Cover story: With their third album, 'Woman,' the Parisian hellraisers return to the church of their imagination.
Xavier is talking about meat. Specifically, he is telling me about a time, recently, in London, when he invited a butcher to where he was staying and together they carved and cooked expensive cuts of beef. He talks in detail about the knives, the marbling of the flesh, the smell of the grilled meat, the taste. He tells me that the restaurant we are going to is one of the best spots for steak in Stockholm. "The menu is steak from different parts of the world," he enthuses.
We're in the back of a taxi, cutting through the black, wet streets of the Swedish capital. I'm sandwiched between the two halves of Justice, Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé; between the three of us, there are a lot of limbs and not much legroom. I consider the best way of phrasing my response. "I'm a vegetarian," I tell him. Gaspard smirks.
Justice are in Stockholm for one of a small number of surprise DJ sets they are playing in Europe this fall in the lead up to releasing their third album, Woman. It's been five years since they released their sophomore album, Audio, Video, Disco, and perhaps more notably, nine years since they rolled out their unruly debut album, †, which threw the gothic fuzz of heavy metal into a blender with the lustrous shimmer of disco. Alongside a few choice remixes for other artists, the record set them atop the empire of MP3-sharing musicians and bedroom remixers that some critics remember as "blog house." Their raucous sound breathed fresh life into the Parisian electronic music; where Daft Punk were a dance act with rock fans and Phoenix were a rock band enjoyed by club kids, Justice were arguably the first electronic act to behave like a rock act—applying a newfound exuberance to French touch ten years after its 1990s heyday. In 2016, the resolute mischief that characterized their arrival never feels far away.
Inside the restaurant, peach-pink carcasses hang from thick metal hooks in glass cases. It's chic—next to the drying meat, rows upon rows of expensive wine are slotted in racks—but it still feels like a slaughterhouse. The walls are tiled, presumably to make it easier to wipe away the blood. I've been in the company of Justice for about an hour now, but to be honest, I'm still not totally sure if they want me there or not.
Both Xavier and Gaspard are cool, deliberately so. They both dress like American high-school students—Xavier in a beat-up leather jacket masking a series of faded black tattoos, Gaspard in a varsity bomber, and both in scuffed trainers. When Xavier speaks, he usually starts by pulling his long silken fringe away from his eyes, before launching into often lengthy, always thoughtful monologues. Gaspard, on the other hand, barely speaks at all, and when he does, it's with a blunt, laconic wit, answering your question in about three words. It's rare that either of them are without a cigarette, either hanging from their lips or dancing between their fingers. There's an innate closeness about them you can't help but notice. It's not that they're hostile to the outside world; they just seem far more interested in each other.
When I ask the pair how they first met, Gaspard smiles mischievously: "The legend," he says.
Garpard and Xavier met at a party held by mutual friends. They were both in their early twenties and both graphic designers—Xavier still was still in school, while Gaspard, three years older, had already graduated. "In an apartment party there's always a party in the kitchen, and we were at the party in the kitchen," Xavier says. "I remember finding [Gaspard] very anxious. Very fun, but awkward at the same time—until he spat beer on the head of someone passing by."
All three of us laugh, and I demand clarification: spitting beer at someone...deliberately?
"No, maybe I was laughing or something," Gaspard offers, defending himself.
Xavier assures me it was deliberate.
Two weeks later, Gaspard was waiting to meet a woman who happened to be in Xavier's graphic design class, when they bumped into each other again. Their conversation from the party continued as though without break, and before long, Gaspard had forgotten about the friend he'd agreed to meet, and he and Xavier left together.
"Listening to Buggles and Camel—that's where we met."—Xavier de Rosnay
According Xavier and Gaspard, they quickly realized they shared the same "dry" sense of humor, and began to connect over music. "I don't know any twenty-somethings who don't talk about music, or define themselves through music," Xavier explains. "The rest of our friends were more into post-rock, or what they called anti-folk, but we liked pop music and prog rock." As their peers immersed themselves in contemporary indie music, they sequestered away on an island of romance, witchcraft, and maximalism. In Xavier's words, "Listening to Buggles and Camel—that's where we met."
