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We tracked down Jucifer, the band that inspired Sound Of Metal

Sound Of Metal
(Image credit: Future / Frank Mullen/WireImage / Press)

Sound Of Metal is a gut punch of a movie about a drummer in a noisy punk-metal band facing the terrifying prospect of going deaf. The fictional band in the movie was modelled on the real-life husband and wife duo of guitarist Gazelle Amber Valentine and drummer Edgar Livengood, better known as Jucifer, purveyors of uncompromising music best summed up by their credo “Genre=Obliterate”. 

Living in an RV mobile home, Jucifer have been touring almost incessantly for nearly 30 years, earning a reputation for the mind-melting intensity of their live shows where Valentine envelopes the audience in a cocoon of sound generated by a massive array of amplifiers known as The White Wall Of Death. It’s an experience equal parts audible and physical. With Sound Of Metal winning awards at the BAFTAs and Oscars, Valentine reflects on their involvement with the movie and the status of the documentary chronicling their unique itinerant lifestyle and ascetic devotion to their music, Nomads: Build To Destroy

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How did Jucifer end up inspiring the band in Sound Of Metal?

Sound of Metal is based on a pre-existing unfinished film called Metalhead that we were actually starring in, playing as our own band but acting out similar characters and the same basic fictional plot that Sound Of Metal explores about a professional drummer losing his hearing and how that changes his life. 

Metalhead was the concept of Derek Cianfrance, who was behind the camera and also directing. Derek came to a few shows and became intrigued with how we toured all the time, doing hundreds of shows with our wall of speakers while living in our RV. His idea was to document us while also shaping a fictional story. After he approached us and we'd agreed to be in his movie, Derek arranged to bring a crew and come shoot with us periodically along our tour route. It was fairly hard to meet up, because of us touring year-round and making albums and Derek's own involvement with multiple projects. And it only got harder, as our tours overseas were stretching up to six months at a time and Derek's prior film Blue Valentine started shooting again after a ten-year hiatus. We'd filmed about 3/4 of the plot but had come to a point where the next shoot kept having to be pushed back.  

Years passed and although we all still intended to finish the film, schedules stayed impossible to line up. Meanwhile Derek had worked with Darius Marder on The Place Beyond The Pines. They worked well together and had a mutual respect. Darius was inspired by the Metalhead concept, especially because of his experience with deafness in his own family, and he wanted to take what we had worked on with Derek and remake the film, adjusting our version to his own vision for the story and simplifying production by casting actors who, unlike us, could shoot full time. Ultimately, we all agreed that Darius would be the perfect person to bring the Metalhead idea to fruition.  

Did you have much contact with director Darius Marder?

Not a lot, but all very positive. He's super caring and committed with what he does and a really down to earth person.

Did you have any input into the movie, musical or otherwise?

The basic structure of our life was critically influential to the Metalhead story, which in turn was the basis for Sound Of Metal, from touring nonstop in an RV we live into the fact that we're a couple and play in a very loud heavy two-piece band together. But certain details, like the core plot point of hearing damage, the negativity in the characters' relationship, and the drummer being in recovery are not our own experience or input.  

In Metalhead, more time was spent displaying the way we live before introducing hearing loss, so our own shows and songs as well as our actual travel filled out the film. With Sound Of Metal, none of the music is ours. And I'm not sure if any is even loosely based on our music, though of course it does have in common the line-up and the idea of playing loudly. Since for Metalhead we'd been filmed extensively doing what we do and talking about our passion for our music and our nomadic life, some important parts of our reality were very embedded in the story. Also, Derek executive produced Sound Of Metal.  So, we all did impact Sound Of Metal.  But even more clearly than the film we'd acted in, Sound Of Metal is fiction informed by reality rather than a documentary.

Did Riz Ahmed or Olivia Cooke hit you up for musical tips?

Not personally. I know that it was important for them to get into character and build their own way of performing as their characters and as a band. So, I imagine they were more trying to find that kind of performer in themselves than to emulate us or anything.

Have you seen the film? If so, what were your impressions?

We haven't seen it. We did read the script and we've seen a couple of clips. Most of what we know about the actual performances and cinematography and sound of the film comes from reading interviews, reviews and viewers' reactions. Because we've read the story and acted out some of its painful scenes, and have also heard how stressful seeing it felt for many of our friends who are musicians too, we're not sure we really want to watch it. By all accounts it's brilliantly done; it's just a difficult story and hits closer to home than we need to experience from entertainment.  We've had enough harrowing music related existential terror during 28 years on the road.  

How do you rate Riz’s performance as a drummer?

