You’re sitting inside a jet engine as it’s taking off. You’ve got a Walkman – no, two. There’s a Black Sabbath tape in one, and Led Zeppelin IV in the other; they’re both on and turned up past “10.” As the engines screams louder, you start singing: “Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?” The jet lifts off, then plunges into the ground, exploding into a ball of fire and shrieking metal.
You wake up from the dream, sweating, to find there’s no plane crash; you’ve been passed out in the bathroom at a Jucifer show.
Jucifer has been playing on the Athens scene for a number of years, and recently signed to Capricorn Records. Their first CD, Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip , will soon be re-released by the Atlanta label. Calling All Cars… is a lushly layered record, with soaring metal riffs, pounding dirges and a few quiet moments. Playing live, they come on a like a lava flow – heavy and unstoppable.
Amber Valentine plays a very fuzzy (in both looks and sound) guitar in giant boots and wigs a-plenty, a “My Little Pony” altar on her double stack of amps. She sings, alternating between a sing-song little girl’s voice and speaker-shredding screams.
Ed Livengood plays drums like some barely-under-control machine, flailing arms, headphones on, mouth open all the way to his drum stool – look carefully and you might see the light at the end of the tunnel. It might not be a surprise to learn that he fractured his arm recently, just from playing too damn hard.
Jucifer is presently recording for their next record; coming from a town better known for R.E.M., the B-52’s, and the current Elephant 6 scene, they may be ready to put Athens on the map in a slightly heavier way.
How did you guys get started in music, and how’d you end up playing together?
Ed Livengood : I didn’t start playing drums until ‘93 or so. Before that, I started out with violin, when I was about ten. I went from violin, then played jazz trumpet and upright bass in junior high, then that led to me playing bass in a heavy metal cover band in Washington, D.C. when I was fifteen. They were called Cold Steel.
The other members of the band were in their twenties, and I got the part because I was super-enthusiastic and jumped around a lot. I was so young, they weren’t sure if they could get me in the bars, but I got a work permit and I got to play in all these weird places around Georgetown – the Crazy Horse, the Grog & Tanker.
Then I got tired of playing with that band, because they wouldn’t let me make up my own songs. So I started playing punk rock and stuff like that.
Amber Valentine : I was playing bass in a band, and Ed was playing bass, too, with his roommate. They came by accident and saw the band that I was playing in and they talked to me after the show.
As it happened, I was just kind of filling in, playing someone else’s music. I was just playing what they wanted me to play and not doing too much creatively, because at that time I couldn’t find anybody I could work with. When Ed and his friend talked to me, I got the impression that they might be able to know what I was trying to do. I gave them a tape of just me playing electric guitar without accompaniment; they learned all the songs right away, so the first time we practiced, it sounded really good and I was super excited.
Were those Jucifer songs? Are they songs that you guys are still doing?
Amber : A couple of them are – I know for sure that we were doing “Glamourpuss” back then. It had a different name and different lyrics, but it was the exact same music. A lot of stuff Ed was doing on four-track has been raped and harvested, as well.
It seems like you do a lot of the work yourselves, from the graphics and Ed’s photography to recording at home like you’re doing now. You guys seem sort of self-taught and self-contained.
Ed : We want to do everything – part of the fun of being in a band is being able to do all that stuff. I do photography and Amber paints; we have a good eye for stuff so we try to do as much as we possibly can.
Amber : Yeah, we’re monomaniacal!
You’re closet control freaks, then?
Amber : I think that’s the reason why we can work together. We usually agree, and when we don’t, it makes things better. But we’re both such strong creative forces that we never found anyone that could actually stand up to it before, so we tended to work by ourselves a lot. When we found each other and were actually able to work with each other, and entertain each other… Wait, Ed’s putting on funny costumes. He’s putting on my white wig now.
So, you were doing things separately and ran into each other and found you had similar/complementary ideas and vision?
Amber : It was shockingly good to me when Ed would interpret my ideas, or I would interpret his, that it would be right and make things better. Usually, when someone in the bands we were in before interpreted one of our ideas, it would come out all wrong. Either that, or he or I would have to start telling people what to play, which is shitty – it’s no fun.
