Staging Hyperdrama: Clash Meets Justice

The French electro overlords speak in-depth...

As the Parisian electro legends prepare to take to UK festival stages, Xavier de Rosnay, Gaspard Augé and Ed Banger mastermind Pedro Winter dissect the live show that’s taken Coachella – and the world – by storm.

May 2024. It’s midday on an abnormally sunny Wednesday in London and Pedro Winter has taken to the decks at Rough Trade East. The Ed Banger mastermind, perhaps better known by his musical alter ego Busy P, looks on proudly as a queue of 300 fans wait to meet Justice, the electro duo that have been a staple of his label’s roster since its inception in 2003. 

No Ed Banger event, big or small, feels complete without Winter’s presence, so it’s fitting that he’s present behind the decks as Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé ready themselves for a mammoth signing session in celebration of the release of ‘Hyperdrama’, their long-awaited fourth studio album.

“I’ve queued a long one,” Winter jests as he gestures to Clash for a quick chat between mixing duties. The track in question? Sébastien Tellier’s ‘La Ritournelle’.

Winter’s association with Justice dates back to Ed Banger’s inception. Back in 2003, the iconic French label that would become home to the likes of Uffie, Mr. Oizo, Myd and Breakbot, was still taking shape. At the time, Justice had yet to officially form, with de Rosnay and Augé both focused on pursuits in graphic design.

“At the time they were making flyers for Paris nightclubs,” Winter recalls. “Gaspard was doing a lot for Rex Club, one of the most famous techno clubs in Paris, and Xavier was doing magazines and stuff like that. They weren’t working together at this stage, but they met at a party one day and started to make music. In fact, when I met them, they’d been making music for about six months. It was their new passion.”

The duo’s first release was ‘Never Be Alone’, a remix of short-lived British rock outfit Simian’s track of the same name. Originally conceived as part of a contest held by Virgin Records, who duly rejected it, Winter saw promise in the track and promptly tapped them up to put it out as one of Ed Banger’s first releases.

“We went for dinner together after they played me the track,” Winter states. “I was like, ‘Whoa, there is definitely something here’. But I had no idea it would become a generation’s anthem. It’s like a Blue Monday for the 2000s. Very quickly I realised something was happening – firstly on the underground scene and then when I started to receive calls from Berlin or London – people like Erol Alkan, who was a big part of the success of Justice, as well as 2manyDJs. I realised that it was the beginning of a club scene where indie kids, techno guys, and hip-hop kids were joining together and I think this song was the perfect anthem.”

Much like the frenetic mid-00s club nights that gave Justice an early platform, Ed Banger’s eclectic output makes a lot of sense when listening to one of Winter’s sets. Incorporating everything from overlooked 80s disco hits like Imagination’s ‘Music and Lights’ to label classics such as SebastiAn’s ‘Embody’ and deep cuts, including Justice’s vinyl-only remix of Frank Ocean’s ‘Dear April’ which continues to elude the ears of most listeners, there’s something for all tastes.

“We have open ears and we all come from different backgrounds. Gaspard and Xavier both come from graphic design and I believe that when you’re touching art, you have a more open mind. I’m coming from skateboard culture. I grew up listening to heavy metal, hip-hop, and of course I spent time discovering electronic music. All of this makes us much more open to different sounds.”

Winter, for his part, also has a unique perspective on Justice’s live show, arguably one of Coachella 2024’s major talking points. Having managed Daft Punk from 1996 to 2008, Winter’s tenure saw the conception of the duo’s ‘Alive’ show, which has attained legendary status. So, how did his insight influence the latest iteration of the Justice live experience?

“We did Daft Punk at Coachella in 2006, and Justice did Coachella 2007, so the year after I was working with both of them,” Winter recalls. “Thomas [Bangalter] of Daft Punk was with us as part of the crew. In fact, he helped Justice set up the stage at Coachella in 2007. He even proposed to Xavier and Gaspard that he would be in the sound booth to check that everything was good.”

When Clash meets up with de Rosnay and Augé later that afternoon, the duo are looking surprisingly fresh-faced despite a gruelling schedule. They’ve barely stopped for air since debuting the first of Hyperdrama’s live shows at Coachella in April, followed by three festival dates in Mexico.

“We never get used to it,” de Rosnay laughs, musing on the day’s events. “Nobody’s programmed to receive this much attention, but it’s the same thing when it comes to going onstage to play. It still feels slightly strange to us and then we get to relax a bit, but the cool part is when we’re making music. It’s cool and it’s draining, but when we go out, it’s a bit violent. It’s a bit aggressive. Of course we want to make music and we want as many people as possible to listen to it within the limits of what we are willing to give out, but I think no human being is programmed to do this type of thing.”

