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Sub Rosa: Label Profile

img  Tobias Fischer

There are labels with a distinct sound, an instantly recognisable design, a single release philosophy. Sub Rosa is not one of these labels. Founded in mid- to late 80s Brussels by Guy Marc Hinant (pictured) and Frédéric Walheer, Sub Rosa is more like an idea, an approach, a way of seeing the world through music. Its catalogue, a fascinatingly multi-branched organism, has proven remarkably resistant to trends, hypes and technological shifts - or, as Hinant drily puts it: "We’re not part of the record industry." Rather, the Sub Rosa discography resembles the growth of a giant tree, continually expanding and branching out, but always springing from the same seed, the same passions. Over time, three offshoot-sublabels have formed  as well as various series tracing historical and conceptual developments within certain areas of the musical soil, which in turn have formed yet more sub-sections. The label has covered sound art and early electro-acoustics, contemporary composition (with a particular focus on the work of Morton Feldman) as well as electronica (a brief stint in the 90s), fresh new work as well as significant re-issues (with a vinyl edition of Francisco López's seminal La Selva just one of many examples). Mainly, however, it has followed the subjective interests of its founders. Which is not to say that there aren't any rules at work here. "Actually, we have a list of seven criteria", Hinant tells me about the selection process for a new release, "And Fred and I know what they are." He's smiling as he's saying this – but that doesn't mean he'll let me in on the one thing that might give the mystery of Sub Rosa away.

Sub Rosa was started at the end of the 80s. Can you tell me a bit about what preceded the founding of the label?
We were still students when we founded the label. Sure, the early-to-mid-‘80s was a pretty exciting and innovative period: to see Cabaret Voltaire, WS Burroughs and Joy Division on the same bill, The Pop Group opening for Pere Ubu, PIL ... not to mention the electronic music surge that came later. But to me it’s all related – with R&S Records who published Aphex Twin, etc. There was an undisputable breach with established rock bands. And, also undisputedly, punk had rocked the boat, but here post-punk was more important, and for a while it created something unique, to the point where you were forbidden to remain a spectator: you had to become a participant. And that’s what many did. I should point out to all who weren’t there that the eighties also were among the crappiest years ever. The sound became terrible, just all-around shallowness. It was far from cool. What I’m saying is, amidst this abomination there were a few gems, and we found them.

Sub Rosa’s first seven records – the backbone of the project – was the Myths series, with four thematic volumes – the first one featuring WS Burroughs and Mark Stewart of the then-disbanded Pop Group – and three EPs. This set, as a whole, was supposed to establish the label’s mythology. I am particularly fond of series – unique unrelated objects don’t speak to me. Only relations can create meaning.

You've mentioned that you've been more influenced by film than music. In which way, concretely?
As a label, we’ve never been trying – like most labels – to bring forth a music style. Each time we’ve gotten close to that, we immediately sabotaged the trend. We’re too curious, and our curiosity constantly pushes us toward unknown, at times counterproductive territories. If you arrange all our productions in a single file, you probably won’t be able to see the direct link between them, but there is an invisible red thread. And this link follows an indirect form of logic in relation with the various series that intersect. Why did I mention the influence of filmmakers? Probably because of the fact that when you’re writing, it’s preferable to find your inspiration in music, or in literature for a painter, etc. Direct filiation is often a sham. Art that becomes self-referential has no chance of lasting. And I am a filmmaker, that’s my training, and that’s what I’ve been doing in parallel since the very beginning. Fred, a trained designer, has always been very interested by the object in itself. That is a key element for us. Each record must be an object that we want to keep, like a precious book – not precious in itself, precious to us.

Between 1988 and 1992, Sub Rosa seems to have been a bit more quiet. What was this period like and what was happening behind the screen?
At the time there was a dichotomy between Sub Rosa’s clearly experimental music – music in motion – and a surge of more “listenable” electronic music, and what some found more “listenable” (this kind of renewal) was rejected by Sub Rosa’s most hardline supporters. That’s when Quatermass was started, and both labels worked side by side (Quatermass was run mostly by Fred Walheer; he released records by Spectre, DJ Wally, Music AM, Sensational, ...). After a few years worth of explorations, all our forces were brought back to Sub Rosa. A fundamental of sorts – and a way of life for sure.

Sub Rosa  did reflect on club music and experimental electronica in the later part of the decade ...
Yes, after our early days – a slightly grandiloquent era tied to the high opinion we had of our label – we started to focus more seriously on what was going on in electronica. That was our contribution to the era: Scanner, Lilith, Tone Rec, Japanese artists like Bisk, Yoshihiro Hanno and Rom=Pari, the records around Gilles Deleuze with input from Oval, Robert Hampson. .. (although many of these editions kept their independence from that trend). But there was at least a focus there. And that was the only time we did focus on electronica.

