The French electronic duo are back with their first album in five years – they tell us how they wrote a disco record celebrating freedom and femininity
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Justice’s Xavier de Rosnay is talking, in quite abstract terms, about woman. Not ‘women’, not ‘females’, but woman. Woman is the name of Justice’s forthcoming third studio album – a joyous record that sees the electronic duo wholeheartedly embrace their disco pop inclinations – and de Rosnay seems taken by the idea of what the word means, almost as an intellectual concept. “‘Woman’ might be the most powerful word we know,” he beams. “What it evokes, the sound of it, the fact that the symbol of justice is a woman – even the letters within the word are beautifully organised.” There’s a reason it’s not called Girl.
“It’s not Little Girl,” says Gaspard Augé, de Rosnay’s curly-haired, moustache-wielding partner in the band.
“It’s a very important part of our life,” says de Rosnay.
It’s a few hours before Justice are set to perform an unannounced DJ set in Hackney – a sell-out show that sees audience members crowdsurf to everything from Joan Jett & the Blackhearts to Death From Above 1979 to Justice’s late friend and labelmate DJ Mehdi. Augé and de Rosnay are sat on a huge sofa at Shoreditch’s Sonos Studios, offering up thoughtful responses to each of my questions. Augé is the less talkative of the pair, leaving de Rosnay to steer most of the conversation, only occasionally chipping in with brief comments that reveal his dry sense of humour.
Woman arrives five years on from Justice’s last album Audio, Video, Disco, nine years since their debut album †, and 13 years since their breakthrough single “We Are Your Friends”. Needless to say, they don’t feel the need to rush. “We keep on talking all the time, even when we don’t make music,” de Rosnay says. “When we started this record, things were flowing naturally again. We were writing tunes one after the other, and the tunes were complementing each other.”
This carefree attitude has defined the Parisian duo since day one. When they first emerged with “We Are Your Friends” in 2003, they signed to the then-newly established independent label Ed Banger Records, started by former Daft Punk manager Pedro Winter (aka Busy P). “We Are Your Friends” would go on to be one of the decade’s defining dance tracks, upsetting Kanye West and being used for the title of a questionable Zac Efron film, but Justice remained with Ed Banger where others would have taken a bigger offer. Being independent afforded the duo creative control over their music across the subsequent decade. “We’ve always been very free – that’s maybe our best luck,” says de Rosnay, “We never dreamed of being on a more commercial path, or being signed to a major. It’s still a mystery, to us, how this type of music managed to reach such a large audience with no constraints at all.”
Following “We Are Your Friends”, Justice released a series of buzzed-about remixes that culminated in their first solo single, 2005’s “Waters of Nazareth”. A monstrous slice of distorted electro with a rhythm that was somehow so stiff it became funky, “Waters of Nazareth” sounded unlike anything that Justice had done before – or anyone, for that matter. The track spawned a legion of imitators, but while anybody could push the distortion button, few had the natural knack for melody and groove that Justice seemed to. Still, de Rosnay describes it as the only time they’ve felt unsure about something in their career. “For the first two weeks, we were not very comfortable with it – the reaction was really bad,” he says, “But somehow it grew on people.”
“When we write a chorus that works, we want to feel it’s a bit magical” – Xavier de Rosnay, Justice
They flipped the script again two years later when they released “D.A.N.C.E.”, a light disco pop song that made memorable use of a children’s choir on its hook. “Because that one worked, we felt as though we could do whatever we wanted,” says de Rosnay. “We got rid of people’s expectations.” “D.A.N.C.E.” was the lead single from Justice’s debut album † – a landmark release in the alternative music scene, arriving when the appetite for Ed Banger, European electro, and anything even vaguely associated with ‘blog haus’ was at its peak. Besides being a brilliant album and a modest commercial hit (it was certified gold in the UK), †’s artwork perfectly distilled the quasi-religious iconography that had become crucial to Justice’s image: it felt instantly iconic and, when taken alongside de Rosnay and Augé’s penchant for leather jackets and heavy metal fashion, made Justice seem like modern-day rockstars. The live show that followed took Justice global, with a stage design that positioned de Rosnay and Augé inside a quasi-DJ booth between two stacks of Marshall amps – a perfect fusion of rock and rave aesthetics.
After such an explosive introduction, it only made sense that Justice would go under the radar to work on their next album. By the time they returned in 2011 with Audio, Video, Disco, the electro scene had imploded, with most of its figures either drifting into obscurity, reinventing themselves with new aliases, or watering down their sound to cash in on the emerging EDM trend. Audio, Video, Disco was released when ‘brostep’ was gaining traction in the USA, but while it would’ve been easy for Justice to amp up the latent aggression in their music and hop on this bandwagon, the album itself had unexpectedly baroque influences, sounding closer to prog rock when it was released. “Had we made our second record closer to the first, maybe it would condemn us to doing the same thing every time,” de Rosnay reasons. “Maybe people would find it boring that we repeated ourselves. Or maybe it would have gone 4x platinum – you never know what’s going to happen.”
Though Audio, Video, Disco didn’t replicate the world-conquering success of †, it did show that Justice had the talent to go forward where so many of their peers had fallen behind. It also established a sound that’s key to Woman, which comes across as a fusion between †’s disco roots and Audio, Video, Disco’s adventurous approach towards melody and harmony. “We’re at a point where all these references are part of ourselves, and come out in a very natural way,” says de Rosnay. “The core of our influences is always the same, and has always been the same. We can’t help but make some stuff that’s disco, and some stuff with the prog-rock ingredient.”
