Girls Don’t Like Metal Interviews Gazelle Amber Valentine

I’ve been a fan of Jucifer for years. The infamously loud doom duo of Edgar Livengood and Amber Gazelle Valentine have been popping eardrums and taking names since 1993. Eleven years ago, the pair decided to give up on down time completely and move into their tour van. Even since then, they have eschewed the typical cycle of tour/rest/write/record that defines the careers of so many bands in favour of a more vagabond existence, constantly on the road performing (in fact, they will be hitting up Toronto on August 16th with Vilipend and Kosmograd if you’re so inclined to see them live, which I highly recommend). Through the magic of social media, I got to know Amber and was consistently impressed by the strong and outspoken personality she built online, especially via Jucifer‘s Twitter feed. As a passionate, talented and engaged performer, I am thrilled to have her as a part of Girls Don’t Like Metal.

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Gazelle Amber Valentine

How did you first become introduced to metal, and eventually be a writer for and performing heavy music? What is your metal love story?

When I was little, I was already attracted to dark stuff. At the age of four I wanted to marry Dracula. At six I was collecting bones, making witches’ brew out of elderberries, and trying to fly by jumping off our porch straddling a broom. When at seven I was laid up with chicken pox and my mom read me The Hobbit, which led to me finishing the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy before I turned eight.  I was a child who tamed horses and worshiped trees. What else could I have become but a metalhead?

Back then in the early ’70s, there wasn’t much metal in the world yet, and I gleaned it where I could. From the Beatles ”I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to Led Zeppelin‘s “Immigrant Song,” Heart‘s “Barracuda” Jethro Tull‘s “Aqualung” and eventually to Black Sabbath‘s “Paranoid” and “Iron Man,” I remember instinctively feeling pulled to minor chord progressions, “scary” or badass themes, bitchin’ riffs, palm mutes, and… um… nerdy mythological stuff.  Yes, I later read Dune.

There were no hip record stores near where I grew up — or any stores at all for that matter. It was (and still is) a pretty isolated house about a 30-minutes drive outside what was then a small town in a dry county. Up until high school, my parents were really my only access to the world.

Mom and Dad listened to most genres of music (a trait they passed to me) but for whatever reason — probably the image — eschewed Black Sabbath from their record collection, and I sadly lacked an elder sibling to corrupt me. Over the years I’ve encountered a lot of assumptions about my imagined love of Sabbath, but I truly only knew their radio singles. Instead, thanks to my folks, I had Hendrix, ZZ Top, the Who, and Cream as early favorites, which was plenty to start me down the path of riff worship.

The first metal record I owned was Judas Priest. I snagged a copy of Screaming For Vengeance from my neighbour’s hoodlum step-cousin, who apparently favoured their earlier work and didn’t want it. I’m sure if I’d done it before, but I definitely remember headbanging to Priest. Next came Def Leppard (I know) with Pyromania. It was another gift from a hoodlum dude, this time one I rode the school bus with. He was a chubby twelve-year-old redhead whose heavily freckled face floated permanently beneath a foam trucker hat emblazoned with the phrase: “Liquor In The Front, Poker In The Back” (those were the days). Despite my disappointment in the stuff they would put out later, I’ve never lost my enjoyment of that “Pyromania” album’s stupid, rockin’, stupid songs.

At fourteen or so, I finally got to know a couple of kids who had lived elsewhere, or at least had lax parents and could roadtrip to more liberal places. This brought me an influx of underground music in the form of mix tapes: Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Minor Threat, S.O.D., Slayer, Butthole Surfers, Exploited, Wurm. That’s when I really picked up the guitar with intent to master it. This aggressive, dark, cathartic, rebellion, distorted, yelling, conquering, vengeful stuff I gravitated to was also inside me, and it needed to come out!

I started by playing just the low E string (the expressway to riffage) and immediately began to write and record. I named my one-string, whisper-screaming “band” Screaming Nuns.  The “album” (on cassette) had about nine songs and a hand-drawn (by me), LP-sized cover featuring (guess what?) a nun, screaming.

Of course, being from the sticks I had very little peer influence to force the distinction between metal and punk. At first I knew none; I just thought these bands were all related by mood and attitude. As I met a few more kids I learned the two genres were supposed to exist in opposition, but I didn’t agree. Anything that made me want to bang my head, pump my fist or throw myself off a cliff was fair game. Music was and still is the purest place for me. I don’t think it can be about what hairstyle you have without losing its magic.

