Photo by Scott Stewart
Jucifer is undoubtedly one of—if not the—hardest working bands around today. For 15 years, the married duo of Gazelle Amber Valentine and Edgar Livengood has criss-crossed North America and Europe on a non-stop touring cycle, bringing 140 decibels of experimental, sludgy noise to the masses all over the world. That uncompromising DIY work ethic permeates every aspect of the band, and when they aren’t shattering eardrums with a backline that'd make Manowar jealous, the couple crank out a steady stream of albums, splits, and EPs. In 2010, they founded their own record label, Nomadic Fortress, so they could have total artistic control over their work. Jucifer’s latest album, 2014’s District of Dystopia, was even recorded in the RV they call home.
Now, they’re taking the next logical step as artists and diving into the world of film. In the past, the pair has produced music videos and concert films, but they’ve always collaborated with outsiders. On their upcoming feature length documentary, NOMADS: Built to Destroy, though, they elected to go it alone and learn the art of filmmaking on the fly. I contacted Amber, Jucifer’s vocalist and guitarist, via email to talk about video editing, narrative structures, and the challenges of making your first movie while being on tour forever.
Noisey: Can you start by telling me why you and Edgar decided to make NOMADS: Built To Destroy?
Gazelle Amber Valentine: Through years and years of touring, we've accumulated a huge amount of video footage, and through the years, various filmmakers would say how they wanted to make a documentary about us. Some of them asked for specific things like, "Hey, film your process setting up and tearing down,"or "Film your day," and so we shot a lot of coverage that was suitable for a documentary. But over the years, the guys who wanted to compile these Jucifer docs haven't done it yet. Meanwhile, time keeps passing and we keep collecting more footage.
It became apparent to us that combing through over a decade of tour footage was going be a massive task, one that we wouldn't feel right about pushing anyone to complete. But it's been feeling a little more urgent to do this lately—to be sure, for our own selves, that all the footage we've amassed doesn't just stay on memory cards and in boxes for eternity, and that, even if nobody else cares to watch it, we would have this proof for ourselves of what we've done, because we've devoted our lives to music, and travel, and to amplification in a completely consuming way. Everything is transient, but a film, like a record, is a way to try and catch the lightning in the jar—in this case, that lightning being our own life.
Also our whole trajectory in the past five years has been about "total control". With the paradigm shift of the internet, we have this amazing capacity to make and release our own work directly, and we realized we want a Jucifer documentary that reflects that total vision–to show this all-consuming way of life through our own lens, to reveal it as what it means to us.
This big realization came about kind of by accident, as we were trying to organize footage with the intent of eventually sending it to one of the filmmakers. We both got excited about how visually stunning a lot of it was, and I love Edgar's photography. We started talking and all this stuff that I'm telling you was a factor. Not for the first time, we lamented lacking the capacity to edit our own video. And I was like, you know what, fuck it, I'm going to try to get some editing software and learn to use it and do the damn thing. So I did.
So, based on the extended preview of NOMADS you recently uploaded to YouTube, it seems like there's no interview footage like you see in typical documentaries. Is there a traditional narrative structure to the film?
When we thought about telling our story, we wanted to do it in the same way that we make records. So yeah, there's a narrative structure, but maybe it's conveyed in an unorthodox way—for example, using our music as a narrator and allowing that, along with lyrics, to become part of the movement of the story. It's a technique we've always used on our records, letting sound be one of the narrative voices, albeit a suggestive rather than definitive narration, so it seemed natural for us to do that in the film. . That said, there are some parts of the film with speaking, but the only unusual, thing we've done is letting it supersede speaking to the extent we have.
Overall we had the idea to approach this as a pre-made combination of music and film, where they work together to advance a story, and where you can enjoy it in various ways, from total attentiveness to just kind of letting it play as other things go on— something that can be a multi-sensory ride. That's one of our favorite things to create as people who're both super tactile and aesthetic and aural all at once: a multi-sensory experience.
You said earlier this is your first stab at video editing. What's your approach to the process like? Is it something you find enjoyable?
Yeah, I really do like editing. It's very musical to me. I've always appreciated, whether consciously or not, the effect that editing has on the totality of a film. It's so powerful as far as creating the psychological effect of the photography. You can make something mundane become chilling, for example, or give the feeling of time passing or standing still, and make grief, or joy, all with editing choices. It's been cool for me to notice how some of our songs that aren't about us are still relevant to us, which, of course, makes sense because topics resonate with us for a reason, but it’s still been a weirdly nice introspection on our body of work. The process is brutally obsessive, though. It's addictive, and easy to go without eating and stuff; you just forge,t because you're replaying tiny segments of time over and over, and your focus is on these tiny increments but meanwhile you've worked for hours and hours.
So, when you're editing footage, do you have any kind of outline you're working from? Like, did you and Edgar plot out a story structure before you started? Or is it more of a stream of consciousness process for you?
I guess as far as an outline type of structure, it's a little of both. There's a definite story that is being told, but the same way we've worked when making our albums, there's nothing that feels too confining about that structure. We let ideas continue to arrive. It's never a process where we're like, "Okay, that's the plan. Nothing new can be considered." And maybe sometimes it's better for the flow to jump around in time, not to be overly concerned about telling things consecutively as they happened. So the structure is more of a skeleton that we build onto, rather than an outline we have to stay within.
Since Jucifer is on a non-stop tour schedule, how do you make time to work on the movie? Do you have a work schedule you stick to or do you and Edgar shoot and edit footage whenever you can find the free time?
We do all of the shooting along the way. I'm the driver so whenever we're en route, Edgar keeps the camera within reach. Then for setup and teardown stuff, or anything where we're both in the scene, he'll set up the camera in a stationary wide shot, or we take turns shooting each other. As far as compiling and editing, yeah, just whenever we have some time. We've fit some work on the film in during recording. I'll be editing while Edgar is tracking drums, that kind of thing. He has an amazing capacity to keep footage cataloged in his head, so he'll put stuff aside for me, and when I'm ready, it's there to work with.
Do you know when NOMADS is going to be finished?
We expect to have it finished within the year for a late 2016 or early 2017 release.
Once it's done, what are your plans for distribution? Are you going to going to try entering it into film festivals or arrange any theater viewings?
Yeah, we're interested in all of that, but haven't finalized those plans yet.
Now that you and Edgar are accomplished filmmakers, do you have any other video projects in mind for the future?
We're excited about making some music videos. We've shot a lot of our own footage in the past and directed editors to the extent we were able to, but having the capacity to build videos entirely on our own is inspiring. And other films, sure, who knows! Like I said, this is a new tool, another path of expression open to us now. It's pretty awesome.
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