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09.01.2018 | Words by: Mathys Rennela
Photography: Anne van der Weijden


Veteran of the Parisian scene, Gilbert Cohen – alias Gilb'R – is now one of the few expats within Amsterdam's dance music scene. Head of one of Paris' longest running labels, Versatile Records, Gilb'R doesn't feel attached to any particular music style, and manages to surprise his audience with eclectic sets. He will play het Muzieklokaal this Friday, alongside Etienne Jaumet (from the French electronic duo Zombie Zombie) and Pieter Jansen.


Q: Back in 2014, you decided to move with your label from Paris to Amsterdam. What motivated this sudden change?
 
A: I had pretty much done all there is to do in Paris. It’s a very aggressive city, in which people don’t really blend together. With my collaborators on my label, we’ve always been a bit apart from the pack. At that time, I was looking for some change in my life, I fell in love with a Dutch woman and my two kids were old enough to allow me to decide where I wanted to live. It’s very pleasant to be here in Amsterdam as a foreigner.
 
Q: How did the transition from Paris to Amsterdam came?
 
A: I decided to keep our studios in Paris so that our artists can keep on working there but I manage everything else from here. I used to have an employee to manage there, and now I feel that I have rediscovered the pleasure of experimenting without constraints while I’m producing music. Besides – in Amsterdam, I already knew Tako. He and Young Marco (whom I met at Salon des Amateurs in Düsseldorf a few years ago) introduced me to a lot of new people.
 
Q: How do you perceive the Dutch scene, after a few years here?
 
A: Musically, I am discovering a lot of new things, which is great because I am very curious and not bound to a specific style. Coming here really improved the quality and quantity of music I have access to. There is a lot of competition in Paris, which might be good for things like sports, but not really for music.
 
Here in Amsterdam, it’s less competitive, and more co-operative. I can give you an example. There are plenty of people who come and go to my studio, or to the Red Light Radio and its shop, which are just below. This creates a space to exchange music easily, without having to go to another district or meet someone at the airport.

I would be happy to find some local artists. I was really impressed by Oceanic’s performance at Muziekgebouw a few months ago, and I asked him to do two tracks for an EP which was just released on the label. I also work with Suzanne Kraft, who is also settled in Amsterdam.
 
Amsterdam is a pretty living city, without the heavy atmosphere that Paris is notorious for. When I see a place like Garage Noord, which just opened, I am directly tempted to make a comparison with the scene in Paris. Opening a club in Paris is really difficult: I considered it a few years ago but quickly gave up. You need to be part of a network of powerful people. And when you play in Paris, you don’t get much more as a welcome gift than two drink tokens which look like raffle tickets. In Amsterdam, I feel that people try to make you feel comfortable, because they know that it will influence the quality of your mix and make you showcase the best of yourself.
 
I also enjoy the fact that people take more risks here, offering to DJs the opportunity to play extended sets, on line-ups which often have no headliners, and sometimes names that I have never heard of. People are just more open musically. I played at Studio 80 while it was still open; I started at 2am with fifteen minutes of music without any beats. If I did that in Paris, after two minutes, some jacked-up dude would come to me and threaten me. I remember one time I had to slap a guy in the face, because he kept touching my vinyl – yes, the record that was actually playing.
 
In Paris, I think that things have gotten worst in the past few years, there’s a real social and economic rift. When you go out, it’s 8 euros for a bottled Heineken, 15 euros entrance and on top of that you need to add the taxi to go home.
 
Q: How would you describe your style?
 
A: I like to go through a lot of different style. I truly admire people who can go through a musical tunnel and build up within the same style, but I would say that my style is rougher: in the same night, I can play some reggae, techno, funk. I am more focused on my mixing technique, the way I associate tracks with one another, rather than playing some obscure track for which there is only ten copies. My sets tend to focus a lot on trippy patterns and drums.
 
Q: Your label was founded in 1996. How do you explain its longevity?
 
A: I think that it first comes from the artists themselves. I have been working with I:Cube since the beginning of the label, and with Zombie Zombie for about a decade.
They are keen to experiment and get out of their comfort zone. Also, the fact that I do not want to let myself get trapped in one particular music style is one of the strength of the label. In a sense, it used to be one of our weaknesses: at the beginning, people didn’t really understand what kind of message we were trying to convey. I think that our focus isn’t on a particular style of music, but rather on aesthetic, on originality, on elements of surprise. Then, I also think that a huge part of the longevity of the label is bound to personal motivation: this will probably go on as long as I am motivated to run it. Weeks tend to be long and I am often juggling between producing music and managing the label.
 
Q: Your label features an interesting blend of styles, but also of people who are more focused on DJing and people who are more focused on producing. How do you manage that?

A: I think it’s really a luxury to be able to focus on production. Nowadays I see the inverse trend: a lot of DJs release tracks to promote their tour. I have a lot of respect for producers who do the sacrifice of focusing on producing. It is a (financially) difficult choice but it is a commendable one.
 
I:Cube came here a few days ago and we wrote an EP as Chateau Flight in 5 days. This is the kind of musical connection that I am looking for within my label. And here in Amsterdam, everything happens naturally: the guys downstairs left the shop open during the night so that we could come in and sample some tracks. I record and produce most of my music here in my studio above the RLR shop, and sometimes I come downstairs and we listen to what I’ve just produced. There’s a real co-operation here. I feel more in sync with the scene here than in Paris.
 
Q: What do you have in mind for Versatile Records in 2018?
 
A: Honestly it’s going to be a quite busy year: instead of releasing two albums as usual, we’re going to release 4. This never happened before. Etienne Jaumet just finished his album and I:Cube’s next album will be done soon. On a more personal level, I am trying to put some order in what I have been producing for the past two years. I have really rediscovered the simple pleasures of producing here.
 
I am also preparing a portrait exhibition called The Fluid in the RLR shop, for which I am releasing a booklet along with a CD, which won’t be released on the internet. We are planning to have a drone live improvisation with Suzanne Kraft & Jonny Nash on January 25th, a listening session with Tako & Young Marco on February 1st, and a closing party on February 8th with Orpheu The Wizard, DJ Soulseek and me behind the decks.

More information on Gilbert's portrait exhibition at Red Light Radio – entitled 'The Fluid' – can be found right here. Gilb’r will play Het Muzieklokaal at De School alongside Etienne Jaumet and Pieter Jansen this Friday, January 12th. More info on that can be found here.
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