The food arrives. For me, it means a bowl of artichoke, spinach, and mushroom pasta. For Xavier, Gaspard, and their close-knit ensemble of handlers and friends, this means plates of blood-red steaks—in isolation—each with a flag atop a cocktail stick pressed into its flesh to denote its country of origin. In the center of the table, waiters place bowls of crispy roasted potatoes and broccoli and baskets of fresh, steaming bread. Conversations in French and English bounce across the table as plates are swapped and wine glasses routinely filled. None of this feels ostentatious, though. Instead, there's a feeling of wholesome celebration in the air, like we're feasting on the fruits of the land before the evening's work begins. We might be in Stockholm, but the scene feels very Parisian.
Gaspard and I embark on a lengthy chat about the soon-to-be American President Elect, Donald Trump, and how his cartoonification in the liberal media is only strengthening his cause. We discuss the state of Europe, and chiefly the potential election of Marine Le Pen, whom Xavier likens to Tiësto: "Just because you don't know anybody who listens to Tiësto, doesn't mean he can't fill stadiums!" Later, I'm surprised to hear the pair enthusing about haggis, which, given my Scottish heritage, is pretty much the only meat product I can speak about with some authority; Xavier claims to love it so much he's been known to take it on tour with him. The meal ends with coffee, and Gaspard and I share a cheese-board. I realize that Justice can actually be quite talkative, but only when they've got something they consider worth saying.
Despite their considerable influence on the genre, Justice arrived at electronic music via an unconventional path. Both grew up in Paris, on a diet of 1970s prog-rock and 1980s funk—a world removed from the reverence of club culture and its worship of Detroit. As Gaspard explains it, "The era of underground French raves and techno was already over when we started making music." Xavier puts his feelings about rave culture, which peaked in the mid-1990s in France, more bluntly: "Even if it had been contemporary, the idea of going out into the suburbs, to a forest, to listen to techno is one of my worst nightmares."
It's no surprise then, that the first piece of music the pair produced as Justice was a rework of a rock song—Simian's "Never Be Alone"—produced for a remix contest. They didn't win, but the track—with its instantly memorable chorus and strutting bass line—did catch the attention of Daft Punk's then-manager Pedro Winter, who signed them to his label Ed Banger Records, and released the song as a single in 2003. With his backing, the anthemic remix, renamed "We Are Your Friends," went on to define a moment in time; as of this writing, it has over five million views on Youtube.
When we discuss the remix and the competition that spawned it, Xavier refers to it as having given the pair "an excuse to make music." When I ask why they needed an excuse, they insist it would have been too awkward to sit around and jam for no reason. That Justice needed a brief to start making music is emblematic of how they talk about their work throughout my time with them—of the methodical, meticulous quality of their approach. Listening to them speak, it can sometimes feel as though everything about Justice, from the length of Gaspard's moustache to the order of tracks on the album, is part of some giant design project. "To me it's definitely a band, but one with a different base to a normal band," Xavier says. The pair tell me they made, and wore, Justice t-shirts and badges before they made any music.
"The idea of going out into the suburbs, to a forest, to listen to techno is one of my worst nightmares."—Xavier de Rosnay
"And also making...GIFS," Gaspard mutters to Xavier. They both begin to giggle. I mean, giggle—like school children.
"No...no," Xavier replies, struggling to speak through his growing laughter. "It wasn't a GIF; it was a flash animation." He finally turns to address me, clearly resigned to the fact they are in the act of fessing up to whatever it is. "We made an animation; we put our heads on the bodies of eagles flying through the city. Actually, one of us was an eagle, and the other one was a kiwi, that little bird without wings." With that final admission, their laughter erupts skyward.