[laughing] God – Ed’s getting more and more dressed up while we’re talking. He’s wearing a white wig and a cowboy hat and really cheesy sunglasses. He looks like a demented drag queen biker.
Tell me about making the first record – was that at home or the studio? Was it just you two or did you have other people working with you?
Amber : Actually, one track was recorded about three and a half years ago, the first time we ever went into a studio together. That was the song “Superman,” and we remixed it for the album. The rest of the album was recorded at Chase Park Transduction with Andy Baker about two and a half years ago. It was very sporadic, three or four days here and there over six months. A lot of the material on it was gleaned from Ed and my solo days, and what happened when we put some of that stuff together and influenced each other on it.
It sounds like you’re always refining – you’ve got ideas or songs that have been around for a while, but you might totally revamp or update them, or use them years down the road in a different way?
Amber : We still have a backlog of the stuff that was going on then; we’ll probably have songs from 1990 on all of our albums for the next ten years! We both wrote so many songs that were good or usable, but we wouldn’t want them all on the same record. You’re gonna find that the upcoming albums are probably always going to have one or two really old songs on them, just because they’ll fit at that point.
You just realize they work well with some of the other stuff that you’re doing?
Amber : Yeah, it has to all go together, and that’s more important than whether it’s current or not. We have lots of new songs that aren’t going to go on the next album – it isn’t because we don’t like them, but they don’t fit together with these other songs that got there first.
You’ll use them in 2010.
Amber : Hopefully we won’t run out of songs anytime soon.
Are people surprised when they see you live? The first song I heard on the radio was “Tabitha Soren” – and that’s different than some of the other songs on the record, and those are all different than the live show. Do people seem shocked or wonder if it’s the same band?
Amber : We’ve only actually talked to one person who expressed surprise. I think so far, the way we’ve been touring, we haven’t gotten to a lot of places where our record was getting played on the radio yet. The places we have gotten to, we probably played live before they got the record, so we haven’t gotten much feedback about that stuff. But I know there’s four or five songs from the record that we play live a lot, they’re just a lot louder.
How would you describe your music to someone that’s never heard you before?
Ed : Like when you were a kid and your mom gave you too much cough syrup – you get super-hyperactive, but everything is really slow. You’re fucked up, but really hyper inside.
Did that happen to you a lot as a kid?
Ed : Oh, yeah.
How do you approach playing live vs. recording?
Amber : Pretty much, the songs on the album that we play live are going to be the same, except you won’t get three vocal tracks and a guitar solo overdub or something, you know? Just like any other band. There’s stuff you do on the record that you do in the studio that’s sort of incidental to the song – it’s just candy for your ears. I don’t even think about the difference between that and the live version.
We didn’t have any guest musicians on the album, and we’re pretty hesitant to have guest musicians when we play, so we choose to play stuff that doesn’t lose anything in the transition from recording to live.
Ed : On this next record, we’re laying off the samples as far as spoken word or music goes. I’m concentrating more on scratching and treating the turntable like an instrument. I kind of did that on the first record, but I’m going to try to get more into the pitch shifting and the scratching on a break beat – you know, finding the snare and the bass beats and going back and forth on them, and using the pitch control on the turntable and trying to make it sing. Trying to play the turntable like a percussion instrument.
Do you think you could break your arm on a turntable?
Ed : Yeah, I play that pretty hard, too.
What exactly happened with that?
Ed : Oh, I did a rim shot with my wrist. I changed the angle of my snare drum to get better rim shots, and I was doing a drum solo and I just got really into it. I stood up at one point while I was still playing, and when I sat back down I just happened to hit my wrist on the snare drum as I was hitting the snare. I hit myself in the face, too, at the same time.
Did you knock yourself out?
Ed :Ummm, kind of.I just remember opening my eyes and the drums were all over the place, my wrist was all swelling up and my eye was swelling up. Jeremy and Amber were standing over me.
Were there little birds circling around your head?
Ed : No, I wish it had been that cool. It felt like someone hit me with a sledgehammer. Every now and then I’ll hit myself, but generally I know where the sticks are all the time. This is the first time it’s ever happened. And it’s all because I changed the angle of my snare drum. That’s the sad part.
When you started playing drums, were you always as energetic as you are? Because you look like a maniac.
