Jucifer Vocalist/Guitarist Gazelle Amber Valentine Discusses The Band's New Concept Album
Band Photo: Jucifer (?)
Jucifer is a band that, until a few years ago, tangled with a split personality. Their studio albums were a schizo blend of pop, grind, acoustic, and upbeat metal, while their live show was literally a wall of sound (thanks to amps stacked to the ceiling). The difference between the two sides began to close in with 2010’s excellent “Throned in Blood,” and bends further towards each other with the band’s new album, which has a title in Russian and has been called by many fans "The Russian Album." A concept album about the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II and the land it was fought on, Jucifer completely overwhelms the senses over the course of 75 minutes.
They are one of the best live bands around today, thanks in small part to year-round touring that has taken them all over the world in recent years. They have also increased their profile thanks to a constant social media presence. A lot of that is done by the hands of vocalist/guitarist Gazelle Amber Valentine, who can go from a heavenly whisper to a bone-shaking roar in no time flat. I had the chance to send some questions to her via email. She sent me back detailed answers that go into the new album and get into some interesting territory, including the possibility of a covers record in the future.
So the band is releasing a new album. Obviously, the first question on everyone’s mind is, what does that title translate to in English?
(Laughs) Yeah...I've already told a couple of our fans it's totally cool if they wanna just call it “The Russian Album” or “That Unpronounceable Album.” But the meaning is really beautiful; it's a quote from a major hero of the Soviet side of the Battle of Stalingrad. It translates essentially, “For us, there is no land behind the Volga.”
The Volga is one of the most important rivers in Russia, much like our Mississippi as far as being vital for transportation of goods. When Hitler invaded Russia, he decided that Stalingrad, a manufacturing center positioned directly on the river, would be the key to controlling the Volga and, ultimately, the entire Soviet Union. Stopping this was of course crucial to Russians, but was also considered of grave importance to everyone at odds with the Nazis. Had Hitler succeeded in taking Stalingrad, all history might have changed in his favor.
The words became a kind of motto for the approximately one million Soviets living and fighting in the city during the long battle. About half a million of them, both soldiers and civilians, died in the battle. So it's a very important phrase: an expression of human tenacity, of love for home and neighbors, and prevailing against great hardship and great evil.
The second question is, where did the idea come to name the album this?
The album is on the surface about the Battle of Stalingrad, but beyond that, it's about the entire history - from the beginning of recorded time to the present - of that small piece of land on which the battle was fought. It's about the land itself, the way it feels, its sense of permanence through centuries and generations of generations. And it's about the proud peoples who built first a giant burial mound, then later a fortress, even later a prospering city. Then, it's about the incredible people who defended that city and who, after their homes were almost completely destroyed, rebuilt and reclaimed their lives and their importance to the economy with the 'new' city Volgograd. We wanted a name that was meaningful and evoked the truly courageous, fiercely stubborn soul of these peoples and this land.
Where did the band draw inspiration from in the overall lyrical concept of the album?
Mostly from reading Russian history and, of course, reading about the Battle of Stalingrad. Rather appropriately for a battle fought in the Communist days, it seems that everyone you discover when learning about Stalingrad was both remarkably average and supernaturally heroic. And in light of the brutality and desperation of such a battle, where failure means losing absolutely everything, I believe its stories to be relatively unshaped by propaganda. This was a battle fought by everyday people, fought of dire necessity, and fought for the most basic loyalty: home.
We also had the opportunity to play in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) last year, and to spend a day visiting their war museum and the memorial on the major hill of the battle, which is one of the most moving and grand scale memorials I've seen. In context of a single battle with over half-a-million local casualties, you can probably imagine the intensity.
We had already recorded most of the album before visiting Volgograd, but my lyrics for “Evolution II: Soviet Motherland Calls” were inspired by actually being there. Several of the photographs in the album's artwork were taken by Edgar (Livengood, drummer/vocalist) when we were there.
Is this album closer sonically to “Throned in Blood,” or does it takes cues from past albums like “If Thine Enemy Hunger” and “I Name You Destroyer”?
It's thematically closer to Throned and so it follows, in Jucifer-land at least, that it's sonically closer to Throned as well. “If Thine Enemy Hunger” was about 19th century stuff, so we went for a very traditional production and songwriting. “I Name You Destroyer” was a fictional concept about a downward-spiraling celebrity and her story began in the mid ‘80s and ended just after 2000 - so whether anybody noticed or not, the songwriting and production matched that period theme too. Those came out in the days before we decided to start detailing our concepts in the liner notes, so a lot of people totally missed that those records even had concepts (laughs)!
But we didn't approach production the same with this one as for Throned, because with that one we wanted it to feel more old-school. The new album is a bigger production; I've been telling people it's got some qualities of “L'Autrichienne” and some of Throned, but really it's its own thing in my opinion.
How was the recording process for this album compared to previous efforts?
Well, it's the first time we've made a record in five cities and three different countries, and probably the most scattered as far as long spaces between short sessions. Just due to us being always on tour, and then various other factors, we ended up starting to record in Canada, then finishing tracking in Arkansas; having all the special Russian stuff recorded in Volgograd, doing a couple of vocals and mixing in Pennsylvania; finishing mixing long distance (with the PA dude sending us tracks and us saying, “Ok now do this,” and back and forth like that); and finally doing the mastering long distance with a dude in Portland.