By contrast with the rapidfire ascent many artists enjoy in 2016, Justice's initial popularity relied on slowly multiplying pockets of appreciation, provided by a then far-more cloistered and unhurried web, giving them the time to evolve their band on their own terms. "We had time to develop very normally between our first single and our first album," Xavier recalls, tracing the four years between "We Are Your Friends" and †. "We had no idea what would happen. I didn't think we would go back to other things, but equally we didn't think Justice would last particularly long." Both tell me that support for their second major track—2006's "Waters of Nazareth"—from Phantasy labelhead Erol Alkan, who remixed it, and Glaswegian selectors Optimo, who played it regularly in sets—boosted their confidence in the aggressive distortion that would ultimately characterise †. Even Pedro Winter apparently disliked the track the first time he heard it, though he would later vehemently deny this accusation when Xavier and Gaspard mention it to me in front of him.
Usually referred to as "cross," the idea to title the record with a symbol came from a chance encounter with a copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on a friend's mantelpiece in Toronto. "We thought, ah, that's a great album cover—how cool would it be to have a simple symbol you could put on the cover so you don't have to put anything else?" Xavier remembers. The duo discussed this idea for three weeks, before realizing that they already had just that, in the shape of a crucifix they'd been using as a recurring visual motif in their performances. "Actually the first album doesn't have a title," Xavier tells me. "People call it Cross but it doesn't have a title."
Whatever they call it, most people of a certain age will have a ballpark idea of where they were when they first heard †—or at least how it made them feel. If you haven't done it in a while, take this opportunity to listen to the album opener, "Genesis". The operatic pomposity of the build up, collapsing into that irresistible, gooey bassline—even now, it's a totally alluring, if completely ludicrous, proposition. The album blended the gaudy maximalism of hair-metal with the streetwise hustle of g-funk. From the schoolyard euphoria of "D.A.N.C.E" to the electro-horror of "Stress", this was the sound of three decades-worth of pop, rock, disco and rap colliding—and it hit, hard.
For the teenagers of 2007, Justice did more than just make it cool for indie kids to listen to dance music. They—along with the Ed Banger family, and a few peripheral acts like Soulwax and Tiga—re-energized both worlds, equipping guitar bands with new musical possibilities, and opening a floundering European rave scene up to new, younger audiences. From the cut and paste, polaroid-camera aesthetic pioneered by Xavier and Gaspard's friend and collaborator So Me, to the proliferation of MP3 blogs and remixes, Justice were at the forefront of a revolution centered around Ed Banger—one that hinged on a logic of musical hybridity, and in doing so located the common ground between Franz Ferdinand and Diplo, the stadium and the club. A decade after the release of Daft Punk's Homework and Air's Moon Safari, Paris—thanks to Justice—was once again the center of the electronic universe.
After †, the pair seemed to stretch the definition of electronic music even further. Their second album—2011's Audio, Video, Disco—saw them pursue what they describe to me as an attempt to combine dance music with "the black magic of Led Zeppelin," led by the apocalyptic imagery of lead single "Civilization". Accordingly, their now-infamous tour movie, A Cross the Universe, comfortably positioned them as hell-raisers, tearing through America in a blur of booze, sex, and violence (in one apparently genuine incident, Xavier notably assaults a stalker with a glass bottle). Far from playing the faceless, benevolent role of the selector, Justice were rock stars.
As such, they didn't always receive a warm welcome. "Sometimes people would throw stuff at us when we would play rock songs, or when we would change the tempo too much," Xavier remembers. And while many dance-music purists saw Justice as inauthentic, their reception in the showboating realm of EDM was no more encouraging. Xavier tells me about the time the duo played Tomorrowland in Brazil. "We were playing to a 6000, maybe 8000- capacity tent, and we cleared it in less than two minutes," he says, sounding still sort of exasperated by it. "I'm not kidding. After two minutes, there were only four people left."
