Gazelle Amber Valentine: 'Gender Is Not A Genre'
The two vagabonds behind distorted doom unit Jucifer have been peddling their decimating decibels across the globe since 1993. Famed for their towering wall of amplifiers and incendiary live performances, guitarist and vocalist Gazelle Amber Valentine and her partner in music and in life, drummer Edgar Livengood, are always on the move. The married couple live in an RV with a scattering of dogs and musical equipment and transverse the country 24/7. Valentine reckons they haven't made a house their home since the '90s, and the pair show no signs of putting down roots. The band's last album, за волгой для нас земли нет (also known as "The Russian Album") was released on their own Nomadic Fortress imprint and received glowing reviews from deafened audiences hither and yon. Valentine's rootsy, quiet acoustic project Devil's Tower is a complete about-face from her usual bludgeoning, and has started making a few ripples of its own thanks to word-of-mouth; the contrast between the two bands is fascinating, and adds yet another facet to Valentine's complex persona.
At Jucifer shows, her banshee howls and frenetic fretboard work crash up against Livengood's thunderous war drums, and the result electrifies as often as it confuses — or intimidates. It's not uncommon for Jucifer to take the stage and, through the smoke, watch as their audience slowly creeps away overwhelmed by the volume and sheer intensity that they've been confronted by. That's what happened the first time I saw them at a dingy bar in Philadelphia; by the end of their set, I was the only spectator left. I was so enthralled that I hadn't noticed the uneasy exodus behind me. The band's 2006 album, Thine Enemy Hunger marked my first exposure to their sheer sonic might, and it was wonderful to discover that behind the music lay an even louder voice, one that I could relate to on a visceral level.
Valentine is an intense personality. She is outspoken and charismatic, and for those of us holding it down on metal's ladies' team, she is as inspiring as she is endearing: sort of like the hellraising big sister figure I never had. Since that first meeting in Philly, Valentine and I have kept in touch and frequently picked one anothers brains on Twitter, a medium she embraces for fan interaction and plenty of fiery debate on a wide range of topics. Most often the uneasy relationship heavy metal cultivates with the women who love it is the target of her ire; she's got plenty more to say on the subject in the following paragraphs. For every woman who's been told that "girls don't like metal," there's a voice that sounds a lot like Valentine's screaming for vengeance.
Jucifer are currently traipsing across North America on their eternal tour, but their next big move will take them overseas and onto the spanking new stage at the U.K.'s inaugural Temples Festival, which is shaping up to be a truly huge gathering of talents from the subterranean metal world including Neurosis, Electric Wizard, Brutal Truth, Doo and Repulsion. It's an earthshaking lineup, and Jucifer is excited to have a hand in the aural destruction ahead.
I caught up with Amber somewhere along the highway to talk riffs, banjos and Playboy.
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This interview contains profanity.
You're about to embark on an especially exciting leg of your perma-tour: back to Europe, and a spot appearing on the inaugural Temples Festival. Where else will you be playing?
We're actually crossing the ocean just for Temples. They wanted a truly exclusive date. So we asked them to fly us in a couple days before, and out the day after, the whole festival. For once we'll actually get to watch a bunch of other bands! It will be kind of a tease to take that long flight for such a short stay, but after spending four months overseas between this past August and December, we're not really ready to be away from our dogs and own rolling home and gear for too long so soon.
How's the current U.S. tour rolling? It's got to be second nature by now, but is there anything about touring that you still find difficult or frustrating?
It's going well! We managed to hit most of the recent snowstorms around the northeast, but eventually our luck ran out and our show in Augusta, Ga. was canceled. As far as I can remember that may be the first show we've ever missed due to weather. I guess we had a good run!
Everything about touring is difficult, except those precious hours when you lose consciousness and recover a little bit. But you're right, it is second nature, actually first nature, now. It's just normal life for me. What I find most frustrating at this point is probably when people verbally diminish — or physically increase by being unprofessional when working with us — the hardship of our life. Few perceive the enormity. Two people literally moving four THOUSAND pounds of gear in and out for every show; then plugging about eighty or a hundred wires in exactly the right places to make electricity go everywhere it has to for sound to travel; setting up drums and merch and a DIY light show; doing all this in the span of about four hours after driving hundreds of miles, THEN sweating and bleeding and giving our souls to the void for an hour; another four hours dismantling the whole thing and packing it back into our trailer; driving some place we can sleep for two or three hours and then back on the road to do it all over again. I read the symptoms of PTSD a year or so ago and realized we have them all. We're constantly triggering that fight-or-flight stuff. Which is part of metal, too — just the music itself, above or beside the experience of touring all the time.
What are you two working on now? You released your eighth album, за волгой для нас земли нет, just last year, but I know you've always got something creative tucked away up your doom wizard sleeves.
