A decade after their debut album made them household names and ushered a generation of indie kids onto the dancefloor, Justice are back with the most focused and finessed record of their career. Jeremy Allen meets them in Paris to find out how two old chiens have taught themselves some new tricks.
Justice are in their natural habitat, or at least they’re not far from it. We’re sat in the private upstairs attic of a plush hotel overlooking the point where the 9th, 10th and 18th arrondissements of Paris meet, where the urban hustle of Boulevard de Magenta intersects with the caliginous thrills of Boulevard de Rochechouart leading down to Pigalle. Down below us is Boulevard Barbès, a street in the north of the city that may yet become gentrified, but holds out resiliently with its array of unlicensed chestnut vendors, groups of shifty men hanging around on corners, and students handing out phone cards.
Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay moved next door not long after they first met at a party in 2003, where they discovered they had more in common than their training as graphic designers. They stayed for seven years, hatching plans, making music. As they stand out on the balcony feeding their nicotine addictions and regarding passengers coming to and from the Metro station across the street, memories must come flooding back.
While they don’t live together any longer, their bromance endures, as evidenced on their latest longplayer, Woman – their first in five years and their third in nine. If 2007’s † (known as Cross) was an explosive party banger and Audio, Video, Disco was a foray down the mysterious corridors of prog, then Woman is the first to truly get to grips with the song as an artform, and in particular, the love song.
Other notable releases over their 13 years together include two live albums and an incendiary documentary shot during their 2007 tour of America. A Cross The Universe features – among other things – guns, arrests, fights and one marriage in Las Vegas between Gaspard and a girl he’s just met (who disappears as quickly as she appeared when the circus rolls out of town). Throw into the fray a weapons-obsessed tour manager, a Bible-bashing coach driver, the bottling of a stalker and an attempt to set a fan on fire, and you have all the ingredients needed for a holy furor. Justice fanned the flames of controversy again the following year when they released the video for ‘Stress’, shot in 16mm by acclaimed video director Romain Gavras; it features extreme acts of violence by gangs of angry youth streaming into Paris from the banlieues, wearing the familiar cross of Justice on their hoodies.
The duo arrived during the first wave of EDM in the US and the second wave of French Touch in their native land; “but for others, we were more a part of the scene with Soulwax and Erol Alkan, which had nothing to do with the other,” says Xavier, the loquacious one of the pair. “And so that shows how meaningless it is.”
Now of course, they’re elder statesmen. “We started realising that a couple of weeks ago when we were talking to journalists who were younger than us, and people working at the record company who’d listen to us when they were at high school. It made us realise, ‘now we’re on the other side.’”
If it’s all sounding a bit grown up, make no mistake: Woman is an ingenious and exuberant accomplishment that hangs together deliciously, and may even surpass their mighty debut (French music weekly Les Inrockuptibles calls this their “petit chef d’oeuvre d’euphore”). It does border on the technical and even the muso-y at times, but it’s impossible not to sit back and admire the bravura. There are the amorous disco chansons of course, but also plenty of hard funk bass lines and what they describe as “retrofuturist sex, sci-fi and robots, with elements of baroque music that we added to futuristic landscapes”. Xavier and Gaspard certainly aren’t ready for the pipe and slippers yet.
“We are more comfortable with not fighting what comes naturally. Before we might have thought, ‘We need to be smarter than this'”Xavier de Rosnay
The first thing that hits you on Woman is the slap bass of ‘Safe and Sound’. Slap is the most derided of contemporary musical art forms, only less fromage-y than the sax break. You get away with it, but were you scared of tipping over into the unspeakable?
Gaspard Augé: It can go really wrong, yeah.
Xavier de Rosnay: We hope that it goes over the acceptable line. There’s something a bit show-offy about slap bass that works in the context of this tune. Where’s the fun in slap bass if it’s not a bit show-off and a bit shred, you know what I mean? We thought we could push it quite far because the rest of the song is fairly simple and repetitive. It’s a very cold disco track – the choir and the strings give it warmth and life, but the rest is programmed to sound like a futuristic computer disco.
You’re quite good at the old slap bass.
GA: We’re quite good at taking the time to make things right. It takes a lot of time to record each part, and this is what we like – to confuse the listener about what’s being played and what’s been programmed.