Sometimes, we thought it would never be done! It's really challenging to find good enough broadband on the road when you need to download huge files to make sure the mix or the master is getting to where you want it, especially since not being able to sit in the room with the engineer means they're kinda flying blind and you have to tell them, in email, what you want to hear. It was crazy! But we're happy now with how it came out. Totally worth it.
Do you enjoy being in the studio, compared with being out on the road all year round?
It's not relaxing at all...you're in one place, but still working long hours and under pressure of knowing you'll run out of time to get things done. It's more like office work in a weird way, there's a lot of concentration and not much release. But getting to hear your own songs for the first time through a system is rad. Knowing you're making that record, that literal documentation of your music and a story you feel deeply and want to tell, that's really gratifying.
Though the band is known for being a ferocious live act, how important are dynamics to Jucifer’s sound as a whole?
I think we're very dynamic, it just comes across differently on albums than in the shows. For live sets, we want to be bringing it all the time, so the dynamics aren't based on volume changes or instrument changes, but on rhythm and tempo changes. In the studio, of course, all those things are easy to impart, along with really drastic production changes. We like both.
The dynamics of a live show are different than in the studio. “Throned In Blood” came close to recreating that. Is the band always striving to narrow that gap?
Not really. Up until Throned, we were almost striving to do the opposite, in the sense that we consciously made records that overall didn't really reflect what we sounded like live. I wouldn't say we're finished with that forever, but lately it feels important to document our live sound. We looked back and realized we hadn't really done it justice, and that's kinda funny, because it's really what we love most about our band! That's why we tour all the time - the live stuff is where our heart is - so it would be really sad if we left behind only records reflecting what we felt like doing experimentally in the studio, and omitting the core of our band.
You'll see with (this album) that we've again recorded real Jucifer "live" songs. Like I said, I won't promise not to veer away from that sound in the future, but we were in the mood to do this and that dovetailed perfectly with the story we wanted to tell.
What’s the one thing you want a listener to take away from the new album?
I guess for me it's just pleasure. I'd love for everyone to "get it" on the same exact level that we do, but at the same time, I think it's totally cool for people to listen to it in their own way and get whatever they get out of it.
I've always had the attitude that people can and will take music on their own terms. That's even truer now thanks to digital files and iPod shuffle and all that. So I'm not too invested in what other people think or take from our albums. I just like it if it makes them happy somehow!
The band is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Are you the kind of person who gets
nostalgic about big events like that?
A little, but not overly I guess. I'm a future-focuser more than a past-lover. It does feel like an important milestone to recognize, a moment to kinda let yourself appreciate yourself for a second before you push on again.
It’s not everyday a band can get to 20 years. What has kept you and Edgar going after all these years?
Stubbornness, beauty and true love.
Could you see the band going another 20 years, or is there an eventual stopping point for Jucifer?
In 20 years, we'll be in our 60's! It's hard to predict what will happen to you physically at that time in your life. So we have to be aware that, maybe, touring with 4,000 pounds of gear that we set up and tear down ourselves won't always be possible. Still, I can't imagine us not playing together. It's what we've built our entire lives around!
We've always joked that our retirement gig will be playing jazz on cruise ships. Well, it might not come to that, but for sure...we want to keep playing no matter what. I think that means we'll find a way!
In the past few years, the band has gone all over the world, including Russia and Europe. What kind of logistics does it take for a band like yourselves to prepare for an overseas tour?
It's kind of a stressful blur of computer work and phone calls and packing and unpacking and repacking. To arrange renting a vehicle and gear and flights and visas...it's easier for bigger bands with personal assistants (laughs)! But we just buckle down and figure it out. It's worth it.
Is there any place the band hasn’t toured yet that you would personally love to go to?
Australia, South America, Indonesia, Africa, Iceland. To be honest, I would like to see absolutely every place in the world before I die. Somehow I doubt I'll get to (laughs)! But I've already been able to see an amazing amount. I love nature and people and language, so every bit of travel I experience whether in the U.S. or overseas is something I regard as a gift.
You have a constant presence on social media, especially Twitter. Was there any adjustment period in embracing this relatively-new technology to communicate with fans?
Yeah, at first I had nobody following and wasn't really sure how to follow others! It
built gradually into something I really enjoy, a way to meet and interact not just with fans and music industry people, but also with totally random strangers who can turn out to be amazing, enlightening or entertaining voices.
I don't always do it "right" - in that I don't use it strictly for promotion, which some fans are annoyed by - but I think I do it “real.” If someone wants to feel like they know me better, Twitter is a great start.
How important is it for any band to use social media, in your opinion?
I'm not sure how much it affects "bottom line" for bands, if that's what they're after. But as far as interacting with people who care about what you're doing musically, it's pretty great. It's cool to hear from people directly about their reactions. It's also a real pleasure to be able to thank people personally for their support.
If you had one advice to give to aspiring musicians/bands, what could it be?
Only do music if you want to make it your god. Anything less is a cheat to yourself and the music-listening public.
If you could do a cover of any song from any band, which one would it be and why?
No way to pick one! We like too much different stuff (laughs). We have covered a few songs over the years, from Michael Jackson (“Beat It”) to ABBA (“SOS”) to AC/DC (“Giving the Dog a Bone”) and Fugazi (“Blueprint”), as well as a whole set of songs by The Shocking Blue.
Someday, we'd love to do a covers album. We have a lot of ideas. We always like to put our own twist on anything we play, and we like all kinds of music, so there's kind of an infinite supply of possibilities!
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