To fans, Gilbert Cohen, AKA Gilb’R, and the cohort of artists inextricably linked to his Versatile Records imprint probably seem like lynchpins of the French scene. In actual fact, they’ve almost always remained outsiders, weirdos plying their trade on the fringes of electronic music. This is all obscured by a long and fruitful career spanning a quarter of a century, one that undoubtably confirms Cohen’s place in the pantheon of musical veterans – I:Cube to Young Marco, Terry Riley to DJ Sotofett, the list of talented individuals he’s worked with reads like a who’s who of innovative producers and musicians.
Even after twenty five years of making, playing and releasing music, Cohen’s still finding new ways to remain creative and inspired. Moving to Amsterdam certainly helped and it wasn’t long before the Paris native was fully integrated into the scene, setting up Versatile HQ within the premises of bonafide local institutions Red Light Radio and Red Light Records. To achieve this kind of longevity and still remain relevant on so many fronts is almost unprecedented, and with Cohen destined for London this weekend to play Baltic, a newly-founded non-profit donating money raised from ticket sales to selected charities, we sat down with the man himself to delve a little further.
Hi Gilbert, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. How’s 2019 treating you so far?
Pretty good. I decided to make some changes in my studio and work in a different way than I used to. Also I plan to travel for myself this year. I am turning 50 this year and realised it’s been a very long times since I took some time to think and look back (not in a nostalgic way). That time has come in 2019.
You once spoke about how you’ve “rediscovered the simple pleasures of producing” upon moving to Amsterdam. What inspired this? Is it the pace of life, the attitude of the people?
It’s definitely a combination. I am staying the in the Red Light complex, which is really inspiring as there is a lot of energies mixing and some people became also friends of mine. There are two record shops, a great online radio station, some other friends have their studios around… I’m happy.
We jam sometimes, and just this, I haven’t done in Paris in ages (except with my crew), and they are inspiring (which I missed in Paris). I also set up a small studio on my own, pretty much as a home studio but yes, I rediscovered the pleasure to produce, the way I have started. Just for the pleasure of it, not necessarily to release things.It is essential for me. We also recorded some music with Ariel Kalma here, and Sotofett was around too. Also my dear Jonny Nash and Suzanne Kraft…
Your studio is located right above Red Light Radio’s. How much, if at all, has the community surrounding Red Light made an impression on what you do?
I guess I answered this one. It’s all about energies, generosity, curiosity and fun.
Would you say the adventurous nature of the Amsterdam scene currently suits you well? Seems like the perfect fit on paper.
Totally.It’s been 4 years now that I am living here.It just went super natural and I came along with many people here.Some new guys(like the Garage Noord boys)and some more old friends, like Tako from MFM or Young Marco. There is some crazy line up for dh’s I don’t even know, and some great concerts all the time (like the recent John T Gast appearances at Butcher’s tears’ small venue – he’s already played at least three times but I don’t think he’s ever played in Paris).
The most recent release your credited on came as an assist on the recent Honest Jon’s release from DJ Sotofett & Maimouna Haugen. What’s the genesis of this long-standing collaboration you’ve enjoyed with Sotofett?
Friendship,adventure,common taste for many things. The genesis is actually quite funny; I remember booking Stefan at the Rex club a long time ago, he said okay, if I stay at your place for three days and that we do music. I thought it was quite ballsy as we never met, but it turned out to be an amazing gathering and I think we both appreciate to do music together. We both like the disco and the weird.
It’s been close to four years since your last solo outing. Can we expect anything from you and you alone in the near future?
I have been recording some stuff the last two years. I am gathering them at the moment. So yes, some music will be out in 2019.
Pepe Braddock, I:Cube, Joakim; Versatile has released music from some of France’s finest. Is there compatriot whose music you would have loved to release? Anyone who got away?
