8pm on a sultry Thursday evening, the opening night of Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival, and the city’s finest south-side hotels are crawling with pop stars. The bloke from Beirut (band, not place) is in the lift, Billy Bragg is looking a little bewildered in the lobby, and pretty much everyone else seems to be sporting one of the more sought-after wristbands.
Significantly absent, though, are the chaps we’re here to meet. Parisian pop-dance juggernauts Justice are on stage in a few hours and were due to leave for the site a few minutes ago, but no-one seems overly sure of their current coordinates. Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Auge are a little nervous about this gig, apparently, it being only their fourth ever live show, much of which has been hastily thrown together in order to showcase their symbolically-titled debut album, ‘†.’ But surely they haven’t done a runner…
Having boosted the profits of various English, French and Spanish mobile networks, we eventually discover that Justice are indeed in the hotel, and on heading up to the room then mooching around outside for a while, we’re greeted by Xavier. Well, perhaps ‘greeted’ isn’t the right word, as it swiftly becomes apparent that, having only flown in a few hours ago, he was blissfully unaware of our presence here and we’ve disturbed his pre-gig preparations, i.e. a lengthy kip. He sends us packing.
Half an hour later, though, and de Rosnay’s colleague emerges into the plush hotel café, looking equally as groggy but rather more agreeable. Auge is all but unmissable: tall, black-clad, shaggy of hair and lush of moustache, he looks like a Seventies playboy but, like his partner, is really a Parisian graphic designer who stumbled into the dance music business almost by accident.
Auge had been in a rock band originally - “Instrumental,” he says, “somewhere between Fugazi and Blonde Redhead” - and met de Rosnay at a party, after spitting beer all over a young lady’s head. “It wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” he says, “I was trying to drink and laugh at the same time.” Undaunted, they decided to make music together.
Hooking up in de Rosnay’s bedroom, their first tune was a “really bad song,” which eventually found its way onto a long-forgotten compilation. The second was a remix of an obscure tune by a reasonably obscure indie band: Simian’s ‘Never Be Alone.’ It did rather better. In fact, it’s been just about the biggest tune of the new millennia, thus far, and Auge still can’t quite fathom how they managed to create a classic so early on. Was it fate? Alchemy?
“It was all about luck,” he says, bolting down his first espresso of the evening. “It’s crazy for us, because at the time we only had a few synthesizers and a sampler - we just used the chorus because we didn’t have enough space on the sampler for everything. It was for a contest, launched by college radio, but we lost, because the Simian guys didn’t like the song. Then we met Pedro.”
Pedro ‘Busy P’ Winter is the chap we’d been trying to phone earlier in the evening, a vital part of the Justice story and, indeed, of French dance music in general. He’s been Daft Punk’s manager since their mid Nineties glory days and runs the Ed Banger label, as featured in these pages last month. Pedro met Justice at a cheese party (no spitting this time), heard their Simian remix and promptly stuck it out. DJ Hell’s label, International DeeJay Gigolos, then did likewise, and it was soon soundtracking Europe’s trendier nightspots. “It was a really slow process,” says Auge, “but every month we heard something new about the track, a new release or something.”
More remix work rolled in, for Britney Spears, Franz Ferdinand and NERD. Meanwhile they got started on a proper Justice single but, still rocking those day jobs, the magic didn’t come quite so easily this time. “I think we just needed a deadline,” he says. “But we decided to do something different.”
The eventual track, ‘Waters Of Nazareth’, shocked a few folks. A dirty bomb of grinding bass and beats, it was surprisingly bereft of catchy vocals but still proved a resounding success with the crossover crowd; Erol Alkan, 2manyDJs and the like. For Auge and de Rosnay the moment had finally come to hang up their drawing boards and throw themselves into the music business full time. That was 2005. Two years on, they’ve finally finished their album.
Still, it’s worth the wait. Many will have wondered whether Justice were actually capable of cranking out a decent long-player, given their sparse output so far, but that lack of back catalogue has actually helped give the record a more cohesive feel. Where many DJ-led albums are ragbag selections of tried-and-tested dancefloor tracks, Auge and de Rosnay locked themselves away in the studio for 18 months. Indeed, they even made the tracks in sequence, more or less.
“We tried to make something that was an experience,” explains Auge. “We wanted to do a kind of disco opera of a record, something with an introduction and an outro. We had a story in mind, and we were doing diagrams to find the right order for the tracks. It helped us get new ideas, because we wanted something fluent that you can listen to, not just an album of club bangers.”
