And Justice for All
The guys who make up the French electronic duo Justice don’t seem to want to be in Los Angeles on this particular day, the day after they were in Las Vegas for MTV’s Video Music Awards, where the clip for their breakout single “D.A.N.C.E.” was up for Video of the Year. The night before that, they were in Glasgow; before that, London. Tomorrow they fly to Cologne, then on to Berlin, Hamburg and, ultimately, Australia. Today was supposed to be a day off, but a last-minute photo shoot for Urb magazine beckoned. They’re only spending eight measly hours in L.A. before boarding a plane back to Vegas — they have plans to do some gambling tonight — and the least-favorite part of their ascending worldwide fame is the photo shoots.
As they descend the escalator at LAX, standing side by side on the same step in matching black jackets and white Capezio shoes, they look like they’re in a music video: the haggard, sleepy-eyed jet setters, casually unkempt in that Franco-fabulous way, their thoughts on the cigarettes they’ll soon be enjoying upon exiting the terminal. Xavier de Rosnay, who has wide, almond eyes beneath a defiantly untended unibrow, bums a smoke from his partner, Gaspard Auge, who’s taller, slouchier and mostly asleep. He looks like he could be a Doobie Brother, with his overgrown nest of brown hair and a sideburn-mustache combo. They smoke their cigarettes, de Rosnay mumbles something about maybe stopping at a Burger King for some lunch, and the two slip into the back of a Saab sedan headed for Culver City, where a photo stage awaits their arrival.
Despite the fireworks that accompanied this year’s VMAs, the duo missed most of that night’s gossip-fodder action, which seems fine by them. They were still on the red carpet when Britney did her belly flop, and even though they were sitting at the same table as Kid Rock, Justice managed to miss the tussle with Tommy Lee. They were far removed from Kanye’s backstage sore-loser tantrum.
Here’s de Rosnay’s abridged version of the day. Imagine a thick French accent:
“We checked into the hotel, we went to the event, then we had the red-carpet shit, which was nothing because we were stuck between two lead celebrities and nobody knows who we are, so the journalists didn’t ask us any questions. We went to the event, then we lost. We skipped the after-parties and went to dinner, and then we went back to the hotel to sleep because we knew we had to wake up early this morning.”
His casual demeanor aside, the nomination was a surprise. A year ago, Vegas odds on a French duo that’s not Daft Punk getting nominated for anything would have been pretty high. America’s pop-music consciousness, ever impatient, had moved away from “electronica,” as electronic dance music of all shapes and sizes had become known, and re-embraced rock. The music, so perfect for turn-of-the-century revelry, seemed to stagnate post-9/11. It turned in on itself, fixated on minimalism, and lost the rockers and hipsters who in years prior had been buying techno and house records.
Add to that, there hadn’t been an electronic artist nominated for the top prize since Fatboy Slim in 2001, and Justice’s nod seemed some sort of mistake. Except that it wasn’t. For the first time in years, MTV seemed almost, well, relevant.
Like magic, 2007 delivered the world, America and, specifically, Los Angeles a hot French summer, filled with huge, synthetic beats coupled with massive electro-rock riffs and a party-time vibe.
The summer of France unofficially began in the springtime, with the triumphant debut at Coachella of Justice and the entire posse from their French label, Ed Banger, followed the next night by a massive Ed Banger/Dim Mak/Cobrasnake party to christen the then-new Echoplex. By July, Justice’s ubiquitous “D.A.N.C.E.” — or one of its countless remixes — was on virtually every dance floor and mixtape. That month, fellow Frenchmen Daft Punk performed a victorious throwdown at the L.A. Sports Arena, an event that has already taken on near-mythic status. Another rising French label, Institubes, impressed Los Angeles in mid-September with its own visit to the Echoplex. Last Friday, big-deal selector Diplo dropped “Never Be Alone” at the climax of his Echoplex set, and the crowd rejoiced. And L.A.-based Guns n’ Bombs are signed to the excellent Paris label Kitsune. The summer will unofficially end next week, when Justice and the Ed Banger crew arrive to perform a series of local shows. Once again, Paris has arrived, though de Rosnay seems relatively ambivalent about the hype as the car exits LAX and makes its way to the photo shoot. “Three years ago, it was New York City with the post-punk things and the DFA. Now it’s Paris and our music.”
