One of the downsides of being a music journalist during the pandemic is losing the opportunity to nose around pop star’s houses. Who doesn’t want to know what kind of reading material Elton John keeps in his bathroom? Or where Dua Lipa buys her cushions?
Luckily, before our interview with Gaspard Augé, the taller and hairier member of Grammy-winning French electronic duo Justice, he sends over a folder stuffed full of pictures from his flat to show the mise-en-scene that inspired his debut solo album Escapades. There are shots of him sat in front of his record collection and a Bee Gees lightbox, while a porcelain tiger perches in a permanent roar at his feet. In another room, a full-size replica robot from 1980s Italian disco-duo Topo & Roby sits alongside a bubble wrapped ET, some 1980s science fiction annuals and a glass-figurine of Mozart’s head. Your average Ikea showroom, it ain’t.
As well as providing plenty of welcome distraction during lockdown, these accoutrements have all helped fire his sense of nostalgia. Justice are still very much an item, but Escapades is a chance for Augé to indulge his personal obsession with older music. “I guess with Justice, Xavier always had one foot in the future while I had one foot in the past,” he says, dressed in a lightly patterned Cuban shirt and oversized thin-rimmed glasses, over a video call from Paris (toys, sadly not in view). “On this album, I can really follow my instincts and try and build my own world for the listener.”
Building new worlds is something that Justice always excelled at doing. They were the duo who turned a whole generation’s attention away from rock music and towards the rave, splicing those spheres together. They formed in 2003, and first rose to prominence with a remix of British band Simian’s “Never Be Alone”, which was later retitled “We Are Your Friends’ and became one of the definitive dancefloor anthems of the 2000s. The 2007 self-titled debut album that followed was crucial in bringing dance music to a mainstream audience in America, paving the way for the EDM explosion of the late-2010s. And yet Justice were like little other dance acts, dressed head to toe in leather and denim and looking a little like a golden-era member of The Ramones coupled up with an erstwhile Iron Maiden roadie.
Similarly, their music was a heavily distorted and compressed take on electro-disco, packaged in classic rock’n’ roll iconography, which they performed in front of ludicrously large stacks of Marshall amps and a glowing Cross logo as their huge audiences pogoed wildly. Their shows made gig promoters all over the world realise that electronic music was no longer limited to nightclubs; it could fill festivals, giant arenas and stadiums.
For all their Gallic swagger, however, Justice also have a playful edge. Take, for example, their A Cross The Universe tour documentary, in which Augé married a groupie in Nevada and their tour manager became obsessed with guns. “There was definitely a little element of Spinal Tap comedy to it,” laughs Augé. “But the thing is, we knew we only had one first time touring the world as a bandand we wanted to indulge in every single rock’n’ roll cliché.” He says it’s in stark contrast to contemporary music today, where social media has completely altered how artists engage with their audience. “Now we’re lacking a bit of humour and everyone is so self conscious about maintaining their image.”
That might sound a little rich for someone who appears to have always been so style-conscious but perhaps it was about time to branch out. When the world tour that accompanied their 2016 album Woman ended, Augé decided it was time to “break the cycle” of being in Justice for a while and “finish all these bits and pieces I’d recorded on voice memos over the years”. The grind of being a huge dance act started to wear him down, too. “We’d spent almost 20 years in this cycle of spending one year on an album, six to eight months working on a live show and then two years touring it,” he continues. “I’m at a place in my life where I felt I had to get out of that zone for a while.”
While Justice leaned into their more flamboyant Seventies rock influences on their second and third albums, and Grammy-award winning 2019 live album Woman Worldwide, Escapades sees Augé fully swap the sweat, leather and cigarette smoke for full velvet-suited musical auteur mode. Recorded in two studios in Paris with producer and multi-instrumentalist Victor Le Manse, the album takes its cues in particular from Seventies film soundtracks and library music. Augé references names like Alessandro Alessondroni – who lent his skills as a whistler to Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores and who composed his own impressive body of Italian film scores and library music – as well as photo-design company Hipgnosis, designers of iconic sleeves for Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis (“I love how symbolic and surreal their work is,” says Augé).
Escapades also re-imagines baroque classical music for the 21st century. The result is a joyous slice of musical maximalism that sounds like hardly anything else around right now, in a chart landscape where stripped-back and spacious production generally seems to be the order of the day. It has an almost pan-European tone, channeling not just these Euro classical greats but the absurdity of British prog-rock and melodies even ABBA wouldn’t sniff at, while its huffing choirs only emphasise the epic dimension. Really it’s no wonder that lead track “Force Majeure” has been all over this summer’s Euros coverage.
For all its bombast, however, it’s clear from the imaginative video clips that accompany some of the key tracks that the producer still doesn’t take himself too seriously. These feature everything from a Mongolian horse rider playing violin to Augé himself (now looking a little like a Gaelic Jeff Lynne with his long metal locks trimmed back to an overgrown ‘fro) playing lead-track “Force Majeure” on a giant drum kit while cymbals featuring his name are manufactured around him. As in Justice, Augé remains straight-faced throughout but it’s never in doubt that he’s clearly having an awful lot of fun. These help convey the visual language of the music, he says. “I wanted to help direct people’s minds but leave it open and not tell people what to think,” he explains.
Aesthetically, it could be argued the album shares a similar mood board to Arctic Monkeys 2018 effort Tranquility Base Hotel, while musically you could even draw parallels with some of the more absurd moments from Muse’s back catalogue as much as anything in electronic music today, although modern music isn’t something Augé looks to much for inspiration. He has little time for what is going on in the mainstream charts and has lost interest in lyrics completely.
“In pop music right now I just feel like there’s this posturing that gets in the way of the music for me,” he says. “There’s so much ego and I find it frustrating having someone tell me a little story and [dictate] what I should feel.” He suggests that music today is too self conscious. “Everyone [is] just trying to be the coolest. I think it can be a little anti-creativity.”
Gaspard Augé: ‘I find it frustrating having someone tell me a little story and [dictate] what I should feel’
(Japser J Spanning)
The making of Escapades was, by contrast, much more creatively fertile. While Justice record largely in their own studio, using a relatively limited amount of equipment but spend days on end tweaking and perfecting sounds, Escapades was recorded partly at Motorbass in Paris, the studio set-up by his late friend, Phillipe Zadar of Cassius, with a much larger array of instrumentation on offer but a more limited amount of time.
“We were like kids in a toyshop,” he explains. “Phillipe was obsessed with design so the studio has the perfect lamps, perfect chairs as well as all of the amazing equipment. It was the perfect environment but the limited time meant I had to take more radical decisions. I think you can hear on the record that we had to work quickly and there’s an excitement and generosity to it.”
With the prog influence and cinematic largesse hinted at in Justice’s previous albums turned up to 11, it might just be the album Augé has been building up to for his whole career. “When we started out we had a punk mentality and amped up our faults with distortion,” he says of Justice. “But you lose that teenage need for aggression as you grow older. I’m not saying I’m making old people’s music but it would be a bit pathetic to still have the exact same energy I had in my twenties.”
You lose that teenage need for aggression as you grow older
Augé might even take comfort in the fact he might be following in the footsteps of some of his heroes who made their most urgent and iconic works in their bus card years – although at 42, he’s still a relative whippersnapper. And you get the feeling that perhaps his best work is still yet to come.
“Take someone like Robert Wyatt who made all this amazing music in his fifties and sixties,” Augé says. “What you lose in punk attitude you gain in mastering your craft. I guess that’s why film directors take a certain amount of time to make their masterpieces. You need time to reach your creative prime.”
‘Escapades’ by Gaspard Augé is out now on Ed Banger/Because Music