The cult of Justice - Lighting Up America | DJMag.com Skip to main content

The cult of Justice - Lighting Up America

French electro team Justice are preparing for a full-scale assault on the USA. The hottest production team on Earth, they're going all out to win over hearts, minds and feet in the States, taking in the massive Ultra festival along the way. DJmag tracks them down to find out why the States is just the next stop in their campaign for world domination.

It was in 2005 that a new sound first exploded into our eardrums. Appearing on then little-known Parisian record label Ed Banger, when the sonic pollutant 'Waters of Nazareth' first flowed into our ear canals we realised we were in the presence of something new, something great, a new altar to worship at. A filthy, rock-encrusted slab of distortion, an eardrum buzz, an insidiously funky, crunching blast of electro trash, this was something we'd never heard before. This was Justice - the production outfit of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay - our new masters, subjugating our stereos, conquering our clubs and inspiring legions of copyists and a whole new sound.

Several years later and they've laid waste to the dance music landscape, declaring war on boring house, subverting pop music and becoming the remixers du jour. Last year's album '†' employed a scorched earth policy, laying waste to the past and dragging elements of disco, electro and rock into their filthy future. And, of course, they even had the brazen bollocks to use the sacred symbol of the Christian cross as their album title. It's evident that Justice ain't your typical dance act. No, this lot delight in breaking laws, flouting rules and being the fly in the ointment, taking the rock kids, ravers and dance music junkies along for the ride.

It's a surprisingly sunny winter's day in Manchester when DJmag ventures up to meet our Parisian protagonists. Prior to their American tour they're over here to rock a selection of cities: tonight it's the Manchester Academy venue that'll be left decimated. We find them in a photographic studio outside the city centre, relaxed, sipping coffee and chain-smoking Marlboros.

Both clad in black leather biker jackets, these are unmistakably our quarries. De Rosnay - the shorter of the two, with black hair and darker skin - is the laidback but garrulous one, speaking eloquently and at length. Augé - rocking the mop-top curly haired barnet, handlebar 'tache and Judas Priest T-shirt - largely remains quiet, content to stay in the background, but occasionally interjecting with his two centimes. It's a typical interview set up: one member the spokesman, the other the observer, which to some extent reflects their personalities. With a strong visual identity and their own philosophy, Justice are defiantly French, but also keen to have appeal across the board, all around the world - part of the reason they've chosen that moniker.

"We wanted to have a French name, but we wanted this name to be understandable for foreign people," De Rosnay confides. "Justice is a name that is the same in French as it is in English. This was one of the first ideas for a name we had, we like this word."

But of course, the name has a further resonance. Ever since their remix of Simian's 'Never Be Alone' (or 'We Are Your Friends' as it's now known) first surfaced on Ed Banger in 2003, former graphic designers Augé and De Rosnay have been engaged in a mission to bring some much-needed Justice to the world of dance music: some grit, dirt, sex and sleaze. 'Never Be Alone' was a twisted inversion of French touch house music and from there, things only got more interesting.

Creating and honing the metallic funk attack that would become the Justice trademark from Xavier's basement studio in Paris, they stumbled upon a style that would become their sonic signature. A roughshod cybernetic tsunami of digital noise, with hyper-chopped, cut and paste shards of disco bass, it was a static-strewn slap in the face that would come to constitute the invigorating, dancefloor drive of 'Phantom', 'Waters of Nazareth' and 'Let There Be Light'. To start with, their crunching, muddy electro sound was a happy accident; but when they realised that they were on to something, they began to push and accentuate the elements that make Justice so original.

"I think it came out first as an accident," admits De Rosnay. "We are not great producers in terms of sound engineering and stuff, and back several years ago when we made 'Waters of Nazareth' people were saying, 'Oh, you're making music that's really dirty'. But it wasn't particularly on purpose, we wanted to take advantage of our flaws, and just make everything in this style, to make people think that it was done on purpose. We exaggerated everything that was a bit dirty, to make it even dirtier, so then you can't think that it's a mistake. We took our flaws and inverted them," he affirms.

But the growling, malevolent distorto beats and overdriven old skool synths of Justice's production dungeon aren't powered by their relative production inexperience alone. Just as punk rock liberated aspiring musicians with ideas but without virtuoso ability, it's Justice's sheer drive and the inspiration of rock's galvanic power that's sped them towards greatness, wrenching rhythms from their equipment unbound by rules and regulations. De Rosnay exhales a plume of smoke as he breaks down the essential rock thread woven into the Justice groove.

"At the time we made 'Waters of Nazareth' we were listening a lot to the White Stripes, and it was the same time as their track 'Blue Orchid'. We thought, 'Wow! That's like a disco riff but turned into a harder rock and roll thing. Disco basslines but distorted to make them sound more powerful.'"