We haven't seen his drumming scenes yet, but he definitely looks legit in the stills!

It’s quite a heavy movie in terms of the subjects it covers – tinnitus, loss, forms of addiction. Does any of that mirror your own story?

Aside from being a couple whose loud band tours and records in an RV, the experience of these characters is pretty much nothing like our own. But of course you can't spend most of your life driving hundreds of thousands of miles on little sleep while devoting all your waking hours to a physically gruelling band without knowing something about addiction and something about loss.  

Our addiction to sound – this specific type of ambient, overwhelming, body-vibrating sound we revel in that needs a lot of gear to perfect – has made us practice a kind of asceticism that is totally opposite what people usually think of when imagining musicians as addicts or even what bands do on tour. If we indulged in the kind of partying people typically associate with this life, we'd never be able to manage staying on the road continuously let alone doing our own driving and being our own road crew. And we have preferred to live this way, doing things for ourselves, because we love that intimacy with each other within our own sense of purpose and the feeling of accomplishing grandiosely difficult things as a team.  

That said, our addiction to playing this music together on stages in this intense way and to traveling the world has cost us parts of life that anyone not doing this full time probably takes for granted. And being always on a road or a ship or a flight or confined for days on a Russian train or just encountering shady police in lonely places presents near-death experiences more often than you'd even want to guess. But the strength we've found in ourselves and each other, and our ability to find the beauty or redemption in each new day, is something like the Ruben character finding peace at the end of the film. I think every person's life has this tension, actually. And that's something that draws people to our story, and that draws them into Sound Of Metal.

Are you disappointed that COVID meant you weren't able to go to a proper red-carpet premiere?

It would have been an adventure for sure!

Did you watch the Oscars to see if it would win?

We did watch.  It seemed like we should!  It's also kind of endlessly fascinating to watch interviews with people who lived through a part of your life without actually living your life.  We're happy for the wins they did get and were rooting for them to win everything.

Has it prompted people who wouldn't have heard of Jucifer to go check out your music? Have you noticed an uptick in your sales or Spotify listens and YouTube views?

Somehow, we've been film world adjacent for most of our existence. A lot of it probably because we record some songs that are completely unlike our live shows.  Our first time ever charting on a radio station was in an LA suburb before we'd even toured the West Coast; we've had our music in several shows and films aside from our separate soundtrack work, and wound up with our posters used as set dressing on a few hugely popular series like Californication. But we've also stayed on tour for most of the last three decades. So it's hard to tell which kind of visibility is the catalyst for stuff like sales.  

I know we've steadily gained a lot of new audience since releasing our record نظم late last year, which makes sense because it's a different kind of music than we've ever presented before. And then people discovering us through نظم  have gone on to find our back catalogue and merch stores online. We haven't tried to differentiate that from other things that could draw interest, and I'm not sure if it would even be possible.  

But as far as Sound Of Metal getting some new people interested, I would guess it has and will. Even if they're not going to become fans of ours, and might not notice mentions of our name surrounding the film and in the credits, a whole lot of people have now seen this impressionistic, altered facsimile of us and have learned about a way of life they didn't know before, which is so integral to our spirits.  Just that part, that we're sort of "seen" by very mainstream culture, especially with all the concurrent awareness of fellow-Academy-Award-winner Nomadland, feels oddly victorious. Even if both are fairly skewed from our real life.  

Is it frustrating that you can’t get out there and tour on the back of it?

Sound Of Metal? Not in the sense of advertising our shows or something. Like, we love to interact with other artists or with actions for causes we want to support, and we appreciate when something we like or we care about can overlap with what we're doing. But to make that association a main selling point for our tour would feel weird, because of course our own vision and work isn't changed. We're not coming to the stage to present something different because of a separate collaboration we've done.  

That said, if the film makes someone more interested in checking out our show, I think that factor is not going to disappear over time. People tend to remember the first thing that interested them in a band, even if it's something very obscure. So, to the extent Sound Of Metal may make someone want to see us play, I think they'll remember that. Now, frustrating in general that we can't be on tour is a whole different story! But we are 100% happier to deal with missing that for a while longer than to be putting people in danger before it's safe to gather in crowds again.

How have you dealt with the lack of live shows and touring over the last year?

Before COVID-19 we had started to build our own studio. We've always self-produced, overseeing the whole recording process, because we're into that stuff and have strong opinions about how each record should sound. But we wanted to make the process totally self-contained, like the rest of our life. We can work most accurately that way, and usually fastest too. So, in 2014, we started recording and mixing ourselves inside our RV. We loved that and it was very freeing, but of course also limited us to gear we can carry in our RV and trailer – which is mostly the White Wall, obviously – and took over our entire living space as we worked.  

