We Are Your Friends: In conversation with Justice’s Xavier de Rosnay
Supreme purveyors of electro-disco JUSTICE are still reigning strong well over a decade after the release of their superlative debut album, † (Cross).
Parisians Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay first emerged during a pivotal point amidst the expansion of the electronic music scene in the early 2000s, unveiling a unique combination of rock & roll and electronica sounds through an infectious remix of Simian‘s ‘Never Be Alone’. The then-graphic designers had been exploring new computer and digital recording technologies, and through experimentation they recreated the track as ‘We Are Your Friends’ for a remix competition. Although it was initially viewed as a flunk, as far as the contest went, Augé and de Rosnay‘s song displayed captivating raw potential and caught the attention of ex-Daft Punk manager and founder of Ed Banger Records, Pedro Winter (aka Busy P), who later put the track out as a widespread release under his label.
The duo soon began developing their distinctive cross-genre sound as Justice, inescapably melding numerous cultural characteristics, dispositions and music styles in the process. The release of † further permeated them into this new era of electro-pop into the music scene, earning them critical acclaim and award nominations – including a Grammy nomination for Best Electronic/Dance Album in 2007.
Justice continued to reinforce their fast-growing reputation over the ensuing decade, assembling epic live shows and a captivating visual aesthetic that yielded sharp branding for their alternative take on electronic music. They also picked up numerous awards, created a documentary, composed soundtracks for fashion shows for the likes of Dior Homme, and released another two monumental albums to truly fortify themselves in the electronic scene.
Following the release of their most recent and potentially most finessed record of their career, Woman, Justice are now back in full-swing of touring and will (at last) be paying us another visit in Australia later this month. We were lucky enough to chat with Xavier de Rosnay ahead of the duo’s upcoming adventures, who shared with us some insight into their momentous production, the importance of trusting your intuition, and even a few of their favourite Australian artists that they’re hoping to catch while they’re down under.
So, starting off, we’re keen to throw right back to the track now known as ‘We Are Your Friends’. You and Gaspard first submitted this song as a remix track for SIMIAN, but I think a lot of people may not know that it was originally rejected as a submission before it was quickly picked up by Ed Banger (Records), and there was an interval of a few years from when you guys made the track and when it was actually released. Can you tell us a bit about what happened in-between creating the song and then making your debut as Justice with its official release?
Well, we were not surprised to lose because it was one of the first times we were making music in our lives, so we didn’t really expect to win anything; we were not disappointed. A couple of weeks after having made this track, we met Pedro (Winter) at a dinner with friends and he was starting Ed Banger Records and he was looking for new artists to sign. He knew that we were starting to make music together, so he said, “Can you play me some of the stuff you make?”. We played him this track feeling a bit embarrassed because we thought it was a loser and so we’re like, “Okay we made this track, but no worries, we’ll make some other stuff if you’re interested,” and he said, “No, no! It’s cool! I want to release it.” We didn’t really understand why, but I said, “Do it, if you please.” So, really the week after, we were in his office signing papers to release this first track and it was on the B-Side of his second release (Pedro Winter, The Logotape), which was really the beginning of the label. A good year after, DJ Hell – a guy from Germany who used to run this label called Gigolo that was very big at the time – he released this [remix] track maybe in 2005 or 2004, and this is when it started to do a bit more.
Sometimes it takes time for things to grow, and by that time we were starting to make other things. Finally, the new things we had made took advantage of this track that was fairly new to people – although it was really about three years old –everything got absorbed in the same “vacuum”! At first it was slow, but it ended up being very good timing.
And what were you feeling and doing in this space while you were waiting? You knew the track was going to be put out, did you know it would take so long?
We didn’t actually expect anything, and I think that was really a blessing because if the track had been very successful when it was first released (as an ordinary [entry level] release), I think we wouldn’t have known what to do. It was the sole track we ever made and we had no idea what we were doing, so it could have been disturbing to put out this track and then feel that you have to do something in the same vein because of whether people are going to listen to what you do or if they’re not going be interested.