The fractured, splintered disco bump married with hard rock confrontation and aggression was now in place: now they only needed an image to match. As graphic designers Augé and De Rosnay were well versed in the importance of a strong look, and for them it was simply a matter of cultivating the style that had been part of their repertoire for some time.

"The image of Justice is just an extension of what we are always like. But for sure, we had an idea of the image even before we started to make music," De Rosnay shrugs. "It was not very precise in the beginning but has become more and more solid. First of all, we had a global vision of how we wanted it to be. But we didn't suddenly change one day, decide that we should wear leather jackets. It's like a compilation of our Top 25 things that we like - the image, the music, the graphics." These were to be the various totems of rock iconography writ large: the aforementioned leather jackets, skinny jeans, metal T-shirts, cigarettes… Oh, and did we mention the cross? When quizzed on whether Justice are trying to instigate their own cult, create a following akin to a religious leader by adopting a huge gothic cross as their logo, De Rosnay comes to life, nodding in assent.

"For us there are two things that are unique, that can bring 20,000 people together, make them look in the same direction. There is religious stuff, and then there's music. We thought maybe we can combine these, make it really powerful," enthuses De Rosnay.

This has formed the basis of the Justice live show: a riotously rock gathering in which the faithful gather to hear their avatars kick out the jams from behind an electronic altar adorned with strobing lights and that huge white cross, flashing in time with the crunching beats, inspiring adulation. "We want to make our concerts look like mass," affirms Augé, his partner in crime adding: "The good thing is that most of the people coming to the shows have enough of a distance to take it how they want to take it. Those that take it like a religious symbol can take it like that. We are not dissing the cross, we're not making anti-Christ stuff, if one wants to see it just as a pop symbol as George Michael used before, they can see it like that. We didn't have any problems using it."

Mirrorball Spirit

It's important to point out that Justice, for all their rock paraphernalia, never forget da funk. With feet firmly planted on the dancefloor, their tracks are tailor-made to shake your posterior with clattering but ever-precise syncopated percussion, intensive snares, rhythmic grunts, wheezing keyboards and grimy grooves. As much as Daft Punk, Alan Braxe and Etienne De Crecy are frequently propounded as the greatest influences on the pair, the French-touch house scene was apparently only a negligible inspiration to Augé and De Rosnay. "I guess they are part of our pop culture," reflects De Rosnay. "In the late-'90s we got to learn about all these bands. But they have the same influence on Justice as Metallica or Snoop Dogg. When we listened to dance for the first time, we didn't know it was dance music, we wouldn't even know if it was French, it was just pop music. We have as many elements from this as from

Snoop, or even The Offspring, really bad bands that we don't like any more, but which are part of our background. Even if we don't want them to be, they're part of us."

In fact, it was the original funkateers - the bands that inspired Daft Punk, too - that really got Justice amped.

"Snoop Dogg's 'Doggy Style' was the first album I bought in 1993," says De Rosnay. "Once you listen to this style you get to discover Parliament and Funkadelic, because it's made up of samples of them. 'What's My Name' is three Parliament tracks spliced together. So then I got into those bands, George Clinton and stuff, and through that you discover James Brown, 'cos there were some members of Parliament in his band. Then you discover all this old funk and disco."

The mirrorball spirit permeates all of Justice's music, but it's most pronounced on the delirious, hyperactive choppage of 'New Jack' and the Chic-styled strings 'D.A.N.C.E.' Somehow, as with much French music, there's a hopelessly romantic, glamorous, starry-eyed melodiousness underpinning it all: even with the darkest, most evil tracks, there's always an opening in the storm clouds, a glorious ray of harmonic sunshine.

When they want to do pop, Justice go full whack, and 'D.A.N.C.E.' is their most brilliantly realised expression of it yet. Utterly accessible but with an irresistible boogie feel, its kids' choir vocals and fretless bass abandon were conceived as a deliberate departure from the tougher Justice sound, presented as proof that they weren't one-trick ponies. It was also the hardest track to make for '†', taking three months of meticulous arrangement and production to get right.

"We'd been working on stuff that was really noisy at that time," Augé offers, with De Rosnay picking up the thread. "We wanted to make something that was smoother. So when we started to work on that song, we wanted to make the most innocent pop song ever. We thought, what if it was sung by kids? Then we could take away any form of irony because people might think that coming back after all the distorted stuff with a pop song was a joke. We wanted to show people that it wasn't a joke. We thought if kids were singing, then it would be a really pure interpretation."