Like all disco records, Woman is steeped in the traditions of gospel music – they even worked with a choir on it, enlisting the London Contemporary Orchestra on bass-slapping album opener “Safe and Sound” and the blockbuster final track “Close Call”. But the gospel influence also manifests itself in less direct ways. “There’s lot of emphasis on being uplifting and powerful,” de Rosnay says of the album – though, like most gospel music, it’s tinged with a certain sadness, too. “It’s uplifting, but it’s not happy music. There’s still an underlying melancholy to it.”
“It’s tainted love,” Augé adds.
“To be dark for the sake of being dark doesn’t really interest us,” de Rosnay continues. “There are people who make it very well, but this uplifting vibe is just the place we are at the moment. We’ve never been unhappy people, even before we started.”
Still, the duo are hesitant to describe the album as a straight disco record, or a straight pop record, or a straight rock record. Justice don’t see themselves as a retro band, nor purely interested in retro things (at one point, they talk about their love of Jesse Kanda and Daniel Sannwald’s futuristic art and photography), but they are old school in their approach to songcraft, using traditional writing techniques with more contemporary electronic music production. They started writing the album with a traditional setup – a keyboard, a bass guitar, and a laptop to record their ideas – before building a new studio to flesh out the songs. “We’ve always worked like this, thinking that if it sounds good just when we play, then maybe it will be good once it’s recorded,” de Rosnay says. “The music we like, in most cases, is the harmonies and the actual writing of the songs. We’re not chasing after being vintage, but maybe the fact that we write songs in a traditional way is already vintage enough.”
Later, he puts it a simpler way: “When we write a chorus that works, we want to feel it’s a bit magical.”
Woman also features vocal collaborators like French singer Romuald, Johnny Blake of Zoot Woman, and Morgan Phalen, who previously sung on Audio, Video, Disco tracks “New Lands” and “On ‘n’ On”. None of the singers are big names, and none of them are credited as featured artists in the album tracklisting – Justice prefer to present their music as a complete package. It’s one of the reasons they’ve never collaborated with a big name pop star, despite having been asked enough times.
“We actually accepted two times,” says Augé, “And those experiences really confirmed that this is not what we wanted to do.”
It’s a point that brings us back to Justice’s sense of freedom: by keeping their crew small and minimising outside interference, they’ve been able to work towards a singular vision and aesthetic. They have no sound engineers, no co-writers – the hardest thing for them is making sure they don’t get too lost in the music, which is why they work so well together. “Our main role is to help each other, to be the producer and the guru of each other,” de Rosnay says.
“Each other’s life coach,” Augé smirks.
“It’s just a constant exchange,” says de Rosnay, “I know some people work in different places and then they go into the studio together, but for us, the biggest part of making music is to exchange ideas and to make them at the moment.”
“It’s important... to separate what you are as a musician and what you are as a real person. When people mix up the two, they don’t look to us like very happy people” – Xavier de Rosnay, Justice
That de Rosnay and Augé have maintained such a close friendship over the years is in itself remarkable. When Justice first started, the two were roommates – on top of making music together and touring together, didn’t it ever get a bit much? “When we were making the album, we were basically living together again,” says Augé. Do they ever get into any arguments? “Sometimes,” says de Rosnay, “But we’re not really like housemates – we know each other way better than housemates.”
Understanding the duo’s friendship is key to understanding Woman’s upbeat sound – after years away, de Rosnay says that it was simply “a joyful process” to be making music together again. But if there was anything else happening in their personal lives that caused them to gravitate towards this sound, the band aren’t saying – as becomes clear throughout the conversation, both de Rosnay and Augé are quite reserved individuals. They have a rule to not talk politics in interviews, and offer very little biographical information up about their own lives.
Despite this, they’ve never tried to be anonymous. They even released a documentary, A Cross The Universe, in 2008, which followed them on a US tour and lived up to every rock’n’roll stereotype in the book – trashed hotel rooms, parties… Augé even marries a groupie. “For most people, if you wear a leather jacket and you have greasy hair, you’re a rocker – it’s as simple as that,” de Rosnay says, “And because we were aware of this, we knew that there was a bridge we could use to make a documentary.” The version of Justice depicted on-screen allowed them to be themselves off-screen – so long as the audience saw the right things. “We keep up the freedom,” de Rosnay says. “It’s important for your psychiatric energy to separate what you are as a musician and what you are as a real person. When people mix up the two, they don’t look to us like very happy people.”
“This music is obviously not storytelling,” Augé says, “Our lives are always a bit remote from it. We’re happy this way. It’s just like we’re two guys in a band. This is why we’re almost invisible on social media – we don’t think it adds anything to the equation.”
It’s this approach towards their own celebrity that affords Justice the freedom to take those long breaks between albums, to step in and out of their different personalities, and to return to their creative process with something new but distinctly theirs every time. And Woman, even with its internalised reference points, sounds very much like a Justice album.
One thing’s still not clear though: for all of de Rosnay and Augé’s musings on the word, it’s still not necessarily obvious what ‘woman’ actually means in relation to their music. “The main drive of what we do is to please a woman, or make a woman proud of us,” says de Rosnay, “We’re talking about mothers, friends, collaborators, lovers, women we don’t know…”
“Daughters,” Augé adds.
“Daughters,” nods de Rosnay, “It’s all of this.” He leans back on the sofa and laughs. “And think about it – if we’d called the record Man, it would suck! It wouldn’t be powerful at all.”