Going Dutch – Gilb’r on leaving Paris and dropping his debut solo album 25 years on from the birth of Versatile
“The city has something a little tough, hard and aggressive about it” says Gilb’r of the French capital
Photos: Raymond van Mil
Gilbert Cohen – or Gilb’r – looks comfortable. With a beaming smile etched across his weathered face, the Versatile Records founder and Chateau Flight mainstay relaxes into the battered old sofa that dominates the living room of his Amsterdam home. “I’m very good thank you,” he enthuses when Juno Plus enquires about his mood. “My experience of the pandemic was pretty good actually. I’ve been DJing for a long time and the lockdowns allowed me to have a break and also step back and think about what I was doing, and what I would like to do. It was a pretty cool moment to me.”
Six years have now passed since Cohen made the momentous decision to leave Paris, a city whose underground dance music scene he was an integral part of for well over a quarter of a century and start a new life in the Netherlands. In some ways, the move made perfect sense given the cultured eccentricity and sometimes freewheeling nature of the Amsterdam scene. Even so, many others in Cohen’s position would have settled for a life in the Parisian suburbs and the familiar surrounds of a city that had been his home since 1991.
“Firstly, I moved for love,” he says with a smile. “Also, I have two kids and they’d grown up so I had a chance to move if I wanted. I also felt like I was done with Paris. The city has something a little tough, hard and aggressive about it. At that moment in my life, I was looking for something more smooth, more cool. For me, moving here was the best decision I’ve made.”
When he made the move, it brought to an end a remarkable musical love affair with his adopted home city. Cohen grew up down south in Nice, first falling in love with jazz, soul, rare groove and hip-hop before embracing house and techno in 1989. After beginning his DJ career locally and promoting a few parties with friends, he decided to up sticks and move to Paris. It was a smart move, not least because his job with Radio Nova – a legendary, ad-free radio station famed for playing a broad range of music (think jazz, hip-hop, reggae and world music) – provided an exciting musical education.
“When I started working for Radio Nova, my mind was blown by the different types of music that I’d never been exposed to before,” he says. “People around the world would exchange homemade tape recordings of shows on the station and the mix of sounds Nova played influenced so many people. One of those was Nicolas Chaix, who sent in a tape of his bedroom productions. He didn’t have a television so spent a lot of time listening to the radio and Nova in particular.”
By the time Cohen received Chaix’s tape, he was one of the station’s most popular DJs. He was responsible for Nova Mix, a three-hour Saturday night extravaganza in which he progressed from soul and rare groove to house, techno and jungle. Chaix’s cassette, which was labelled “I:Cube”, landed in Cohen’s lap just as he was about to launch a Radio Nova record label with his then DJ partner.
“It was almost a mystical moment when I first listened to Nico’s tape,” Cohen remembers. “It wasn’t just club tracks – there were lots of slow jams, some trancey stuff and even some hip-hop. That was exactly what I wanted my label to be, so I signed him up.”
Cohen never launched the Radio Nova label. Instead, he split with his DJ partner due to “ego differences”, quit his job with Nova and told Chaix, who he would soon start making music with as Chateau Flight, that he was setting up a label alone. Thus, in the summer of 1996, Versatile Records was born, with release number one – I:Cube’s ‘Disco Cubizm’, backed by a now legendary remix by a then little-known local duo called Daft Punk – becoming a surprise underground anthem.
‘Disco Cubizm’ and the label’s follow-up, Cheek’s ‘Venus’ – an early Cohen production – landed at a moment when the dance music press in the UK was hailing the new filter-heavy disco-house sounds of Paris – what soon became known as “French touch”. Cohen was a key figure in the Parisian electronic underground at the time, but never felt part of that movement. In truth, he wanted his label to surprise people, not just provide loopy house and techno club cuts.
“I was a bit afraid of sticking to the funky house sound because that was never the point of the label,” Cohen asserts. “So, for the third release I asked Arnaud Rebotini to do a more electro, new wave influenced record as Zend Avesta, with a cool remix by Erik Rug. I really wanted to signify to people that we weren’t just a house label.”