Yeah, the next Jucifer album is already taking shape, and besides that we've got some quiet stuff incubating. Last year we released a digital version of an album I recorded awhile back, Devil's Tower I. It's something I had in mind and had songs written for for a long time, and the digital release was step one of our goal to eventually make Devil's Tower a functional side project, where we can both express creativity in a way that doesn't fit into Jucifer (even as diverse as we've built that to be). We're gearing up to do a vinyl release sometime in the near future, then a tour. It could be really nice to go on the road playing both stuff recorded for Devil's Tower and Jucifer, but we had never wanted to interrupt our heavy vibe during shows.
When did you get the urge to go acoustic, and how did these songs come together?
I've played acoustic instruments since I was little. I write totally differently on different instruments; even between electric guitar and electric bass, I get very different ideas. So I've always gone back to acoustic ones from time to time ... it's a more introspective and peaceful feeling. A lot of the songs on Devil's Tower I came about in a quiet moment either at home (a couple were written over a decade ago when I lived in houses attached to the earth!) or in our "yard" at some random RV park. Some were written in my head while driving; it's a good way to be efficient and most of all, stay awake! I've got three or four other country hits in the queue for Devil's Tower II which were written while driving.
I'm especially excited to see you bring Devil's Tower to life onstage. Do you think you'll feel strange going up there without your customary wall of sound?
To be honest I find playing quietly a little terrifying! It's pretty much the opposite of what I do in Jucifer. It's revealing yourself with a whisper instead of a battle scream. It will be interesting to experience performance as something inviting rather than confrontational. Also, it will be a nice opportunity to bust out clothing and hair that would be impossible to play a Jucifer show in. I'm thinking vintage Dolly and Loretta styles, man.
I love finding out that metal musicians have non-metal side projects; it adds another dimension to what is so often unfairly characterized as a very black'and'white world. Growing up in Georgia, I'd imagine you had plenty of exposure to country and Southern folk.
I always love finding the country and folk love in fellow metalheads, because I've met so damned many of us! Country was something I kind of reviled as a kid, but I can still remember the first time I "got" country music. I was about seventeen, and driving my first car, searching through radio stations. Stopped on a Hank Williams song and it suddenly came together for me — that, just as punk and metal I loved were outlaw and honest, this old country was too. Just as protest songs of the folk era critiqued what that was wrong with the world, so did country. It's the perfect antidote to cleanse me, to lift me out of that brutality that is the best thing in the world to write and play but the last thing I need to listen to after pounding myself with it night after night.
To detour for a moment and revisit your own roots: How did you first become interested in and aware of feminism, and womankind's fight for equality? How has living your life as a musician and metalhead affected your identity as a woman?
The first "feminist" memory I have is my response, as a kid of eleven or twelve, to President Reagan seeming to support overturning Roe v. Wade. I was really shaken by that. I wasn't yet in any danger of becoming pregnant, but even so, I KNEW that it was wrong for a government or a religion or anyone other than the pregnant person to dictate what she could do. Hearing men on television act as if they had every right to curtail women's choices raised my alarms.
My identity as a woman was always secondary to my identity as ME, if that makes sense. Being a musician and metalhead might not have even happened if not for that. I've had to reject a lot of socialized bullshit to openly be what I am: a woman who is, and is at ease with, simultaneously embracing traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine things. I don't find they conflict, but society says they do. People have told me both literally and figuratively that "girls can't" do just about everything. Fortunately I never believed them and will do it anyway. The truth, of course, is that gender doesn't have anything to do with a person's capabilities. If anything, my life in metal has cemented everything I already guessed about the world. You know; the highest compliment I can get after a show is, "I thought you were a dude until I got close."
That's the world we live in. The default for ability is male (white straight cis male, to be precise) and the rest of us are held to that standard and SURPRISING when we meet it. To be surprising sometimes means being revered, other times means being shunned. Stepping outside the box you "belong" in inspires some, threatens others. The herd loves conformity and ostracizes dissent ... that's just science. You're supposed to play along. Milk the system and it will reward you, not of course with full equality, but with A Little Bit Better.
The Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock tour is back ... and so is the chorus of disappointed woman metal fans who feel they deserve better. At what point does does embracing and celebrating one's sexuality go from empowering to exploitative? Do you think it is fair to condemn the women who choose to take part?
Ugh ... speaking of A Little Bit Better! I reject reducing music to sex and reducing people to sex. There is nothing wrong WITH sex, but it's only a very small part of a whole identity and, as a physiological function, makes as much sense to define people and art with as "Chicks Who Poop Good Tour." (I'm really hoping that one takes off!) I would also reject "Chicks That Kick Ass" even though that, at least, implies some kind of talent beyond good genes. I've said it before and I'll keep saying it until everybody gets it: Gender is not a genre. Theme tours based around femaleness are awful, to me, because they reinforce the TOTALLY WRONG AND SILLY idea that "female" is a legitimate genre or quantifier of creative style.