Skeptics wary of the convergence of hard rock — be it metal or hardcore punk — electronic music and France need look no further than a recent download offered at the Web site of Justice’s American label, Vice Records, for a feast that’ll shut them up. It’s a cover of Justice’s “Stress” by one of the decade’s great punk bands, Fucked Up, whose revolutionary 18-minute opus, “Year of the Pig,” is destined to be at the top of many year-end best-of lists.
If you blindfolded a skinhead, stomped on his toes a few times (just for fun) and played him Fucked Up’s cover, he’d be slam-dancing within moments. Beginning with a snarky voice saying, “Techno . . . Unnnhhh,” the cover is a dirge-punk anthem, all wobbly with distorted guitars, a plodding, repetitive bass line and some dude, probably vocalist Pink Eyes, grunting at odd moments like somebody’s yanking his fingernails out. There are no bells or whistles, no divas wailing about the sunset, or love, or some other rave-friendly bullshit. It’s all energy and evil. (The cover is available for free download on Vice’s Web site.)
“It just sounds like a death-metal song,” says 10,000 Marbles, guitarist for Fucked Up, of Justice’s original track. “It sort of seems like they had imagined what it would sound like with electric guitars while they were recording it. So we thought we’d just do them the favor of adding them. And we noticed that, unlike most techno songs, it had discernible verses, choruses and bridges. It already sounds like a cover of a heavy metal band, rather than a techno song. So it was kind of tailor-made for a band to come in and cover it.”
But then, that’s the sound of Justice, and though Fucked Up’s cover of “Stress” is hard, the original is perhaps even more sinister — even without the distorted guitars. In their place is an ominous, screechy string section that sounds like the climax of a Hitchcock thriller, joined by a hearty four-four stomp and a few deep robotic burps.
“It’s not that they’re making rock & roll tracks,” clarifies Adam Shore, general manager of Vice Records. “But they are bringing to their music a similar attitude and energy, and dynamic and aesthetic, that a lot of great rock bands bring to their own tracks.”
It’s a vibe that permeates , Justice’s debut full-length, a thick, tight, nearly all-instrumental album with melodies, hooks, refrains, bridges and massive strings. The only missing ingredient, thankfully, is the insipid lyrics that ruin most albums, a point that is sadly proved again on the album’s only dud, “The Party,” which features the embarrassingly dull rhymes of American-in-Paris “rapper” Uffie.
In the place of words in most of the songs, however, are what feel like placeholders — midrange melodies that travel the length of the song and play the part of singer. On “Phantom,” one of the standout tracks, what sounds like a distorted vocoder seems to hum across the track like an android learning to scat-sing, while, underneath, a deliberate, clunky rhythm walks along like Frankenstein out for a jog.
The hit, “D.A.N.C.E.,” is the most welcoming track on the album, thanks in large part to the children’s chorus chanting a singsong ditty about the star of the dance floor: “You were such a P.Y.T., catching all the lights, just easy as A.B.C., that’s how you make it right. Do the dance!” It’s a joyous pop song with a refrain that you’ll be singing all day long, and it’s difficult to reconcile this gentle, joyous moment with the dirtier, more aggressive tracks.
“The more recent stuff we did for the album is the more pop-oriented,” explains de Rosnay, sitting in the back of the car next to Auge, who grunts in agreement, half-asleep with his mouth half-open, shades shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun. “We’ve moved away from the noisy things maybe one year ago, or a year and a half ago. But we like to make both. On the one hand, we like melodic stuff, but on the other hand, no melody, just noise and impressions. It just depends on the track. But I think we are moving toward more melodic stuff.”
Indeed, their discography bears this out. The duo rose to fame on the back of a remix of “We Are Your Friends,” by British band Simian. Justice created the track, which they renamed “Never Be Alone,” in 2005 for a remix contest, lost, released the song anyway, and it blew up. Within a year, they were remixing Britney and Madonna, Pharell’s N.E.R.D. project, Daft Punk and Franz Ferdinand. Although each of these remixes travels a unique path that blends rock and disco, you can hear the sound of a duo discovering its voice, one that, says de Rosnay, was partly the result of necessity.
