Cosmo Vitelli: The Genre-Defying Musician Who’s Anything But Cliche
A Frenchman with an adopted Italian name (he was actually born Benjamin Boguet), brought up partly in West Africa and now living in Germany, Cosmo Vitelli is a continually restless, elusive creative mind.
He first came to prominence around the turn of the millennium during the golden age of “The French Touch” which gave us Daft Punk, Etenne De Crecy (who released Vitelli’s first tracks), Air, St Germain and co – but his ideas were always protean, with his classic 2003 major label album Clean touching on sleazy rock, ambient, drum‘n’bass, kitsch soundtracks and other less definable sounds as much as it did the disco and house of his contemporaries.
Though he had all the platform he needed to become a major player, his distaste for big label machinations led him to focus on his own label I’m A Cliche from 2004 on.
Since then, he’s maintained a steady stream of releases of his own and others’ music, being an early champion of important names like Simian Mobile Disco and Red Axes. He also formed the rock band Bot’Ox with Julien Briffaz and has released and toured extensively, while still maintaining his career as an electronic DJ producer.
This life existing between styles, scenes and labels has clearly kept him fresh, and at 46 he’s as switched on as ever – the proof being the new compilation Bongo Beats And Bankruptcy: The Sound Of I'm A Cliche.
Over 13 tracks, quixotically released on a triple vinyl package as well as digitally, it brings all manner of diverse sounds together into surprisingly coherent form. Leaning heavily towards 1970s Krautrock and 80s electropop, it nonetheless sounds extremely fresh, and its sometimes dark and sinister atmospheres sound thrilling in these troubled times.
We spoke to Vitelli from his Berlin home, to find out a little about the unique curatorial approach that holds this record together.
I'm really interested in the tension between future and retro here. Do you think about whether tracks sound old or new? Do you try and conjure particular eras?
I‘m really not into revivals. Emotions aren’t just triggered by the fact of being reminded of something from the past. I need more, something unexpected and personal. Now, as a DJ, label manager and musician, I’m fascinated by how music – no matter which kind – is always part of its history, whether it wants to fit into it or escape from it. But what I like to hear in someone’s music or in a DJ set is the artiste’s ability to contextualise it, his/her awareness of where it comes from and which tradition it belongs to. It doesn’t mean coming up with a random mashup of genres, quite precisely the opposite of that. I think that understanding the history of music and making the effort to digest it is essential to any creative process. My choices as label manager reflect that credo. Or, to sum that up: The Cramps, yes, the Stray Cats, no.
How about cinema? Is it an influence? Maybe it's just the virus apocalypse, but driving with this album on at night certainly made me feel like I was in a movie.
Cinema, as well as its soundtracks, plays a big role in my life but often in a dissociated way. I often tend to ignore the music while I’m watching a movie and yet I can be very responsive to the evocative power of a soundtrack when I listen to it on its own. I enjoy it for itself, as an autonomous piece of work. Library music is a very good example – it was music produced “a priori” in order to fit onto images that the composers would never see. That music existed for itself. That’s why we usually know library classics as records but without the images associated to them.
Besides, I believe there is something quite liberating in the kind of music that qualifies as “cinematic” in that it doesn’t have to respond to formal standards as much as other genres do. Dance music for instance is very much subject to a standard, it has to be functional. Though I think it’s starting to bore a lot of people and I feel we’re slowly shifting to something with less structure, codes and must-dos. The compilation I’m releasing reflects that too, I didn’t want to just put out club tracks, it’s not something I’d personally like to hear as a listener.
What does "alternative" mean to you? This does feel like music apart from the club mainstream, that carries real subcultural value.
I always try to reach the biggest possible audience in whatever I do, but most importantly, I want to feel right about my choices. Yet my path tends to lead me more to the outer fringes – I’ve listened to a lot of music and now I feel the need to be surprised, even taken aback by what I hear. Sadly pop and mainstream music have become mediocre and standardised whereas it sometimes happened to flirt with the avant-garde in the 60s and 80s.
How much do you feel music like this can have national, or local identity in a globalised, perhaps homogenised world?
The national dimension doesn’t exist any longer, there’s nothing groundbreaking about claiming that. Internet annihilated local particularisms, the feeling of belonging to a community is now about sharing common taste and cultural references, whether you’re based in Wellington or Sofia. It results in lots of little “transnational” scenes and it’s quite exciting to see that some records can be equally well received in such different places.
You talk about "friends and allies" in the publicity material for this compilation – how much does this translate into feeling part of a scene?
I just used the word “scene” although I’ve avoided it by all means my entire life, pretty much like the “family” word. I think if you want to release unique and exciting music, you have to be in constant motion – knowing that today’s exciting artistes might not be as exciting tomorrow. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep releasing the same artistes over and over again because paths may differ in the long run. Take Red Axes for example, I really loved their music at the time I released it, but what they do now isn’t for me and my label wouldn’t be the right fit for them anymore.
Now, what “friends and allies” really means here is that nowadays, I only work with people I value not only artistically but also on a personal level. I don’t engage in a work relationship with an artiste I like if I feel we may misunderstand each other.
Though it’s a wide cast of musicians, it feels very coherent. As you sign each release, do you think of building a "sound world" for the label?
No, my choices are based exclusively on my taste and what I’d like to listen to, in a way that can highlight each track for itself, but also as a part of a whole body of work. I’ve also come to realise that even though I like all kinds of music, it wouldn’t be beneficial to an artiste nor to my label to release a record that clashes too much with the general aesthetics of the label. There has to be some consistency. If I release a record of French folk music, it may be a great record but that doesn’t guarantee it will meet its audience, in which case everyone – the artiste and myself – would be disappointed. So I want the label to keep some kind of identity while ensuring nothing is set in stone.
Can you talk us through a couple of favourite tracks on the compilation – ones that endure for you and you want to listen to still?
I don’t really have a favourite, I tried to keep the same level of requirement for all tracks. I didn’t choose those tracks because they have been made by friends or people I’d already worked with. To name but a few, I’m a big fan of Orestt who is little known and whose music was already previously released on my label. He couldn’t make a new track this time but he had sent me in the past a series of interludes among which “Ludisme” seemed the perfect opener for the compilation. There is also a great track by Fantastic Twins which I produced, we’ve previously worked together twice for my LP Holiday In Panikstrasse. Krikor – who I think is sadly underestimated as a producer – also provided a beautiful piece of music. There is also an original track by Volga Select which is almost 20 years old, it was a project of Ivan Smagghe and Marc Colin. And also tracks by Benoit B, Linja, June, etc etc...
What stage of development does this album represent for you? Where do you feel you are in your progress as a musician, label owner and DJ?
To be honest, I don’t know what will happen with the label. I’ve been releasing records since 15 years and nowadays I’m under the impression that releases have less and less impact. A record’s life span is basically a couple of weeks, sales barely make up for expenses and each release gets lost in the mass of music that comes out every day and that none of us is able to digest.
So before I slow it down with the label I wanted to at least put out a consistent record – a triple vinyl of 13 tracks – reflecting the music I like and that people will hopefully enjoy listening to and possibly play. Even if it turns out to be a financial disaster, hence the title of the compilation. We will see what the future holds regarding the label but for now I’m focusing on my own music, that’s my priority for the near future.
Cover Image: Pierre Wax
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs