Versatile, as the name suggests is a label that’s eluded categorisation for all of its twenty years in existence. From the first I:Cube release, born out of the very same French House scene that introduced Daft Punk to the world to “Cham”, a Gilb’r and Sotofett collaboration which marks the label’s latest release, there’s a wide range of sonic expressions that encompass the label over the course of its existence and yet there’s something deeply entrenched in everything the label is and connects all the dots between I:Cube’s “Yes Mama” and the Latin percussive brooding Technophile House track that is “Cham”.
Versatile’s roots is intertwined with its owner Gilbert Cohen (aka Gilb’r) who, while working alongside the likes of Ivan Smagghe at Radio Nova in Paris, set forth to start a label after hearing the production work of I:Cube, one Nicholas Chaix. What was to be a Radio Nova imprint soon became Cohen’s passion project and with the first release “Disco Cubizm” a template was set in which Versatile was established. The label came at a time and in an environment that gave rise to a Parisian sound that would quickly take the world by storm, and saw Disco Cubizm become an instant underground success. There was the obvious connection to what was happening around them at the time, with Daft Punk on remixes duties for “Disco Cubizm”, but at the same time Versatile established its own path very quickly. Listening to I:Cube’s “Picnic Attack” or Chateau Flight’s “Puzzle” you come across a timelessness that many of their contemporaries have not been able to achieve in the same way. There’s a deepness there that even artists like Joakim with tracks like “Come into my Kitchen” embody and transcends trend genre and styles. From fully fledged bands like Zombie to Zombie to the two DJ/artists at the centre of the label Gilb’r and I:Cube, very little is left to explore in Versatile’s extensive discography and in its twenty years it’s achieved some remarkable success while staying firmly rooted in an underground frame of mind.
Today Versatile’s appeal is universal and unanimous amongst dance music enthusiasts regardless of their predilections. So what does it mean for a label like Versatile when it reaches a twenty-year milestone and how does it keep things interesting for itself as it continually evolves? It’s questions like these we asked label head Gilb’r over email, and he obliged by giving us further insight into this remarkable label celebrating its twentieth anniversary with us – something we can ponder on while Gilb’r and Jan Schulte join us this Wednesday for Øyvind Morken’s special Øya Natt Untzdag residency.
Your celebrating a landmark 20 years of Versatile with us. Other than the obvious durability of the label, what does that anniversary symbolise for you?
Weirdly, it’s a kind of reset. 20 years is a long time (even though it passed so quickly). I’ve been working with some artists for a long time, and it is interesting to see their evolution over the years. I’m also happy to be talking to different audiences today. Some kids that were just born when I started the label, I now see at the gigs I play.
How have you seen Versatile evolve since that first I:Cube release?
Totally. If you don’t evolve, then you die. It’s a rule of nature.
If I stuck to the “french touch” filter thing, we would have disappeared, for sure. I think the label slowly opened to other types of sounds. It started very “floor” orientated and when Zombie Zombie, Jaumet or Joakim (even he’s not on the label anymore) joined, it opened me to other styles of music. Also, the fact that we have a live band on the label, which actually comes from the indie scene, gave us some new perspective and freedom to release more in an open and diverse way. And it was mutual – I never thought Cosmic Neman (Zombie Zombie drummer) would ever play Techno or put a DJ set together, which he is doing today.
I:Cube has been the common denominator throughout its existence. How has artist developed alongside the label, and how has he shaped what Versatile is today?
My meeting with I:Cube is almost unreal. He was the 1st signing, and at first, he represented what I wanted to do with a label. We also made some music together as Chateau Flight, and which was very fun, deep and intense in the studio every time. We had a lot freedom. I wish we’d recorded everything. Sometimes, before a track was completed, it went thru 6/7 completely different versions.
He shaped what the label is today by constant work. Basically he has a very unique universe and he actually shaped it so much. I love what he’s doing today. He’s all around from trippy Techno to rich ambient stuff, from distorted Disco to solar House music. I’ve rarely seen someone, after such a long period of production, still being able to push his own boundaries. Every time I receive any new music from him, I wonder what I’m gonna get. In my DJ sets there is maybe 15% of unreleased music from him.
And how has the label shaped you as an artist?
I don’t see a common point between those. What shaped me, as a producer is the people I met on the way and who I’ve worked with.
The label’s releases are quite broad ranging in style and even genre. Was there ever a sonic aesthetic or ideology that you’ve wanted to particularly capture with Versatile from the beginning?
It’s more a mood thing, my mood. So it is very empiric and presents music in one category with some ramifications. I have been trying over the years to link sensibilities together. I can sometimes listen to a new-wave beat and production and find it very very funky, where some old friends of mine, that stuck to disco or funk think it’s glacial music…
Radio Nova seemed to be quite an incubator for future talent during your residency there and I know Versatile was supposed to exist initially as a Nova label. What importance do you place on that period and environment for the development of Versatile?
Basically, Versatile is the consequence of all those years I stayed and worked there. Those people completely opened my mind. I arrived from Nice, with some ears and not too much culture, and I left there after 5 years, with some amazing meetings with musicians, cineastes and I had the chance to have mentors that played me so much stuff. That’s also the place where I had the chance to work on my DJ skills daily. Thanks to Jean-François Bizot. RIP.
The label and the artists it’s released seem to stay anchored to their underground roots, where many of your contemporaries ventured into more popular avenues. What’s been the key ingredient that’s kept it all grounded for you?
Maybe not to have success (I mean commercially). I always thought our music could have a much wider audience, but if after all those years it didn’t happen, it must be for some reasons, which is totally OK. I don’t see any of the artists on the label doing something they wouldn’t assume to do. Even though some wouldn’t be wholly against being bigger.
Yes, I imagine that must be the artists too and one artists that has continually been cropping up on the label, and one you’ve also collaborated with on other labels like Honest Jon’s is Sotofett. We’re curious, how is it that you two found each other?
I didn’t collaborate with Honest Jons, I collaborated with Sotofett. I met him through I:Cube who suggested I book him maybe 6 years ago, for his release party. It didn’t happen then, but I booked him later at the Rex. The man said ok, but I want to stay 3 days and go to the studio… I found it weird and gutsy so I accepted it. And I found a very good friend and someone I’m very connected to, which is rare. Every time we see each other, we do some music together and that’s very refreshing to me.
He’s on Cham too, the latest release from you and Versatile. Can you tell us a little about how those tracks came together as this mixture of dark brooding whining sonic elements alongside the Latin percussion and Techno beats?
Simple. We were playing at De School together in Amsterdam – All night long. Sotofett stayed at my place. I had those tracks for a while and I couldn’t finish them. I proposed Sotofett to jam them in my studio, and 4 hours after we had those 2 versions. Pretty much as they were recorded. I always work better when my mind is challenged.
What’s it like working with the mysterious and enigmatic figure of Sotofett in the studio?
Super fun and free.
Versatile also recently released a compilation celebrating its twenty years. What did you most enjoy about the process of putting that together with I:Cube?
The fact that we could look on a large period and also the fact that Cube has been in charge on selecting the older stuff – avoiding the “big tunes” made me rediscover old gems.
They were all highlights from the discography, but was there any, one track that was particularly special to you?
It would change every week but I really like the Jonathan Fitoussi and Clemens Hourrière – Five steps
It must have brought back great memories for you. What is one of the happiest moments from running the label for you in the last twenty years?
The 15 years anniversary in Paris has been magical, really. I’ve never seen so many smiling faces – from the DJ’s to the audience. And there were more than 2000 people and maybe 12 DJ’s!
And where do you see Versatile in the next twenty years?