One club banger that doesn’t appear is ‘Never Be Alone’, interestingly. The track finally reached a peak last year when, re-released as ‘We Are Your Friends’, it found itself all over daytime radio, three years on. Then came the thoroughly entertaining new video, which won an MTV Award and forced an irate Kanye West to gatecrash the stage and complain that his stupidly expensive effort, ‘Touch The Sky’, didn’t. Ed Banger subsequently slipped out some mocked-up sleeve artwork featuring a cartoon Kanye, the phrase ‘Always Be Alone’, and a tiny penis, jizzing on him.
After all those shenanigans, then, fans of ‘We Are Your Friends’ might be a little bemused that Justice’s signature tune isn’t on their record. They don’t really care. “It was too old and it wasn’t fitting with the other tracks,” says Auge. “We still play it, but for us it’s still just a remix.”
The last track Justice completed for the album, ‘The Party’, featuring Ed Banger labelmate Uffie, was finished two hours before their deadline, after which they immediately got cracking on creating the live show. Culled almost entirely from the album, it’s “a bit less ravey” than their old DJ sets, and the chaps are clearly still a bit nervy about it all. Hence we let Gaspard get back to Justice’s preferred pre-show warm-up method – napping – and take a quick spin over to the site.
We wanted something fluent that you can listen to, not just an album of club bangers.
Primavera Sound is one of the more interesting festivals, if you happen to be passing next year. Originally staged on the side of a mountain it now takes place at Barcelona’s answer to the Millennium Dome, the Parc del Fòrum. The latter was built for the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures, a £4 billion, 141 day event which attracted delegates like Mikael Gorbachev and Salman Rushdie, and a whole lot of criticism. The Parc has been more or less redundant ever since. Thank heaven for alternative dance/rock then, as it’s certainly busy this weekend.
A varied crowd are here too – hundreds of media folk from across Europe, and punters from pretty much everywhere, including the requisite pissed-up English blokes. Much of the interest clearly lies with tonight’s headliners, The White Stripes, who fill up the Parc’s enormous main arena at around one am, with every precarious vantage point full to bursting. Justice will be playing directly opposite them on the dance stage. It isn’t ideal.
Half an hour to go and Pedro isn’t looking too concerned, despite his two charges not having arrived as yet, but then he’s probably used to it. They finally emerge with a few minutes to spare, at which point a huge, faintly psychopathic and possibly colour-blind security guard throws everyone else out of the backstage area, regardless of how sexy their wristbands are. Whatever Auge and de Rosnay are doing behind those laptops, we’re not privileged to see.
He does us all a favour, in truth, as you really need to see this new Justice show from the front. Dominating the stage is that trademark biblical cross, standing proud amid an enormous bank of amplifiers, which Auge and de Rosnay are perched behind. Yes, the chaps may look a bit like The Mighty Boosh, from a distance, but they certainly make an impressive noise. “The word that comes to mind is chunky,” says Phillipa, a Barcelona-based English TEFL type, jigging around to our left. “If this were a chocolate bar, it’d be a Yorkie. With little honeycomb bits.”
The new single, ‘D.A.N.C.E’, is a definite highlight, it being a return to catchy choruses, and the set barrels along for a thumpingly entertaining hour. The only downside, in fact, is the double dose of ‘Never Be Alone’ they belt out late on, first mashed with some Klaxons then brought back for the encore. The audience, of course, lap it up, but you can’t help thinking they’d love to ditch the bloody tune sometime soon.
Afterwards, Pedro pulls rank on the bewildered security chap and we finally meet up with Xavier, who, despite what seemed an ecstatic audience reaction, isn’t best pleased:
“Tonight was a bit weird,” he sighs. “They were a bit cold, the people. It was packed but not crazy. I think we have to work again on the live show. It’s hard to see what’s not working.”
Well, that’s true, but rest assured he’ll throw every ounce of energy into finding out, as Justice clearly have a perfectionist streak that borders on the pathological. You won’t be seeing much new material from them in the near future as they concentrate on getting the live set honed, and even some intriguingly high-profile remixes are being put on hold. “We’re not sure we’ll have time to finish them,” says de Rosnay, “so I don’t want to say what they are.”
Their longer-term dreams will also have to stay shelved for a bit longer. Having remixed Britney Spears a few years back and been hugely impressed with her vocal talents, they’d be willing to give her comeback a helping hand. She’ll also have to wait, but “we’d love to,” says Xavier. “We definitely want to produce a pop artiste. At some point.”
It’s dawn when the Justice posse finally leave the site. As Auge loiters outside and wonders what to do next he’s mobbed by a cosmopolitan array of punters – mostly blokes, curiously – who queue excitedly for photos and autographs and generally give the impression that Justice stole the show.
If only his partner was around to witness it. De Rosnay, unfortunately, is already back at the hotel, hunkering down for another bleary-eyed session of obsessive tinkering. But then again, why change a winning formula?