The swooping strings almost remind me of Jean-Claude Vannier.
GA: That’s funny you say that.
XdR: Yeah totally, I don’t know if we can say… because Jean-Claude Vannier is actually one of the people we thought of when we were writing the string parts. And we thought of asking him to get involved with the arrangements, but at the same time we started to dig the possibility of doing it with the London Contemporary Orchestra, who are made up of a lot of young musicians. We’ve worked with other orchestras before, and what’s often tricky with classical musicians is they can sometimes have a hard time with syncopation and understanding what you want, especially with disco music, which is so remote from what they normally do.
There are more ‘songs’ in the conventional sense this time. Are you fans of the old variété?
XdR: Yes of course. Gaspard has different taste to me, but I think traditional love songs make up about 80% of what I listen to, from the Beach Boys and the Ronettes to more recent stuff.
GA: But yeah, it’s the first time we’ve done love songs on a record. I guess maybe it’s because we know each other better. We are less reluctant to try new things because we are comfortable with each other. We wouldn’t get embarrassed singing in front of each other like we might have in the past.
Maybe your lives have changed? Maybe you’ve found love?
XdR: I will say we are more comfortable with not fighting what comes naturally. Before, we might have thought, ‘Oh no, we need to be smarter than this. Let’s try to make it more impressive for our producer friends’. On this record, that never came into consideration.
‘Fire’ has a huge hook. I can imagine walking around and hearing it playing everywhere. Will you be releasing it as a single?
XdR: We’re thinking about it. It’s so hard for us to understand what a single is. Sometimes we make a tune and we’re like, ‘Yeah! this sounds like a single’. And then we listen to what a single really is through iTunes or on the radio or whatever and realise we’re very far away from making hit music. For us, with a bit of luck, the song has airplay, but the choice of single is really an invitation to listen to the rest of the record rather than to make money, because the amount of singles we sell is ridiculously small. But yeah, maybe this one will give another perspective on what the record is.
Do you write the songs and the lyrics and give them to the singer, or is it a more collaborative process?
XdR: It depends. On ‘Fire’, we wrote everything and then asked [Morgan Phalen] to sing it. We wondered for a while, is it okay to make “season” rhyme with “reason”? Isn’t it a bit, like, bad? Of course we tried other possibilities to see if we could make it better, but the simplicity is what was important to us, so we kept it that way.
GA: Sometimes we have a problem writing lyrics, because obviously we are French and it’s hard to assess the levels of simplicity and naffness.
Have you ever thought about writing songs in French? I don’t think you have, have you?
XdR: No, because to us the English language is the pop language. We grew up in the ‘80s where 99% of what we listened to was English or American music, and it was only in the mid-90s that the government made a law to have a certain ratio of French songs played on the radio. And also, that was when French pop music from the ‘70s became fashionable again.
The lyrics on ‘Randy’ are a bit naughty. There’s the line: “Got to get it up to make it better”. Did that get past the radio censors okay?
XdR: Well, it all depends on the meaning you attribute to the word ‘randy’. To us it’s strictly a name. It’s a name that is gender neutral. We found out weeks later that it meant something else.
Here’s a question. Why are there so many French duos?
XdR: Mmm, it’s true… [long pause] It’s really hard to answer. Do you have an idea why?
GA: Maybe one of the reasons is that French rock and roll never became popular outside of France. The only music that became popular was electronic music.
And then it became a template? If you grew up in England in the ‘90s, you were more likely to want to be the Beatles.
XdR: And also two is a really good number. If you’re more than two you risk coalitions where two guys are against one guy…
Is that why you’ve lasted so long and are still the best of friends?
XdR: Yes, it’s a very simple way of making music.
GA: There are no ego problems.
You met at a party in 2003. Was it a party for graphic designers?
XdR: [Laughs] In Paris everybody is a graphic designer. No, but when you are this age, your friends do the same things as you, like the same music and have the same hairdos.
As graphic designers with a strong eye for a visual concept, which came first, the music or the cross?
GA: The music.
