Wednesday, January 09, 2008

From the Dummy Magazine Archive: Justice Interview

With Justice having just announced a huge US tour with a headline show at Madison Square Garden we thought we would re-print our Justice cover feature from Dummy's Summer 2007 issue. Enjoy...

French duo JUSTICE make hard’n’heavy dance music. They also make pop tunes. If
that sounds like Daft Punk, they’re flattered, but unconvinced. Anyone could havedone it, they reckon. Don’t believe a word of it. John Burgess meets the future of dance music…

Saturday 28 April, Coachella. In two hours, Justice are due
to play in front of 12,000 people in the Californian desert.
Things aren’t going according to plan. The paint is still
drying on their stage set, built in LA for this, their first
appearance at the festival. In a hotel room nearby, Gaspard
Auge and Xavier de Rosnay are hunched over their computers
working on their music with furrowed brows and trying to get
to grips with a new software package. The young Parisiens often
leave things to the last minute, but this is ridiculous. Has
anyone seen the manual?

Their stage set, nicknamed Valentine, is a model of a huge,
60s-style synth. It spews forth a mess of wires and is festooned
with flashing lights. It looks like it needs men in white coats to
operate it.Valentine is flanked by Marshall amps, nine per side,
in huge stacks that even Mötley Crüe would regard as perhaps a
little too much. In the middle is “the third member of Justice”,
a crucifix beaming out white light.

When Justice take to the stage, the set seems to overwhelm
Xavier, who is all but invisible on account of his short stature.
Later, he confesses to being worried throughout the gig. “We
were in such a panic state. I think there were two or three
mistakes, but no one noticed. It was like a big rehearsal in the
end.What else did we learn? That maybe I will need to wear
stilettos if I want to be seen.”

If it’s a big rehearsal, it goes very well indeed. The crowd
lose it to Justice’s crunching synth rock. A long-haired, shirtless
dude pressed up against the stage is headbanging, kids make
the devil sign with their hands, others cross their glowsticks
together, while some have come better prepared with styrofoam
crucifixes. It looks like a battle of good against evil.Then
someone starts crowdsurfing. Justice may make their music on
laptops, not Flying Vs, but they undoubtedly rock.

“We were not really ready but it was fun,” concludes Xavier,
lighting the umpteenth cigarette of a particularly nerveshredding
day. He’s stick thin, his tight white jeans and tighter
black leather jacket accentuate his pipecleaner frame. Despite
being 24, and sporting simian-like sideboards, he could pass for
a teen and gets asked for his ID every time he tries to buy a
drink in LA. He’s witty and unfeasibly polite. Like his partner
he is the type of well-brought-up young man any girlfriend
would be happy to introduce to her parents. Meanwhile,
Gaspard is shy, quiet, tall, a year older than Xavier and has a
porn-star style handlebar moustache. A dangling crucifix shines
against his jet black shirt making him look more like Tony
Iommi of Black Sabbath than one half of the hottest electronic
band on the planet.

Justice earned that sobriquet with two landmark releases:
2003’s Never Be Alone and 2005’s Waters Of Nazareth. Since
then they’ve been christened the ‘new Daft Punk’ by a hopeful
music press, an accolade that they will have to live up to or
modestly disregard. Does the comparison to one of the most
important dance acts to emerge from the ’90s hold weight?
Like Daft Punk, Justice were conceived in their teens. They
both share the same manager – Pedro Winter, MD of Ed
Banger records. They both released scene-defining early
singles. They both understand the appeal of style, mystique and
spectacle. Are Daft Punk really in those robot suits? Are
Justice’s Marshall amps really plugged in? They both use rock
aesthetics and as a result possess an appeal beyond the
confines of the electronic dance geek. They’re, er, both French
and there’s more than one and less than three of them. Their
debut album, †, is certainly surrounded by the same level of
anticipation that preceded Daft Punk’s 1997 debut Homework.
Meanwhile, Waters Of Nazareth, their first proper single, is as
genre-busting as Da Funk, Daft Punk’s debut single from
1996. In fact, † has more in common with Daft Punk’s second
album, Discovery. It features as many pop moments as it does
gnarly rave, of which Stress and DVNO will find favour with the
thrill seekers. There are as many nods to ’70s soft rockers
Steely Dan and “George Michael white boy funk”, as they
would have it, as there are to acid house. Xavier agrees, “Some
of the tracks are club friendly but there is some late night
music you can listen to with your lady or guy, and there is
some pop. Most tracks are pop, everything is quite short.”

