Justice on Creating Music for the Future From the Past

Justice on Creating Music for the Future From the Past

This February, French electro duo Justice (Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé) beat out a crowded field of artists, including the likes of Jon Hopkins and SOPHIE, to take home the Grammy for Best Dance Album. The award felt like a long time coming for the two Frenchmen. Their self-titled debut (sometimes referred to as Cross or ) was one of those rare albums that would go on to shape an entire generation of producers and artists to come with its distinctive blend of electric guitars, beefy synths, disco riffs, and a distinctly Parisian sensibility. The project gave rise to bloghaus, influenced the rise of EDM, and cemented songs like "D.A.N.C.E." and "Genesis" as a part of the genre's canon.

Their win for Woman Worldwide, a live album encompassing new arrangements of songs played on their recent tour of the same name, felt like the cherry on top of a career that has already secured many major milestones. Hoping to further crystallize this chapter in Justice's ongoing legacy, de Rosnay and Augé have teamed up with director Andre Chemetoff for their new film IRIS: A Space Opera.

First premiered earlier this year at SXSW, IRIS is not your average tour doc. The movie was filmed without an audience, and centers on the live show Justice toured as a part of their Woman Worldwide performances, complete with its massive walls of guitar amps, floating LED panels, and incredibly complex lighting array, all recreated on a massive sound-stage. While having no audience may seem insignificant, the subtle omission shifts the entire feel of the set from visceral to surreal.

The stage stands desolate, reflected back at itself against glossy black floor, seemingly suspended in the void like this Kubrickian monolith navigating the cosmos. In the same vein, Augé and de Rosnay's too-cool-for-school stage presence easily comes across as two calm and collected pilots at the helm of the massive craft, engaging overdrive with a casual keyboard flourish or twist of the synthesizer. The film also intersperses several dream-like space sequences with constellations magically connecting themselves and the band's signature cross floating through galaxies in an attempt to further drive home IRIS' several homages to classic sci-fi.

Ahead of their headlining set at last month's Splash House festival in Palm Springs, PAPER caught up with Justice to reflect on the duo's recent Grammy win, their new film, the nature of sci-fi, and if music ultimately has any future.

You guys recently won a Grammy. How was that experience?

Xavier: It was a perfect way to end that cycle of having made this album, having toured, and having released Women Worldwide. Generally, because we go on hiatus after tours, it's very good to end on something like this. I don't know how it is for American people, but more so for French people, winning a Grammy award is like winning a Nobel Prize. In France there are some prizes like this, but generally they are very professional or public oriented. This one is more straight-forward. It was a nice surprise too because the other contenders were really good. They all had a reason to win, because they had been here for a long time and make the best albums or they were really breaking through or very new. For us, we made this record and it's not really new music and we're not really new artists, so it took us a few seconds to process that we won when we saw our name on the screen. It's a very, very, very good memory.

What motivated you both to create this new film?

Xavier: We've always been trying to film our concerts to release them after the tours but shelved the projects because it didn't look good. We always found the videos that people were making from the audience translated better than what we are generating. This time we thought maybe the solution to this problem is to not try to translate this energy, but try to show something different. So, we said "Okay, we're going to film a live show, but with no audience and not in a concert venue." We won't have the expectation to have the energy and the interaction with the band, you can focus more on the music and the visual aspect of it without being disturbed by the live energy. And because the set up for the last tour was designed with the ideas of sci-fi and Blade Runner, we thought we should film it in a very precise and slow way, like a documentary or a sci-fi movie would be filmed. For us it's almost a stoner movie. It's very sensorial [sic]. You don't even need to be keen on the music to enjoy it. It goes beyond what we make as musicians.

What attracted you to sci-fi specifically?

Xavier: The cool thing with sci-fi is it's always retro-futuristic because the way we imagine the future isn't accurate, nobody truly knows. It becomes a bit retro, it's a blend between something old and something futuristic. We often think what we make sounds a bit like people trying to make futuristic music, but in the past, it has one foot in both doors. Visually this is what we are attracted to too, and it translates into everything: our houses are decorated this way, the things we like, the books, the movies, the music, the clothes we wear. It's very natural for us to try to make things look this way on the film.

"We often think what we make sounds a bit like people trying to make futuristic music, but in the past."

Are there any sci-fi movies beyond Blade Runner and2001 that inspired you?

Xavier: Even more recent movies like Gravity, and it's funny because watching Gravity now is already retro-futuristic.

