Justice's 'Woman Worldwide' Celebrates a Decade of Music 'As It's Meant To Be'
How much time and energy does it take to achieve greatness? Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill.
Justice began work on its Woman Worldwide tour the moment it finished its third album. That was in June of 2016, five months before Woman was released, and after figuring the basics of the stage production and track list, the French duo spent six months in constant rehearsal.
The show debuted on March 23 in Bogota, Colombia. The next night, it came to Ultra Music Festival in Miami. It hit Coachella, Sonar, Glastonbury, Primavera Sound, Lollapalooza, Bestival and more. There were non-festival performances, a massive arena show in the duo's Paris hometown and even a live stream performance at Google's I/O conference in Mountain View, California.
Whenever installation was finished on a new stage, Justice stood in the dead of night surrounded by shadowy keyboards, ready to put in another two, three or five hours of rehearsal. There were day shifts too, in hotel rooms and rented houses. All the while, the show changed, grew and evolved into something more.
“We are still making everything in a very, I don't know the word exactly, artisanal way,” Justice's Xavier De Rosnay muses in thick accent. “Like, it must be perfect…It is not always good because we are very slow in making things…In our studio, (we're) just taking the time to make them, so every project we start working on takes like three or four years, but that's the way we work, and we're happy like this.”
Woman Worldwide achieved more than 30 shows across 25 months. Its listed 15 tracks feature far more of the electro juggernaut's catalog than its titles suggest. It has to be explored, layer by layer, because as tunes from each of Justice's three albums (2007's †, 2011's Audio, Video Disco, and 2016's Woman) come together in new harmony, it becomes clear that each is more than the sum of its parts. This is the look and sound Justice has always been working toward, a blistering blend of '70s prog rock, heavy metal, disco, hip-hop and early aught electronica tempered with orchestral theatrics for extra emotional oomph. It's a culmination and a big statement. It only took a decade to be able to do it.
The one thing fans can't experience on the live album is Justice's incredible light show. It builds from a single spotlight over the anticipatory chords of opener “Safe and Sound” (mashed with the vocals of “D.A.N.C.E.”) into a mind-numbing flurry of mostly monochromatic brilliance. Three-sided panels dance and move to the music above the famous wall of Marshall amps, changing shape for new impact before your brain registers they'd moved at all. Before you know it, the Marshalls themselves are lighting up, and the whole stage has transformed into a tropical sunset or the endless sparkle of the universe itself.
This shape-shifting display has long been the aim for Justice's light engineer Vincent Lerisson (affectionately referred to as the third member of the live band), but it had never been technologically possible. Justice and Lerisson personally hunted for the latest equipment, traveling to lighting expos and conventions in London and around the world. The three-sided panels that make light variations possible was the idea of Matthias Leullier, another long-time friend of the duo's who's previously worked on stunning light projects for Yves Saint Laurent and fellow French musicians Phoenix and The Blaze.
Anyone who experienced Woman Worldwide in person will find themselves vying to relive its technical splendor; the way the yellow lights sweep breakneck from left to right in time with the swinging beat on “Canon x Love S.O.S.,” and most certainly the first blinding blast for “Genesis x Phantom” that literal demands “let there be light.”
Of course, you don't have to have seen Woman Worldwide to enjoy the show's fresh, dynamic new sounds. Hearing each familiar song cut-and-pasted against other recognizable moments creates a depth to Justice's career. Who knew the iconic “DVNO” vocal would mold perfectly into the arpeggiated frenzy of “Heavy Metal?” Who else could have seen the obvious connection between 2016's lofty “Pleasure” and 2007's “Newjack” grime? Justice uses imagination as a destination, for sure.
“It's almost like a scientist at work,” De Rosnay says. He and partner Gaspard Augé wrote down every track they'd ever released. They added symbols next to each one; which songs they definitely wanted to play, definitely did not want to play, and maybe wanted only to use a snippet or vocal from.
“There was another category of symbols for tracks that we think are like big time,” de Rosnay says, “or tracks that we think are more calm, or tracks we knew are going to work wherever we play. We started sorting them out by key, because the tempo is not really important. With the lights, we can really alter the tempo, and it really doesn't matter.”
From these key groups, they saw which tunes existed in each other's sonic universe. Each song got a post-it note that moved around as the track list became set. They worked out the live compositions, started mapping it to the lights, and the grueling hours of practice began.
