“A library of musical treasures” – Interview with Johan Rehn (gterma)

author: stark

As you’ve probably noticed, we kinda fell in love with the music from the Swedish label gterma. Its deepness that goes beyond the aural dimension, plus the simply high musical level of all its releases is something that definitely attracts our attention and provides us with sonic and spiritual enchantments. We invite you to read our interview with the head of gterma, Mr Johan Rehn.

How was the idea of gterma born? Were you musically active before the launching of your current label?

I think it slowly materialised over time from stumbling on great material while trawling the netlabels. I used to actively follow three dozen labels or so until a few years ago when it simply became too overwhelming a task to try and stay up to date with the ever expanding scene. It always struck me how every once in a while something truly amazing would pop up and then disappear off the front page and into musical obscurity again. I do remember pestering Andras (Indo) about any physical releases from time to time, and it gradually dawned on me that maybe someone had to do something and well, it just happened to be me. And since I am not musically active myself it was easy to devote my energy to the works of those who had inspired me.

With 15 releases so far for just this year, gterma is extremely prolific – aren’t you afraid of some kind of burnout (from either your side or the listeners’)?

Not at all, but I do see creative work as a cyclic process. I’ve learnt that inspiration can be a fickle thing and so best harnessed when presenting itself. The birth of gterma wasn’t exactly from two empty hands, there was (and still remains) plenty of material to pour from. I prefer to think of it as making the music available. Unlike recent trends gterma is not a “you-snooze-you-lose” limited edition machine but a library of musical treasures we have unearthed from their various archival slumbers.

What does “gterma” mean?

It is a concept within tantric Buddhism which loosely translates to hidden treasures. In its proper context it refers to religious teachings and artefacts concealed by certain spiritual teachers like the great 8th century Guru Rinpoche, meant to be discovered in a later time by certain seekers, the so called tertöns. We hint at this process on the very first track in the label catalogue, Yigé Drukma, which refers to the place where Guru Rinpoche revealed the locations of such sacred objects to the 15th century tertön Pema Lingpa.

 gterma is not just another ordinary ambient label, is it? All artists who are releasing under your wings have something in common, something reaching beyond the purely musical aspect of creation. Which non-musical features are most important to you, when you sign a particular musician?

A tricky question. As far as I am aware, there is no grand master plan behind the discography as it stands today, and no template for future releases to pass. What I can say is that all the material which is presented on the label has moved me in one way or other, perhaps not always in the way that the author had originally intended. This sometimes leads to interaction where I suggest a theme and titles for albums which may have started out as something completely different. “Bloodmoon” and “The Long Flight” are two recent examples of this phenomenon as both were assembled from several historical projects and arisen as new entities.

The music you present on gterma can be classified as ambient, although depending on the album, it may be dark ambient, world/ethno ambient, drone, even dub/techno. Is there any type of ambient you’d never release?

When the label project was in its embryonic form it looked as if it was going to mutate into four separate sister labels which were to be more style specific, but luckily it evolved beyond that initial misdirection. Looking back at those plans, a lot of the releases now out on gterma wouldn’t have fit within any of those four niches anyway!

And now a question somehow opposite to the previous one: can we expect something beyond that genre? More “song-oriented” releases for example?

As the tertön of gterma, while it is true I do look in certain places for discovery more than others, it still means I cannot know with any certainty what will be stumbled upon next. Looking into the rear-view mirror is nice for context, but if you want to stay on the road you had better look ahead, so to speak. I don’t think there will be much in the way of traditional vocal content, unless you count mantras or “ethnic” vocals, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely.

gterma album booklets often contain your own photos taken in places far from civilization, where one can really feel the bond with Nature. You like to travel to such places, don’t you? Could you tell us about these travels? What is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been to?

Travel invokes the same feelings as reading or listening to music. It places your everyday existence in a completely new light, gives you new insights and perspective and most of all it is exciting to discover just what is behind those hills on the horizon. I used to solo travel regularly a few years ago and music was a trusted companion on those endless vehicles and I cannot help but fuse the two together into a deeper experience. Had I lived in the 16th century I would have dreamed of going on the explorer vessels I am sure.

I grew up in a small town here in Sweden with the forest just at my doorstep, I guess these things stay with you through life. Naming a favourite place would be like trying to decide on your very favourite album, different environments have their own charms, and that goes for the madness inducing megacities of the Far East as well. Having said that, the chance to see an unbroken sky from horizon to horizon is one of the deepest and most profound experiences I know of.

There’s a specific spiritual aura around the label, many references to Buddhism, Nature, sheltering from civilization and the modern world… I guess it’s not just artistic creation but  also the path you follow in normal, day-to-day life?

Ha ha, I wish! Let’s just say that seeing the rat-race from the inside every day has convinced me that there are more things to life than what we have been fed in our education, upbringing and social interaction. I do consider it healthy to take a step out of the frame and look at things from an outside perspective from time to time. At the end of the day though, it is the here-and-now which supports the dream of the then-and-there. Alright, this is getting vague now, rant over…

 Out of all gterma releases about 25% of them are Mathias Grassow albums, so he must be a special artist for you as well. I’d like to ask you about your relationship with him. How did you meet? Are you friends also on non-musical grounds?

One of the amazing things of today’s electronic music scene is that the distance is rarely that big between performer and listener and it is surprising how easy it can be to communicate directly. It started out something like that; I ordered some albums via his old website and before you know it I was sitting on Mathias’ archives and discussing future projects. I am also very devoted to the music composed by Klaus Wiese (may his soul wander the great beyond) but unfortunately I was too late in reaching out to him, or I am sure it would have looked very different on the gterma roster.

 So far you only release CDs, have you ever thought about releasing your albums in other formats (vinyl, mp3)?

Of course I thought about several sexy vinyl concepts, but for the time being we will continue doing compact discs because of their much easier handling characteristics. With the costs of international shipping we sit in a very bad geographical spot and I can’t imagine very many listeners would be prepared to pay the price of admission. As for digital releases the jury is still out on that one, but the reality of piracy and seeing the gterma artists going back to being buried in people’s hard drives again doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Apart from gterma, do you follow what’s going on in the ambient scene? Were there any albums or artists who have lately made a particular impression on you?

I have been collecting and listening to electronic music for a long time and the label project has not diminished that interest at all. It is great to see all the ambitious and creative people plying the trade and I feel that if I were to single out someone in particular I would only regret not mentioning another afterwards. I try to keep up but these days it is very easy to miss out on a new album as they often tend to disappear quickly from the market.

Could you shed some light on the nearest gterma future?

At the time of writing we are struggling to meet the deadline for the last two albums of 2012; the live recordings from Mathias’ performance in Northern Germany this summer as well as the Danish dubtechno/ambient-project As If, it is great to see another fellow Scandinavian on the label. I will take a much needed break in December but going into next year we have some interesting titles to look forward to. I hear that the new Parikrama album is progressing well, the third part of the Alchemy series should be out sometime in spring or so and we have a few more surprises up our sleeves if things go the way they are planned (which of course, they never do…).

 Thank you Johan for the interview. The last words are yours.

Thank you for presenting these questions; I had a lot of fun answering them and I hope that Santa Sangre will continue to stay true to form. Big thanks also to our supporters and listeners scattered about the world as well as to the artists -past or present- themselves. Their desire to create leaves this world a more interesting place.

gterma website

One response to ““A library of musical treasures” – Interview with Johan Rehn (gterma)

  1. Pingback: gterma Double Feature || Undara – Traveller | Last Industrial Estate – Last Industrial Estates [English] | Santa Sangre·

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