It’s little surprise that the duo are still reeling from their return to the spotlight. Hyperdrama marks the release of Justice’s first studio material in almost eight years and the end of a creative period that also saw Augé releasing his own solo record, ‘Escapades’, in 2021.

“It was very intertwined with the work I was doing with Xavier, because we are always working on stuff, either on a record or other projects,” Augé reflects. “The thing I enjoyed the most with my record is that it was made over a short time span. Obviously, I like both ways of working. It was really fun to work on this record and to really finesse everything and try stuff we’d never tried before.”

For Hyperdrama’s transition to a live environment, Justice are building on the foundations that have defined their previous live shows.

“The idea for the visual aspect of the live show is the same that we’ve been developing from the beginning,” de Rosnay muses. “We love the older techniques that you’re used to seeing on stage. We don’t use Marshall amps anymore, but you’re used to seeing flight cases and the truss that the light rigs are being hung from and everything. For us, it’s part of what a rock show is and this is what we grew up with.”

Working alongside regular collaborator Lewis, the moniker of lighting designer Vincent Lerisson, de Rosnay and Augé have sought to subvert usual stage ephemera in unexpected ways, starting out with a conventional looking stage that unfurls and changes through the use of movement and bespoke lighting.

“As it unfolds, everything that you are used to seeing starts moving: the truss on the ceiling starts moving down and it’s all dressed up with different types of lights. We have a lot of support that accepts video media, but we’ve never used images or figurative images in our live shows. Most of the time, it’s plain colours. So we wanted to make something that looks very simple, very brutalist, in a way. But in order to make something simple, sometimes you have to use more technology and more equipment.”

Many of the live show’s minimalistic, yet highly kinetic visual components are inspired by the duo’s habits when it comes to being in an audience themselves.

“We are kind of a bad audience at live shows,” de Rosnay laughs. “I think we have a very short attention span, so we need something to happen every minute. Both musically and visually, we want things to always evolve so that, until the end, you’re still discovering new things. And it’s a bit challenging to do it with no videos and no images.”

The construction of the music too – and its position within the set – poses a unique challenge. Tracks like ‘Stress’ have maintained a constant presence in the duo’s setlists since the early days, but it’s high-octane moments like this that become a key consideration when curating other tracks within a live set.

“It starts becoming complicated to make other versions of those tracks, which are almost like antiques,” de Rosnay observes. “We know that, for example, ‘Stress’ has a role in the narrative of the live show and it always happens at the same point. We can’t start with ‘Stress’, but we can’t finish with it either because we have songs that are maybe less brutal, but they work better because the emotion they convey is stronger. It’s like the climax of the second third of the show, and then we can come down a bit and do the last ramp up. From the beginning, ‘Stress’ has always been this moment: having seen white light for 45 minutes, everything turns red. It’s such a simple effect, but you have to accept that if something is good, there’s no need to change it too much.”

‘Stress’ has continued to evolve with each new iteration, ramping up tension with its wailing, pulsing synths that ring out like a call to arms.

“On ‘Stress’, there’s nothing really to play because it’s simple based,” de Rosnay explains. “Part of the process is to re-orchestrate all the tracks, but the longest part of the job is to rationalise everything… One part of it, which is absurd, is that we have to re-learn how to play those tracks, but it’s kind of easy. It’s not too complicated.”

For Hyperdrama’s Coachella debut, the duo devised a tightly configured set that saw them sampling themselves live with absolutely nothing pre-programmed – even down to the lighting. Everything is structured and rehearsed in such a way that leaves little margin for error – even if the show naturally evolves over the course of its lifespan.

“When we go on stage, we know exactly what we’re going to do by the bar, because nothing is time coded,” de Rosnay continues. “Everything you see on stage is triggered by your hands, including the lights and the movements of everything. It’s like being in a band: there’s the two of us who conduct the music, then there’s our lighting designer and we can’t communicate with him at all because he’s like 200 metres away from us. And he’s doing everything by hand, so he has to know exactly what we’re going to do by the second, because otherwise, it’s just gonna look like it’s unsynchronised.”

“The last show is often very different from the first one,” Augé adds. “It’s a long process, but we can somehow keep the cream of the crop. Obviously, it makes the show more efficient. It’s always the same process – just to start everything by key and tempo and to have this kind of crescendo feel about the whole show musically.”

While the duo would stop short of characterising their albums as dance music in a conventional sense, de Rosnay acknowledges that Justice shows are “200% dance music”, which necessitates an efficiency that has evolved over time and doesn’t allow for improvisation.

“For dance music to be as legible and efficient as possible, it has to be predictable,” he states. “It’s almost like putting on your scientist’s lab coat when you start working on the tracks. When you start jamming, you kind of lose the tension and you lose the efficiency.”