Ed : Oh, most definitely. I still don’t know how to play. When I first started to play, I was playing guitar and singing in DC, and our drummer was just beginning – I’d show her how to play what I had in my head. Playing drums is such a stiff thing if you don’t know how to play, and the only way I could get it out was to bash it as hard as I could.
I’m super-enthusiastic and hyperactive as a person anyway. I play all my instruments that way, it’s not just the drums. The thing is, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. When I see a videotape, I’m like, “Jeez – is that what I look like?” It’s just the way I do things, I guess.When I started trying to play drums in the band with Amber, which was the first time I really played drums, I just kind of kept that going. It’s the only way I can play now. And, it just sounds better.
How did it come about that you guys signed to Capricorn?
Amber : It was because of the goat head logo.It’s all about the hooved creatures, especially cloven hooved creatures.Basically, they’ve been fans of ours since they saw us four years ago – a long time ago. Back when we probably really sucked, but he saw something good in us. They’ve been trying to sign us and get us to sign to them ever since, and we finally all agreed that it was a good thing. We had some other options, but we felt like as far as really believing in the band, Capricorn was the label that most fit that bill.
Has there been anything exceptionally good or bad about it so far?
Ed : We were doing a lot of the publicity ourselves, but that’s not the fun part. It’s nice that Capricorn is dealing with that and we can dedicate more time to the real fun stuff.They call us up every now and again and ask us, “What do you think about this?” and we say, “That’s cool.” or, “That’s not cool.”
Amber : So far, I feel good about everything. It seems like they’re really behind us and stuff. But not a whole lot has had a chance to happen yet.
We’re in the same studio where we recorded our first record, and we’re using the same person to record with, and that’s our choice. They gave us the option of spending lots of money and going to Butch Vig or somebody, but we didn’t feel like that would really be the best thing for us. They’re totally encouraging us to spend money and do what we need to do, if we want to, but not forcing us.
Ed : They don’t act like a major label at all. They act like an indie label with kids running it that are really enthusiastic, but they’re also really pro at the same time. It’s just a perfect combination. When we were talking to other labels, it just seemed really scary and we always got this weird feeling that something was wrong, or thought they were going to drop you or make you do stuff that you didn’t want to do.
Amber : When we had our initial meetings with them and since we’ve signed as well, that’s the thing that’s really pleased us with Capricorn. They’re all about us having complete creative control and designing the art and basically doing exactly what we’ve been doing.
So it’s something you considered for a long time?
Ed : Yeah, we totally worked it out together – it wasn’t like they were the deciding factor, or us – we both talked to each other and to our lawyers, and we all got together and made it work so that all of us would be happy.
It sounds like the best thing that’s happened is that nothing’s happened.
Amber : Exactly. Basically we get to keep doing the Jucifer stuff that we’d be doing anyway, only someone else is helping us afford it, and it’ll get done better and more expediently.
It’s like you’ve got the same ideas you’ve always had, but with a lot more resources at your control. What would you do that you’ve always wanted to do, or didn’t seem possible?
Amber : It’s funny, because in a way, it’s not that much different. Primarily, we get to spend as much time as we want recording, but as antsy as we are and as fast as we work, we’re not going to end up spending all that much time on the next record. One of the cool things that can happen is that we can have really cool packaging – more than we could have afforded otherwise, and we can buy instruments here and there. We’re going to get a cello. We got some nice turntables for scratching and mixing. That kind of stuff would have been totally out of reach before.
I think we’re going to have to get a fax machine. Every time I talk to all these music business people that I’m having to deal with, they’re asking, “Can I fax you this?” And I’m like, “No.” I’ve definitely begun to understand the overwhelming amount of paperwork involved with being a legitimate band.
And you’re recording for the next record, what are the plans for that?
Amber : What I’ve been hearing is a July or August release date for that. It kind of depends on how well the first record does in terms of radio. They don’t want to put out another record too soon after that one.
We also want to put out a seven-inch in a limited way with a couple of new songs, something that would be available on tour and stuff, just for the people that already bought the first record two years ago – we want to give them something new to listen to. So we’re working on that. I think we’re going to be doing some kind of big tour in January when the record comes out.
Would that be touring with someone, or a headlining club tour?
