Interview by Esther Adler Photos by Eilon Paz
love tango; Tango comes from Argentina; Eilon’s parents come from Argentina; I love Eilon; Eilon loves his mother; Eilon’s mother loves tango; Eilon gave his mother a CD of Philippe Cohen Solal’s Gotan Project—a tango group with beats, breaks, and samples. Eilon and his mother listened to it together in Israel; I listened to it alone in Paris. They loved it; I loved it.
Years later, the lovely Eilon gave me the opportunity to interview Philippe Cohen Solal about his vinyl collection (really?? Oh yessss!!), which was essentially a conversation about bonding and love…
When we arrive at his apartment in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, Philippe is wearing his grandfather’s Borsalino hat from Tunisia. His home-office-studio is casually decorated with color, exquisite taste, and humor. There are many instruments—a guitar, bass, banjo, keyboards, harmonica—and vinyl of all sorts line the walls. He points out a few scratched up covers—the naughty work of his daughter’s cat. Each piece of vinyl in Philippe’s collection evokes the warm atmosphere of his home. Many are gifts from special occasions, given to him by family, friends, friends of family, lovers, pets, family of lovers, family of friends, friends of pets… As he pulls out the record from the sleeves, often he finds more than just the vinyl—the address of a friend, a birthday card, a phone number, little notes of endearment, autographs, an unexpected black and white photo of the Sex Pistols—all are memories of sharing, giving, receiving, bonding, growing up, and being open to anything and everything.
Philippe’s current projects illustrate his passionate curiosity for music and for people. He collaborates with such versatile artists as Malian afro-pop singer, songwriter, and producer Salif Keita, Marina Abad of Spanish group, Ojos de Brujo, and Erol Josué, a voodoo priest from Haïti. Philippe once worked as a radio DJ and as an A&R man at Polydor Records, which put him in close contact with the artists and musicians whose records he collected. His would often have these artists sign his vinyl, and he has since ended up with a rather impressive collection of autographed albums. There seems to be a fascinating story behind every record in his collection, and he generously shares these fantastic details with love, energy, and vulnerability.
Do you listen to music while you work?
Yes. On the turntable right now is a record by R. Stevie Moore, which he autographed for me when I interviewed him for a radio station in the ’80s. Actuel magazine called it “the best album of 1984 by far.” It sounds like Frank Zappa.
What was your last purchase?
The Mississippi Sheiks, a blues band from the ’30s. The people at the Third Man pop-up store in California advised my wife to buy me a couple of their releases as a present. Also the Jack White-produced Detroit rapper/ producer Black Milk and rock band JEFF the Brotherhood.
I’m a fan of Third Man records. I love Jack White and his attitude towards vinyl. He doesn’t surrender. He believes you can still bring back the vibe of a record, but not only out of nostalgia, because that would be boring.
Another recent addition is Rufusized by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan. I loved it as a teenager, so I bought it again recently. It belonged to my sister. I hated all of her records except this one and another by Stevie Wonder. Her taste was too musically correct. I was into punk music. I was lucky that my father had a friend who owned a hi-fi equipment store. He would get records the same year they were released in the US, which was rare in the ’70s.
What was the first record you ever listened to?
My father bought Aftermath by the Rolling Stones. I still have the original copy. I love the entire album. Especially “Mothers Little Helper.” I would jump on my bed and play air guitar on my badminton racket. As a child I didn’t speak English, so I would sing it with French words. I thought I heard them sing about a 14th century French knight we had studied in history class. I heard “du Guesclin” instead of “They just don’t appreciate that you get tired.”
What were the first 7-inches you bought?
When I was seven years old, my parents took me to my first live show—Michel Polnareff in Clichy. I got so hooked by the melodies that I spent all the pocket money my parents gave me for my afternoon snack—French holy 4pm “goûter”—on 7-inch records instead. 7-inches were more affordable than albums. My first 7-inch was Sébastien et la Mary Morgane, score of a TV show about a child staying with an old uncle. Of course Michel Polnareff followed; in 1973 my sister gave me “Ca n’arrive qu’aux autres.” In the ’90s, I interviewed my childhood hero in Paris and then we met again L.A. Michel Polnareff is a great melodist but he was a bit weird. He invited me for dinner at a restaurant and told dirty jokes the whole evening. At the beginning it was funny and then I got exhausted. Some of the first records in my collection were Brigitte Bardot’s “Harley Davidson” and The Rolling Stones’ “Got Live If You Want It!” EP (purchased in Amsterdam at my favorite record shop there—Concerto). The Osmonds was my second show when I was 10 years old. Their hit “Crazy Horses” blew me away.