In the 25 years that have passed since then, Versatile has built up one of the most interesting, off-kilter and inspired catalogues of any long-serving electronic music label. Dig through the discography and you’ll find everything from sci-fi techno, mutant electronica and drum & bass (Cohen was one of France’s leading D&B DJs in the late ‘90s and even released one of the country’s earliest mix CDs), to Afrobeat, kosmiche, ambient and wayward Gallic disco. Central to it all has been the relationship between Cohen and Chaix, and to a lesser extent the label’s studio in Paris, which continues to be used over 20 years after they established it.
“To have a studio was a game-changer,” Cohen says. “It allowed us to have total freedom, to be there as long as we wanted and to invite as many friends down to hang out and collaborate as we wanted. Our studio has always been a place of experimentation and it has definitely shaped the label’s sound as so much was recorded there. I should give the studio a catalogue number because it is so central to our sound!”
It would certainly be a fitting move in the year that Versatile turns 25, an anniversary Cohen and Chaix have yet to fully mark. The label is arguably in as good a shape as it has ever been, even if its releases are perhaps not as high profile as they once were. Cohen is more than happy with this though, thanks to what he perceives as the changing attitudes of listeners.
“The last five or six years we’ve finally reached a place musically where we always wanted to be but was difficult to achieve,” he agrees. “I think it took the audience quite a while to arrive where we are now, which is having the musical freedom to go from techno and house to pop remixes and bands like Zombie Zombie. We’ve finally reached the zone.”
The two constants throughout have been Cohen and Chaix, with the latter’s records as I:Cube and the pair’s work as Chateau Flight peppering the Versatile catalogue. In recent years, Cohen’s solo productions as Gilb’r – not to mention fine collaborations with the likes of DJ Sotofett and Ariel Kalma – have also begun to appear more frequently. It seems fitting then that he’s chosen the label’s 25th birthday to finally reveal and release his debut solo album, On Danse Comme Des Fous.
“After I moved to Amsterdam I had to deliver somehow, to go in my own direction and develop my own ideas,” he says of his recent creative revival. “Maybe if I stayed in Paris I would not have developed as a producer as I was comfortable just working with Nicolas – he’s so good and made it so easy. The big change for me is that I have found my own way to work in terms of set-up and instruments and a lot of work away from them learning how it all works. Once I got away from the computer and worked out how to process my own ideas everything changed.”
On Danse Comme Des Fous is a very good album indeed. Blessed with a distinctively heady atmosphere and a blend of tracks that subtly encompass elements of modular electronica, blissful ambient, Cumbia/post-punk fusion, sleazy new wave slow jams and – in a nod to his roots – Bukem-style atmospheric drum & bass, it’s a set that surprises and delights in equal measure. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all though is the relative lack of off-kilter club cuts, something that Cohen has always been adept at creating.
“What I really wanted from the album was it to be something that once you listened to the first track, you had to listen to the rest,” Cohen says. “It had to be an album that played from start to finish like one piece. I did record club tracks for it, but when I tried to programme the album with them in it sounded too much like a catalogue, with a bit of this and a bit of that. Those club tracks felt out of place, so I took them out. It really is that simple.”
Most of the material on the album was recorded pre-pandemic, meaning Cohen has had 18 months of lockdowns to record even more music. Remarkably, a second album of sorts is on the way and should land later in the year. Typical: you wait ages for a Gilb’r solo album and then two come along at once.
“For months I’ve been recording my dreams,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “When I wake up, I get a recorder and recount the dream I had. I’d been working on another album and wondered what the tracks would sound like if I put these dreams on them. It worked really well and was pretty cool and fun, so I kept doing it. I am a big dreamer!”
He chuckles to himself, possibly remembering some of his odder or more interesting dreams. Our time is almost up but Juno Daily has one last question to ask: when he launched Versatile Records all those years ago, did he really envisage the label still being around 25 years later?
“Absolutely not,” he immediately answers. “It’s a big surprise and I think that I:Cube would agree. Neither of us thought the label would still be going now. It feels weird when I say it, because the label is actually older than my son!”