Honestly, not really, it’s also nice to leave some for the others. More seriously, the output of the artists on the label is amazing; Cube is at his top level, this is just incredible. I don’t know ow he can achieve this. Etienne Jaumet is more spontaneous and a live guy, while the new signing Antoine Kogut is also great and bring touch of pop that I was missing. His latest album, Sphere of Existence, went a bit off the radar, but I really believe he will do good for the future..
That said, you’ve previously mentioned that you and some of the Versatile artists always felt like outsiders to the wider Parisian scene. How come?
I think it’s a mental state of mind.Looking back, someone like I:Cube is definitely not an outsider.But he doesn’t have career plans do I. I’ve been DJing for a very long time, and have crossed many genre to play out; I started with hip hop, then I was heavily involved in the drum & bass scene for years in the ‘90s. What I mean is that I could have had easily stick in one style, but it’s just not me. I need to be true to myself and with the people… which I think can feel this. That’s whys guess, I am still playing today (which I never thought I would) and running the label since 1996 (which I also never thought I would).
I:Cube has been involved with the label from the very beginning. How did you first cross paths?
He sent me a k7 when I was working at Radio nova in the early ’90’. Surprisingly (or not) it totally matched the vision I had for my label… For the rest, it’s hard to say what bounds ties us, but after all those years, for sure there is… It’s nice that some stuff remained mysterious…
Following last year’s Dam House EP, can we expect more Chateau Flight material from the two of you any time soon?
We made a remix for Antoine Kogut that will be released in two months. As we like to be in the same room when doing music, it has to happen. Not being in the same town doesn’t help, but the essential strong musical connection remains. We will do music together again, the most important is to keep the vibe alive. When I heard the last EP we recorded, I doubt about [releasing] it after just five days…
The sampled gathered for that release were discovered on a late night digging session at Red Light Records. Did you go in there with the intention of making a record?
Actually, my studio being one floor above the shop, I’m there everyday. It wasn’t a plan to pick some records, it just happened like that.We always loved to put samples material anyway, but those gave us some tracks to get started. Nicolas just came over as I wanted, and obviously it turned into studio frenzy almost straight away.
Citing Lil Louis, Jeff Mills, Maurizio and Kenny Dope as major influences, why do you think you’re drawn to the sounds of the North American Midwest?
Coming from an hip hop background, this is quite obvious. All the music I was listening when young was American. My interest for the Euro producers came in the early 2000. Back then, except some people (mainly in England, Germany or Italy) all the good stuff, when it comes to dance music was American. Even nowadays, for me hip hop = America, the rest are vague copies. New Jersey house is from… etc. I also like this ghetto lifestyle.
You’re known for playing really wide-reaching, eclectic sets. What can people expect at Five Miles on Friday?
This I guess..i always prepare my sets among my moment mood. I haven’t played in London in a long times I really hope this would be a nice gathering.
Can you give us a couple of records that haven’t left your bag in a while?
25 years going strong, Versatile is one of the longest running electronic labels about. How do you think you’ve managed to stay relevant? Any advice to upstart label owners on how to achieve similar longevity?
I am the most surprised that it has run for so long. Be true to yourself, be exigeant and get the most talented artist that you can and give them nice surrounding to work. Don’t compromise.
How does it feel to still be releasing music from and with old friends after all these years?
Weird. The examples I see around me, people are getting dry artistically-wise as the years go by.
It’s doesn’t seems to be the case here, so I hope it will remain like this. When it changes, or when I will get bored to go and play a gig, I will stop it.
And finally, what does the rest of the year have in store for Gilb’R and Versatile?
So much stuff! Next are the Antoine Kogut remixes (featuring Chateau Flight, I:Cube, Flegon, Raphael Top Secret), the Pop Sympathie (a follow up of Vidal Benjamin’s Disco Sympathie) compilation of obscure French sweet wave, a pair of Etienne Jaumet dub 7”s with versions from his previous album, a new double techno “12 and an album from I:Cube, plus more…
Gilb’r joins Kiara Scuro at Five Miles, London on February 8th – buy tickets here.