Sébastien et la Mary-Morgane, Brigitte Bardot’s “Harley Davidson,” The Osmonds’ “Crazy Horses” b/w “That’s My Girl.” “The white Mormon Jackson 5 TV series for children and a sex symbol for kids and grown ups—an eclectic early start.”
What was the first album you bought?
The Beatles. Or rather, “Les Beatles.” I bought it at the Inno department store in Paris, a special edit for the French market.
What is your “comfort record?”
A record I bought for my father’s 41st birthday in 1973—Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. My father was a big fan of jazz, so I thought he would enjoy this music. But I bought it for him so I could listen to it too! Marvin Gaye was not alone when he did it. He was inspired by the superior forces. He said he felt he was a transmission instrument of God. He had never felt like that with any other record. This record makes me feel calm, warm, safe. It is an album which is very much grounded, but has a connection with the higher powers. On this album, Marvin Gaye wanted to be the opposite of his Motown stereotype, which was “the sexy lover.” You can see that on the amazing cover art. He’s standing in the rain, in a backyard, with what looks like kids’ toys in the background. Marvin Gaye fought for a year with Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown records, to release this album. It was an instant hit. “What’s Going On” is my favorite song, but every song on the A-side is a masterpiece. I met a sound engineer in Nashville who had the master tapes. After lengthy negotiations, he finally gave me the separate master tracks, and that’s when I discovered the alchemy of What’s Going On. It’s based on the congas. He also brought people in the studio to talk and laugh and would record those conversations.
“When I listen to this record I believe in God.”
On Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On
What’s Going On had a huge influence on me. Since then I have always been looking for the soul music in every style. Black music is not the only soul music. Tango is the soul of Argentina. Bluegrass is the soul music of white America.
What were some important records for you as a teenager?
James Brown’s “Super Bad.” And thanks to my Dutch mother, I got the chance to listen to Herman Brood & His Wild Romance. He was once the boyfriend of Nina Hagen and one of the Dutch artists that I loved. I bought his album Shpritsz. My parents once bought me a portrait of Prince, which Herman Brood painted with his own hair stuck to it in 1984. That was before he killed himself by jumping off a building. My sister bought Elton John’s “Your Song.” For once I approved of her choice.
Do you own complete collections of any artists?
I was 11 when we moved from Clichy to Paris and I discovered Ziggy Stardust. A friend of my sister didn’t like it and she gave it to me as a present. David Bowie is more than a milestone in my musical life. I have more than one of every album of Bowie; I also have many bootlegs. The Next Day is the last one, which came out in 2013. I also have a reissue of his 1971 band Arnold Corn. I love his cover of “Wild is the Wind,” written by Dimitri Tiomkin. I have some side-project albums such as David Bowie Narrates Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Do you have a favorite Bowie album?
Apart from soul music, which musical styles do you feel marked your youth?
I was into prog rock for a long time. My best friend’s father was a pilot for Air France and in 1973, he brought us The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Between Nothingness and Eternity when it was just released in the US! It was a shock. John McLaughlin changed the course of my musical taste and from there I headed straight into jazz rock. I have a lot of Mahavishnu records.
