Here's a pet theory: when Moby released Play in 1999, he basically killed electronic dance music. At the time, that album seemed like the genre's crowning achievement, a multiplatinum breakthrough that would usher rave-inspired music into every corner of society. Because all its songs were licensed for use in television commercials, that's precisely (and perversely) what Play accomplished: it cemented electronica as the perfect form to sell cars, khakis, and computers with. When Play became the soundtrack to consumer capitalism, it sucked the invention and rebellion right out of the genre.
In their past lives as graphic designers, the Parisian duo of Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé–collectively called Justice–learned all about the advertising industry, about how it can turn even the most stirring works of art into sterile commodities. In this ad-saturated era, anyone making conventionally beautiful art runs the risk of seeing that work become indistinguishable from the stuff marketers use to sell their wares. Under those circumstances, perhaps the only option left is to create objects so abrasive and misshapen they can't be easily consumed.
That seems to be the philosophy behind "Waters of Nazareth", which appears on Justice's recent debut album, (the title being an image of a cross). That song, a hit single in hipster-dance circles last year, sets what sounds like a pneumatic drill against shrill organs and a lumbering backbeat, reimagining dance music as a form of industrial brutalism. When Justice's label manager Pedro Winter recently told the Guardian that his Ed Banger Records roster was "making distortion musical[and] making noise funky", "Waters of Nazareth" is precisely what he had in mind.
"We want to create some new standards of what we think is beautiful, or what we think is listener-friendly, or club-friendly," says Justice's de Rosnay, reached at his Paris home. "That track, when we first played it, people were not dancing and it was not working at all. But at some point, people started to like it and then it became a standard for a really specialized style of electronic music. For us, to make something non-conventional, to make something totally ugly is a way to create new options and standards for what is seen as friendly music."
In theory, that rhetoric sounds almost avant-garde; in practice, though, de Rosnay and Augé are primitive to the extreme, about as sophisticated in their methods as the Ramones were. The recipe for the average Justice track goes something like this: take one near-deafening synthetic riff, bathe it in a vat of beery distortion, set it to a backbeat, and dust liberally with uncut coke. It's a formula that's about as subtle as a punch to the face–and that, says de Rosnay, is entirely the point.
"The main thing I learned from graphic design is not to attach too much importance to beauty and skill and technique, and to always give more importance to simply communicating the main idea," he explains. "We are not the best producers ever; we just try to have one simple idea for every track. Sometimes we make tracks with just noise and distortion; it doesn't sound really friendly, but it's stronger because only the main idea gets through."
It's no overstatement to call Justice songs like "Waters of Nazareth" and "We Are Your Friends" generational anthems; both are anarchic and catchy, carried along by a kind of primal momentum that fills dance floors with a healthy mix of indie rockers, rap heads, and dance fanatics. Just about the only music fans Justice seems to turn off are house and techno purists, whose developed palates are simply overwhelmed by the duo's crude bombast. Playing the Frenchmen's music to these people is like serving chicken-fried steak to a roomful of foppish gourmands: once they've finished choking it down, they'll shit all over the chef.
"I cannot fight against the critics because it's true: we don't have a big background in dance music," de Rosnay allows. "In fact, we don't know anything about it. But this is exactly what excites us about making music. We don't know that much about how to write music or how to produce music, but it's so fucking exciting to create things without knowing how until you find your own system and your own ways of making stuff. I think this is what makes a big difference at the end."
In truth, it's not so much that Justice is totally ignorant of dance-music history; during their DJ sets, they always spin records by classic Detroit and Chicago artists like Inner City and Phuture. But the producers came to those songs only recently, having first heard dance music when most everyone else their age did: during its brief heyday on the radio and MTV in the late 1990s.
"We discovered electronic music when it was already mainstream, with acts like Chemical Brothers or Prodigy or the French equivalent, Daft Punk," says de Rosnay, 24. "At that time, we could not really see the difference between these types of music; it was just all one future music for us, because we were just kids. For us, it was all a new kind of rock 'n' roll.
"We discovered Daft Punk with 'Around the World', when they were already pop," he continues. "This is what links us to these bands–we are making music with computers and electronic equipment, but we hope it just sounds like modern pop music."
That's Justice, then–a pure pop spectacle. When, for example, they play Vancouver this weekend, the Frenchmen will be flanked on-stage by two ceiling-high stacks of Marshall amplifiers. Those amps are powerful icons, drawing Justice closer to AC/DC than to Daft Punk. But here's the thing: the amps are just props, empty boxes. In a way, they're like Justice's music itself, a middle finger to anyone who takes their dancing too seriously.
Justice plays a sold-out Commodore on Saturday (October 13).