Gaspard: Under the Skin.

Xavier: It's fun because Under the Skin, I think that has no intention of being retro. It has something immediately that looks a bit retro-futuristic. I think you can't avoid it when you go into sci-fi territory. Also in very slow-paced documentaries about the cosmos, or things like this... exploring the cosmos is a very druggy occupation.

Pondering about infinity upon infinity...

Xavier: Even the very concept of all the cosmos and being so tiny in such a big space, not that we encourage anybody to do drugs because it's bad, but these are the kind of the things you can easily imagine.

What fascinates you about it? Is it more you're fascinated about the cosmos as a concept or the science behind it?

Xavier: Everything... the concept, the reality that we discovered it. The fact that human beings decided at some point that discovering what was in our world was not enough and that we have to go out of this world, the beauty of it. The fact that maybe it's like randomly generated, maybe it's too precise to be randomly generated and there's something else behind it.

Gaspard: There's a kind of utopia about space exploration and the infinity of the universe for us. It was big in the '60s/'70s because of the space programs all starting but there's a kind of bet or promise, of a better life, a better world. When we were growing up all the TV series and cartoons we were watching were all about space, and I guess it stuck with us.

Xavier: The utopia about it, is just a thing that's like, "Okay, we fucked up this place that we live in, but this place that we live in is so small in this universe that there's maybe another place we can fuck up after this one."

I also think sci-fi, as a genre, very much operates from this premise of utopia, whether it's striving towards it or ending up in dystopia.

Xavier: The thing is you never know if it's going to be better or less good, but it's fascinating. I think it will not stop fascinating people until we can actually make it and find out if it's better or not.

Do you think we actually can ever make it? Isn't it sort of like a thing that's going to always be two feet in front of us, no matter how far we've come?

Gaspard: Our guess is it's just going to end up being Palm Springs with no oxygen or no water.

Xavier: I hope that humanity doesn't disappear too soon. I'm sure we'd make it at some point, there's no reason why not. We can already do Paris to Los Angeles in one day, and that wasn't possible a century ago. The progress is exponential, I can't see why we won't be able to make it out of our galaxy soon enough. I'm not sure we're going to witness that, but maybe our kids will.

Well if you were to leave our galaxy, what would your soundtrack be for that?

Xavier: I think the same, because it's always good to be exotic in a new place. A part of what makes our music spread, at a time when being French was not synonymous with appealing to a foreign audience, is our music is very exotic.

Gaspard: Actually, we wanted to play this for French astronauts.

Xavier: You know Thomas Pesquet? He was one of the guys in the French space program, and he was listening to our music while in outer space. It's kind of fun.

Gaspard: Our music has been in space already.

It has been 12 years since Cross, looking back at it how has it treated you?

Xavier: For us, it doesn't seem that far away and at the same time... okay, so sometimes we DJ and we play these tracks now, for example, "We are Your Friends," and playing "We are Your Friends"now, it's the same time gap as when we started to DJ and we used to play "Blue Monday" by New Order. We found it fun then because it was retro, it had been made about 15 or 17 years ago. It's kind of fun to think that we're already such a vintage band.

Gaspard: A vintage band, yeah!

Xavier: We don't know yet if it's good news or if it's a bit weird, but time, like the pace, feels a bit different from the '90s. The gap between 2003 and 1987 feels bigger for me than the gap between 2003 and 2019. Maybe because technology, but somehow it feels bigger between the '80s to the '90s.

Gaspard: But just because we witnessed that era. People born in 1993...

Xavier: We're still witnessing this era, but in a different way. It doesn't feel that old, but obviously it is very old.

"Our guess is [the future is] just going to end up being Palm Springs with no oxygen or no water."

Would you say it's like you're less witnessing this era like a spectator, more like an active participant?

Gaspard: I think time stopped in the 2000s.

Xavier: Maybe. I think this is what happens when you start something, you get stuck in an era. At the same time, I don't feel too stuck because we don't do exactly the same things over and over.

Gaspard: In terms of new, big waves of music, it's kind of harder for us too, because we have the '70s, '80s and '90s and after that, it seems more blurry.

Xavier: The reason why it might be like this is because there have been less big music revolutions in the last two decades than there was between the 80s and the 2000s. There was the new wave, there was the heavy metal, then there was the grunge which was a big music revolution, rap and hip-hop already existed, but it became mainstream, then there was techno and EDM. In the early 2000's, I think the biggest music revolution was the crossover between mainstream artists and more underground producers. I'm thinking of when The Neptunes made Britney Spears cool again, these kind of things, and now it became normal. After that, there hasn't been a big, big musical revolution to us.