Also, from age 12 to 14 I was in a band with two friends. We were panhandling in Paris—in the Latin Quarter and would play the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, making as much money as 100 francs a day. I was playing the guitar and Vincent, the son of medicine professor Jacques Benveniste, was singing. He had lived with his father in San Diego for a few years and sang in perfect English. We also started composing. I was into experimental music for a long time. Soft Machine’s Six was also an important album for me during that time. It was 1973, I was 12 years old and had started to smoke hashish. When I smoked I loved listening to Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn. Also a band called Go—conceived in 1976 by Stomu Yamashta (percussion and keyboards)—which also included Steve Winwood (vocals and keyboards), Al Di Meola (lead guitar), Klaus Schulze (synthesizers), and Michael Shrieve (original drummer of Santana). And Soft Machine’s Third, which I bought when I was 15 when I was staying at my Dutch uncle’s place in Amsterdam during the summer holidays. He was working in the Red Light District. He owned a karate school in the same building as La Casa Rosso, a sex theater. When I arrived, he introduced me to the important people in the street. He told the Hell’s Angels and the pushers: “This is my nephew— protect him!” The Hell’s Angels’ bar was scary, but when I walked alone everybody was greeting me on the street.
“My uncle would give me money to go to prostitutes. He would ask me, “How was it?” and I would say, “Great!” But I was actually spending all the money at the Concerto record shop, where I spent all my time. I was more interested in music than sex.”
Soft Machine – Six and Third. “An example of doing the split in a musical career. With the exception of Robert Wyatt, two of the other Soft Machine members produced most of the advertising music in the UK.”
The first gig that I went to alone was The Who. I was 14 years old and they were playing with Keith Moon at Les Abattoirs de la Villette. An important album for me at the time was Magma Kobaïa—French jazz rock with a special language from another planet called the “kobaïan.” When I was living in Jerusalem, I asked a guy to make me a copper pendant with their logo.
What were you listening to when you were living in Israel?
When I was 15, I saw an ad in the Jewish press, Tribune Juive, that you said you could complete your French high school degree in Israel. So I traveled to Israel on my own to attend the French high school in Jerusalem. I was listening to Matti Caspi’s second solo album the entire time I was there and still, every time that I travel to Israel—where my sister and parents now live—I listen to it. Just before leaving for Israel, in 1977, I went to Harry Cover, the only punk store in France, in the Les Halles neighborhood of Paris. It was founded by Michel Esteban, the future boss of the NYC-based New Wave label, Ze Recordings. There I discovered the Sex Pistols‘ Never Mind the Bollocks.
“Never Mind the Bollocks changed my taste in music. It was the only time in my life that I sold some of my records—some Beatles albums. I thought, I will never listen to this shit again.”
At the time punk was not so widespread in Israel. There was only one punk in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem. I was the one in Jerusalem. I cut my hair, dripped blood (from a bleeding nose) on my white shirt, gave a concert at school where I joked about concentration camps with a song called “Treblinka Oh Sweet Treblinka,” which presented the camp as if in a travel brochure. I was kicked off the stage by the school manager, then expelled from the school and its residence. It hurt my pride. Patrick Modiano’s La Place de L’Etoile, with its satirically anti-semitic content (not yet published in English), made a big impression on me. I slicked back my hair with pomade, drew a number on my forearm, and drew a swastika on my arm. I wanted to appear as if I was two people in one—a Jewish anti-Semite. When I left school, I went to a yeshiva. But my best friend said that he had found me in bed with a 14-year old Greek girl who had fled her home and family, and so the yeshiva expelled me. At the time I was listening to Kraftwerk—I still have the original copy—and to Herbie Hancock’s Man-Child and Donna Summer, but in secret!
In Israel I went to a kibbutz near Ashkelon called Kokhav Michael, which had a big Argentinian population. I don’t know if that somehow inspired Gotan Project years later.
Do you listen to Jewish music?
Oh sure. In my collection you’ll find diverse styles of Jewish music: Giora Feidman Jewish Soul Music, Matti Caspi, old-time Zionist Pioneer songs, Shlomo Bar, The 9th Hassidic Song Festival, and many others.
What are the main influences behind Gotan Project and your music label, ¡Ya basta!?
When I came back to Paris at age 18 I met my future wife, Prisca. Her parents had two albums by Astor Piazzolla—Pulsación and Histoire du Tango. I became a fan. Piazzolla 77 also inspired me. 1977 was a good year for records. Also 1973.
Almost twenty years later, in 1998, Eduardo Makaroff came to my office with a dancer of boleadoras (like a Gaucho variation of Poï). He was looking for someone to produce the music for his cabaret show. It was too tacky for me to consider, but he gave me a CD of Domingo Cura’s Tiempo de Percusión, a percussionist of Argentinian folklore.