Monday 7 May, Paris.

We are sat in a restaurant near Justice’s studio. Or rather in a small room adjacent to the kitchen, the sort of exclusive space Jack Nicholson
would be whisked straight to were he to appear unannounced at
the door. “That would be unlikely,” says Xavier. “This is a
restaurant for straight-to-DVD actors.” He gestures to the
signed photos of the city’s C-list on the walls.Why do Justice
get the special treatment? “Maybe they think we are pop stars.
They shake our hands when we come in now. And they will
really think we are after this.” He points his steak knife to my
microphone. Gaspard is quiet, pondering a huge plate piled
high with crustaceons. Xavier makes fun of his pencil case-style
man-purse. “He loves cheap things from the flea market. His
room is like a ’70s museum. It’s full of video games that don’t
work.” Gaspard responds: “Sometimes when I go to bed I speak
to them and ask, ‘How was your day?’” If Xavier has a quirk, it
is his love for red meat.We met for a breakfast interview in
December 2005 and I counted five different kinds of flesh on
his plate, including black pudding. “I also like horse,” he grins
sheepishly. “But I know it’s repulsive to mention in the
company of people you don’t know too well.” He steers his gaze
well away from Dummy’s vegetarian photographer.

Xavier and Gaspard grew up in middle class Parisian
suburbs. Xavier’s Mum is a dentist, his father works in a
hospital “finding practical solutions to make people happy” he
says failing to find the English word for the profession. Gaspard
comes from a more artful background. His mother is a curator
for an art museum, his father an actor. Neither’s parents are
music lovers. “They maybe buy an album a year.” Heavy metal
lover Gaspard, whose love for electronic music stems from early
Warp releases, plays drums and piano. Xavier grew up with
pop, hip hop and the first wave of French house and favours
guitar and bass though neither are adept enough at any of their
instruments to consider performing with them live.
They met briefly at a party in 2003. They struggle to find
anything interesting to say about this. Their second meeting is
somewhat funnier and “perhaps a bit gay”. Gaspard went to
meet a girl at his old school gates. Instead he left with Xavier,
who emerged first, and they went to a pawn shop and began
rooting through vintage records. “It was a really depressing
place, where people go to sell their wedding rings.We had no
money but went to buy classical music on vinyl and cheap
synths. This was the beginning of our friendship.” And what
happened to the girl? “I think she waited for half an hour
outside the school gates.”

They moved in together soon after and claim to only argue
about small things; “What are you doing leaving your socks on
the ground? That kind of thing.” They also share an addiction
to cigarettes and coffee. They worked for 350 days on the
album and after doing some quick maths concluded that they
had smoked over 30,000 cigarettes and drank 25,000 expressos
in that time.

Justice initially formed for a French concept album. They
were asked by a friend at Poplane Records to contribute a song
to a compilation called Musclorvision: Hits Up ToYou! The
concept? The bands had to pretend they were taking part in the
Eurovision song contest. Their effort, Sure You Will, sounds like
The Doobie Brothers crossed with early Prince. Either that or a
bad Phoenix. Their second record was rather better. The band
Simian, about to flounder and split after their second album,
threw a competition from their website to remix the title track,
We Are Your Friends. Justice’s effort revolved around the chorus –
a call to arms if ever there was one – and they gave it the
French house treatment: prominent bassline, melodic hook.
Their entry failed to win – Simian can’t remember who did –
but it caught the attention of Daft Punk’s manager, Pedro
Winter who was about to launch his own label, Ed Banger. He
signed their Simian remix, called Never Be Alone. It was Ed
Banger’s second release and was subsequently licensed to
International Deejay Gigolos and remixed by DJ Hell. Still, it
remained a cult hit until 2005, when it took on a life of its own,
becoming an anthem for a new wave of indie dance clubs
spreading across the UK and capturing the imagination of
hipster promoters and DJs who wanted someone to go beyond the dance flirtations of Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. If ever there was a record waiting for a club scene to happen, then this was it.