How did you meet your creative partner and husband Edgar Livengood and decide to form a band together?

I was playing solo shows because I thought it might bring the right people to me. I’d played in bands where I was the leader, and bands where I was a hired gun. Neither one was satisfying. I really wanted to find a situation where music just happened naturally. Edgar had been through the same experiences and was at the same point.

At the time we met I was playing bass in a band that didn’t play my songs, and didn’t really have room for extra songs. Although the songs we played were great, and it was fun to write basslines to, I’d been writing a lot for a long time and wanted to realize my own ideas. Edgar was a roving bassist, too. He was pinch-hitting in a couple of bands, but also jammed with his drummer roommate. After coming to one of my solo shows, they basically offered to be my rhythm section. I had a cassette of some songs, and gave it to them. A week later we had our first practice. And because they’d studied my tape all day, every day (both were unemployed at the time) our first practice was EPIC.

Within a couple weeks we had our first gig. After it, Edgar and I got together. And who wouldn’t? At the end of our first performance, we threw our guitars up in the air so that they collided before crashing down magnificently. In front of 5 people. Hot!

After another month the drummer roommate realized (before we even did) he was going to be a third wheel and split. So Edgar switched to drums, I got to inherit his amps, and our fate was sealed.

What are some of the benefits and challenges of working so closely with your partner?

We care more than anything about each other and about the band. That pretty much explains both!

How did the trademark Jucifer “wall of amps” evolve? Has sheer loudness always been an artistic goal of yours?

Jucifer and the Wall of Amps

My instincts always drew me to huge guitar sounds. I discovered early on that more amps = more frequencies that can be covered = bigger sound.  Volume was important because the guitar parts were always supposed to be heavy, and heavy guitar should never sound like a small insect buzzing. Yet sound engineers always (even with my earliest configurations of 2 cabs, 4 cabs) said I played too loud, and refused to put guitar in the mains. They felt the focus should be on my voice so they’d crank the hell out of it, making us sound like a singer, a drummer and a couple of angry flies. So to my instinctive desire for “more amps” was added a real need for such an arsenal, if I was ever going to present my songs to audiences the way I heard them in my head.

I think it was Pink Floyd who planted the visual concept of a surrounding ampwall in my head. As a teen I saw Live At Pompeii and fell in love with their semi-circle of huge, huge amps shadowed by ruins. We pay homage by stenciling ”Jucifer London” on our cabinets, a reference to “Pink Floyd London” as seen in the film. This makes us very mundane loading our gear in Canada. We lose all our foreigner cred!

When Edgar and I met he was into bands like Lush, Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. He loved that their concerts were insanely loud. I was fortunate to find in him a bandmate who shared my desire to build sound castles.

In spite of spending half my life bludgeoning eardrums, I must say that sheer loudness was never a goal, and I think you can tell by my tone. To achieve sheer loudness, one uses the most unpleasant high frequencies (to impress listeners with pain) and the most efficient lows, which only come from synthesizers. My quest was to make a massive but embracing sound, where even the feedback is something you want to keep listening to. Clear but organic, rich and textured. And to make one guitar sound like two guitars and a bass playing in unison.

Sometimes I get these techie dudes that try to tell me I’m doing stuff wrong, that I could be louder with less amplifiers, or my guitar should sound more like a guitar. They think because I’m a chick that my sound is some kind of accident. Which is pretty silly, since about one trillion people that only play in their rooms can sound “normal” or be loud.

I’ve honed my tone very carefully to be what it is: unique. Sculpting with volume, with the physicality of that volume, is a wildly ecstatic feeling.

Like I finally got my witch powers.

Tell us about the relationship between punishing volume and heavy metal. What is behind the desire to be loud?

Volume and heavy metal are both a lot about war, power, thunder, victory. Also, exorcism through pain. Music felt is much more intense than music only heard. For the musician to wield that power feels insane, for the audience it’s like a joyous masochism. I think I just said I’m a sadist!

You are one of the most notoriously committed bands in North America, having essentially given up down time in order to write and tour constantly. What caused you to make this decision to tour and perform full time?