The blessing in that is that because it’s released – although it was working okay, it was not huge – we were free to try other things and to really be something that was maybe more personal to us, not caring about having to achieve the same success. It was very good for us and I think it’s something we still get: the idea for whatever we do, whether it works or doesn’t work, we always feel free to do what we still want to do and do it and work on instinct more than working on something based on what we did previously.
Wow! It seems that delay worked out very well for a whole bunch of reasons. † and the sound you created with that was undoubtedly ahead of its time, and maybe that interval with those few years showed that. You did shape a whole new generation of electronic music because of your distinctive combination of thick, heavy metal bass lines and lively, dance synths. What inspirations were there for you and Gaspard that made you want to make this sound together? It’s an unusual combination.
Hmm, I don’t know. I think it’s more based on the circumstances and the musical inspirations, but that’s always the case. We’ve always loved a very large spectrum of music, so the idea was always to make music that would accommodate the same spectrum of feeling that would go from things that feel very romantic and mellow to something more aggressive… It’s not for everybody: we’ve always been shared between these two things of trying to embrace the gathering of people and feeling good, and at the same time making things that make you feel a bit unsettled. But the biggest thing at the time – we were discovering what it was like to work with computers, and I think the result of that, the first album is the discovery of what you can achieve with the digital power of calculations. These are sounds and things that were exciting to us because it couldn’t be made before that time, and we were driven by this more than anything else; I think it was the joy of making things that you know could not have been made even two years before.
A Cross The Universe was a really interesting concept as well: that clearly took a meticulous live rig to capture, both for audio and video footage, with some amusing dialogue thrown in there too. How did that idea come about?
It was our first year of touring and we noticed that every day there was something weird or fun happening, and we knew there could only be one “first time” for this kind of experience (if that makes sense), so we absolutely wanted to document it. Also, we were maybe 25 years old at the time and we knew we wouldn’t be doing the same things at 30 years old or 35 years old, so we asked two of our friends to come with us. We asked them specifically as they are our friends, we knew they wouldn’t be intrusive and we would keep on behaving normally. If it were a professional film maker or whatever, we would have maybe tried to look cool or sensible and that really wasn’t the point of the documentary.
At the same time, we wanted to release the live music (of what we were playing at the time), so we thought maybe instead of just releasing the live record – because no one really cares about live recordings – maybe we would release the documentary and then the music was the “bonus” for the documentary. We went on tour for about three weeks in the US and just shot every minute of it, and we came back to Paris with ~300 hours of rush. We started to edit knowing that just with these edits we would create a story that is not really a total story, because we don’t really tell people, “Oh this happened, and then we went there,” or whatever. Sometimes people will make their own story because you have two or three sequences or dialogue lines that follow each other, but they’re not really linked, and that makes you imagine some sort of backstory which is really fun. It was really fun to do!
Yeah, that definitely sounds more fun than anything, but that’s a lot of work going into the editing?!
Yeah! But, the thing that is necessary for a documentary – it can be about birds or a tour or how to make [something] – it’s always with an angle. It’s always subjective, it’s always augmented reality. When you have 300 hours of rush and you transform it into 50 minutes, it means that you concentrate 300 hours of reality into an object of 50 minutes where everything is “Pushed to 11”, because it’s condensed! It’s a concentrate of reality, which also makes it way more fun, but that’s the point of film making.
For sure! So, surrounding the release of † and in creating A Cross The Universe, you performed at a whole bunch of international festivals and you guys were around 25 at the time – these were major circuits that included Parklife, Coachella, T in the Park and Roskilde! Looking back now, this would’ve been a pretty rapid career shift: did you have to prepare in any way to keep on top of it all as you were growing and becoming more recognised?
Not really, because it was very progressive from 2003 when we started making music to 2018, to now. I think we are very lucky to never be put in a position where we have to take huge decisions or make compromises because there’s something too big for us.
