My general understanding of Jucifer is one of toughness: Touring and recording since the mid-'90s, guitarist/singer Amber Valentine and drummer Ed Livengood have spent the better part of the last decade living in a van, rolling along the highway as Southern metal nomads. Exemplified by a track like "Behind Every Great Man," the band's carefully built caterwaul shows wisdom and grit and dirt, all surely earned from playing countless shows in front of countless dudes in countless bars. Valentine's voice is possessed and possessing, sneering and sharp, and Livengood mauls his kit, as though releasing his energy after another long day on the road.
Here, on "Behind Every Great Man," she's playing the role of Marie Antoinette, the fabled queen killed at the height of the French Revolution. The band's latest, L'Autrichienne, is a 21-track document of the revolution, culled from back's in cast in diverse rock bursts. In fact, during "Behind Every Great Man," Antoinette is trying to resist the revolution. She's fighting back, and swearing she won't be defeated. The band sounds like a sharp, thick knife.
Moments like "Behind Every Great Man," which reinforce the generally bludgeoning impression of Jucifer, only work to make a track like "Fleur De Lis," from the same record, that much more effective: Above a simply strummed banjo, Valentine delivers the first signal of Antoinette's resignation, her breathy voice and sedate delivery signaling the heroine's prescience of her own passing. It evokes the tragedy as much lyrically as atmospherically. We spoke with Valentine as she and Livengood rolled into North Carolina for yet another gig.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: I've read that L'Autrichienne developed from a book about Marie Antoinette you found in an RV Park. Where was the RV Park?
AMBER VALENTINE: Actually, that kind of got... I can tell you that, but that wasn't the idea for the inception of the record. I think someone wrote that it was, and it's probably going to be the legend of the false way that it happened. I had been interested in Marie Antoinette as a character and particularly in that period as a part of history for a really, really long time.
Then, as we knew we were getting ready to go into the studio to make the record about this period of history, we were in Arizona and going through the books in this lending library. I happened to find this really old one about the French Revolution that was written in the early 1800s. So the people that were interviewed in the book actually remember the French Revolution. I thought that was really, really cool. Anytime you find a book that's that old, that's cool in and of itself. That it happened to be about the subject that we were so immersed in at that moment made it even better. It was a great reference to offset the more modern information that we had about this time period.
Was it a reprint of the old text, or the real thing?
It was the real thing. I still obviously have it in a safe place. [Laughs.] It's a really beautiful little book by virtue of having been printed that long ago. It was realty cool to me to have that perspective of people who still remembered this as a very disturbing time period that was actually part of their lifetime. Obviously, the stuff that is more modern that you can go out and find about the French Revolution is based on first-hand accounts that have been passed down and passed down. But I just thought it was really cool to find this book that was actually written by someone who was there and contained interviews by people who were there.
The portrayal of history is generally much different when it's a current event than when it's decades or centuries later. What did you find the differences were?
The passion and the anger about the misdeeds that were done is a lot more visceral in the text that's closer to the actual time period. The farther we get from events, the more sort of academic the writing becomes. That emotion is what drew me to the period in the first place, and what has always interested me in history is, "God, how would you live in that time and deal with that situation?" Reading something by people who were there definitely gives you more of that sense and less a sense of how those events sit within the entire scope of history. I think when you read something more recent about something a couple of hundred years ago, you definitely perceive how it relates to something that happened before and after and all the similarities, and how it sits in the great, giant text of all human history.
The liner notes for L'Autrichienne have a very academic, historical focus in relating the songs to Marie Antoinette. But the songs themselves—well, it's rock 'n' roll. It doesn't sound academic.
Yeah, I think that when we were getting ready to record and during the process of recording and as we were preparing the art for the record, we kept having these conversations about the songs. Some of the stuff that I had come up with, Ed didn't know about these events. I've been obsessed with that part of history for a long time, and he likes it, but it's more peripheral for him as just one of many things in history he's interested in. A couple of the songs that I had initially, I told him, "Well, you know, this is about this. And can you believe this shit happened?" I started telling him it as a story, and he said, "You should write this stuff down, and you should make this the liner notes instead of putting lyrics in because it makes the songs make so much more sense when you know about the story behind it."
All of our records have been concept records, and no one ever got it. I've actually seen it. I don't know how I found it, but just recently I ran across something that said, "This record is Jucifer's first attempt at a concept record." I kind of laughed because every record we've ever made has had a serious concept and theme, but this is the first time we've really put it out there and made it obvious. I felt like, with this record in particular because it had such a beautiful story to it, that it would really lose a lot if people didn't perceive what it was about or assumed the song was about us and our lives. It would be disturbing to us to have it lose that depth that it actually has.
I suppose it must be bothersome to have everything you write be interpreted as love or conflict songs between two people who live together in a van.
[Laughs.] It's something that you grapple with. I guess in a way you always grapple with it, but once you've been around for a while and put out a few records and just interact with other humans for a while, you realize that people are going to get stuff wrong constantly. And whatever they think is something you can't control. The most you can hope to do is make it a little bit harder for people to screw up when they interpret what you've done. And on some level it doesn't matter. If people enjoy your music or if they don't like it, you're not necessarily going to be able to affect that by clarifying what it's about. It was something that we just felt with this record, I guess we have a great deal of respect for what people went though in that time period and a lot of the songs were inspired by specific events that transpired that marked the end of people's lives. That seemed like something that deserved to have some weight given to it, and it would be really a shame if it were seen as this love song when it's actually about something much more poignant.
When did you become interested in the French Revolution?