The show at Ultra 2017 was not the show in totality on Woman Worldwide. Neither was the set at Coachella that counted Pharrell, Frank Ocean and DJ Snake among its slack-jawed fans, the one that had 4B, Madeon, Porter Robinson and Skrillex famously head banging together in the front row. As the performances went on, Justice continued to experiment. “Randy” only appeared halfway through the tour's year-long journey, and later editions saw Justice incorporating the wicked final segment that reprises “D.A.N.C.E.” with “Fire” and circles back to the show's start with “Safe and Sound.”
“It's very different from the other tours,” he says. “This one took us a lot more time to get confident with everything and to get a result that we actually thought was good. From the first show, we felt it was good, but something that was really the whole idea, it took us little time. Right now, when we play, I don't know, maybe it's the screaming, we feel we're doing the show as its meant to be.”
It's a triumph mirrored in audience enthusiasm. Most nights when the set concludes, Justice immediately hop down from the stage to high five the mind-blown masses. De Rosnay famously climbs into the crowd to stand on the hands of the front section. It's classic rock star machismo not often seen in 2018.
“Ten year ago, we were on tour, and I saw an image of Method Man, of the Wu-Tang Clan, playing live and walking on people shoulders,” he laughs. “I just saw him doing that and I was like 'Okay, wow, this is cool,' and I'm like a light weight, so to do it is not too complicated. It's like a straight rip-off of Method Man, but it's a fun way of meeting the first row people, and it takes good pictures.”
Performing the show is tricky. First of all, De Rosnay and Augé have to actually stand under those whirling, heavyweight machines. Then they've got to focus on the array of synthesizers and samplers spread out in a semi-circle around them. Fans watch as they move as if choreographed from piece to piece to bang out the set, breaking only to light cigarettes or strike intense poses while demanding roars of applause with their silence.
“If I think too much, and I'm too self conscious, I'm going to make mistakes, and if I'm not focused enough, I'm going to make mistakes, too,” De Rosnay says. “From the moment we walk on the stage, I kind of black out. I become like an automatic pilot … then I start getting back into my own body and start watching the scene … At festivals, there's always at least one guy at the first row that has been there for too long, and maybe has a bunch of booze during the day, and he is really crumbling. He looks almost on the verge of dying, and then when you start looking at this guy and thinking about it, you start getting out of focus. Maybe for two seconds I'm going think of something else, and those two seconds are going to feel like 10 minutes because the time is a bit distorted … this is when I'm going to start making mistakes. it's difficult to find the right balance of concentration and focus, and at the same time being relaxed enough.”
You won't hear any mistakes on Woman Worldwide. For that matter, you won't hear the roar of the crowd. Justice's previous two live albums, A Cross the Universe and Access All Arenas, were purposely recorded in the style of bootlegs or pirate recordings.
“They were both recorded the most natural way possible,” De Rosnay says. “We kept all the mistakes and all the things that were recorded wrong, because we really wanted for the listener to have a good representation of the energy and of the mess when you go to one of our live shows. We just wanted to offer something different this time.”
Justice recorded every live set of this tour, then went back to the studio to study each recording, picking and choosing the best moments from each. Just as it did with the track list mash ups, they painstakingly reconfigured the live set to become the best possible representation of the musical vision, then they mixed each part for perfect clarity, so fans can truly enjoy each layer of sound.
“We really wanted to put this music out because we loved it,” De Rosnay says. “We thought it was a good statement for our 10 years anniversary of when we first released an album and start touring. We put a lot of synth and a lot of bass, and because it's already longer than the other ones, one hour and a half, we wanted the sound to be as soft as possible, and smooth, so you have a good experience listening to these songs through to the end.”
Sadly, Woman Worldwide is the beginning of an end. The tour comes to a close at Austin City Limits in October. It's your last chance to experience the tour in its full, unbridled glory, but all ends are doorways to new beginnings.
“You have to imagine, when we're on tour, we listen to 'Safe and Sound' and 'Stress' maybe 2,000 times,” De Rosnay says. “When we finish, we are happy to try other things and not record the same style of music. Maybe that's why our albums are so different every time. We've been with this music for a long period, and we want to do other things, so it's always a new chapter anyway. Maybe this time even more, we want try new things and it does feel like a new beginning. We're alright with this album as a good year of closing the first 10 years.”
But in the immortal words of Justice's own lyrics, “nothing's ever stopped.”
Woman Worldwide is available now across streaming platforms. You can listen to it below, and if you're feeling extra misty-eyed, check out the retrospective audio-visual website in celebration of Justice's first decade at tv.justice.church.