For example, you mentioned Coachella: when we played at Coachella in 2007, that was the first time we were playing live, ever! But, it was during the afternoon in the Sahara Tent and at the time it was not as big as it is now, so it was great. Of course it was stressful and exciting, but we did that and then the year after we played again, except we were closing this tent on the Sunday; and then like five years after we came back and we played a bigger slot and then another bigger slot etc.… Even if we were playing a lot of shows, we really took it step-by-step and we were not put straight on the mainstage or whatever with a lot of pressure. People at the festival usually know it as well: even if it’s new and exciting, they’re always interested and paying attention to the fact that people are doing things step-by-step, so that they don’t burn after one year.
That sounds like an important way to build yourself up and stay there, and it’s obviously held for you guys for quite some time. After this first era per se, which earned you several award nominations and a Grammy for your remix of MGMT’s ‘Electric Feel’, your sophomore album Audio, Video, Disco brought a new, progressive rock kind of vibe. What things changed for you in your approach to the music that created this evolvement?
Well nothing changed – that’s the thing – and we said in the beginning that we’ve always been really keen on finding new things and making what feels good at that moment. The shift from the first album to Audio, Video, Disco and then to Woman is exactly the same shift you have, for example, between ‘We Are Your Friends’ and ‘Waters of Nazareth’, and MGMT afterwards, you know?
It’s all different and I think we can’t help but always want new directions. Not because we feel we have to make something new, but because our mood and our inspirations is more dependent on the actual context and the tools we use, and what is inspiring that in terms of technology and techniques at the moment that we do it – more than based on musical influences.
We love a lot of different things, but there’s never been one record or one artist that really influences us. If we’re going to have style, we need to make something like this and we need to keep doing things like this while being very free. We do what our guts tells us to do, and that is not based on music.
Your latest record, Woman, took another couples of years in the making and what you revealed in your first two singles, ‘Safe and Sound’ and ‘Randy’, showed us that you still really harbour your original signature sound of explosive production [particularly from those driving, heavy-rock bass lines, elevating strings and choral vocals]. Did the recording and production processes change much with shifts in technology, or was it more of an organic return for you guys to be playing with this sound that you started over ten years ago with your first releases?
Yes, of course! Audio, Video, Disco was very organic because a lot of the instruments we used in it were traditional instruments. I think most of the record was played with one guitar and a mellotron and variating processes. Woman was more digital – although it’s fun because people really feel it in an organic way, but it is a very digital, cold, disco-gospel record – or at least in how we made it.
There was definitely a shift that was guided by both the technology and the new instruments that we wanted to use to make this record. The possibilities offered by the computers and the software we are using, in terms of the architecture of the tracks and the sound and the general texture of it… a lot [of the record] was inspired by this also.
Wow, that’s very cool! And we’re very excited to have you back in Australia for your upcoming Sydney City Limits and Melbourne headline shows – it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen you Down Under! As our finishing question: how does it feel to be coming back?
We are very happy to come back! It’s been since 2012, six years already, and we were really sad to not be coming back on this tour [last year] and now finally it’s happening so we are very, very excited. We have a lot of friends there and it’s always a delight when there is shitty weather in Europe, baking in the sun of Australia.
And another thing: Australia has always had one of the most interesting music scenes to us, and so it’s always very inspiring to go there. There’s a new band that we’ve been getting into – well, they’re not a new band because I think they’re very big in Australia but they’re not that big in Europe now – King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. We love them! And before that there was Tame Impala and Midnight Juggernauts, so we are always really excited to come and find out about new bands. Someone told me about the band called… they told me they sound like Bruce Springsteen… Gang Of Youths! That’s what we’re looking to discover.
[Laughs] Well it’s very humbling that you enjoy so much of our music! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us and we’re very excited to have you back.
Justice will be playing just two shows in Australia, first in Sydney at the Sydney City Limits Music Festival and then a headline show at Hisense Arena in Melbourne shortly after. It’s been six bloody years guys, and tickets are still available, so be sure to check out the details below!
Words by FREYA DINESEN