It is what every musician dreams of: after 15 years of fame, fortune and festival headline slots, you put your group on hold and prepare a solo record. You shoot audacious videos in the mountains, trawl the history of cinema for visual motifs and distil a lifetime’s worth of sonic influences into a complete statement. And then you get embroiled in a legal battle with Justin Bieber.
“It’s how the world works today, and it’s a bit sad,” sighs Gaspard Augé, one half of the Parisian electronic giants Justice, alongside Xavier de Rosnay. Augé had blocked out the entirety of 2021 to release and promote his debut album Escapades, which is out now, but ended up in the midst of a trademark wrangle surrounding Bieber’s recent album, Justice.
The megastar’s new album cover art and affiliated merchandise use a design that Augé and De Rosnay allege illegally infringes on their own logo, which is the word Justice with the letter T designed like a cross. Bieber’s management team have denied these claims; Augé remains frustrated. “Though Bieber is from Canada, his actions fit this mindset of American hegemony: ‘Oh well, it’s just a small band from France, I’m sure we can take their name, nobody will care … ’”
It feels unfair for a group such as Justice to expend their creative energies this way. Looking like Hells Angels but making hits indebted to the Jacksons, the pair struck the heart of 00s club music like a fireball. Alongside contemporaries SebastiAn, Vitalic, Mr Oizo and everyone who orbited the French label Ed Banger (a home, fittingly, for headbangers), they were unsubtle in their quest to give rave music a shot of rock’n’roll.
The duo hooked in casual listeners with the pop fantasia of DANCE, before causing outrage by depicting a wanton spree through banlieues in their video for Stress. Their 2007 debut album † was loaded with sacrilegious scorchers named Genesis, Waters of Nazareth and Let There Be Light. On stage they would convert the unfaithful through shock, awe and a stack of Marshall amps.
Reclining at home in Paris, Augé is flanked by Justice’s pair of Grammy awards – a soft flex of pedigree. “Coming from a previous project’s success is a bit paralysing at first,” he proclaims in his subterranean rumble of a voice. “It’s perhaps worse than starting from zero, because people expect you to be pretty good. But it’s fun to get in the skin of a new character.”
Escapades is not a total makeover. Augé still leans on the galloping pace and muscularity of Justice’s best material, but dials up the gaiety. The album, full of ostentatious drum fills, earworm synth melodies and a decadent Italo-disco throb, retains enough high drama to captivate mass audiences. So much so, its lead single, Force Majeure, has been picked by the BBC to soundtrack the entire run of its Euro 2020 coverage, giving Augé a level of exposure that not even DANCE – which soundtracked the New Year’s Eve celebrations at the Arc de Triomphe in 2019 – could match. Having your new material preface 11.6 million people watching the Yorkshire Pirlo outplay Croatia is “a great accident”, he chuckles. “I will say: it seems to me that the UK has better taste in music. You chose someone from France to soundtrack the Euros, didn’t you? That’s refined.”
Escapades’ music brings to mind the space-age future imagined on the sleeves of jazz fusion records, but it is also a love letter to classical Europe. Augé drew inspiration from French and Italian film scores. He eschewed anything too overwrought, instead favouring brighter compositions redolent of Francis Lai, Alain Goraguer and Giorgio Moroder.
The production is coated in a dreamlike mist, a deliberate choice for Augé, who would wake in the night and hit record to capture “whatever my subconscious was throwing in my face”. He completed the album prior to the pandemic, bouncing ideas off his creative partners, engineer Michael Declerck and composer Victor Le Masne. They worked at Motorbass, the studio space designed by Philippe Zdar – friend to Augé and frontman of the 90s house duo Cassius – who died in an accident two summers ago, and to whom Escapades is dedicated. Was that not challenging? “In fact, no. In some way, being inside Philippe’s work environment was a continuation of his earthly existence.”
Augé spent lockdown dreaming up an eye-catching campaign to complement his record. The album’s cover art is among the year’s best. Featuring an enormous tuning fork cleaving the steppe, it could pass for an update on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, were it not for a miniature Gaspard hopping about in burgundy trousers and a shaggy coat. Taken alongside an assortment of wintery promo shots, it is not especially seasonal fare. “That’s the problem of shooting videos in December and releasing in June,” he says. “Sadly, I didn’t think about packing my bikini.”
The topic of iconography arcs us back round to the Bieber debacle. I put it to Augé that Justice themselves repurposed pop culture references pretty liberally. Their signature neon cross was itself a riff on the light-based cruciforms made by Alan Vega of Suicide. Generally speaking, where does the boundary lie between inspiration and theft?
“Obviously, we don’t own the word ‘Justice’ and we don’t own the cross. But [Bieber’s] management got in touch first to ask where our logo came from, so it’s not some unhappy coincidence. To me, it’s a very conscious rip-off. And that’s where the problem is.”
Augé begins to laser in on the state of modern music. “I feel the emotional spectrum of pop today has shrunk,” he continues. “As Justice, we prefer maximalist music, but we manage to make something that’s a bit over-the-top in a sincere way. Some say Abba are cheesy, but they were also super-genuine about the emotions they were trying to convey. Music today has a calculated cool factor, all this ego and posturing, that takes up too much space for me.”
But was that not also part of Justice’s raison d’être? Chain-smoking in leather jackets was their way of making their presence felt. Augé mulls this for a moment. “Yes, this makes sense. We came dressed as 70s bikers to battle the norm. We loved the attitude of rock concerts, so why create some weird anonymous character just to go on stage and DJ? It felt ridiculous. We had nothing to hide. And besides,” he winks, “helmets and masks? It had been done.”
Right before the announcement of Escapades, he had Daft Punk’s split to contend with on top of everything else. Augé and De Rosnay’s reputation as Daft Punk’s heirs apparent has always loomed large. How did he react to the news? “It came as a surprise for me, as for everybody,” he says. “I think it was a noble move to leave the stage like that, departing at their peak rather than bowing to pressure or money. Hats off to them.”
Augé confides that Justice are already deep into making their fourth album. But for now he is focused on Escapades, an album that seems completely out of step with contemporary electronic trends but will handily fill the gap in 2021’s market, ringing in the ears of millions every day up and down the country. Don’t believe us? Switch on the Euros and check out Gaspard Augé’s Force Majeure if you get the chance. Sound of the summer.