“Everything is in a specific key, so if you want smooth transitions in key and tempo you can’t really make decisions on the spot,” Augé adds. “It seems wrong.”

While there’s something innately cinematic about Justice’s sound, both on stage and record, it’s the aesthetic elements of the posters associated with sci-fi and B movies that served as notably inspirations for Hyperdrama. Though unmistakable shades of Vangelis can be heard on instrumental track ‘Moonlight Rendez-vous’, it was during the creation of the album’s artwork in collaboration with designer Thomas Jumin, that these influences really came to the fore. 

“It’s funny, because I guess we are more inspired by the movie posters than the movies themselves,” Augé elaborates. “Obviously, we love ‘Blade Runner’ because it’s probably the best sci-fi movie ever, but apart from that we’re not really into B-movies, apart from the posters, which are great.”

While Jumin’s interpretation of the duo’s iconic cross emblem starkly contrasts with previous iterations with its shimmering outlines and nostalgic undertones, Justice were keen to avoid making things feel too retro.

“We wanted it to be contemporary,” de Rosnay explains. “We grew up watching films like ‘Rollerball’ and listening to all sorts of music, but when working on the visual aspect of some of the music, we were always trying to look into the future. There weren’t moments on this album where we were like, ‘Oh, let’s make a track like Led Zeppelin or Chic,’ or whatever. We’re always trying to find ways of making things sound fresh and modern and futuristic.”

While pop culture and aesthetic influences remain hugely important, their integration into the final product, as with all Justice projects, remains subtle. 

“You can’t escape your upbringing and all those films we watched when we were kids and all this music we listened to,” de Rosnay continues. “They’re part of us, whether we want it or not. When we write a chord progression, of course we’re going to be more moved by things that trigger these kinds of emotions from when we were kids, but it’s very hard for us to measure the actual influence of all these things in the outcome.”

In the case of Thomas Jumin’s macabre reinterpretation of the cross, de Rosnay and Augé were very iterative about all aspects of its design, working through “hundreds” of iterations to reach the final design.

“He’s been very patient with us,” de Rosnay laughs. “He works the same way as us, so he knows that it’s really rare to land something good on the first try. There were points where he could have said, ‘Hey, you know what? Fuck you. I’m quitting. Take it or leave it.’ But at the same time, he knows that we’re doing hundreds of versions of the tracks. It’s always the same thing: you have a basic idea, whether it’s an image, or a piece of music, and we feel very exhilarated by it and then you try to give it shape. You don’t know exactly what shape it has to be, but you know that you’ll recognise it when you see it. Sometimes you don’t know the shortest way to get to it, so you have to try everything. And even when we’re happy with something and we think ‘Okay, that’s good’ – if we think of something, even if we’re happy, we will always try more things, because you never know. Sometimes you just change one detail and it becomes a bit better.”

The RIMON-featuring ‘Afterimage’ was one such example, with the track ultimately taking a total of three years to complete.

“At one point, we had everything,” de Rosnay recalls. “We had the vocal, we had the instrumental and everything was good. And then there’s this last modulation at the end – it’s our favourite moment of the track. All the music stays the same and we just change the bass. There’s a shift of key, just because the bass note changes, and it starts to open the track and it gives a new emotion to the vocals. The thing is, you hear the vocals in a loop throughout the track, but at this moment, it’s the same vocal, same chords, same everything, but because you change one bass note it just opens up.”

While the technique is a necessity in a live environment, the duo’s penchant for working with loops and samples in the studio dates back to Justice’s early days, when they found themselves increasingly in demand as remixers.

“We learned very early when making music that you can take any vocal and there’s more than one chord progression that’s going to work on one vocal line – you can make hundreds of them,” de Rosnay enthuses. “If you find a good one, it’s gonna flip the emotion of the track.”

On ‘Neverender’, the first of two collaborations with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Parker’s vocal is repeated in both the intro and the chorus, yet the track’s subtle changes in harmony mask the repetition in such a way that it feels like a different take each time.

“For all the vocalists, when we started working with them, we said ‘Let’s try to streamline everything,’” de Rosnay recalls. “At the end, we’d have maybe one or two hooks, maximum, and we’d make the whole song based on those two things. Sometimes it didn’t work. For example, Miguel’s vocal on ‘Saturnine’ is much more like a song. It was the same with The Flints on ‘Mannequin Love’ too. The initial idea was not to make song-like tunes, but with Kevin on ‘Neverender’ and ‘One Night/All Night’ and RIMON on ‘Afterimage’ we really worked to make it sound like we found the perfect sample somewhere and just made a new track from it.”

Each vocal collaboration was conceived with a view to making contributions feel like organic components that steer a track’s musical direction, rather than a response to a finished piece of music.