Fortunately for Justice, this is not the case in Stockholm. Outside Under Bron—a strange, bespoke club-space nestled under an open motorväg (motorway)—clubbers shudder in the midnight cold, still hoping they'll be let in. Inside, the room can't be more than 1000 in capacity, but it's teeming. The lighting is minimal, the floor lacquered in mud and beer, and the air is thick with the sort of rich, smoggy sweat that can only come from the contained anticipation and urgent dancing of teenagers about to see their favorite band.
Onstage, Justice select records with a calm authority. Moving from Hudson Mohawke's "Ryderz" to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"—via at least 15 minutes of gabber—the set feels like a frantic overdose of nearly every one of their pop-culture fascinations. Yet it's when they drop their own material that Xavier and Gaspard are at their most powerful. As they unleash the angelic "Safe and Sound"—a collaboration featuring strings from the London Contemporary Orchestra, taken from the new album—the room pauses in a moment of stunned, hands-aloft prayer. And, if only for a second, we take off completely.
Two weeks later, and I'm in Paris' 18th Arrondissement. It's just before midday on a Monday, around the time of year when Autumn descends into the thick mulch of an oncoming winter. Many of the city's shops are still closed and the streets are mostly silent, punctuated by the occasional zip of a passing moped and the distant screech and clatter of a school playground. That, and the sound of my finger repeatedly hammering the unanswered buzzer of a white Montmartre apartment block.
I step down into the street and check my emails for a phone number. Looking up for a second, the flush of embarrassment hits me. I've been knocking on the wrong door. A meter from where I've been standing, I see the sign, in small but shocking-pink letters against frosted glass: Ed Banger Records. A lock clicks and out comes the label's owner, Pedro Winter. He's tall and dressed all in black, with round glasses, long straight hair, and a manner that seems somehow both curt and welcoming. I apologize for my lateness, and he invites me in. I spare a brief thought for whichever one of his neighbors I've just spent the past 20 minutes harassing.
Pedro invites me to take a seat, but before we begin talking, his phone rings. "It's Xavier—do you mind?" He withdraws to a nearby window, giving me time to take in my surroundings. The Ed Banger office could be an art gallery if the shelves were organized a little better. The walls are white, which only serves to accentuate the dazzling array of vinyl, tapes, CDs, books, and skateboards in piles around the room—Pedro later refers to his personal vision of "a record label run like a skate brand." It's the gathered ephemera of Ed Banger's lifespan, and as such every item appears suitably boyish and colorful, reflective of the clean-yet-playful aesthetic the label has brought to the electronic landscape.
Just don't call that aesthetic "blog house."
"I never use that word," Pedro tells me firmly, now off the phone and seated behind his desk. "I remember and obviously understand the blog effect, but I don't think it's a nice word. I prefer 'heavy metal disco.'Which is who we are."
"They are not techno-heads. They are more concerned with Toto and Prince and the Beach Boys. They play records to make girls dance."—Pedro Winter
Pedro founded Ed Banger in 2003, as a subdivision of his publishing company Headbangers Entertainment, which he'd set up the previous year. By that point in his career, he was already a linchpin of the French club scene. When the first wave of house music hit Paris in the 1990s, Pedro began DJing at legendary nightclub Le Palace, after earning the approval of its manager at the time, David Guetta. In 1996, while recording their debut album, Daft Punk asked Pedro to become their manager, effectively igniting the next chapter of his career, as a music executive and taste-maker. Looking back over his CV and Ed Banger's discography, he seems to have had a hand in just about every significant moment in French club culture since the mid-1990s, from helming legendary club night Respect at Parisian nightclub Queen with DJ Jerome Viger-Kohle, to clearing the Daft Punk sample on Kanye West's "Stronger".
