Athens group plays Radio Radio Friday What could be cuter than a husband-and-wife rock band? He looks like the amiable slacker type, and she"s attractive in her deliberately overdone way, with the blond locks, pouty lips and extreme cosmetics.
The Athens, Ga., band Jucifer will perform at Radio Radio on Friday, Feb. 21.
Spin that disc, however, and prepare for an ear-splitting blast of guitar and cymbal. Hear that pretty lady shriek like a sadistic prison matron. Amber Valentine and her better half, Edgar Livengood, live up to their vaguely disturbing name: Jucifer. The college town of Athens, Ga., has spawned more than its share of rockers over the years, but nothing on Jucifer"s second full-length release, I Name You Destroyer, finds precedent in R.E.M. or the B-52s. A thorough listen prompts one to ask, did you guys have difficult childhoods? "No. Relatively speaking, both of us were extremely fortunate," says Valentine, whom an interview reveals to be a thoughtful, down-to-earth woman despite a stage persona that falls somewhere between "Satan"s Cheerleaders" and Ritual Abuse Barbie. "We both have parents that are still married, which is very unusual. Of course we had problems as kids, everyone does, but nothing that would really stand out enough to be interesting to a tabloid or anything." Still, everyone has a dark side, and that"s what Jucifer - which performs tonight (Wednesday) at Vertigo in Bloomington and Friday at Radio Radio in Indianapolis - tries to exorcise in its art. "I guess, for both of us, music is an outlet for something," Valentine says. "It"s definitely therapeutic, and to be able to make albums, it does feel like something is coming out that lightens the shoulders or something." Though recently saddled with lazy comparisons to another co-ed duo, the White Stripes, guitarist Valentine and drummer Livengood are no trend jumpers. Jucifer has spent the past decade honing a sound that careens from the monolithic riffing of Black Sabbath to the arty atmospherics of Sonic Youth to the inscrutable minimalism of Slint. For the casual listener, obvious reference points include thrash and death metal, with those walls of crunchy guitar and tempos shifting from impossibly fast to excruciatingly slow. But closer scrutiny reveals quiet, subtle moments and an endless list of instruments and non-instruments poking through the dense mix: piano, organ, cello, violin, horns, vibes, turntable scratching, breaking glass and, yes, even a weed whacker. As the jacket indicates, all sounds are created by Jucifer, "without Pro Tools, loops, samples, studio musicians, big shots or lackeys." They take pride in doing it all themselves, Valentine says. "We"re certainly not virtuoso cellists or anything," she says, "but most of the things we want to hear out of that instrument and the other instruments that we play are added flavor, not big solos or whatever." For the live show, however, Jucifer relies solely on guitar and drums - no bass - to get its point across. They pull it off, Valentine says, with a combination of "will, attitude, high volume, lots of amps, blood, sweat and tears." Lots of amps? Indeed. Lots. While a typical guitarist could manage a club gig with a single amplifier boosted through the P.A. system, Valentine uses 14 or 15 separate amp heads and cabinets with a combined wattage of 6,000 to 7,000, all of them EQed differently. "I basically compensated for not having a bass player with amps and tunings, because that"s what was available to me at the time," she explains. "We had a guitar amp and a bass amp because he was playing bass initially. We accumulated more as we could, and we really liked the idea of having each speaker cabinet create a different part of the spectrum of sound. Blended together, it basically sounds like a bass and three guitars." Without an army of roadies, isn"t it a pain to lug all that stuff around? "We have one guy who helps us out, and we"re all in very good shape," she says. "We"re all wiry and muscular." If the band has a signature, it is the tension between the big, ugly instrumental sound and Valentine"s kittenish vocals. Though she can scream with the best, she often coos and whispers her lyrics, casting the sometimes-dark lyrical themes in stark relief. Against that backdrop of buzzsaw guitars, the effect is like Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to Marilyn Manson. Valentine says she developed the style as a reaction to the hard-bitten divas of her album-rock childhood. "You had a history of rock singers like Heart, Joan Jett and even Stevie Nicks. There"s a very rough-edged, belting kind of style, which I learned how to do when I started singing as a kid," she says. "Having grown up without proximity to a lot of underground music, I wasn"t familiar with Sonic Youth or any of the stuff that would have broken that mold. So I was trying to do something different vocally than what