Amber : I’m not sure. I’m hoping to be out with somebody, since we haven’t gotten to tour very much. That’s something that Capricorn’s going to help us with, tour support. The two of us paying for everything and having to have other people come along with us that we couldn’t pay – it’s been pretty ragged in terms of getting to tour very much.
Amber, what’s the secret to your stage sound? Is it the ponies?
Amber : It’s the ponies. That and the plastic colored hair – that’s why I wear wigs a lot. It sort of resonates differently depending on the color of the hair.
What’s the Athens scene like these days?
Amber : It’s funny, because people who live here complain about it a lot – I think it’s an incredibly diverse rich and vibrant scene. I think it always has been, but there are a lot of really good bands right now in a lot of different genres of music, and seeming to get a lot of press as well. Possibly attracting more attention in the past few years – it’s amazing. There’s just tons and tons of bands, and lots of people come through on tour, and on any given night, you can go see jazz or blues or any of the many million different types of rock music – it’s cool.
You’re working at home now – what’s a typical day in the life of Jucifer? I’m guessing you wake up, you and Ed put on your wigs…
Amber : I haven’t been wearing the wigs the past few days – my hair is just a good shade of pink right now. Little kids love it – in a lot of ways I’ve attained my goal of being a living, human My Little Pony.
Well, then the next step is a line of Jucifer action figures?
Amber : We actually have a prototype of an Amber Valentine doll. Somebody needs to come through with an Ed prototype, then we can think about manufacturing. You could have wigs and hats and sunglasses for both, of course. The marketing concepts are endless. I’d love to have Jucifer dolls, I think it would be really, really, cool; with amps and a drum kit and everything. That would be fun. Lots of crazy platform shoes.
Where do you get your boots?
Amber : I just got some new boots of thunder! I got some white go-go boots with 8 1/2” platforms on them. I have them made. I have a secret weapon cobbler man.
A rock cobbler?
Amber : Yes, and he loves doing it, too. The first time I brought shoes to him, he had only done it once as a Halloween thing for someone who was dressing up as KISS. I thought it was perfectly appropriate that he should move on from that to us.
So you can score some shoes and he’ll do whatever you want to them?
Amber : Yeah.
Tell me about your tattoos.
Amber : I’d always wanted something tattooed on my fingers – I always was attracted to those because people who were really “bad” always had ‘em, and I thought that was good. I’m the sweet little creampuff girl who’s very straight-laced and never has been mean to anybody on purpose, so I’m always looking for things to make me seem more dangerous, so people won’t bother me. I never could think of words to put on my fingers that weren’t already played out and cliche, then my friend at work started making fun of me (in an affectionate way) calling me “rock star” all the time, and one day when he said it, I was like, “Wait a minute, four letters in each word,” and the very next day I got it done. Just like that. Ed was real worried people would think I was an asshole. I was a little worried about that, too, but then I decided if people didn’t have enough of a sense of humor to get it, then I probably didn’t care about them being my friend anyway. It seems to have actually drawn people to me, and the right kind of people. I think it’s really funny.
Are you guys big thrift store hounds?
Amber : We like to be, but we haven’t had much opportunity to be lately. Ed got a trumpet this weekend for fifteen bucks, which was great because we were going to have to get one. Yeah, we love to go to those places and get stuff, and we’re totally addicted to junk, but don’t have much time to do it lately. It’s not very good around Athens, as you might imagine.
You’ve got that super-cool blue Plexiglas drum kit, where did you find it?
Ed : I saw it at a local music store and was instantly transfixed. I had this really cool 60’s Ludwig sparkle set – it was a jazz kit – and I liked that kit, too, but when I saw the Vistalites, I was like, “Wow, those are awesome looking! I’ll just use them for furniture if they don’t sound good.” I got the kit the next day, we spent every dollar we had on it. I ate ramen for a week. They weren’t overpriced or anything, we were just super poor.
I got it and started tuning it up and it just sounded really good, and now I don’t want to play any other kit. It sounds really attack-y and bass-y at the same time, which is just what I like. I like the way it “cracks” when you hit it, and it also has some tone. A lot of drummers think plastic drums sound like shit – they don’t have the tone of wood, but I have to disagree. It’s a taste thing of course, but I just love the way they sound. Like in the Led Zeppelin movie, The Song Remains the Same , he’s using those and they sound great.