Though well-intentioned, I dislike all-woman tours and fests run by feminists for their focus on gender, too. I don't want a "special place" in the world. I want a human-sized piece of the general space.
The people who created the tour and those who sponsor it are the instigators. But everybody from booking agents and venues to the bands to the audiences attending are contributing. It's pretty easy to say, fuck it, this is the way the world is and I'm gonna have some fun / make some money / look at some boobs. At least, it's easy if you don't see or don't care about the deeper societal problems shit like this reflects and sustains. There have always been those willing to trade certain benefits for loss of certain power, respect, or freedom.
Discussing the line between empowerment and exploitative behavior is dicey. There's chicken and egg stuff going on. Do women control their sexiness? Do they even create it? Or do they inherit it from traditions built on controlling them and making them unnatural? Is it patriarchal colonialism that we like our cleavage or our butts, high heels, long hair, lipstick, whatever? And if so can we ever belong to ourselves while enjoying that stuff? In addition, isn't stigmatizing women who sell their sex appeal hyper-patriarchal in and of itself? At the same time, isn't selling oneself as an object pandering to patriarchy? It's a proper hornet's nest with no clear answer. We have to seek our own ways to celebrate ourselves while getting stung as little as possible, I guess.
As a humanist, a womanist I support individual agency. I also don't believe any of us has to be a role model. People involved in "Hottest Chicks" aren't monsters; hell, some of them could even be my friends. But they are, whether willfully or inadvertently, greasing the wheels of a monstrous system. I think we need to condemn that system without blaming its victims. And no matter how much women enjoy and embrace being hot chicks — as I think we've every right to do — the system which grants us hotness at the expense of humanity is indeed making us victims.
Metal's "woman problem" that has been mentioned all over the media and in barroom conversations from here to Timbuktu. It's a question we've been asking for years, but: why? Why is it still an issue that a woman is interested in metal, especially extreme metal? What are men - and some other women - afraid of?
Society trains us from a very early age to be male or female, so as long as people believe metal is "dude stuff," women who enter the metal world will create some discomfort. It's really sad, because there are lots of guys who'd probably be stoked to hang with a woman who appreciates their music ... except that somehow it threatens their sense of self. Everybody's trained into this adversarial relationship that benefits absolutely nobody — we're set up to argue and complain about each other, and in too many cases have lifelong relationships with someone we resent.
Obviously that's a generalized, cisheteronormative analysis. But that's the axis of metal's tradition of women problems. Metal is considered a male toy, women are considered toys for males. When your toy steals your toy it's a mindfuck. As far as intragender hating, the main thing I notice about women within metal is actually something men do to one another too: judging others on style choices or which bands they like. It's fuckin' dumb, y'all. What's the point of seeking outlaw, non-mainstream stuff just to turn around and police it?!
How can we change it?
You know I think we are changing it, slowly but surely. Women metalheads exist, in fact they're numerous. They play, they write, they promote, they run record labels. They are at shows, they buy records. Male metalheads can only benefit from this; they just have to know (or learn) that women can be awesome friends and creative icons as well as bedmates. Maybe male musicians, writers, label owners aren't perceiving more female competition as a benefit. Gee, maybe they're afraid that women will take over? That men will be relegated to one issue of magazines' annual output, and one tour given only to the most buff and sexy guys? *Twirls imaginary dimples* Ya think?
But seriously I'm not, and most women aren't, really interested in creating a reverse of the same bullshit system we have. I'm interested in a world, both within metal and beyond, that allows everyone an equal starting point. The more we "minorities" expand our participation, the less we can be dismissed. And that's happening.
What advice would you give to a girl, young woman, or, really, to a woman of any age that wants to learn more about metal, get involved, and form a band?
Do it! It's so, so, infinitely much easier now than it was back in the day. Everything is near at hand with the Internet. You can find music to listen to, or people to bond over it with, even be in your band or book your tour, with a few keystrokes. What a fuckin' world! Haha.
And don't believe the hype from anyone who tells you that you have to do or be X as a woman. You can play any instrument, take any other career within the "industry." You can and should like absolutely any genre or band you find appealing, including those not pre-approved by peers. You can be as sexy or un-sexy as you want. The world is far from perfect, but I believe if you fight for what you want, you'll get at least part of it. And if you reach your goal and discover it's not enough? There's no shame in changing your path. Life should be yours. One of the great things about, at least, the idealized image of metal, is that it respects strong individuals. You will always find some assholes who wanna demean you, but there's also a lot of support for those who dare to buck the system. And as society expands its understanding of human diversity — as something CORRECT and OKAY — the subsect that is metal will evolve. It's already happening.
What is the most important lesson you've learned from your time in Jucifer?
Fight hard, live free.