I don't know if I would agree with that.

Xavier: There was dubstep, like what Skrillex did was one of the big, big things.

That definitely kicked off EDM as a movement stateside.

Gaspard: Because you have like EDM, trap, chill wave, whatever...

Xavier: This is a movement, but it's not a genre of music. Big EDM sounds a lot like the Euro-dance from the '90s. Apart from like the music Skrillex launched, that's pretty new, it couldn't have been made 20 years ago. But even trap sounds a lot like dirty south rap; it was already made with [Roland 808 drum machines]. The big difference that it might have is the hi hat patternthat goes [makes drum noise], but the first time I heard a trap song, I wasn't like, "Oh my god what is it? I've never heard that before!" The last time I felt like I was really hearing something new was this very hard electric thing, what they used to call dubstep. But apart from this music revolution, it's not going as fast. Maybe I'm wrong.

It might be a little unfair to ask this question, but would you think that there's a bigger genesis on the horizon when it comes to music? Do you think there will be a new dubstep or a new grunge for a new era?

Xavier: The thing is already thinking in terms of something new is hard. Music is related to technology and maybe the technologies applied to the music world are not significant enough at the moment to create such big changes. It's not like you've been hearing acoustic music for centuries and at some point one guy has the idea of making an electric guitar and rock n roll at the same time. It's not like we start taking computers and use them to make music and then we create a whole new genre of music that encapsulates both hip-hop and dance music and all these things.

We've made things that aren't humanly capable to make, you can't perform them. What you can do with a computer is beyond human capability. So what would be past that is interesting.

Xavier: I think people are already thinking about it. There's lots of things with artificial intelligence...

Holly Herndon's new album is fantastic.

Xavier: For example, you have a lot of people doing research about synthesizers and they come up with something new and say, "We made this new kind of synthesizer," and in the end it's very difficult to make the difference between this and a synthesizer from the '60s or the '50s. You press one button and it sounds like [imitates synthesizer sound].

The range of human hearing is limited.

Xavier: There's just so many things you can do with 20 hertz and 20 kilohertz, which is what we can perceive. But we're eagerly waiting for a new revolution.

The next Justice album is going to be for dogs.

Xavier: I mean some of the tracks we did are already for dogs, I think. But, no the things that we've, as music fans, like, the novelty or modernity, it's an important thing, but it's not vital. There are a lot of things that we love that don't sound new, they just sound good. To be honest, it's not something we're looking for when we listen to new music. If it sounds new it's even better, but if it sounds good it's good enough for us to really love it.

"It's more a matter of personality than technologies. This is the most important component for us, in any sort of art, is the peculiarity and the singularity."

Who are you loving at the moment specifically?

Xavier: The bands we listen to most of the time are rock n roll bands and they don't reinvent anything. What was the last big band we loved?

Gaspard: [Sings a little bit of a Tame Impala track]

Xavier: Tame Impala or MGMT or Mac Demarco. It sounds amazing. It sounds a bit new because they make something in their own way. It's not that it sounds new, it sounds personal.

It's a contemporary perspective.

Xavier: It's good because what all those bands make you can't mistake that for the work of someone else. My favorite bands of the 2000s, The White Stripes and The Strokes, they made music that could have been made probably like 20 years ago, if they would have existed 20 years ago. It's more a matter of personality than technologies. This is the most important component for us, in any sort of art, is the peculiarity and the singularity.

Going forward do you have ideas of what you want to you do, certain projects that you maybe wanted to pursue?

Xavier: We have an idea that we want to make, specifically for Justice, but we always allow us to let this idea drift over time. We start with a very sharp idea of what we want to make, and then we will just see how it goes with what we actually make. We see ourselves somewhere, but we don't know if we'll end up there or somewhere else.

It's about the journey.

Xavier: It's about the journey and the destination. The destination is actually very important. As long as we feel it and think it's relevant, then it doesn't matter if other people do. We haven't been in this thing for so long, but our experience with that is that when we feel it's good, we are usually are happy with it, even 10 years later. The few things we have made where we had some doubts, they don't age very well. Even if it doesn't encounter an immediate success we still like it. It always ends up reaching some people, and I guess that's the most important.

Photography: Alice Moitie