Working on the melody with friends Parisian glam rockers Fancy, the next part was the lyrics, which were to initially prove a stumbling block. Knowing it was to be a kind of tribute to the poptastic disco soul of Michael Jackson, De Rosnay and Augé had to make sure that they chose the lyrics carefully so that it wouldn't come across as too contrived or worse still, cheesy.

"We're not that good at English and to write lyrics is a real nightmare, to write in your non-native language when you don't want to write simple lyrics like 'Pump Up The Jam' or 'Move Your Body'. We didn't want to tell too much because otherwise it would be really cheesy. It's the only track we've ever done where we had to expect what it would sound like when it's finished. Normally when we make music it's been in my bedroom studio, and with the arrangement on the computer, we do everything so fast. But this song took like three months to get ready, and for that time you don't know how it's going to be. With a song like this, you work on a knife's edge. If you make bad choices you can end up with something that sounds like Moby. We don't dislike him but we don't want to sound like that. And until the last moment it's only then that you can be sure that it sounds like how you wanted it to," says De Rosnay. With a little production expertise from Damian Harris of Midfield General and Skint Records fame, who's recently become a kindred spirit of the Ed Banger crew, and a choir of English school kids, they were able to make the sound in their heads a reality, and all that ambition has clearly paid off, the results Justice at their poppermost. So is Justice really a pop band beneath the layers of electro armour?

"Yes. There are some countries where the record is a pop record. For example, in France, it's part of the pop landscape. The reason why we tend towards pop is that we are pop listeners, not just electronic music listeners," De Rosnay reasons.

But, of course, being Justice there's more to it than that. Augé and De Rosnay are doing things their way: they want to overturn notions of what pop is really all about. Subvert it, fuck it up from the inside, flip it on its head.

"We like to be the worm in the apple - it's good to penetrate this pop scene," believes De Rosnay. "In France it's really bad, in the UK it's not the same. In the charts you get really good bands like Franz Ferdinand, but the pop music in France is like really bad r&b. It's a good sign when a record like this penetrates the wall of pop music, and when kids don't make any distinction, they're just listening to something new without really noticing what kind of style it is. Hopefully this record is then going to lead them on to something new. Actually, our proposal is to make pop weird, to twist it, to make people forget that this is just noise and cut-ups."

Justice exist outside of the traditional house and techno world, operate separately from it along with their Ed Banger brethren, and a loose crew of like-minded, fellow musical iconoclasts. They feel part of certain kind of family, but insist that thesupposed scenes they're lumped in with are composed of people who are all creating music which is entirely their own. "We are part of a family in terms of Ed Banger, Soulwax, Erol Alkan, others like that. We like the same things and we have the same idea of what music should be. But I think we don't make the same music. Even within Ed Banger, there's abstract hip-hop, electro breakdance, sometimes just pop or rock and roll. What people call the French scene is made up of lots of different scenes. With Ed Banger, everyone has their own specific style, that's why we like this label."

Yet although Justice have effectively polarized themselves from minimal techno and deep house, they won't hear a bad word said against it.

"We are not able to understand it. For me, it's like jazz," says De Rosnay. "Those are kinds of music that are not immediate, and you have to know about music to be able to appreciate that. We don't dismiss it because when so many people like something, but you don't like it, you can't say it's bad. And minimal music is so big. In France we say there's no smoke without fire, and I think this is the case with minimal. But we do like more immediate music, music that you don't have to know about to enjoy. At the beginning when we were listening to house music, for us every type was the same, it was just boom boom boom, but then you get to discover, you get to enter by some doors the music, and then you notice the difference between every track, and then you start to like it."

Another missing piece of the Justice jigsaw is the soundtrack aspect of their sound. Though De Rosnay plays down the influence of soundtracks on Justice, he admits that of the three samples on '†', a couple of them are culled from film scores. The duo makes no bones about their love of freaky Italian horror movie soundtrackers Goblin, whose scores for Dawn of the Dead, Suspiria and Tenebrae mixed the highly atmospheric with the electronic to electrifying effect. It's Augé who becomes animated now, explaining where the soundtrack fits into their world.

"We like the very epic feeling in music, we like the extreme emotions of soundtracks and we use those extremes in our own music."

Breaking the States

After tonight's gig in Manchester, the Justice live show rolls onto the other cities in the UK, hops across Europe and then embarks, on 3rd March, on a massive US tour throughout March and into April, hitting up everywhere from Washington to Detroit, Texas to Las Vegas, New York, LA and more along the way. Having toured the US before, this time around Justice are in demand: this will be a real opportunity to break the States - a notoriously difficult challenge owing to its sheer size and other factors. But Justice aren't fazed.

"The vibe is really cool and we have our best memories of touring from the US," says De Rosnay.

