“We want to keep shedding light on unknown things, on music people tend to forget even exists.” How Sub Rosa sifts through the chaos of experimental electronic music

Founded in 1984 by Guy-Marc Hinant and Fred Walheer, Brussels-based label Sub Rosa occupies a near-mythical place in the hearts of committed fans in search of music that doubles as historical artefacts. With a catalogue of releases numbering in the hundreds, and its series of anthologies gaining cult status amongst obsessives for whom liner notes are just as important as the actual compositions, Sub Rosa can be seen as the lifelong work of two tireless anthropologists intent on giving little-known producers their due in the annals of obscure experimental music. We sit down with Guy-Marc – currently in the process of bringing the finishing touches to his latest film about Charleroi – in the label’s Schaerbeek headquarters to discuss Sub Rosa’s first release, which featured no less than poet provocateur William S. Burroughs, achieving unity in production and why seven is the label’s lucky number.

Prior to any mention of Sub Rosa, both 
Fred Walheer, the label’s other co-founder,
 and yourself were involved in music…

Indeed. By the early 80s, I had moved from Charleroi to Brussels to study at INSAS, the National Institute for Arts and Broadcast. I then met Xavier Stenmans (known as Xavier S.)
 who was the singer in a punk band called Thrills. From my earlier musical experiences in Charleroi, I was still in touch with Alain Neffe, who would later go on to found Insane Music, one of the first underground cassette tape labels at the time. We decided we had to do something together. It was pure improvisation and we never did the same track twice: we’d do a few short sessions then Alain would spend some time listening to it all over again, extracting what he thought was interesting. This was Pseudocode, a project that only ever released one album (1982’s Europa) and really only existed for 18 months.

And then came Sub Rosa…

We were still students when we launched the label. I had met Fred through friends we had in common and, at the time, he was involved 
in his own project, Kaa Antilope. Fred grew 
up in Liège but moved to Brussels while still a teenager, where he spent most of his formative years. He already had his own network in place in Brussels and we had a lot of interests in common. We bonded and quickly came up with the idea of bringing together some disparate recordings and releasing them as an object, something that would be more than just your average record. To be honest, there was no talk of launching a label back then though, we were simply interested in what was happening music-wise at the time, getting into even the most obscure of sounds. We had met William 
S. Burroughs, were in touch with the English avant-garde as well as the post punk scene so decided to release a first record focusing on what you’d call the origin myth. We ended up asking four people – Mark Stewart + Maffia, William S. Burroughs, The Camberwell Now as well as Martyn Bates and Peter Becker – to provide
 us with four pieces which led to the release of Myths – Instructions 1 in 1984. The record was pressed in Belgium, and paid for with the money we had at hand. It was an object that you could not only listen to, but also read and look at – conceived as a complete project and aimed at creating another reality. It was not meant as a classic “band” release. We were more interested in accumulating fragments of sound reality, which became our modus vivendi and which is still how we work to this day. The money we made was re-invested in the following records and so on.

There are so many angles covered in your catalogue, do you feel some kind of educative duty with the label?

We might have an educative role but, if we do, 
it’s not done on purpose and has never been our main objective. There have been, so to speak, many different eras in the Sub Rosa catalogue. We started with avant-garde music in the late 80s, going on to taking a closer look at contemporary electronic music in the 90s to then embark on an in-depth exploration of electronic music history in the 00s.

The infamous Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music series, which you released between 2002 and 2013…

We started compiling anthologies simply because they did not exist back then but at its core the idea was rather ambitious. The anthologies include well-known historic works, yet there is an order in these pieces. I knew from the beginning that I did not want it to be limited to one record, it would have been too much pressure to deliver 
a complete and representative masterpiece right from the start with just one release. And I love the idea of series. So I went for this “achronologie” approach, this absence of chronological view, mixing long pieces with short ones, not editing anything and trying to find some truly exclusive tracks. When we released the first volume, I was asked how many volumes the anthology would include, which is when I decided there would be seven. Similar to the Myths series, seven volumes for the seven letters in Sub Rosa. I stuck to that, and kept digging for hidden gems, which proved to be an enormous undertaking, each volume roughly representing 80 minutes of sounds, with the last one being even bigger.

He told me he became familiar with Sub Rosa as a student and the whole diversity of our catalogue made him realise he had to live this whole music experience for himself, which led to him moving to Seoul – all because of us, he said.

It sounds like a Herculean task.

It was a vertiginous process. And one which says a lot about technology. In the late 50s, you could find complete listings of published electronic works year by year. Nowadays, technological developments have changed all that. It is easier than ever to record music, meaning that the actual volume of music produced keeps getting bigger and bigger. While many artists and producers from the past will forever remain unknown because they never got the chance to record their works, we are now moving towards multiplicity and a different type of anonymity: the sheer volume of new music is getting so big that no human being could pretend to know it all, never mind listen to it. The whole situation at hand has changed and you simply have to accept this idea of “non-knowledge.” To give you an example, the last piece of the anthology is an anonymous one, which says a lot.

There are more than 400 references in your catalogue, what’s your work rhythm like?

