Before Sleigh Bells, Parisian electronic duo Justice took distortion and compressed volume to the cracking point on its debut album †, even though the music consisted of film-score string swoops, slap bass and Daft Punk-style vocal filters. And like Sleigh Bells, it was great because of, not despite, its strange relationship with listenability. On top of its sonic innovations/perversions, it yielded an MTV hit, “D.A.N.C.E.,” a children-sung tribute to Michael Jackson that nonetheless sounded more innovative than perverted. But Justice’s new Audio, Video, Disco is the flip: an album of ’70s rock guitar (and the occasional “flute” solo) produced as cleanly as techno.
“For us, the first record was a disco record and a lot of people mistook it for a heavy-metal record,” Gaspard Augé says, “but there’s nothing heavy-metal about the first record. The new record is more laidback and faster, and maybe more rock. Just because the music is maybe more emotional so we didn’t have to use too many production tricks.”
“We made this record with the same intentions and obsessions as the first, so the backbone is similar,” adds Xavier de Rosnay. “The main difference is that the new album is drier. Part of the production is very dry, even rougher. We made this record with almost no effect, no reverb, nothing. Just created a sort of closeness; it sounds almost like a rehearsal. You can almost feel the room we recorded it in, even though there was no room.”
Justice’s sound doesn’t build up and crescendo the way most dance music does; it zooms in and cuts away and teleports from place to place, sounds disappearing and reappearing in a manner that would seem almost cut-and-paste if there wasn’t such songful ingenuity to it.
“It is important to us that you can feel a bit of spontaneity in something that is not spontaneous at all because it takes more than one year to make a record,” explains de Rosnay. “The big part of the production work is to get the feeling that things are moving a bit. Unstable but tight at the same time.”
Naturally, this unconventional approach offends purists of both dance music and recording quality. Like Iggy Pop’s controversial-but-brilliant 1997 remix of Raw Power, Justice’s distortion-caked, in-the-red debut is held up in some circles as an example of how overcompression is ruining music.
“I think it’s just bullshit for sound engineers and people who would like to be sound engineers,” scoffs de Rosnay. “Multiple people talk about [compression] without knowing what it is, and sometimes for your album to sound good, you have to make it sound not that good. We don’t mind being associated with distortion—we really love our first album and are proud of it. We made this record not that loud because we needed it to have the state for everything to progress. In every track, only the last 30-40 seconds are full and a bit loud. When you listen to classical music, it becomes louder and louder and more full. Maybe we will use distortion on a different record. It really just depends on what you want to do at the moment.”
Ironically, while the warped sound of † stuck out remarkably in 2008, Audio, Video, Disco is one of the most straightforward-sounding records of 2011 compared to the wealth of chillwave-influenced bedroom producers and reverb-laden lo-fi artists currently in vogue.
“I don’t know if it’s a trend or not, but I think you just want to mix it in an honest way,” says de Rosnay. “We like the idea that if you make bedroom music, it sounds like bedroom music. You wouldn’t record something in a big studio and then make it dirty so you make it look like it was produced dirty. Now the record sounds exactly like the environment we made it in.”
A lot of that music is designed to blend in and springboard off of the things it evokes (whether a real setting like the beach or just memories) to complete its full effect. But Justice’s music demands to be the center of attention, which is only compounded by their art director So Me’s eye-popping videos (full of sincere appreciations of corporate logo design and vivid primary colors), unfailingly leather-jacketed press photos and the majestic 3-D cross that adorns their album covers. De Rosnay doesn’t beat around the bush: “We like the imagery of rock and roll.”
“The way we look, or the clothes we wear, is not calculated or whatever,” he continues. “The anonymity of electronic music is not something that is a concern to us because we were born in the late ’70s and early ’80s. When we discovered it, electronic music was already mainstream, since early ’90s electronic music is pop music. So for us, the political side of it—the fact that you have to be anonymous by hiding your face—was something that was removed for us. It’s just pop music, and you know the face of the guy that is making it. At the same time we try not to overexpose ourselves because we are not Mick Jagger.”
My apology for coming across as implying Justice’s look is calculated is cut short by de Rosnay. “But of course part of it is calculated. I mean, since the invention of records, you’ve had to put an image on music. From the moment you accept to release a record, you have to accept to choose an image for your music—and in that sense we paid a lot of attention to our visuals, our videos and everything. We are just mixing what we would like to see and what we would like to own. It is just really fun to do and we get involved, so that part is calculated, in the sense that we pay attention to it and take a lot of pleasure in it. But it is also spontaneous.”