was expected, which is that tough, growly kind of chick singing." Jucifer"s songwriting is a fairly balanced collaborative process, though Valentine writes most of the lyrics. The phrasing is chant-like, and the stories generally are not sunny. One standout cut on the latest album, "Amplifier," imagines a musician"s drug-related death and the subsequent parade of insincerity at her funeral: "Everyone she knew has come in black clothes looking chic." Another song, "Vulture Story," seems to explore the brutal side of sexual politics: "I know you got a great big hammer Ö I know you"re a big fat hole." Still, it was Valentine"s idea to write this dedication on the CD jacket: "I Name You Destroyer is an expression of love." The sentiment was sincere, she insists. "All of the songs are about a character that we feel love for, even if they"re flawed," she says. "And the album itself is an expression of our love for the music and our love for each other and our love for the people that love the music. It"s kind of an offering to ourselves and to the people that can get something out of it." Livengood and Valentine met more than a decade ago, when both arrived in Athens to finish their bachelor"s degrees. The match clicked, and thus was born a marriage and a rock band. "Both of us had about a year of college left when we moved there, and neither of us ended up going back and finishing," Valentine says. "In retrospect I"m very glad, because both of us would have had to get loans and we"d still be paying them, and it would probably interfere with our progress as a band." The two have been life partners and bandmates for about 10 years now. Despite an arrangement they both describe as idyllic, their recording history has been frustrating. They began work in 1995 on their first full-length Jucifer album, Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip, but the independent effort, funded with help from friends, wasn"t completed until 1998. A signing to Capricorn Records and a 2000 re-release of the album looked like a promising turn, but then the band got lost in the shuffle as the label was purchased and dismantled. The follow-up project that became Destroyer languished until some former Capricorn staffers formed an indie label, Velocette Records. Meanwhile, concerned that their decade-old band still had only one release under its belt, the pair threw together an EP, titled The Lambs e.p., simply to have something to sell at tour stops. Velocette was kind enough to release it in 2001, generating more buzz about the follow-up. The long-delayed release of Destroyer last summer has been accompanied by a year and a half of solid touring and a rising tide of recognition. An Athens resident named Michael Stipe has been among Jucifer"s prominent boosters, going so far as to shoot some of the publicity photos they use. Growing national attention has brought more critical scrutiny, some informed and intelligent, some less so. Depending on her hair color at a given moment, Valentine has been compared to every female alt-rock vocalist from Courtney Love to Garbage"s Shirley Manson. Some references are so obscure she doesn"t even get them, given her roots in the rural Southeast and mainstream FM radio. "There"s a lot of stuff that people throw out, either in interviews or just chatting, that I don"t know at all," she admits. "With the Destroyer record, we got a lot of comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, and just two days ago I finally listened to My Bloody Valentine. What it boils down to is that what you know about your own music really doesn"t matter to anyone else"s perception of it." Jucifer doesn"t want to keep fans waiting long for the next release. There"s enough pent-up material to fill a double-album and an EP, and that"s exactly what they hope to do. "We have them completely planned out, but we have to get together with our label and figure out the logistics of getting that done," Valentine says. "We have so much material that we want to get a bunch of it out at once. I"m hoping it"s going to be our masterpiece." A final question: Love is grand and all that, but how do you guys manage to spend so much time together without killing each other? "The only things we fight about are really stupid, like getting lost, and you"re going to do that with anyone you travel with," Valentine says. "We"re very fortunate to have a relationship that encompasses everything that you would fantasize about having in a relationship, as well as the creative thing. "It works well for us. Other people seem to like it. And I guess I don"t really know why, but it"s good that they do." Jucifer performs Friday at Radio Radio in Fountain Square with Chicago"s Evil Beaver and Indy"s own Kim Archer. Show starts at 9 p.m. Admission is $5. Scott Hall is music columnist for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus. Contact him at www.onthebeat.org.