During 2005, Winter busied Justice with some high profile
remixes for Britney Spears and Daft Punk and, further
endearing themselves to the indie kids, Franz Ferdinand,
Soulwax and Mystery Jets. It was in the summer that Ed Banger
sent the first ‘proper’ Justice release to DJs. Waters Of Nazareth
was a shock for fans of Never Be Alone. Musically it was rough,
noisy and distorted, lacking Never Be Alone’s melodic sheen and
agreeable funkiness. Even Winter was unsure when he first
heard it. “We played Waters of Nazareth at Fabric,” Xavier
recalls. “And we turned to Pedro and said, This is it. It wasn’t
until the organ came in and everyone’s hands went up in the air
that he seemed to like it.” The church organ part, which cuts
through the noise and floats across the wayward bass half way
through, provides a thrilling moment but also inspired an image
for the band. On their MySpace in late 2005 they described
themselves as “electro-Christian-club” and used a crucifix as a
logo. Have they ever received any flak? Xavier takes another bite
of steak and looks thoughtful. “Eighty percent of France is
Christian. My Dad was a bit uncertain and thought it was bad
taste, but I was like, This is what I want to do Dad. It’s odd
because in America we have received support from Christian
groups thanking us for spreading the word.We do not invert the
cross and I suppose they think we look like nice guys so there
has not been a problem.”

In an interview I did for Dummy in 2005, Justice said that
they wanted a strong concept for each record they put out and
with this one they wanted to keep people guessing, Are they
Christian? Are they Satanist? “Bowie and the Beatles always
changed their faces. If we’d just put out a record that was
electro with some rock influences then people would not think
it particularly interesting.”They were wrong. Waters of Nazareth
influenced a new generation of producers keener to use a laptop
than guitars to make a racket. “Every week our friends in
London would point us to another MySpace site with a track
on their player that sounded a bit like us, a bit distorted.”
Xavier laughs. But he’s being too modest when he says: “It’s not
difficult. Anyone can just push the distortion button as we did.”
We leave the restaurant and make for their studio,
situated in a nightclub basement. We have to walk
through a maze of rooms and corridors poorly lit by
strip lights. One area looks like a serial killer’s lair – old
clippings of naked girls from 70s Playboy magazines are
peeling from a wall and Blair Witch like hand prints cover an
area of another. There are disgarded sofas and what looks like
a meeting area for international terrorists – a circular table lit
by a shade-less bulb with mismatched chairs surrounding it.
We reach our destination. Inside, the brickwork is painted
white, there’s a sofa-bed strewn with international magazines,
an overused coffee maker and the MTV award they won for
the video for the 2006 re-release of Never Be Alone, which was
re-named We Are Your Friends. (KanyeWest turned the spotlight
on the band when he stormed the stage in a huff claiming the
MTV award was rightfully his because his Touch The Sky video
“cost a million dollars, Pamela Anderson was in it and I was
jumping across canyons.”) It’s close to midnight and Xavier
and Gaspard start tinkering away on their live set for a secret
show they have planned for London’s Fabric the following
week. They will work through until 7am. An Emo doll from
Sesame Street watches over them. Perhaps this was the
inspiration for their new single, D.A.N.C.E, which features the
vocals by an eight-year-old and sounds like something from
The Muppet Show.

