In pursuit of Justice

Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé are attracting millions of MySpace hits, shifting records and selling out gigs. And they trash hotels, too. For a dance duo, they're very rock'n'roll, discovers Marcus O'Dair
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The Independent Culture

Dance acts don't often release live records – especially not when they have only a single "proper" album to their name. But Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé, who together constitute Parisian dance duo Justice, don't seem to be subject to the same rules that govern their peers.

Having conquered underground dancefloors, then mainstream radio, with their anthemic "Never Be Alone"/"We Are Your Friends", their 2007 debut album (untitled, but generally referred to as Cross) has sold getting on for 500,000 copies. They've also had more than 13 million hits on MySpace. As well as claiming NME and MTV awards and three Grammy nominations last year, and a 2009 Grammy nomination for their remix of MGMT's "Electric Feel", Justice have played all over the world to considerable acclaim; this summer's show at London's Somerset House, for instance, sold out faster than either Adele or Duffy and they sold two million tickets on the last tour.

The success is all the more impressive since, by their own account at least, the duo, both 24, only became professional musicians by chance. "I met Gaspard in 2003 and we became friends quickly," says De Rosnay, the main spokesman for the act. Augé is perfectly friendly, but during my two interviews with the pair – one in the French city of Nantes, the other in London – he contents himself simply with owning the more impressive facial hair, if the marginally less skinny jeans.

"We did 'We Are Your Friends' for fun," continues De Rosnay, "because we were [earning our living as] graphic designers. But maybe three weeks after we did that track we met Pedro Winter, who was launching his new label. He listened to it and said: 'OK, I want to release that.' It was quite accidental and circumstantial and really quick. I think two months after meeting Gaspard, we were signing with Pedro."

In the subsequent five years, that label, Ed Banger, would fast become a byword for cool – no doubt assisted by the fact that Winter was also manager of Daft Punk. Yet Justice remained far and away Ed Banger's flagship act. De Rosnay says the pair, who live together in Paris, are "still making music on my bed in our flat", yet what started as a hobby has grown beyond recognition. When I ask what countries they played in last year, De Rosnay lists Japan, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the UK, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the US before losing count.

Indeed, the new live album – called, fittingly enough, A Cross the Universe – comes accompanied by a DVD documentary, filmed on their second tour of the United States. The film itself is an entertaining, if rather superficial, snapshot of the things they get up to on the road: drinking, brushes with the cops including some funny gun-related shenanigans, meeting girls and occasionally signing their breasts, a Las Vegas wedding, more drinking.

Trashing their way through hotels on tour in the US, Justice, clearly, are more rock'n'roll than most rock'n'roll bands. Not your typical dance act, they are more Metallica than Chemical Brothers. In Vegas, Augé drunkenly married a girl he had met while out there, a bottle of whiskey in hand and wearing his shades, with an inebriated De Rosnay looking on. Fortunately for Augé the marriage is void outside of the US, as, while partying afterwards, he lost his bride and the pair have not spoken since.

Then there is the closing scene of the film – showing the pair being arrested, along with their tour manager Bouchon, for hitting an obsessive fan with a bottle. It's not the only antic that gets them into scrapes with the law. Bouchon, obsessed with guns, keeps a shotgun in his trousers and takes the duo to a range to learn how to shoot. It all backfires when he brings the gun to a restaurant and gets arrested. If they appeared a quieter, more dishevelled, pair when they played London's Somerset House in the summer, that would be because they had just spent two days partying and hadn't slept for the duration.

The film does, however, reveal one major reason for their success: whether in the Jacuzzi with a bunch of girls or emerging semi-conscious from the tour bus wearing nothing but a sleeping bag, neither De Rosnay nor Augé ever looks less than fantastic. In fact, they do what The Prodigy did last decade: play dance music while looking like rock stars, although you'll find no Keith Flint spiked haircuts here. Instead, they combine indie sartorial staples (stylishly shaggy hair, tight jeans, at least semi-ironic Supertramp or Def Leppard T-shirts) with the sophistication expected of a pair of Parisian former designers. They even produce, for instance, a range of their leather jackets in association with hipster design company Surface To Air.

Yet, while they admit to taking image very seriously, this is no case of style over substance. The other main reason the Justice juggernaut has sustained such momentum is evident on the accompanying live album: simply, the music itself. De Rosnay tells me before the UK premiere of the film that he regards Justice as a pop act, an impression supported by infectiously good-time hits such as "D.A.N.C.E.". Yet those who know them only from the radio will be shocked by some of the tracks on A Cross the Universe. Not only are even the best-known tunes substantially re-worked live, but there's a whole other side to the group that's significantly darker and more twisted, electro house and even heavy rock influences sneaking in alongside the disco and pop.

"When we do something really sweet, we make it really sweet," agrees De Rosnay, "but the live shows, we decided to make them a bit more violent. We are happy to see kids coming to our shows because they like 'D.A.N.C.E.' or [equally accessible single] 'D.V.N.O.'. Then they get something that has nothing to do with it, but they seem to like it. That's the great thing about songs like 'D.A.N.C.E.' or 'We Are Your Friends' or even giving your music for commercials. This is just a key to open something that is really diverse and different to what people expect."

Although no record could capture the impressive light show with its banks of illuminated Marshall amplifiers, A Cross the Universe is a pretty good stab at replicating the Justice live experience. By the time you get to the half-speed "We Are Your Friends" with which they begin their encore, it feels like a moment of near-spiritual transcendence. This seems appropriate.

The album is known as Cross because of the crucifix image that adorns the cover, and it's an image that reappears repeatedly in the film – whether necklace-sized, kissed by both band members before they perform, or large-scale, illuminated in lights when they do go on stage. We even see De Rosnay having the cross logo tattooed on his arm. It's not hard to detect religious overtones, however tongue in cheek, and that's before you even start on the track titles: "Genesis", "Let There Be Light", "Waters of Nazareth"...

"We do think that religious music, Christian music, and the kind of music we do, has the power to gather people up," agrees De Rosnay. "It has the same power of getting 20,000 people all looking in the same direction, that can provoke such powerful reactions. Doing something powerful, gathering people, that's the main point of this."

As the gospel of Justice's divine disco spreads, there are inevitably those (including some early disciples) who dismiss them as over-hyped or, simply, over: a 2007 story that's old news. De Rosnay, however, doesn't seem too worried.

"In 2007, Justice was already a 2006 story," he shrugs, "and in 2006, it was already 2005. Every year, we are always so last year, but then it goes to different people, new people. We are just navigating from one milieu to another milieu. So I don't know when it will end up, but still we keep on doing our stuff."

So, which milieu will they be navigating to now? "A Cross the Universe is the ending up of the first album," replies De Rosnay. "We've quit touring, so we won't do this live show any more, and we quit DJing when the DVD was released. We're going to disappear for a while until we make new things. So really, A Cross the Universe just closes the first chapter for Justice."

A deluxe version of 'A Cross the Universe', including the DVD, will be released on 19 January. Single 'TTHHEE PPAARRTTYY' will be released on Ed Banger/Because Music on 9 February