Dance giants Justice return: ‘The only thing we argued over were the bongos’

Estimated read time 8 min read

Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé are sitting in their record company’s London office, both wearing sunglasses and vaping heavily. De Rosnay is in an immaculately pressed denim jacket with a delicate neck scarf, while Augé, with his huge head of curls, dark glasses and thick moustache, recalls prime-era Giorgio Moroder. If it wasn’t for the fact they have vapes rather than cigarettes between their lips, this could be a scene plucked right out of the 1970s. Which isn’t unusual terrain for the French duo Justice, happy as they are to pilfer retro influences to make futuristic and genre-twisting electronic music.

However, for their latest album, Hyperdrama, they wanted to approach things with a bit of a “reset”: seeking to offset expectations and challenge themselves. “Being free from preconceptions was a big part of this record,” says De Rosnay. “To think less and just go more by feeling – to be more spontaneous.”

The pair speak slowly and thoughtfully. They are not exactly subdued or detached, but do radiate a reserved stillness, with De Rosnay by far the more talkative. There is little interaction between them but each gracefully steps out of the way when the other talks, and you get the sense of an intuitive understanding. “The only thing we argued about for this album was some bongos on one track,” says Augé, shaking his head at the painful memory that it was even suggested.

“I still think it would have been better with them,” De Rosnay pings back with a smirk.

A single argument over percussion for a whole album is not bad going. Not least because their new record contains plenty of room for disagreement, shifting from slick house to searing electro, strutting disco to infectious pop, via touches of everything from suave R&B to pummelling techno and chopped-up hip-hop. “We love a lot of very monomaniacal records but we also like diversity and being larger than life,” says Augé. “And we try to make all these influences coexist.”

One of the components that has always made Justice such a potent outfit is this genre-fluid approach, as well a hellbent perseverance to “make the most dramatic music possible”. Equally inspired by heavy metal as they are Italo disco, they possess an inherent understanding of the power of the riff, but filtered through an electronic lens. This applies aesthetically too, from their prog rock-esque cross logo (which Justin Bieber was accused of stealing for his 2021 album Justice), to their outfits of leather jackets and vintage band T-shirts.

They have always looked like 1970s rockers and have had a good run living out that life, too. Their 2008 tour documentary A Cross the Universe features parties, fights, arrests and even a drunken wedding between Augé and a fan – done seemingly just for an impulsive laugh. While the hard rock influence may be less apparent on Hyperdrama, tracks such as the grubby, grinding Generator still show their ability to create something monstrous and thundering.

Justice have been doing this for a good 20 years now, ever since the then graphic designers remixed the electro-house track Never Be Alone by Simian in 2003, resulting in We Are Your Friends. The infectious anthem quickly became one of the defining crossover dance hits of the decade, and helped cement the newly formed Ed Banger records as one of the most hip and influential labels of the ensuing decade, home to the likes of SebastiAn, Uffie, Mr Oizo and Cassius. Justice also found themselves in high demand, remixing everyone from U2 to Britney Spears.

They even got a taste of Kanye West’s ire two years before Taylor Swift, when West stormed the stage at the 2006 MTV Europe Music awards in protest at Justice winning best video for We Are Your Friends. “Ah, hell no,” West grumbled. “If I don’t win, the awards show loses credibility.” Ironically, two years later, West premiered the Romain Gavras-directed video for the band’s song Stress on his website. The video was controversial: in depicting black youths committing gang violence across Paris it was accused by some as having a racist message (which the pair strenuously denied).

Before they knew it, Justice were being touted as the next Daft Punk. That, on one hand, made sense: they were an electronic French duo who also (at the time) shared the same manager. But, as the pair pointed out themselves, there were “so many differences” and plenty of “nonsense comparisons”. Daft Punk made sleek, shiny, club-based music, whereas Justice embraced grit, grease and graininess. Tracks such as the crunching Waters of Nazareth remain to this day outrageously filthy pieces of music.

Justice’s hugely successful debut album, Cross, attracted the ire of dance music purists, many of whom recoiled at its maximalist French house-meets-stadium rock bombastic blowout. But it was gobbled up by a new generation of fans during an era when the dance and rock music worlds were blurring, and even punctured the mainstream by picking up three Grammy nominations (Justice have since won two).

However, for a duo who were once so intertwined with the musical zeitgeist of an era, nearly two decades down the line they seem strangely at ease with their declining influence. “We don’t run after hits,” says De Rosnay. “By the time we finish producing an album, we’re already too late to be concerned about being out of fashion.”

Justice on stage in Berlin, 2017View image in fullscreen

Late is an understatement: Hyperdrama arrives eight years after their last album, Woman. So why the slow-burn approach? “The anachronistic appeal of making long-format albums is something we really love,” says De Rosnay. “How many thousands of records are out every day? We would feel bad making things for the sake of it. We don’t want to be part of the oversaturation of content.”

The pair also don’t want their entire existence to just be Justice. “We want a life,” De Rosnay says. “You can spend your life making dozens of records but what does it get you at the end of it? Yes, eight years is a long time between two records, but we don’t feel it necessary to have a bigger output than this.” Augé released a debut solo album, Escapades, in 2021. “The great thing about taking time is you have something new to bring to the dynamic of the duo and so it’s never boring,” he says.

If spending the best part of a decade on a record sounds like a hugely privileged position to be in, the band are keenly aware of that. “We’ve been very lucky,” says De Rosnay. “It’s a one-in-a-million chance that our first single, our first song ever, got us to a point where we could make an album and then that album put us in a space where we didn’t have to worry too much about releasing music to make a living. That’s huge luck. We have pure freedom on every level and we are very grateful for that.”

On this occasion that pure freedom led to an album rooted in collaboration and exploration. The record features Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Thundercat, Miguel and Connan Mockasin. But these are not half-baked vocals sent over via a computer, as is commonplace with a lot of guest appearances these days. Instead, the guests were embedded “as a band” into the creative process from the very early demo stages and they were always in the room. “Remote collaborations sound less fluid,” says Augé.

While the relationship between man and machine is at the heart of all electronic music, Justice really lean into this on Hyperdrama, switching back and forth on the same track between music played by a person and being computer-generated. Tracks such as Incognito unfold via rich, warm synths that sound straight out of a 1970s analogue studio before leaping forward a decade into a pulsing, driving machine chug. “We go back and forth between those two universes,” says De Rosnay.

For a band who have always been associated with creating forward-looking music from rearview influences, they are now entering a time when their own music is entering the 20-year nostalgia cycle. “The same amount of time has now passed since We Are Your Friends came out as since Blue Monday when we made it,” De Rosnay says, his eyes widening in astonishment. “We hear more stuff now that sounds like what we used to do in the mid-2000s, and we get requests from pop artists asking for precisely this type of music, but this is not something we want to do.”

How come? “We wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says. “It was made with the energy of people in their 20s [he and Augé are both now in their early 40s]. We were completely devoid of knowledge, got a computer and made our first album. This is impossible to recreate. We’re happy making people unhappy by not giving them what they want and just doing things that seem natural to us.”

However, while Justice have no interest in trying to resurrect an earlier version of themselves, they do try to cling on to a little of the naivety that sparked their rapid ascent by trusting gut feeling above learned knowledge. “We’re afraid of knowing too much,” De Rosnay says. “It’s like knowing how to perform a magic trick – it loses everything.”


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