Justice’s pop side is well known to fans who have heard
them DJ.When they first began getting bookings in the UK in
2005 their sets were steeped in cheese – Wham’s Wham! Rap, I
Like To Move It by The Mad Stuntman, Gonna Make You Sweat
by C&C Music Factory and The Ronettes Be My Baby often
featured. “That’s what we like to play,” they say with a shrug.
“We still keep some time at the end of our sets to play pop. It’s
much more fun after seven hours of rave torture to play
something like The Cardigans Love Fool.” The latter’s white
disco groove informs The Party from the album, which features Uffie, but their shot at a top ten single remains D.A.N.C.E.. It’s both a homage to a gospel song called Stand On The Word by the Celestial Choir, which legendary disco DJ Larry Levan used to
play at New York nightclub The Paradise Garage in the late’70s,
and to the King Of Pop Michael Jackson – it features titles of
Jackson hits throughout. It’s nothing like Waters Of Nazareth.
When I first heard it, I thought it was too sweet. It has since,
like any good pop record, grown on me.

“Then we have failed. It is supposed to be immediate,”
Xavier says. “We were trying to make a simple tribute to
Michael Jackson. It is not an attack, it is sincere. Most vocal
techno tracks have lyrics like, Can you feel the love? or
something. We wanted to avoid that.”

They received some help from Damian Harris, a friend
from Brighton’s Skint Records, on D.A.N.C.E. He organised a
choir of kids in London. Their vocal coach put forward a 17-
year-old, her best singer and “a genius”. Justice plumped for
“an eight-year-old midget who looked like Macauley Culkin”.
How apt for a tribute to Michael Jackson. “The singers were
technically too perfect.We were in a dining room with all these
kids filing passed singing a weird fast version of our song. Their
skills were actually killing any style and we were thinking of
aborting. Everyone can acquire skills with training, but style is
something you have or you don’t.” The kid they chose, who is
called Felix, sang slightly out of tune, but fitted. The teacher
was shocked and the others were relegated to Felix’s backing
vocalists. “If it was too well done it would have sounded like
Moby. We made the right choice.”

Friday 18 May, London.

It’s just gone 3.30am and in Room 2 of London’s Fabric nightclub, Ed Banger’s
Pedro Winter is gesturing towards the stage which is
cloaked by a black sheet. The crowd are expecting a DJ set from
Justice, but when the sheet is swept aside it reveals Xavier,
Gaspard,Valentine and the Marshalls. Genesis, the album’s
portentous opener, booms forth and the crucifix flickers on to a
huge cheer. Most of the pop tracks from the album are, perhaps
wisely, left out of this set in favour of the histrionic Phantom,
Stress and Let There Be Light. This may only be their second ever
live show, but Justice have already learned what is expected of
them: noisy, distorted, dance music. The stage diving begins in
earnest. Never Be Alone is preceded by the sirens from the
Klaxons’ Atlantis To Interzone. James Righton from the band
happens to be in the audience. He’s here as a fan but soon he
too is being passed across the hands of the throng towards the
white light of the crucifix. It feels like some kind of weird,
religious ceremony, fans whipped into a froth, offering up the
avatar of new rave to sacrifice before their new gods.
A few weeks earlier, days before Coachella, I caught Xavier
in London for half an hour before he joined Gaspard back in
Paris. They had just finished six hours of phone interviews
and Xavier was sat in the lobby of a hotel working on the first
part of the live set from his lap top. I asked what questions
they were being asked most commonly. Apart from laughing
about an interview with a Japanese magazine where neither
the journalist or her interpreter seemed to understand a word
they were saying he said that there were two that kept reappearing.
What do you think of new rave and the return of
dance music? and, Are you the new Daft Punk? Justice are
figureheads for a new dance scene they helped create, and
maybe something more – only time will tell. They’ve earned
their spurs with two stunning singles and though the album is
not epoch making, it’s exciting enough to cement their
standing and catholic enough to prove they are no one-trick
pony. And how did Xavier answer the questions? “If anyone
had said we might be called the new Daft Punk when we
started out we would have laughed.”

They’re not laughing anymore.

Justice’s debut album, †, is is out now on Ed Banger/Because.

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