I'm always fascinated with social studies. I'm intrigued with how people interact and the kind of insanity that people are able to justify based on their ideals. The unimaginable things that humans do to one another have always intrigued me. I think the French Revolution, in particular, the first thing that I learned about it is, "Oh, there was this Queen Marie Antoinette, and she was so glamorous and fashionable. Everyone followed everything she did, and—all of a sudden—everyone decided to hate her. Apparently, she was really evil and didn't care about poor people in her country." That was the initial image of the whole time period I was given as a kid from the little bit in elementary school they teach you. Then I learned somewhere down the line that the quotes attributed to her are completely false. As far as "Let them eat cake," which is the most famous thing she's known for saying, she never said.
Who did say that?
I don't even really know the source of that. I don't know how it started, but I do know that during the time of the revolution there were a lot of agitators that were writing all kinds of false things about her, including that she was a Satanist and a witch and did all kinds of disgusting sexual things in the woods with all of these other men and women. It's just like watching celebrities being attacked today. You can watch it happen. You can see that someone has suddenly become the target of everyone's attention, and that their image is manipulated and their words are manipulated and edited. You get people being quoted as saying something, and it really leaves out the rest of the words which would actually show the real meaning. Politics is something that has always been that way. When I got my first inkling that everything I knew about Marie Antoinette was really surface and completely false, then I started to become really interested in it. Anytime there's an accepted lie in society, that really intrigues me. I want to get to the bottom of it.
What does that mean to you, that people are so willing to embrace that vitriol?
It's just an illustration of how ready people are to believe badly about someone, particularly if they're someone who is very well known, particularly if they are someone who is female and has a great deal of power. Unfortunately, I think it's something that's still very much a factor, and it still resonates in society. Actually, since this album has been out, I've met a lot of other people who happen to be Jucifer fans and French Revolution fans, which is kind of crazy.
Who knew such a strong Jucifer/ French Revolution Venn Diagram existed?
I certainly didn't, and it's certainly cool to see you share an interest like that with as many fans as we've met. It's partly why everyone is interested in history, in how they perceive it relating to the present. I think Marie Antoinette is Britney Spears in a lot of ways. Britney Spears is someone who arguably may or may not continue to have a place in history in 200 years. [Laugh.] But as far as people being happy to see someone in power fall, it's a condition of humanity—an unfortunate one.
"Fleur De Lis" and "Behind Every Great Man" are such different songs. One's this huge, blistering rock number, and the other is this plaintive thing for banjo. Did the subject matter dictate that, or was it just a studio decision?
I think that sometimes people imagine us writing songs in a very sort of calculating, cold kind of way, and the reality is that when we have an idea for a song, it generally comes with everything attached. It's not like, "OK, we want to write a song about this particular event that inspired us, and therefore we should use this instrumentation and these notes and this tempo and these chord changes." We don't really approach it like that at all. What happens instead is that we are inspired by something, and—as we are inspired—we write music. And the music naturally reflects the emotions that we're having. "Behind Every Great Man" is hoping against hope and saying, "We're going to fight, and we're going to rally, and we're going to get through this together." And the mood with "Fleur De Lis" is, "Everything is over. I know I'm going to die. I know you're going to die. Everything I've known, and we've been part of, is dead. We have failed." That's obviously, to me, a very quiet moment.
Are you able to record songs that disparate in one session? Or do you have to do one song and come back to the others at a later time?
We had a very short window of time in which to record L'Autrichienne, so we recorded and mixed everything within two-and-a-half or three weeks. That was one straight period. The way that we've learned to do things in the studio is, in order to make things move more efficiently... Drum sound is the main thing that changes dramatically. If we're doing slow songs, the mics are placed completely differently than if we're doing fast songs. We knock out everything that's within the same tempo in groups. Then the last thing we always do is any overdubbing and mixing. Fortunately, by the time we were going into the studio, we had everything really planned pretty minutely. We just went in and did it. It really was remarkably simple considering how much we had to record.
Does that strategy help you with your singing as well, so that you're not switching gears so often as a singer? When you need to be loud, you do it for a few songs, then shift gears?
Yeah, definitely. To shift gears mentally and emotionally as drastically as the record does throughout, it would kind of be awkward to do that from song to song as you're recording. Particularly since "Fleur de Lis" is a banjo and a voice. On a lot of other songs I'm using really loud guitars, and it's completely different for everyone, including the engineers.
How long have you played banjo?
I've always kind of messed around with banjo, and I think the first recording we did on banjo was on War Bird in 2004. I can't remember, but I think we may have used it as a texture on some of our earlier records but not as a standalone instrument for a ballad. I love the way it sounds. I love playing banjo. I'm not adept at it. I'm not a bluegrass banjo player by any means, but I just like to use it as a base at times.
So did you write "Fleur De Lis" on banjo?
Yeah. Generally, anything I write on banjo, I play on banjo.
I haven't seen the tour for L'Autrichienne, but are you able to pull off something like "Fleur De Lis" during the middle of a Jucifer set?
As far as the really sparse songs, we have never chosen to do that live because of what we were talking about earlier with the unnatural shift. Our live show is something so loud and frenetic, and I don't think it ever translates to record to the extent that it's actually loud and insane. Being in a frenzy and having your adrenaline all the way amped up, then to try and play something really slow and quiet, it doesn't work out for us. Some day, we're going to do a side-project. We actually have an album that we've recorded for it, and now we're just trying to decide when we want to put it out and tour with it. When we do, we're going to play all kinds of quiet stuff that we never play.
Will that material be released as Jucifer?
It's going to be called Devil's Tower, and the album that we've recorded, we recorded about four years ago. It's kind of back-burner thing because we really enjoy during Jucifer right now, and we don't want to take time out from doing Jucifer stuff. We've recorded all this almost-country music, and it will be fun to do when we actually get around to doing it.
Jucifer plays Local 506 with Uzzard and Body Soil Wednesday, Jan. 7, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8.