In 2002, you started your renowned Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music.  What were some of the motivations at the time?
After a period of pure discovery and study, then through how we accompanied the emergence of electronic music, which we advocated and pushed all to way to our beloved Noise, we felt a need to investigate further into the history of this music. So, inevitably, we started to explore the past as deeply as we’d explored the present. The Anthologies express our desire for history, i.e. to combine what can be found in every musicology textbook and what is seen as garbage. Both brought together in an a-chronological framework. At the onset I announced seven volumes. I had thought of this number as a reference to our first seven records. It took me 12 years to get to the end of the project. These volumes represent close to 18 hours of music, and they took me to absolutely uncharted areas. And the beauty of this series lies in the fact that it also has an end. As a comprehensive survey, it is both closed (what is is, I won’t change or add to it) and open (it’s a base for exploration). I have had several guides, but Zbigniew Karkowski is the one who pointed at the largest number of trails. I think of him every single day.

The concept of the avantgarde has changed quite considerably over the time you've been active. What are your current thoughts on the idea and its relevance?
The unique avantgarde – like it was from the ‘50s to the ‘70s – is an untenable position. Today, we have multiple possible explorations, and some of them are related to one another, while others aren’t. Each artist must create or reactivate the history they find worthy of them. Don’t settle for what is being given; to explore the past in a thorough and detailed way can offer alternatives to a too conformist era – and it is infinite in itself, since what is new is naturally what one can tie to what one knows, and that springboard is dear to us.

The Sub Rosa back catalogue is almost a world onto itself. Can you name  some of your personal highlights and favourites from the catalogue and why you feel strongly about them?
For you to call it a world moves me – that is also how I see the catalogue: a world, fragile and heterogeneous of course, but a livable place, a space where one can breathe. This area is not only being built by our productions and us, but also by all the people who follow us. They’re like our community. I call them the “irregulars,” and without them there would only be a string of ideas, an empty shell.
As for favourites ... Everything we’ve been releasing in the past three or four years, the new series Early Electronic, which promises to be fascinating, since we won’t limit ourselves to drawing from known catalogues – so many works have never been released, and bringing them to people’s ears is a useful endeavour and quite a thrill in itself. I’m deeply interested in everything that’s on the brink of dissipating and being forgotten. In the past, the record we did with William Burroughs clearly was a step in that direction, and then the records with rare documents, and later the 1920s blues music records, the Buddhist music recorded by John Levy in the ‘70s, Charlemagne Palestine’s piano recordings from the 2000s, and the Anthologies of Noise and Electronic Music are our classics. But putting records aside to highlight others isn’t in tune with the Sub Rosa philosophy. We always focus on the ensemble, not inner differences. All our records don’t have the same level of intensity, and that’s what’s good about them.

How would you characterise the interaction with the artists - how deep are you involved in the musical process through deliberation and suggestions, in the artwork, mastering and other aspects of an album release?
Each project is its own adventure. Some are our doing entirely; in other cases, we simply accompany the artist and make sure the result will be a Sub Rosa record and not something that could come out elsewhere. There is also a design chart managed by Fred. So it varies between these poles. When we feel like a project could be published by us, we never get involved in the artistic process.

Sub Rosa is still based in Brussels. What's your take on the music scene of the city today?
Brussels is a medium-sized city in Europe. If we are working here, it is purely by chance. That’s all I can say. To come from here is like being from Dublin or Bilbao; we’re outsiders. Trends are forged elsewhere. But it so happens that we’re more interested in building a community than making or following trends. There’s probably less pressure and intensity here than in other cities around us. Brussels is not a hub, and that has always been the case. We presented a series of concerts in the recent past, at Café Central and Ateliers Claus, but we never managed to master the art of event producing. We’re too busy producing records, at the cost of everything else, even promotion I’m afraid.

What does a typical workday for Sub Rosa look like?
Once again, the man on top of all this is Fred; he is the one running the label on a daily basis. His duties run from production and design to inventory management. He is the one dealing with our distributors and online customer orders. Our inventory, which we try to maintain at a manageable level, is located in his basement. As for a head office, there’s only my office and his, and nothing else. Our overhead costs have always been very low: just two laptops and an inventory of CDs and LPs, and that’s it. There is no sharp distinction between Sub Rosa’s operations and our lives. It’s all intertwined. Gabriel takes care of managing audio operations proper, and they can range from recording to mastering. Stephane Ginsburgh advises us and manages part of the Unclassical catalogue. As for myself, I work on the artistic direction of our various collections; I’m responsible for maintaining their coherence and, I guess, their relative obscurity. I am also a more physical connection between Sub Rosa and the musicians, the authorities when need be, and in round tables, lectures and conferences. I’m the spokesperson.

The DVD releases, to me, are one of the things that make Sub Rosa unique. What are your plans for this part of the label for the future?
I am responsible for these films, as co-director with Dominique Lohlé and producer. These films are a long series of intimate portraits of composers and captured music. It started in 2000 and ended – in this approach – with Whisky Time, our portrait of Charlemagne Palestine, and Ghost of Silence, the performance by Ictus’s Tom Pauwels of Fausto Romitelli’s electric guitar piece TV Trash Trance. We produced 18 documentaries under the name OME or sub rosa OME. And now we are on the verge of a new series. Cycles end like that, either as the result of their initial design or through lassitude of what one can achieve without taking too many risks. Once you reach that point, you need to start anew, always, with everything.

GMH, Brussels, February 2014

Homepage: Sub Rosa Recordings