In the sweltering heat of a late spring day in Athens, Jucifer guitarist Amber Valentine opens the door to the band's crowded travel camper. The musician, famous for her high-watt performances and mesmerizing stage presence, is wearing a tight white tube top and a long, flowing skirt. Her makeup is immaculate, with dramatically arched eyebrows and enormous fake eyelashes framing her stunning face. A flower accents her iridescent blond hair while her nose ring makes a strategic punctuation.
Inside, on a nearby table, a Mr. T. bobble-head doll nods in silent agreement, and Christmas lights shaped like vans are hung from the ceiling with duct tape. A banged-up old Silvertone acoustic guitar and a vintage Hagstrom bass flank the couch where her husband and musical partner, drummer Ed Livengood sits.
When Valentine extends her right hand to shake, a tattoo across her knuckles -- reading "R-O-C-K-S-T-A-R" -- makes a striking appearance. "I always wanted a biker knuckle tattoo," she explains. "But I never knew what to put on there." One day in '95, during a particularly trying time for Jucifer, a co-worker jokingly referred to her as a rock star and inspiration hit.
"You can make yourself a rock star, or whatever it is that you want to be," Valentine says. "It doesn't matter if anyone listens to what you do or buys your record or whatever. If you believe that what you do is good, then that's enough. We could have given up back then, but I put that on there, and it was like, 'Now I can't go back to school, or to the corporate world -- let's really do this band.'"
Jucifer's three albums, including the new I Name You Destroyer (on Atlanta-based Velocette Records), are impressive in their diversity. Valentine's whisper-to-a-scream delivery is tempered into icy vignettes of nervous release. Though the CD's back cover states "I Name You Destroyer is an expression of love," rest assured it's tough love. The disc meshes the rough sketches of Jucifer's debut, Calling All Cars On the Vegas Strip with the live pummel of last year's harrowing The Lambs EP. Valentine's demonic-Barbie voice alternately soothes and stings throughout.
Skewed pop slices pervade many of the songs, including the catchy "Amplifier" and the sludgehammer assault of "Queen B." Hazy, frozen soundscapes accentuate a disc full of tragi-comic culture-junkie tangents. "Little Fever,'" for instance, is about a former Playboy playmate, whose car gets trapped in the snow, waiting for help.
Southern-rock music mogul Phil Walden, who steered the careers of Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers, originally signed Jucifer to his revived Capricorn label to reissue the group's self-released first album. When Capricorn went under and Walden resurfaced with Velocette, Jucifer made the jump to the new label.
Walden says he saw something original in the band. "Their ilk isn't very common or easy to pigeonhole," he says. "They look great and they're nice, smart, articulate people. Plus, they've got a big beat I could dance to, if I wanted. Their live show is phenomenal."
"He's always given us total freedom," Livengood says of Walden. "The first thing he said when we walked into his office was to Amber, 'You're a very purty lady,' and to me he said, 'You look like the rocker Neil Young.' He's such a total Southern gentleman and full of great stories. It was odd being on a label known for Southern rock, but if you think about it, they always had some unusual stuff on there. I mean, check out Whitewitch sometime."
At home in Athens, singer/guitarist Valentine and drummer Livengood have found both satisfaction and adulation after years of playing to steadily growing audiences. Now, Jucifer finds itself firmly among the Athens alternative elite.
"The first record I ever bought was the first B-52's record," says Livengood. "It's great to live here and see where certain bands used to practice and live."
Jucifer enjoys Athens because, in many ways, the ever-evolving music scene reflects the group's own ideals. "Athens bands have always seemed to exist outside of the darkness, enjoying life as art and incorporating visual art and performance in all aspects of living," says Valentine. "To me, Athens has always been about being free and not about being super cool."
The Classic City lured both artists to town to finish school, and like many of their peers, they quickly abandoned thoughts of higher education once the music scene welcomed them in. Valentine moved to Athens in '91 from Rome, Ga., and tried the singer/songwriter route for a while after moving to town. Livengood came the following year from Washington, D.C., and like Valentine, had previous musical experience.
Their first project together was as a band called Starbuck, featuring Valentine's material that Livengood, then on bass, and a drummer friend learned from her solo cassette. "In Rome, I always had to either tell people what to play or let someone else tell me what to play," says Valentine. "I couldn't find people who just intuitively went along with me. But at our first practice, they already knew the parts I would have wanted them to play."
A week later, they played their first show in Augusta, opening for fellow Athenians A Mercy Union.
The twosome's eerily intuitive relationship extends from music to personal communication. They continually finishes each other's sentences and even claim to mentally page each other.
"Before you got here," Valentine says, "I was looking in the fridge and thinking maybe we should get some more drinks to have while you're here, and then he came in with an armload of beer."
"Yeah, I was walkin' up the steps and my brain went, 'Hey Ed, get some beers and stuff,'" Livengood says as he cracks open a Stroh's. "Even when she's sleeping while we're traveling, I can hear her and it's like, 'Hey Ed, get some gas,' and I go, 'OK, I better get some gas now.'"
Valentine and Livengood's psychic bond first led them to begin working as a duo, with their trademark high-volume shows increasing in intensity as they could afford to bolster their sonic arsenal. To balance Livengood's overpowering drums, Valentine began adding to her guitar's amplification. She now has 15 huge speaker cabinets and an amp for each one.
"Wielding that volume is an amazing power," says Valentine. "Each amp has a character to us, and they all have names."
"If we're opening for another band and we have to get the stuff off stage fast," Livengood says, "We'll be yelling, 'Didja get Big Mac? OK, ya got Gimpy?'" Jucifer's playhouse of decibels currently blasts Valentine's guitar at an awesome jet-roar level of 4,500 watts.
Jucifer's live show is a full-throttle orgy of extreme noise and hellish theatrics. There's no inane banter and the crowd exists only as distant spectators. "We basically are not people when we play," says Valentine. "I get to scream my head off and show my evil side, which I don't feel comfortable showing otherwise."
"It's like the music is playing us," says Livengood, who flails away on the drums like a man possessed. "Sitting on my side are amps with like 3,000 watts. When she slides up the neck of her guitar, it sucks air into the amps. My shirt actually is sucked toward the amps from the sound. It's as close to being inside the music as you can get."
It takes Jucifer's crew at least two-and-a-half hours to set up (including the group's own light show), but that hasn't deterred Jucifer from hitting the road frequently. "We love the adventure of playing every night," Valentine says.
A typical Jucifer show involves a 12-hour work period, Livengood explains. "It's basically a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, and before we even set up, we've been driving for eight hours, just to get there. Then we drive after the show until 6 or 7 in the morning and sleep for three hours so we can get to the next stop in time to do it all over again."
Jucifer's tireless enthusiasm for their music brings out the grinning record-geek kids in both Valentine and Livengood. "There's all kinds of places to find joy," Valentine says, as Livengood shows off the 4,000 records collected inside their maze-like pop-culture museum of a house. "We find it in music."
Jucifer's CD release show is Sat., June 15, at the Echo Lounge, 551 Flat Shoals Ave. Babyshaker and the Carbonas open. 9 p.m. (doors). $8. 404-681-3600. www.echostatic.com/echolounge.
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