Jucifer's Amber Valentine is a woman taken with the romance implied in her surname. But if she does tend to gush in conversation, it's over no beau, but rather her vast, varied record collection.
"In preparing for this interview and other ones, I was making myself a list of music that I like a lot, so that I'd have something to reference, and it's ridiculous when I look at it on paper," Valentine says with a giggle. "It's like Ludacris and the Carpenters, Black Sabbath and Blondie. Ed [Livengood, the other half of Jucifer] and I both love music so much that we like almost all forms of it, as long it's well executed. I think that's why our music comes out the way that it does -- because we're not bound to a certain type that we listen to."
That lack of constraint was evident the last time the band played Cleveland. It was Election Night 2000, and punkers were weeping in their Straubs as it became clear that Bush would claim the presidency. Because of a legal dispute at the Blind Lemon, that club was abruptly closed, and Jucifer's scheduled show there was hastily relocated to the Symposium, where the band performed in front of a total of six people. Expectations were as low as the lights in the cave-like venue, as the band took to the stage for what looked to be little more than a paid rehearsal. But then Valentine began to slowly unfurl an elegant, bracing sound, equal parts arsenic and anodyne. Her guitar buzzed like a wasp's nest, while Livengood grunted and grimaced behind his kit, as if he were trying to pass a kidney stone. Melody underscored the mayhem, and Jucifer sporadically softened the blow with a pop sugar rush, much to the relief of those gathered. But it was like being handed a Band-Aid to mend a broken neck.
"It was a strange night," Valentine recalls with a laugh. "We had to fight with the promoter for money, Bush was winning the election, and we were all just kind of freaked out."
Still, despite the adverse circumstances, Jucifer played with an intensity that belied the empty seats. The band's performance was emblematic of Jucifer's preoccupation with finding the beautiful in the ugly and vice versa. In this way, the duo is very much the spiritual heir to early '90s alternative acts like Nirvana, who juxtaposed rancor and vulnerability, and who took an unsightly sound into a timid mainstream to forever alter modern rock.
"When Nirvana got huge, I couldn't believe it. It was like the world had changed, and it gave me hope for that kind of artistry and conviction," Valentine says. "But then the commercial world just sort of slowly strangled the life out of it and turned it into this processed, false rebellion, like 'You're crazy, you have a tattoo.' The same outcome has both bad and good points. For example, I'm really happy that America is more accepting of people who look weird. I was always a person who looked weird, and that was because of my own aesthetics, but I always hated being hassled constantly about it, and this little American world has become much more comfortable because of the mainstreaming of punk."
But though America may be more accepting of the mall rat with the nose ring and the blue hair, Jucifer's muscular, melodic sound still exists on the fringes of popular music. There's much about the band that would appeal to a broader audience, yet its songs are so variegated that one cut carries the breadth of three. The result is a band that is difficult to summarize. On its latest, the soon-to-be-released I Name You Destroyer, quaint ballads morph into ominous industrial drones; cooing 4AD rock turns into raw-lunged screaming; paint-peeling guitar tones that would curl the toes of Entombed's Alex Hellid and Uffe Cederlund give way to blithe violin. It's a heady hodgepodge, the seeds for which were first sown on Jucifer's 1998 debut, Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip, a manic amalgamation of the Melvins' steamroller riffing and the Pixies' fractured pop sensibilities.
"With Calling All Cars, we sort of walked a line between trying to stick with our live sound -- which is just two instruments and a voice -- and exploring studio options of playing other instruments using multitracking. With I Name You Destroyer, we were completely unconcerned with trying to stick to our live sound, and we had some money to record with, so those two factors allowed us to just go crazy with the production. That's something that I think is a real step for us; it's something that we're really proud of," Valentine says. "On Destroyer, I can't even think of everything we play. There's strings on it, there's trumpet; on some of the songs, we ended up with like 60 tracks. We had an amazing time recording that record."
And it shows. Destroyer teems with the kind of exhilaration that comes from being able to fully express oneself without consequence. It's a challenging record for sure: one that only begins to reveal itself slowly over time. But for all the magnitude and mystery of Destroyer, there's also something reassuring about it, in the sense that it's evidence of a band that thinks enough of its audience to trust that listeners are capable of digesting such confounding delirium.
"Basically, we realized that people are a hell of a lot smarter than the music industry ever wants anyone to think," Valentine says, citing Jucifer's refusal to temper wild artistic impulses -- and its solid fan base regardless. "We can do whatever we want. And that's what we're going to continue to do."
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