"I can body-slam a 250-pound person."
Amber Valentine is not making a threat; she's just stating the facts. After years of hauling gear in and out of clubs, the woman is just plain strong. And the diminutive yet domineering guitarist/vocalist for space-sludge-noise rockers Jucifer is rightfully proud of the physical strength and energy that she and her husband, drummer Edgar Livengood, have developed on the road.
But Valentine and Livengood don't get by on brute force alone. The intense live shows for which Jucifer has become known rely just as heavily on other highly toned muscles. Both members are similarly gifted with prodigious intellectual and creative energy that borders on mania. In her own words, Amber Valentine is a hyperactive weirdo.
Growing up outside Rome, in rural Georgia, Valentine sensed that she cared about different things than most of the other kids she knew. She loved drawing even before she could talk. She loved to read, while her peers read only because their teachers made them. But most important, she loved music of all kinds, writing her first lyrics at age six and recording her first songs about six years later.
She's now in her thirties, but Valentine's childhood passion for art of all kinds has not waned, nor has the manic vigor with which she moves from art to art and idea to idea. "Everything I take in has some bearing on what I put out," she explains. Inspiration from one art form spills over into another. For example, though loath to cite musical influences, she lists among her inspirations canonical writers from the American South such as Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. The Southern Gothic themes of these authors' works can certainly be found in Jucifer's lyrics, but Valentine also feels there's a kinship between how she deals with her own self-image as a misfit in her art and how the writers dealt with the challenges they faced as outsiders in Southern society. But don't expect to keep her focused on that -- or any other train of thought -- for too long. While you're still trying to absorb that postulate, she's moving on to talk about Thomas Hardy.
One listen to Jucifer's most recent opus, 2002's I Name You Destroyer, proves that Valentine is not alone in her attention deficit disorder. Livengood -- an intensely physical and creative drummer and multi-instrumentalist -- is also driven from notion to notion by his frenzied creative demons. Together, the couple creates a brew that's hard to describe but thrilling to hear, a sound that is constantly shape-shifting and morphing before your ears.
"People usually describe us by mentioning five bands that don't sound anything alike," says Valentine. "We're omnivorous." While it's true that fans of the Melvins and Sonic Youth are likely to dig Jucifer's abrasive aggression, there's also room for fans of Medicine's dream rock, Beck's slacker soul grooves and much more. There are even moments of darkly beautiful balladry to be found in songs like "Lazing."
"[Edgar and I] both need to be entertained by movements and changes," says Valentine, almost apologetically. In fact, spurred by the band's tendency to get bored easily, Jucifer's compositions have all the complexity and diversity of a classical symphony. Just when you've pegged a song like "Queen B" as a screeching death-metal killer, it seamlessly becomes a slow-motion mosh with sweet and vulnerable vocals.
"Memphis," which starts off as a quiet piano ballad, is transformed into a dance track with Livengood's hip-hop-inflected beats; it then becomes a chaotic noise-fest before returning to its minimalist beginnings. Nothing is constant but change in the world of Jucifer, but those changes are organic, never seeming forced or calculated.
"I'm very analytical, but in a very passive manner," says Valentine, explaining the thought process behind Jucifer's songwriting. "I analyze something, and then I forget the conclusion I came to. I really live in the moment." This must be what Valentine means when she refers to herself as hyperactive. There's an intense flurry of activity going on in the minds and bodies of this couple, expressed through rich compositions of different moods and textures.
The unifying aesthetic element that holds Jucifer's music together is the baroque intertwining of layers of music and noise. When Jucifer plays live, Livengood's custom-made drum kit and Valentine's five-string Flying V are often the only proper instruments, run through enough pedals and amps to fill a stadium with their gorgeous, unholy noise.
Livengood flails athletically to reach the far-flung boundaries of his percussive arsenal. He's like a man possessed, and he has been known to injure himself on stage and to exert himself to the brink of losing consciousness. Next to him, Valentine commands the room; in her Gene Simmons heels, with her head thrown back, she releases walls of pure guitar frenzy that reverberate through her body and throughout the room. Overdrive, distortion, octave splitters and bass amps ensure that her ax fills the entire audible sonic spectrum and rattles your fillings.
On Jucifer's records, however, where more subtle tactics are just as valuable, varied instrumentation is brought in to create such dramatic effects. Deftly manipulating synthesizers, acoustic guitars, congas, turntables, glass bottles, power tools and anything else they can grab to flesh out their multi-faceted soundscapes, the two create a sonic mélange that's as brainy as it is brawny.
And then there are Valentine's formidable vocal skills: Whether affecting a breathy, twee-pop whisper, a throaty death-metal growl or a nasal scream that would make Rob Halford proud, the powerful singer displays an astonishing musical and emotional range.
"As a child, I always knew I had a good voice, because I could imitate stuff really well that was on the radio," she says. But Valentine has gone beyond mimicry with Jucifer. Superficial comparisons could be made to other female singers, especially PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Ms. Courtney Love. However, there are also favorable comparisons to be made with Mudhoney's Mark Arm, Napalm Death's Lee Dorrian and even the Jesus and Mary Chain's Reid brothers. On Jucifer's albums, the pleasures of Valentine's voice are often doubled and tripled as she harmonizes with herself.
Jucifer's experiments with a diversity of sounds and styles require fans to be almost as hyperactive and catholic in their tastes as the band. Is there any concern about alienating listeners with its diverse palette?
"It all comes down to keeping yourself entertained and interested," Valentine insists. "When bands try to pander to their audiences, it works for maybe three records, if that." She and Livengood believe that if they are true to their own creative muses, there will always be an audience for what they do. However, even if the time comes when no one is listening, Jucifer will continue. "We just want to be able to keep doing this, do it more and get better at it," enthuses Valentine.
So far, that approach seems to be working for the duo. Its fans are loyal and fervent; many of them even seem to have taken a personal interest in Livengood and Valentine's lives. Recently, one fan brought a Halloween costume to a show to give to the couple's dog, GoGo. While Jucifer welcomes this interest in their pets -- a Chihuahua has just been added to the family -- questions about their relationship and how they met are typically rebuffed with white lies and evasive tactics.
One story has it that they met while playing in separate outfits at a popular burrito joint in Athens. Another claims they met at band camp. "I could tell you a third story," says Valentine mischievously, obviously bored with the question.
Or maybe she's already living the next moment.
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