We quickly realised that, working with small pressings – most of our initial pressings are 500 copies – we needed a certain quantity of releases each year, roughly 20, to keep going. That’s also the reason why our catalogue is organised and distributed in collections. Short of that, there’s no way the average listener would be able to get his or her head around what we do. If you simply look at some of our records in a record shop, it would be hard to find any links between some of them apart from the fact that they were all released by Sub Rosa. This is where this filing, this organisation is essential to really grasp everything we do. To take an obvious example, our collection of anthologies only includes anthologies. Yet, even this collection is organised internally: it features the seven volumes of our Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music but also country-specific anthologies, such as the Turkish or Chinese anthologies of experimental music. The Captagon Years collection only features Belgian artists – such as Digital Dance or Etat Brut – and is focused on a specific timeframe, but it also includes a compilation, Punk in Brussels 1977-1979 underlining the fact that all these releases are linked geographically. The Le Cœur du Monde collection gathers all our releases related to ritual music and field recordings, while, for example, the New Series Framework focuses on avant-electro. Once you know what you are looking at or what you want to listen to, it all falls into place. There is an internal logic to every single collection and, to a certain extent, there are also interactions between each of the different collections.

How do you share the workload between Fred and yourself?

Nowadays Fred is more into management and I’m more into production although, back in the 90s, Fred was the only one of us working (part-time) on the label, while I was working as an assistant film editor on my end. This is probably when the label evolved from being a dedicated hobby to becoming a proper record imprint. We had good contacts, efficient distributors and our releases started gathering interest. I became once again much more involved in the label at the time of the launch of the Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music in the early 90s. Fred has always been the most involved one of us in the day-to-day running of the label. He is also the one dealing with distribution, promotion and other commercial and more business-like issues.

Sub Rosa is perceived as a reference label by a 
lot of people, what kind of feedback do you get, if any?

We only have indirect contacts with the people who buy our records. Apart from a handful of direct messages we receive, we do not have that much feedback on our productions. I’d say that, although you know your releases will bring a tiny change in some people, you don’t really witness it directly. I don’t really know for sure how the label is perceived from the outside. We know of course that there is an interest in what we do, if only because of records’ sales, but direct feedback is a rare occurrence. It’s a bit of an opaque process really. There are a few exceptions, like this young French man I met in South Korea. He told me he became familiar with Sub Rosa as a student and the whole diversity of our catalogue made him realise he had to live this whole music experience for himself, which led to him moving to Seoul – all because of us, he said.

What would you consider to be the label’s biggest successes?

We work far removed from your classical music realities. Sales and promotion work are very different for us. But if I had to answer your question, I’d say that our biggest successes were the anthology, the spoken words by Burroughs and a few classics linked to electronic music such as Early Electronics.

What I like about Belgium is that it’s not a nation, it is a hybrid construction. We are based nowhere, we live at a crossroads, where people come and go, in a very cosmopolitan environment.

You’ve been busy with Sub Rosa for more than 30 years now, what’s next?

Keep going, reflecting on what has been done, and continuing. We’ve just released Selected Soundworks by A. Weerasethakul, a
 film producer from Thailand. It is an old-ish project which finally made it to life, and we are incredibly proud of it. We want to keep shedding light on unknown things, on music people tend to forget even exists. We keep digging, even into our own work. There are projects such as Paul Bowles or Ira Cohen that we only ever released on CD and that we will re-work in order to release them on vinyl. It’s a bit like revisiting the legend of Sisyphus sometimes, we can even end up revisiting our own releases! I would also like to keep focussing on traditional and ritual music, especially pieces recorded in the 60s and 70s, because I think even the way these were recorded makes them worthy of documentation.

Are there any projects that you dreamed of but that never materialised?

No, we work according to our possibilities and what’s feasible for a structure like ours. We create from what we are, and in this regard,
 you can’t really fail. That being said, I would have loved to host more shows, set up our own place, a venue where music can be discussed, played, talked about and where films can be shown. There is still the idea of our own Sub Rosa festival which would be a hybrid of various different events, and I’m confident it will happen one day.

As a Belgian label, how do you relate to Belgium as a territory? You have, for example, released a compilation focussing on Belgian punk.

What I like about Belgium is that it’s not a nation, it is a hybrid construction. We are based nowhere, we live at a crossroads, where people come and go, in a very cosmopolitan environment. Sub Rosa is indeed Belgium-based, the Belgian government has proved very supportive of us, helping to finance some of our releases, so in some way it reinforces our link to the territory. On the other hand, we have always distanced ourselves from the local music scene, have never really developed any specific Belgian affinities and simply do our own thing.

Will your work with Sub Rosa be complete one day?

Not as long as we have the energy and the desire to move forward, and be delighted with it. There are ongoing projects as well as chance encounters that keep us going, such as the latest release by Sylvain Chauveau, which was a bit unexpected. Fred and I are complementary, and that’s probably the reason why Sub Rosa works. We work with passion, we dig with passion, we only make plans that are based on our own expectations and we’ll keep doing so as long as it works and allows us to deliver what we see as works of interest.

Catch Guy-Marc Hinant live on The Word Radio Sunday 25th March from 16h to 17h as part of our ongoing Belgian Pioneers series.