“That’s why we always come to vocalists with very early demos, so we know that we have the latitude to change anything,” de Rosnay elaborates. “If you spend too much time working on an instrumental and then you make a structure, it becomes really hard for you to imagine your song differently and it ends up very much like someone’s singing on top of a track. We didn’t want that. We wanted them to be really merged into the music.”

When it came to working with Thundercat, the virtuoso bassist had expected to collaborate with the duo on bass licks. It was only when he met de Rosnay and Augé that they informed him that they had other plans.

“We came to visit him in Los Angeles and he came to meet us with his bass,” de Rosnay recalls. “What we were interested in was his vocals, because he really has a vocal quality that is classic. He’s really one of the best singers out there.”

Album closer ‘The End’ would evolve into a spectacular showcase of Thundercat’s already well-established vocal talents, with its exploration of themes of finality, death and acceptance.

“When we started working on the track, the first words that came out of his mouth were ‘Is this the end?’ But he was talking about the end of a relationship. When we saw where that was going we were like, ‘Maybe there’s something better to do than to make a song about the end of a boy and girl relationship.’ There were other parts of his earlier lyrics that sounded a bit like acceptance of death and we were like, ‘Maybe we should go in that direction… You know it’s gonna happen and you embrace it, or you refuse it.’ We found it more fun to say, ‘You know what, fuck it. It’s gonna happen, so let’s make it as smooth as possible.’”

While vocal collaborations make for some of Hyperdrama’s standout moments, there are poignant nods to previous collaborators and genre forebears. Sprawling instrumental ‘Dear Alan’ serves as an homage to French touch pioneer Alan Braxe, for whom de Rosnay co-designed the sleeve for legendary compilation ‘The Upper Cuts’.

“He’s like the unsung hero of that scene,” de Rosnay beams. “To us, his music has always had more appeal than even Daft Punk, who we love, you know? But to us he always had something. He had the sound and the sound was crazy already, but he had the chords and harmonies that no one else has. When you listen to the tracks, ‘Intro’, ‘In Love With You’ or ‘Love Lost’, they’re really beautiful. They’re dancey and they have a futuristic sound, but they have this sort of strange sadness that we love. And we always felt he was – not underrated, because everyone that knows his music knows that he’s the best – but not too many people know it.”

With the Hyperdrama live show still very much in its infancy, it’s too early to tell what else may emerge from the project. The end of the extensive touring schedule for 2016’s ‘Woman’ was marked with the release of 2018’s career-spanning ‘Woman Worldwide’, which captured the essence of the live shows to date, while 2019’s ‘IRIS: A Space Opera by Justice’ transposed its audio-visual experience to a studio setting with no audience.

“At some point in time we’ll go, ‘This is cool, maybe we should document it,’” de Rosnay states.” There’s a thing where every time we do it – like when we were filming ‘IRIS’ – we were like, maybe this is the last time we’ll tour with such a beautiful setup. Maybe we’re gonna be too old, or maybe we’re never gonna tour again, or maybe there’s gonna be the end of the world… It could have happened. We were on the brink of it.” 

So how might ‘Hyperdrama’ translate to a concert film?

“Now we’re touring, I already feel that maybe it would have been better to have filmed this new show,” de Rosnay laughs. “One thing we’ve never done is to actually make a good live recording in a venue. It’s something we’ve been thinking of since the first tour: is there a good way to actually capture the energy of a good live show? You can film something beautiful, but often it looks a bit corny to us. ‘Across the Universe’ was our first attempt to capture that energy and we recorded it like pirate material. It’s a pair of mics in a venue, so it sounds shitty, and everything is saturated, but to us, it really captured what we felt with the energy at the time. We didn’t release the film, because it didn’t look good on film. We made the documentary, but a film of the live show didn’t look good. We tried again on the tour after and it didn’t look good, so we didn’t release it. On ‘Woman’, we were like, ‘Fuck it – it’s too complicated, we’re gonna do it in the studio.’ But we’re still interested in the idea of doing a good live film, but God knows if it’s even possible.”

While there are no plans for cameras to roll at Justice’s homecoming shows at the Accor Arena in Paris this December, there’s a palpable sense of excitement that feels far more personal to the duo than capturing the moment on camera.

“We love that venue,” de Rosnay states enthusiastically. “For us, it’s like the Albert Hall for Londoners, or Madison Square Garden for New Yorkers. It bears a big symbolic importance, so we are so happy to play there. We never thought we’d play this venue as kids.”

So, if not the Accor Arena, where might we see the first Justice live film take place?

“We think there are other venues that look cooler – maybe outdoor venues. With an indoor venue, it’s all black, and you don’t get to see a lot. So we think outdoors, just visually, could be better to do that type of thing.”

Words: Paul Weedon // @paulweeedon

Justice headline the West Holts stage at Glastonbury on June 30th. They also play Field Day on August 24. Tickets available here.

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