Philippe Zdar of Cassius: a personal tribute to a creative genius and visionary

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Wandy, Phillipe Zdar, Damo and Leo

Following the news of the untimely death of Philippe Cerboneschi, one half of Cassius, Getintothis’ Damo Jones offers a personal tribute.

I was devastated to learn of the sudden and untimely death of Philippe Cerboneschi – also known as Philippe Zdar, one half of Cassius – last week.

He was just 52. Along with Boom Bass, they produced many great tracks including My Feeling For You, 1999, and of course their classic La Mouche.

Philippe’s career also saw him evolve into a stellar producer, working with a broad range of artists.

The original La Mouche has stood the test of time well. The DJ Falcon remix resonates strongly too, compared to other iconic and banging French house tunes from that era (eg Running, If I Ever Feel Better, Mothership Reconnection).

And I have played it a lot these last few days in remembrance, just to be sure. I think the dance version of La Mouche certainly defined its time. It was unifying during so many-sweat-soaked moments at the club night we founded called Chibuku Shake Shake, whether that was at The Lemon Lounge, The Masque (now Arts Club), or an after or after-after party somewhere in the city.

Sometimes it felt as though we were only dancing or DJing our way toward that climax, right until the first beats rolled in – and then absolute bedlam followed, with people hanging from the ceiling (this actually happened in The Lemon Lounge), tops off (we were pioneers in some ways), and a wide-eyed seismic chemical shift in the room, nerves fulminating and hearts racing.

It’s a track I will forever associate with a golden era; I was still at university in a fantastic city and exploring its night life, experiencing a first real connection to music, and co-promoting a club night which people actually wanted to go to.

Being part of something nascent and embryonic was, during those halcyon years, pretty special, and we were all lucky to have been a part of it.

Cassius defined the early days of Chibuku, and they quite literally helped forge many enduring friendships from us all raving away, formative moments on dance floors or huddled in corners binding us together.

When Charlene, Will and I started Chibuku, the city’s club scene was in flux. Purely by chance (we were students who loved going out, but were not exactly mercenary promoters), it came at a time when a lot of people were sick of the super-clubs, whose days were slowly numbered and the taste for big room experiences had dwindled away.

There was a desire for intimacy again. And at the same time Chibuku was born, French house was emerging as a real force. There was Daft Punk and Etienne de Crecy and Thomas Bangalter and DJ Falcon and Fred Falke.

There was Roule and Crydamoure. And there was Cassius. The club’s foundations were built on their filtered sound, and French house’s DNA was filtered through them. French house felt fresh and new and novel, far away from plodding prog house, cheesy disco and trite trance (though I always had a soft spot for Paul Van Dyk’s For An Angel)

In Cassius, Philippe used to mix on vinyl. He didn’t always tease mixes in; instead, he joyously chopped between the two, then gradually merged tunes together, with Boom Bass adding in some effects for good measure.

It was raw at times for sure, but always with a blazing energy and a generally faultless taste in music. And always with the right track at the right time. Their pace rarely dipped.

When they came to Liverpool to play, they were courteous and funny and had no sense of ego. Meeting your heroes can be anticlimactic, but they seemed to understand how much they had helped shaped what the club’s foundations really were. We got to know Pedro Winter too – aka Busy P – who was their manager and also a DJ, and he played as well.

Cassius posted a video not so long ago from the Annexe at Cream, from 20 years back, at Bugged Out! (one of Liverpool’s other seminal parties, and one which did big room clubbing so well). I had always said that it was one of my favourite nights ever, with Lottie, Layo and Bushwacka!, and the final 2 hours from Philippe and Boom Bass.

It sent a shiver down my spine when I heard it, and I saw myself there at the end of the clip, dancing badly (alas, some things do never change). I would do a lot if I could go back in time to that night with my friends, or to when Cassius first came to Chibuku, maybe exchange a piece of my soul just to taste that freedom again, that abandon, that release.

The pure escapism some rare nights give you, when there’s an esoteric magic rippling through the air. In the clip Philippe punches the air with glee as their meaty bass line kicks in, for La Mouche caught the magic of the moment like nothing else quite could.

Liverpool Arts Diary: David Nicholls, Leviathan, Pavarotti – July 2019

When I heard how Philippe had died I thought of DJ Medhi too, who passed away in similar tragic circumstances at an even younger age. Both horrific ways to go. When you are young you can get away with more.

And we certainly did, the impunity of our youth fuelled by a combustible mix of exuberance, kinship and experimenting, sound-tracked by a mix of French and US house and techno each weekend. The risks you took then didn’t seem to matter.

There was no effect from the cause, except moody weekdays as your body recalibrated until the next time. Spending a night in a club could feel like a week – in a good way, that is – as time shifted elastically, expanding in unexpected ways. Those times when your life was a map yet to be fully charted. When there was so much you had to do, so much you wanted to achieve. The possibilities felt endless.

So for Philippe, dying in middle age still feels especially cruel and saddening.

A creative genius and visionary who still had so much (love) to give, who was still DJing and producing, a modest figure who had a majestic French touch – working with everyone from Phoenix and the Beastie Boys to Kayne West and Franz Ferdinand.

The impact of Cassius’ debut album 1999 caused a profound shift, in the same way Daft Punk’s Homework tore up the rule book. It’s made me think how you need to always cherish what you have, and always remember the people who give you those immutable moments, whether loved ones or people through whom you had a connection, indelible memories hardwired.

You can’t take life for granted, for its vagaries are always there, some pathways opening and others thorny and overgrown. You can muddle your way through to the end if you’re lucky, as you grow older, for the scope narrows with each year – or life catches you out anyway.

Winding back here is deep into the depths of nostalgia and sentimentality.

Those days of youth you will never get back. It takes time to feel actual nostalgia – you can’t just make it.

I will probably sound like a dinosaur here, but those were the best days musically I can remember, with the best friends and the best times, sound-tracked on many occasions by Cassius, by La Mouche, and by Philippe Zdar.

RIP Philippe.

Damo’s debut novel, A Singularity, is out in two weeks. Follow him at: @damo_sj

 

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