But he admits that at the very beginning it wasn't so easy. "It's cool now, but for two or three months at the very beginning, it was so-so there. It's different now, but we don't expect everything. When you expect too much, you're always disappointed. I just hope it's going to be as fun as last time. Expectation is the mother of disappointment," he grins. One of the stops on the Justice tour is Miami for the Winter Music Conference, when they'll play a DJ set at the longrunning house and techno event Ultra Festival, on 28th March, in the sun-drenched city. De Rosnay doesn't feel that Justice exactly fit into the Miami scene, but they're relishing the challenge of playing to a different kind of crowd to what they're used to.

"To be honest, the Winter Conference in Miami is not really our world. We've been there before. Music-wise, it's really far from what we do, but in a way that's why it's cool. I think it's not bad that industry people meet; we are just a part of this. Ultra's gonna be great, 'cos it's always challenging to play at a festival when you're playing for people who aren't actually there to listen to you. We like to be the electronic band on the rock stage, or the rock band on the hip-hop stage at a festival, sometimes it happens just because it's more challenging, it's really cool."

Justice aren't fooling around with their new live show. Having toured previously, they're aware of the potential pitfalls of live dance music and have re-jigged, tweaked, switched around and created new material, making for a more rockin' righteous blast of electro-funk.

"We toured in 2007 with a certain formula but we've changed everything for the '08 tour, mainly in the way that we're appearing on stage. It gives us more freedom because electronic music is not meant to be played live, it's studio music," says De Rosnay. "For several months we thought about new ways to bring life to the live show. It's different because we have to make the tracks simpler. It's impossible to play them the way they are on the record, live. Some people may be disappointed because it's slightly different how it sounds on the album, but that's the only way and we enjoy it that way."

Breaking The Law

There's no way anyone's going to be disappointed by the mammoth beast that is the live show. When DJmag enters the cavernous space of the Manchester Academy we're confronted by a scene of Dionysian abandon. A massive crowd pumps fists in the air; the crowd spin neon crucifixes above their heads; lighters flash, beer flies and the kids mosh. The faithful are assembled in front of their altar: two huge walls of Marshall guitar amps, either side of De Rosnay and Augé, who crank virulent streams of mal-funk-tioning, overdrive synthage from their electronic pulpit. 'Let There Be Light' causes eruptions of freaky dancin'; 'D.A.N.C.E.' is morphed into a spring-loaded techno monster, replete with weird Jean Michel Jarre arpeggios; they drop in samples of arch rockers Metallica's 'Master of Puppets' over the clumping beats, and 'We Are Your Friends' elicits roars of approval, as they tease the crowd with samples before finally busting it to incendiary effect. If Augé is the quiet one normally, then it's performing live that he comes to life: he claps, eggs his congregation on, hunches over the machines, rockin' out. De Rosnay, meanwhile, crouches down, sparks a fag, fucking off the smoking ban. This is breaking the law Justice style: a new kind of church indeed. On the evidence of this show, America's evangelical right should start getting worried.

Seeing the fervour that Justice inspire, it's amazing to think that it's only really in the last two years that they've risen to become arguably the hottest property in dance music, period. This kind of adulation is more common with acts that have been plugging away for years. Surely it must have been weird to be suddenly thrust into the limelight? The duo don't agree. "I think we're not that famous, and even if the tracks are famous, we are not," claims De Rosnay. "For example, a lot of people know who we are in France, but they have no idea what we have done or whatever. I think our lives are only different in the sense that now we live on the tour bus so we don't have any contact with fame or whatever."

Clearly they're not the kind of guys to be fazed by anything. Despite living in each other's pockets for a couple of years now, Augé and De Rosnay insist it's never a strain. "It's very easy for one good reason, which is that we used to live together before we ever started touring, we are very used to being together. Sometimes people need a border or a frontier between their job, their business, and real life and friendship, but we don't have that because whether we are in Paris, touring or making music we are always together. When we are not touring, we are doing the same things anyway, we don't need Justice and real life to be separated, we are together whatever happens."

You can believe it: the two are a natural team, relaxed and confident. "I guess I'm easy going, I don't think too much about things," asserts De Rosnay.

For now Justice are focused on their tour commitments. De Rosnay has been lending his production skills here and there, working with new French electro upstarts Poney Poney and on the new Midfield General album, but they've no plans to get back in the studio together just yet.

"We worked a lot on the live show and now we are on tour so we can't really make new stuff. We don't feel the need to make an album now, and I think the one we just made deserves to live more. We want to have a good idea of the next album before we start on it."

There's a new religion in town: bow down and worship. The American pledge of allegiance - and Metallica - says it best: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and Justice for all."

Justice play the Main Stage at Ultra Festival, Miami, on 28th March, as part of the Winter Music Conference.