To be brief, we realized: “Either we’re all in, or why the hell are we doing it?” Doing something that’s your passion but only doing it halfway didn’t seem right to us. It was terrifying to move into an RV; we gave up 90% of the stuff we owned before. Having no home, no job to return to is still terrifying. Being out on the road, inviting our luck to run out, chancing the odds is terrifying. But this music is our life.

We got to a point in the late ’90s where we said, “Y’know, it’s really cool we’re in this band and we got a record deal and we’re touring a lot, but if we don’t commit ourselves to the hilt, how will we feel looking back? Do we wanna be fifty years old and go, shit, I rested on my laurels, I sat around a bar in my town being a hipster and minor rock star and lost my edge and lost my hunger and never really did a damned thing at all. Where did my life go?”

For us the best way to stay engaged with life and with our creativity is to be doing it, living it. It’s sometimes thankless, always dangerous, yet somehow the only path that makes sense.

Without the usual cycle of time at home to write, do you ever find it challenging to make new music? How do you write on the road?

To the contrary: we’re playing our instruments every day, so we’re always digging something new out of them, and out of each other. For years now, we’ve had this ability to go into improvs onstage and just ride them out. Some nights are better than others, but a lot of time we end up getting good songs from pure improvisation. We always wrote a lot by jamming anyway, and over the last decade we’ve had to do it in front of an audience.  It’s pretty great to experience, like each song gets a trial by fire.

Preparing to record is a little hard, because you want to really dial in your parts. We end up having to pay studio time for some rehearsal.

The doom duo possesses a very powerful metal alchemy; some of my favourite bands at the moment happen to be duos. What is it about this dynamic that works so well?

I’ve never really thought about it before! It’s a fairly new phenomenon. Ten years ago we never heard about any other ones, and now there’s probably a hundred. I think part of what makes it powerful for an audience is that you end up paying attention to everyone in the band, because it’s possible to do so. You can really vibe with two people, and watch them vibe together, in a way that’s probably harder to do with more. You have two eyes, right? One for each band member.

Also, doom is just well-suited to a simplified line-up. It doesn’t depend on triple-guitar harmonies and stuff.

Touring so constantly, you are able to see a lot of metal community all over the world first hand. What is it about this particular moment that seems to be creating so much tension in heavy metal, especially in regards to women?

Maybe it’s just that the internet is more dominant than it’s ever been, and because media is trying to transition and survive, you have all these magazines running pieces to purposefully try and create controversy, drive traffic… and trolls breed like black mold in those comment sections.

Simultaneously, there’s just more people playing music. Technology revolutionized people’s capacity to record and upload themselves, in tandem with parents about my age deciding that All Kids Should Play In Rock Bands Because I Wish I Had. I think both musicians and fans get a little touchy and panicky about this. With so much, “look at me look at my band” going on, everybody’s hypersensitive to bullshit and posturing. To be heard above the cacophony, you almost have to be obnoxious. Right now it seems like a lot of bands are being sold with really ham-fisted tactics, which pisses people off, especially when they see that stuff succeed while “true” music fails.

The desperation to sell websites does a horrible disservice both to musicians and fans, pitting them against each other by running purposefully offensive segments. The desperation to sell bands plays perfectly into this tabloidism. Next thing you know women who’re mad talented and capable get lumped in with bustier-bursting status quo riders whose real job in their band actually is to be eye candy. No wonder music fans get confused, no wonder they get pissed off.

In the real world I don’t feel as much tension as I see online. As far as sexist behaviour, yeah, there are some guys who’re threatened enough to try to intimidate me or downplay what I’m doing when we speak, but not that many. Not more now than any other time.

From your perspective, what is so compelling about examining the relationship between women and heavy metal? Why are so many people talking about this right now?

I’m not an expert, I don’t have statistics, but my impression is that starting in the ’80s, we females became more and more involved with metal. This has been ongoing. People like myself were fans and learned to play and started bands long before riot grrrl supposedly “broke” the idea of girls playing something other than pop.

I think that now, women are quite common in this genre of music. Not a majority certainly, and not even half, but women are certainly not some anomaly to be gawked at. Plenty of us are (and have been for 20 or 30 years) in the same pits and on the same stages as anybody else in the genre. Reading the same mags, loving the same records, repping the same bands on our t-shirts. And as you’ve clearly demonstrated in this series, playing crucial and gender-neutral roles in every aspect of the “industry.”

Problem is, that terrible marketing approach still perceives us as a sales tool. Whether it’s selling us to one another or selling us to men, it’s a bit of an affront to both sexes’ maturity.