I went, “Wow! Eurêka! Let’s mix Piazzolla, Domingo Cura, and electronics!” The first Gotan track I composed, “El Capitalismo Foráneo,” is a mix of urban tango in the style of Piazzolla and folklore percussions, and contains a sample of a speech by Eva Perón from the record El Peronismo en la voz de su líder that someone gave me in 1999. I added some background sounds to give it some depth of field, such as a train passing and dogs barking. I was listening to the demo in my headphones in the Tuileries gardens when I heard the dogs and thought it was a great mix.
In terms of tango, I love Carlos Gardel, Aníbal Troilo’s ¡Otra vez Pichuco! recorded in the ’60s with songs composed in the ’40s, and Nuestro Buenos Aires with Roberto Goyeneche. Tango in lunfardo (slang from Buenos Aires) is called Gotan. In the ’60s there was a club in Buenos Aires and two Argentinian bands from the ’70s also called Gotan.
The other huge influence is electronic music. Between 1986 and 1989 I was A&R at Polydor Records and I signed a New Beat record. When I was 28 years old I would listen only to techno and house music, but this time I didn’t sell any of my record collection!
Still to this day, the inspiration for my music label ¡Ya basta! comes from the Brian Eno and David Byrne masterpiece, My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, which mixes beats, ethnic music, and radio voices.
How about film scores?
My interest in film scores also came very early. When I was nine, in 1970, I was a big fan of Western movies so my mother took me to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
What a fantastic movie! You can still watch it now; it hasn’t aged. She bought me the soundtrack single by Burt Bacharach. For my mother’s birthday in 1965 she got Zorba the Greek. Later, Michel Legrand autographed The Thomas Crown Affair for me!
Which record makes you think of someone special?
A film score. Fellini’s Casanova composed by Nino Rota. It reminds me of love and sex, of my ex-wife—the mother of my daughter. After she had once compared my style in bed with that of Casanova, we would listen to it when we were making love. The music relies on a glass harmonica, which was banned by the Church because it was thought to be diabolic, to make women hysterical.
What are some of your most prized records that have been autographed?
Herbie Hancock’s Man-Child. I bought this record when it was released in 1975 and I interviewed him in the ’80s. Also Kraftwerk, the Astrud Gilberto album, Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus” and Love on the Beat. The first time I interviewed Gainsbourg he had just split with Jane Birkin. I had the chance to spend a whole afternoon alone with him at his place. And as mentioned before I am very proud of the autograph of Michel Legrand on The Thomas Crown Affair.
What are some of the strangest records in your collection?
Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart’s band The Faces’ Ooh La La album with its moving eyes and mouth. Poesía Sexual Latino Americana, which was recorded in a milonga in Buenos Aires. I would play it live at Gotan shows. Los Gauchos Judíos—composed by Gotan pianist Gustavo Beytelman for a 1975 film. The embarrassing Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. I have an album by La Cicciolina [the Italian porn star and politician] but I don’t remember where it is…
And what about rare records?
Music of Africa by Agawagi African Musicians is a very rare album, impossible to find. The first show I went to in Clichy when I was 7 years old was a Michel Polnareff gig. He arrived super late and so the first act—Agawagi African Musicians—played a long time. I thought, “Was this band really from Africa?” It was the first time I had heard African music.
Also, Lemon Jelly’s “Soft/Rock,” an unofficial release pressed on pale blue 7-inch vinyl in a denim sleeve that also contained a condom. “Rolled/Oats” was another unofficial release pressed as a gold picture disc in a Hessian bag.
Bee Gees’ Odessa was initially released in 1969 and came in a red flocked cover with gold lettering of the group’s name and a label symbol stamped in gold on the front and nothing but the flocking on the back.
After the tour of Philippe Cohen Solal’s collection I felt as if we were coming back from a round-the-world tour, enriched with a new world inside us. We had made the acquaintance of many warm and sometimes eccentric characters, heard a new language, learned the local history, and discovered connections between different worlds, styles, and countries. And Eilon returned with a wonderful set of photos.
Philippe and many other vinyl collectors are featured on the Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting book.
Please consider purchasing the book and continue your support of the Dust & Grooves project.