To hear him speak of his years in the industry, it's easy to see Pedro as a sort of tinkerman—holed away in his attractive, street-level office in Montmartre, focusing the same intense care on individual projects regardless of their size. During the time I spend in his office, he speaks with the same enthusiasm about the new Justice album as he does a photography book of heavy metal patches—Melchior Tersen's Killing Technology—that he's just published, or 10LEC6, an afro-punk band he's currently obsessed with. He speaks with clear confidence about his label and everything it has achieved, but remains modest about his ambitions, then and now. "To be honest with you, and I can tell you this now that I'm old, but it's a very selfish pursuit," he explains. "I'm mainly concerned with keeping this little office going. There's definitely no long-term plan. Only to be proud of each project. I want to step back, look at what I've done over the last 15 or 20 years and think, that looks good."
Pedro first met Justice in 2003—a meeting that took place, I'm unsurprised to learn, around a dinner table.
"Do you know what raclette is?" Pedro asks me. "Melting cheese, typically from a French mountain side. I'm in love with it, so when my friend So Me, who I was working on the start of Ed Banger [with], said he was having some with friends, I asked if they could squeeze me in." As he remembers it, Xavier and Gaspard were aware that he was managing Daft Punk at the time. While the duo spent much of the meal keeping to themselves, they took an opportunity once the plates had been cleared away to play him "We Are Your Friends."
"I told them to come to my office the following day," he recalls. "They were the second artist I ever signed." He speaks of the immediate impact the track had on him. The "rock and pop" from Simian, the "round bass" inspired by Daft Punk, but also the promise of something new—something beyond the established disco-revivalism of French touch and the stuffy reverence of techno. "When you speak to them about electronic music and their background, they are not techno-heads," Pedro muses. "They are more concerned with Toto and Prince and the Beach Boys. They play records to make girls dance."
As if on cue, the door rattles. Pedro greets Gaspard and a tired-looking Xavier who, after shaking my hand and asking how I've been, makes for a workbench in the corner of the room and lies down. Gaspard quietly apologizes for his partner. They were up late last night working on a minimix for Annie Mac's Radio 1 show.
The afternoon is wearing on, and Justice are on a tight schedule. They only have the afternoon to complete work on a video for the Woman track "Fire" , so we decide to cancel our plans to spend the rest of the day together, and instead meet later that evening for a final dinner before I return to London. As we ready to leave the Ed Banger office, Pedro jumps up, and asks me if I have any room in my rucksack. Reaching up to a high shelf, he pulls down a thick, photo book. "We made this to celebrate ten years of Ed Banger," he tells me, beaming. "It's full of photos of our story, chosen by So Me." I read the spine: TRAVAIL FAMILLE PARTY.
Around eight, we meet on the puddled cobbles of a side-street near where they've been editing. We're in Northern Paris' 9th arrondissement, the part they call home, and the pair spend some time disagreeing over where we should eat. The streets are dark and, beyond the occasional cafe, we mostly pass black windows and locked doors. Still, around every corner, it seems, somebody stops them—never for a selfie, but rather to shake hands, kiss cheeks, and hug. I tell Gaspard I can never tell if they are meeting fans or if these are people they know. "Most of the time, neither can we," he deadpans.
Finally we find somewhere, a window table in a restaurant adorned with framed music hall posters and stained-glass lampshades. The vegetarian options here are a little more varied. Xavier orders oysters. We talk some more about Paris. I ask them how much the city has changed over the last ten years, and they tell me not so much—for them at least. They are still spending their time with the same group of people they always have been, more or less
As the evening progresses, and more drinks are served, the speed of the French increases, and I resolve to sit back and observe. Xavier is leant over Gaspard's plate, helping him mould his steak tartare into the shape of the Justice crucifix. It's an odd but strangely heartwarming image, like two drunk kids building a sandcastle.