Who’s a better drummer, John Bonham or Karen Carpenter?
Ed : Well, Karen Carpenter is a better soloist by far, I think. I’m slightly influenced by both of them – her solos are just out there. John Bonham’s a steadier rock drummer, of course.
What moved you to write her name on your kit?
Ed : A combination of things – I’ve been a Carpenters fan for a while. I enjoy that kind of music as well as heavy music. I like the way their harmonies are. Then I happened to see a documentary on them, and she had the exact same kit – the baby-blue Vistalites in the same dimensions.
Was that before or after you had your kit?
Ed : It was after, I had no idea. When I saw it, I was freaking out. You don’t see the blue one very often – you mostly see the red one or the orange one that John Bonham played, so I saw it and I was like, “Oh, my god.” I always wanted to have a replica kit, so that’s why I did that.
Michael Stipe wrote about you in Details , is that a good sign or a bad sign?
Ed : I don’t know. I was psyched about it just because I was a big R.E.M. fan, so it was pretty cool. Someone that you respect artistically giving you props is always good. I don’t know if it’ll be good for us as publicity or whatnot – I don’t really have an opinion about that.
You seem to have some pretty diverse taste and influences.
Ed : I really like this group called the Shocking Blue, they’re like my favorite group of all.
You must have been pretty in tune as a kid.
Ed : My dad was always involved in music. Not so much playing in bands, he kind of quit playing guitar, but he always had good taste as far as I’m concerned. He liked Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly, and he got me into Shocking Blue, which was one of his first records. I still have that record, actually. As time went on, he’s always kept up with current music.
Back in the ’70s and late ’60s, he was a big record collector, and we always had stuff laying around. He wasn’t the kind of dad that was against playing rock and roll – they’d always have parties and play Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly, Edgar Winter and stuff.
Well, that just explains everything.
Ed : It definitely helped me to become as enthusiastic about music as I am, because both my parents were enthusiastic about music, all the time. Amber’s parents were, too.
Are your parents happy with what you’re doing?
Ed : Oh yeah, they’re psyched. They’ve always loved rock and roll and they love our album. It’s cool. They were psyched before we got signed.
Who else do you like?
Ed : I’ve been listening to April March – it’s really fun, relaxing music. I’ve been listening to that in the car. I haven’t been listening to much current stuff. Almost all the current music I listen to is local Athens stuff, because there’s so much good music here. It’s overwhelming now – a couple of years ago it was cool and all, but now the quality of the Athens bands is just incredible. It’s definitely gotten a lot better here.
And it’s not just here that people think it’s cool, it’s international. Neutral Milk and that whole crew are doing well, and deservedly so. People are doing more do-it-yourself-at-home type stuff, and it’s really inspiring. There’s definitely a renaissance going on. That’s why a majority of the new music I listen to is local stuff.
What’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you from being in this band so far?
Ed : I guess so far, just getting to play with bands that you respect, bands that you listened to when you were in your teens. Bands like the Melvins and TSOL, getting to play with Mark Arm – I was one of the Sub Pop Single of the month kids – I just loved all that stuff. Getting to play with the legends (in my mind) and having them like us – that’s the ultimate.
The other incredible thing that’s happened is just being able to record in a studio and have access to good recording equipment, and being able to take my time making a record. I’ve been playing in bands since I was twelve, and now I’m finally able to record the way I wanted. That’s one of the more exciting things, what’s going on right now.
Amber : The premise behind everything we do in the band, and in life pretty much, is to get away with doing exactly what we want to do, and not changing to suit other people. We do what we believe in and what we want to do – hopefully people will be able to enjoy it, but that’s not the primary goal.We do it our way, just like Frank Sinatra.
You know how all those things you hear growing up about how if you just believe in what you’re doing and keep doing it, everything will work out? That commitment and perseverance is half the battle? I think that’s really true. It’s great to have some success, but the best thing about it to me is that hopefully it will show some people that you don’t have to sell out and be something you don’t like in order to have the things you want. It’s just tragic that people feel like they don’t have a choice. I think people do have a choice.
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Playing at Echo Lounge in November