So what I see now are a lot of well-adjusted, modern-minded people of both genders going, “What the hell is up with this archaic bullshit?  Haven’t you guys been paying attention? Women are just as capable and worthy of being here as men. Duh.”

Meanwhile, sex still sells, and there are always (less-mature) people lined up to profit from that. They tend to defend their tactics with”free speech,” but y’know what? It’s just cheap, no matter which gender’s doing it. Chicks and dudes can both market themselves with their tits or their art. And personally, I’m only gonna respect art. Any asshole can show their tits!

What are some of the challenges or roadblocks you have faced as an active and vocal woman in the metal community? How have you overcome these challenges?

I’ve definitely missed some opportunities to market our band. Edgar totally supports me in these decisions, but I sometimes feel bad about them. I hate knowing that if I was or had been less ethical, we might have a better income and be better able to help out our families and ourselves. That’s a horrible burden this industry, this society, places on women. It’s a double whammy, because you also have the choice to be unethical about your music and just make some crap you know will sell. I’ve done neither, and the price is a lesser career. These are enemies that, in my lifetime, may never be possible for any woman to truly defeat.

Other than that I sometimes encounter annoying conflicts with men on a personal level. Sound engineers or dudes from opening bands, occasionally guys from the media, who insist on treating me like an idiot or who expect me to obey their will in a situation where I have every right to be in charge. I overcome this with a combination of humour and stubborn resistance. Nine times out of ten, there’s a peaceful solution. The tenth, I write them off and won’t work with them again.

Misogyny in the press just feels impossible to combat. When I get stuck on some “hot chick guitarists” list which is prefaced by a statement that we’re being rated for appearance only because obviously, since we’re female, ability isn’t even a factor, I realize that’s how easy it is to dismiss a whole group’s lives, work, intellect, contributions and trailblazing based on their possessing the “wrong” genitalia.

For me, it’s been 20 years under playing guitar in a way that literally revolutionized the playing and set-ups of many who witnessed it.  Almost every night I have guys asking me how I get my sound, what strings and pedals I use, how I tune, how I hook up my rig. I’ve watched men get adulation in the press for stuff I showed them how to do. Reputable music media has (thank god!) written regularly about me based on actual ability. Yet every time some ass posts one of these dismissive “hot” lists, a certain number of people will read it and believe I’m just a dipshit vixen holding a guitar to look cute.

More than being insulting to me as an individual, this makes me sad about humanity. For women, there is a terrible truth: no matter how well we’ve earned respect, many will choose to give their respect to a man who’s accomplished less. Anybody who says this is balanced by the fact we can profit from selling our sexuality is in my opinion very naive.

What advice would you give for a young woman who wants to follow a similar career path and nomadic lifestyle to the one you have made?

Years ago I read an interview with Madonna in which she replied to a question like this with, “Don’t do it unless you’ll die if you don’t.” Ladies, Madonna is the queen of pop and it’s been that hard for her. Imagine how much harder it is for someone like me!

Nothing about this life is easy or simple or even sustainable, let alone safe. But if you feel called to this, I would say just always remember who you are and what you love. Don’t fall into drama. Don’t sell out to the world’s demands. Protect yourself, but don’t get hung up on your gender. Don’t feel you have to deny it, don’t feel you have to whore it out. Don’t let yourself be tricked into becoming a victim or a demagogue.

You can’t rid the world of bad people or pain, but you always have the choice to act ethically. When you do this you’ll attract other just and honourable types, who’ll be invaluable to your faith.

Most of all, keep that faith. Believe the impossible. Reach higher every time. Fight for your life every day.

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Gazelle Amber Valentine is an American musician, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and producer. She has been actively recording and performing since 1984. Though best known for her role in the band Jucifer, playing guitar through an imposing wall of speakers while alternately screaming, growling and singing dreamily, she has contributed to their albums with a small litany of other instruments as well as being intimately involved with all details of production. Valentine’s unorthodox approach to the guitar itself, to her amplification, and to the format of the sludge/doom metal duo has been a hallmark of the underground since the early 1990s and has been emulated ad infinitum. Besides pioneering her distinct musical methods, Gazelle has regularly vented her creativity and her opinions in guest blogs, interviews, and even a few short-run hand published books. She also draws, paints and makes jewellery.

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