After doing that for a couple of records, we knew we wanted to keep that autonomy but also build a landbound studio so that when we take time off tour to record, we can do it more efficiently and have all our sensitive studio-only gear safe and ready in one place.  We were on our way there to finish نظم  (which we'd planned to immediately follow with a European tour) when we heard that the first US coronavirus cases were discovered. Not too long after starting to track it became apparent that tours were not going to happen, because the whole world was breaking.  

Trying to find how to handle seeing so much suffering and death spreading globally, and how to process so much stress about not just ourselves and close loved ones but the thousands of people we've been privileged to know through our decades of travels, was a pretty appropriate mood for the album's songs but absolutely terrible for getting things done. Eventually, we sort of got our balance on the barrel of ever more horrible horrors. What we'd normally pour into exhausting travel and loading and meeting our own performance expectations each night, we threw into completing نظم and then working on several soundtrack projects for TV and film and several more records that will be for Jucifer and one or more of our official side projects. We've put together all the expanded artwork and liner notes for when Alternative Tentacles releases the نظم gatefold double vinyl this fall, and also for a 7" that AT is doing for their 7" club.  And we've kept doing improvements on the studio.  

Right now, we're making a massively heavy new Jucifer so that we'll be ready with a new album and new set when it's okay to be back on the road. And when that time comes, I can't even imagine how much cathartic energy we're going to be trading with audiences. And how many hugs and high fives.

Jucifer is famed for the volume of your live shows – Gazelle has talked about creating a womb of sound. How are you protecting your own hearing and that of your audiences?

We let people know whenever we can that our band's live sound is specifically designed to be heard with earplugs. Because it's capable to blow your hair, rattle stuff off tables, and shiver your bones, our sound requires earplugs and we EQ everything accordingly. We've always sought this total immersion in the music, to feel the disruption and exchange of matter by volume, and to ride the shape of the sound, which morphs in different spaces. I remember saying before that it's like riding a T-Rex, which is a funny image but if you imagine being able to direct something monstrous and terrifying that is also beautiful and mesmerizing – that's it. I've also said a lot that it's like making sculpture with air. Like a sculptor is influenced by their medium, I am constantly aware that I'm playing the actual building: the structure of the stage, the ceiling, the walls, and the people in the audience. The sound of my guitar is not one brand of gear or one way to adjust settings of knobs; it has to adapt to different spaces. And it has to be loud to do what I intend and what we both love. 

Also, Edgar's snare hits alone measure significantly above safe dB levels. Even without the guitar, you'd want earplugs. We always wear them. And whenever we get the opportunity we recommend not just "wear earplugs if you're coming to see us" but also "wear earplugs if you're going to a show, period". It only takes one mic feeding back to hurt you! But again, the hearing loss plot point in Sound Of Metal is not taken from our life; it's just something that seemed plausible because of our volume. And I guess the fact we've played so loud so constantly for all these years but managed to keep our ears healthy really proves the value of earplugs.  

What are Jucifer’s plans for the rest of 2021?

Finish our next album and finish/start other recording projects, continue work on my [Gazelle's] memoir and some shorter writing projects, continue work on our biopic documentary Nomads: Build to Destroy and hopefully get together tour plans for 2022.

If the film has had a positive impact on Jucifer, do you wish this would have happened earlier in your career?

If Sound Of Metal had come out too early in our career, I think it would've been a completely different impact. Instead of lots and lots of people immediately thinking "Whoa this reminds me of Jucifer, holy *%$#, this is unmistakably patterned off Jucifer, is Jucifer OK with this?!" we might even have been perceived as imitators of the fiction, which would have been absolutely depressing. If we'd completed Metalhead early in our career, and for the sake of pretending let's say it did just as well within the film world as Sound Of Metal has done, that would have potentially transformed our lives such that we'd have found opportunities in Hollywood before figuring out how to have a music career.   

Either way, changing the timing or outcome of any event from our past could have derailed the life we've known together for almost 30 years.  And we've loved our life, through every hardship and every dream come true. We love who we are and what we've done and what we intend to do next. We definitely wouldn't wish to change how anything worked out.  Even had Sound Of Metal's immense success happened before COVID-19, when we would have been traveling hard and very wrapped up in just getting from one place to the next and slaying the set and doing it over again, we wouldn't have been able to have much information or perspective about how the film was hitting people or much time to interact with anyone about it. So, I think for us this timing couldn't be better.  

Jucifer's latest album نظم is out now via Nomadic Fortress Records.

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.