“When we started, the only way for us to make songs together was to finish them ourselves — to bypass studios and recordings and just make them with computers and machines,” he says. “But if we were great musicians and we had big studios, I think we would make something that sounds like late-’70s, West Coast pop music, like Steely Dan or something. But because we have to work in a simpler way, it ends up sounding like what we do.”
Dim Mak Records founder and DJ-in-demand Steve Aoki agrees that the Coachella-Echoplex weekend energized the dance scene. The back-to-back events announced with electro beats and glorious hooks that Paris and Los Angeles were a potent tag team delivering hard rhythms with punk rock attitude.
“I’ve never seen a party so insane in my life,” says Aoki, of the Echoplex night. “It was the best L.A. party I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been to a lot of parties. It was so raw. The energy was so real. It just felt like before then there was this sort of vacancy. It was like everybody had been waiting for it, and finally it came. And it was quality, forward-thinking music too. It hit you right in the chest.”
De Rosnay has a theory, one he shares while sitting at a white table in a big white studio where the duo is getting ready to begin the photo shoot. In France, he explains, there is a great rivalry between Paris and Marseille. It’s a competitive streak based on regionalism and pride, and permeates the interactions between the citizenry of each city.
“In France,” he explains, taking a sip of coffee, “Paris and Marseille are in different parts of the country, Paris in the north and Marseille in the south, and they hate each other. I don’t know if it’s like that with New York and Los Angeles” — uh, yep — “but maybe since New York has had success with [NYC record label/remixers] the DFA and that sound, maybe Los Angeles has adopted the music of Paris as part of the competition.”
“It’s interesting,” offers Vice Records’ Adam Shore, on the phone from New York. “Because L.A. has more wide-open spaces than we do. The rave thing established itself in L.A. in a way that it did not in the East. And the promoters who grew out of that created Coachella, which always gives a gigantic stage to these artists.
“But, yes, where L.A. has embraced these dance artists in a way that’s maybe greater than these other cities have, it hadn’t started creating its own talent until just recently. Now you’ve got L.A. Riots, and Guns n’ Bombs and the I Heart Comix crew. You’ve got a pretty exciting thing going on, and there does kind of seem to be this hedonistic party DJ vibe happening with a bunch of crews here. It’s a little early, but I think that L.A. is really going to run with it in the next year. There’s just a lot of kids doing a lot of creative things.” (The curious may want to attend this weekend’s Neighborhood Music Festival, featuring music representing a wide swath of the L.A. dance scene.)
“If you listen to the stuff that’s exploding,” adds Aoki, “it’s all got this punk energy to it. You go to the shows and people are stage diving, fucking singing along and having fun, all sweaty and dancing hard — being kids. I remember when I was doing that when I was 15. There’s a ‘This is our shit’ vibe to it.”
The punk philosophy that Aoki describes is evident at Justice’s photo shoot, which is just gearing up. Despite the fact that they’re being shot this afternoon for the cover of Urb, the two remain bed-headed, unshaven, foggy-eyed and a little bit crusty. You’d think that at some point a stylist would enter to save the day, or at least clean the Frenchmen up a little bit. They’re budding stars, after all, and they’ve flown all this way.
But this ambivalence to their appearance is a cornerstone of Justice’s aesthetic, says de Rosnay. Their general disregard for the process of hit-making moves from their attitude to their style — even if they are unapologetically making pop music. Were it up to them, he explains, Justice would go the Daft Punk route and be invisible, or don some robot helmets. But they already draw many comparisons to their fellow Parisian producers (the two duos share a manager, Ed Banger kingpin Busy P), so disappearing or creating a shtick is of little interest. Sure, they could wear matching track suits, or become cross-dressers, or wax their eyebrows and retool their image. They could decline photo shoots, be difficult with journalists and turn into prima donnas. Instead, says de Rosnay, they’ve decided to go a different route: to be themselves, warts and all.
“We want to be like your neighbors,” he explains, “only cooler.”
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