The rise and rise of HAAi
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. The 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 nerve-shredding day. He’s below average height and 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 everytime 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 handle bar 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 conclude 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 To You! 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 Nazarareth 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. (Kanye West 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 re-appearing. 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.
Written for the summer 2007 edition of Dummy.