows directly sometimes, when it’s people we know. But we actually work with booking agents a lot too. In the end no matter who sets up the shows, it all comes down to people who are fans of us or at least of the basic genre, who are working to bring us to their town. Nothing is much more amazing than doing those shows that are so DIY and so rare or anomalous for the town. Being always on the road, we are highly conscious of the support from promoters and fans without which we wouldn’t be there. It’s a really big deal to us. It’s why we push to go to new places, no matter how small, and why we give the very best we can to every show.

TBR: What is the most remote location or interesting venue that you guys have played in?

Gazelle:  We’ve played DIY venues in small towns in Russia and Poland, as well as all over western Europe. Last year we played a basement venue in France that seemed so remote, we couldn’t believe the show was there… down a mountain and beside an abandoned train station. The community probably had a population of ten or twenty! But it turned out that people drove from other towns and we had an unexpectedly good audience. Maybe the most interesting venues I can think of were a converted bunker in Hungary, and, most sobering, a squat in Germany which had formerly been a gas oven factory under the Nazis. Also the tiny club in Paris which had been a dungeon during the Revolution and had held imprisoned a woman I studied and had previously written a song about. There’s a catacomb just behind the stage, still full of prisoners’ bones. In Europe, the history is so long everywhere you go that it’s almost hard to avoid playing places where something fascinating happened. There’s kind of a sensory overload. But it’s awesome to feel that consciousness of history always infiltrating the present.

TBR: Not so much a question but really, just wanted to say that for what it’s worth, I really appreciate your candor and willingness to discuss socio-political issues in the past. More than that, the fact that you’ve had a relatively balanced perspective about it all and coming from a place of compassion about all of it.

Gazelle:  Thank you!! I really believe in justice and equality, although they’re not necessarily natural occurrences. I try to always second-guess my own reactions in that light… to be rational, fair and compassionate. Sometimes I fail But I’m glad to know I am giving that impression overall, because it is the way I aspire to be!

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Photos by Metal Chris and The Bone Reader