Gazelle Amber Valentine is one half of sludge / doom / death metal two piece Jucifer, formed in Georgia, USA in 1993. For more than seventeen years Gazelle and her bandmate (and husband), drummer Edgar Livengood, have adopted a nomadic lifestyle. The pair live, tour, rehearse, and sometimes even record in their Winnebago, towing the literal wall of amplification Valentine utilises on stage in a trailer behind them. The duo describe this life as an endless tour, and they can easily find themselves playing live shows in twenty or more countries in a single year.
Jucifer’s music can be (and usually is) harsh, aggressive, and loud, but its subject matter and lyrical content are not necessarily what people might expect. 2008’s L’Autrichiennewas a concept album based around the French Revolution accompanied by extensive historical notes, while 2013’s За Волгой для нас земли нет (“There is no land beyond The Volga“) dealt with the Soviet Union and WWII. Equally though, there is a strong sense of Americana embedded in much of Jucifer’s music and lyrics; dark folk sounds and sensibilities; finger-picked banjo and violin strings, and dissonant, melancholic melodies. Nowhere is this side of their work more apparent than in Gazelle’s solo album Devil’s Tower I, released in 2013.
All of this – the nomadic life, the artistry, the power and intelligence of her writing – made Gazelle Amber Valentine someone I was very keen to approach as a contributor to Spirits of Place. Her essay, entitled “I Have Trod Such Haunted Land“, ended up being the first in the book and remains one of my favourites. Even though her internet connection can be intermittent as she and Edgar continue their never ending tour, Gazelle was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about the book and her contribution to it.
John Reppion: You and Edgar have lived a nomadic life for seventeen years now, how much of an influence do you think that lifestyle has on you creatively?
Gazelle Amber Valentine: The main thing I believe our nomadic existence has affected is our capacity to see all places with equal passion and simultaneously, equal dispassion. Delineation between ‘home’ and ‘away’ and between ‘us’ and ‘them’ becomes forever blurred in context of such a life. In every capital, one sees all the lovely decorations of propaganda and state fantasy, so impressive yet unable to conceal rote greed, violence and inequity. In every dwelling one imagines life and family; death and suffering and redemption. For natural empaths like us, the universality and futility of humans is enhanced almost unbearably. So although we always felt deeply about our art, I think it becomes wiser as we go farther on this path.
Other than that, our way of life has made us even less respectful of conformity and pandering than we were to begin with— which wasn’t very, haha. The immediacy of survival requires enshrinement of integrity, and of the bonds with your life partner. No room for falseness.
JR: Home for you is obviously the van, but are there places you feel anchored, or connected to no matter where you are?
GAV: Yeah, we both feel that certain places live inside of us wherever we are. For me some of these still exist and are physical, others are stories or memories, and still others are dreams which feel like memory.
JR: Have you encountered different cultural attitudes to place when travelling? I assume people are always asking you about the nomadic life and that opens up all kinds of discussions. Is there any particular country or city where you’ve felt that their sense of place, and relationship with it, was very different to your own?
GAV: I’ve felt that place affects people’s customs and very subtle mannerisms in that people living in large countries (US, Canada, Russia, Australia) share more commonality along those lines than they do with people living in countries having comparatively small land mass. Although one can find xenophobia and competitiveness anywhere, there is a certain subconscious isolationism that’s possible when ‘foreigners’ remain far away. For this reason and many other, perhaps unnameable, nuances which seem attributable to nation size, I’ve felt for example that Russians are more similar to Americans than are English folks — despite origins of the US and despite most Russians having likely had more contact with people from the UK.
Beyond that observation, I’ve found that my personal attitude towards place seems replicated in different ways almost everywhere. Most countries, cities and neighborhoods have some kind of reverence for their history, albeit always threatened by forces of modernization and gentrification. If I were to make a worldwide guess, I’d assume that in every place, indigenous communities are most in touch with the importance of connecting to place and to its past. Colonists in every region only profit by obscuring historical connections (at least ones that predate their own) while indigenous peoples maintain their own families, nations and traditions by constant awareness of such links. Regardless of location and manner or conception of ownership, whenever people care about place it seems based on an idea of belonging. This is universal, and applies even when current inhabitants don’t historically belong.
JR: What’s your take on the Spirits Of Place core premise about stories being physically embedded in a place or landscape?
GAV: I said something in my piece about the fact that my personality combines skepticism and gullibility in a satisfactory ratio. This plays into my feelings about genus loci. On some (curmudgeonly) level the concept seems unscientific. Conversely, there is science that supports the possibility for kinetic transmittance of thought and its ability to accrue and manifest physically. Namely, that thought is electric and that electricity travels and accumulates.
Anecdotally, I’ve had very strong experiences of such spiritual residue. Combine that with my successful rationalization based on scientific possibility, and you find me definitely believing that spirits inhabit places. Even if I didn’t think it could be posited with logic, I’d have to say I feel that this happens.
Spirits of Place is available in digital, paperback, and limited edition, signed hardcover from www.spiritsofplace.com