XdR: The cross came quite accidentally. The first time we used it, we assumed we wouldn’t use it for long. When we were making the cover for the first album we had no idea what to do. And we were looking at the Dark Side of the Moon record sleeve at someone’s place and we were like, ahh, this is nice when you have a strong image that you can use, where you have a symbol and don’t need to put the name of the band on the album because it’s so simple and everybody recognises it. And we were thinking, if only we had something like this. We’d already been using the cross but it didn’t occur to us.
It’s Warholian in that you’ve appropriated a symbol that already has so much meaning to so many, then use it in a completely different way.
XdR: Yeah but [Warhol might have done it] in a way that was almost tongue-in-cheek, whereas we use it in a very normal way, and not in a blasphemous way. Most use of the cross is for provocation, sticking in the breast of the Madonna or upside down for metal bands. We found it very interesting and amusing to use it in a simple and straight and almost respectful context – it’s just the cross in its normal shape, there’s nothing weird or bad or provocative about it. It became a very important member of Justice, almost like a third member, but it joined almost accidentally.
You don’t think you’re going to hell then?
Were you brought up Catholics?
XdR: Yes, but only in the traditional way in France.
GA: No, I wasn’t.
You don’t have Catholic guilt?
XdR: No, because the way we were brought up was just part of a tradition; it didn’t come so much from belief as just what you do.
You don’t talk about politics, do you?
XdR: Yes, but just because we fulfil our roles as musicians in Justice doesn’t mean…
GA: I don’t really think people care what we think in terms of politics.
What about a video like ‘Stress’ where, whether you think it’s political or not, it’s going to have political implications?
XdR: People project the meaning they want to onto it. At the time people put their fear into it, which was crazy, because for a start this video has no political content. It was seven minutes of pure violence in a way people are not used to seeing. We took a typical French landscape and characters and outfits. We thought it would be more interesting to look at than more casual scenes of violence everybody is use to seeing in movies.
Nefarious kids coming in from the banlieues impacts on middle class terror, right?
XdR: And more bourgeoisie terror than anything, but we can’t do anything about that. At the time it was unsettling to see the bad reaction [it caused] but we knew that what would remain would be a good video, and we still think it’s a good video. It’s the one that has aged the best and it’s still powerful, and we were confident in that. We knew it would be a necessary evil to go through all the polemic. We were being threatened with being sued by both the Front National and anti-racist organisations. All the extremes were threatening to sue us, which doesn’t make sense. How can you have racist people and non-racist people threatening to sue? They were doing that to throw light onto themselves which is pathetic.
After what happened at the Bataclan – a direct attack on our way of life – do you still feel you don’t want to talk about politics?
XdR: Of course. Of course, because everybody lives it in a different way. Some people know people who were there, some people don’t, some people were close by, some people were remote, some people just heard about it from the news, which may be a very distorted version of what happened. I think enough has been said about it.
Would you consider making a film again?
XdR: If we have an idea we’ll do it, and that’s bearing in mind we’re older now and the film we made for A Cross The Universe was the best tour film we could do [at the time]. We’re not too fond of music documentaries where you talk about music and then you have testimony from other musicians saying ‘Yeah, they’re really great, blah blah.” This is not something we enjoy watching, so [ours was] a bit like Risky Business but as a music documentary, where your parents leave you with a credit card and you can do whatever you want. And it was fun, and we understood that we wouldn’t be able to do it 10 years later. If we were to make it right now it would be 10 times worse.
Because you’d no longer have the tour manager with the gun?
XdR: We had the same guy on the last tour! No, because on the first tour there were only six people on the road. It allows for more opportunities for things to go wrong. When you are on tour with 16 people, things have to be organised. And we were already older last time, and it was less new, and small French bands touring America was nothing new anymore. The renaissance of electronic music in America was nothing new anymore.
Gaspard, are you still married?
GA: Still married in Nevada.
So you could get married again and not be a bigamist?
GA: Yeah, I’d just need to find another state. I could be married in every state.
If you don’t need to annul the marriage, what else would you change?
XdR: I think we are perfectly happy with who we are today, and changing things is a bit like Quantum Leap – you change one small factor and then it changes everything else, and we wouldn’t want that.
So you’re happy with where you find yourselves these days?
XdR: It wouldn’t make any sense now to go into competition in the musical field with people of 22 who are making great music. These people replace the older ones, and the older ones make something different. That’s how it goes.