If † sounded like a punk band using electronic tools to thrash out an ebullient debut, and 2011's Audio, Video, Disco was a homage to "countryside rockers", then Woman might be said to be their first truly romantic gesture. The album leans heavily on dramatic strings and the clipped, walkabout funk of the clavinet—and from the coiled funk of "Alakazam !" to the soaring French touch of "Love S.O.S.," it suggests an incarnation of Justice that is more rounded and fully realized than on their debut, yet lighter and more dextrous than on Audio, Video, Disco. The result is a dizzying disco-opera—a grandiose album, but one which, unlike its predecessor, seeks drama in the beating of a heart rather than the fall of a civilization. It's also the most infectiously enjoyable music they've made in years, perhaps due to recording sessions spent, in Xavier's words, "embracing the sensation of just making tunes and dancing in my living room."
I'm curious, though: does the Woman of the title refer to anyone in particular? "We've loved this word for a long time, but have been waiting for the chance to use it," Xavier says, diplomatically. "When you think of a woman, you think of a goddess with the power to give life. We are imagining this warrior-godlike-female. It also occurred to us that the symbol for woman is very similar to a cross." It's a response that feels unsatisfying in its vagueness, albeit typical of their broad brushstrokes and penchant for big, mythological ideas. The fact is, there appears to be no concise reason why the album is called Woman. Like the cross of their debut, the word is readily applicable to any number of readings—cosmic and earthly, human and heavenly, erotic and maternal.
Still, it strikes me that their understanding of "woman" pulls more on teenage fantasies of the opposite sex than it does lived female experience. The album's glittering romanticism makes it sound better suited to teenagers whose sexual experiences are limited to listening to T. Rex records in their bedroom than those out actually experiencing them—a reflection Gaspard recognizes as true to their own lives. "Something we often talk about is how it's good to be a late-bloomer," he muses. "When we were teenagers, we had more fun making music or doing nerdy stuff. Somehow it's good to be in your own universe, to focus on your obsessions and develop your aesthetic and taste. Maybe at the time I would have preferred to have a motorcycle and pick up girls, but now I'm quite happy to have been a solitary teenager."
On this subject, I ask them if they are currently in relationships. They both nod, reluctantly and without making eye contact. Their awkwardness on our first Stockholm meeting aside, this is the first question I ask that seems to make them genuinely uncomfortable. "We're a bit like a boyband," Xavier jokes, breaking the ice. "If people know we have girlfriends, then that's the end of it."
"We try never to write about our personal lives," Gaspard adds, before conceding a little with a smile: "But we are not totally hermetic to the outside world, so our love situation might have influenced things a little bit."
Despite what he says—and in contrast to their reputation as an act born from the internet—there is something hermetic about Justice: two best friends, devoted to each-other and all the cool shit they make, existing solely in the church of their imagination. Yet far from making them close-minded, I can't help feeling like this cloistered quality results in something sacred in their work.
Spending time with Justice—talking to them about what they make and why they make it—made me long for being a teenager. It made me long for that apparently unending but then suddenly lost time when the most important stretches of the universe existed endlessly in my head, but also ended abruptly with the four-walls of my bedroom. When I only sought counsel from the confused approximations and wild dreams of my best friends. When I'd watch a film, read a book, listen to an album, and it would enter my bloodstream immediately. When I'd stick posters up on my walls with Blu Tack—not frame them and position them delicately next to houseplants. When finding something cool was enough.
We finish our meals and cross the street to a bar. It's technically not open for business, but a friend of the group has convinced the owner to unlock the doors and let everyone in for a few post-dinner drinks. Warm, yellow light and the sounds of clinking glass and laughter spill out onto the street, as the metal grate of the shopfront is raised a metre or so from the pavement—just enough to allow people to crawl under and through the door. Full of booze and food, and with another early morning flight to contend with, I decide it's best I don't join them this time. On hearing their names called from the basking glow inside, they both offer me a firm handshake before ducking under and into the light.
I step back into the cold and watch the corrugated shutters roll back, sealing them and the party, inside.