From one musical pursuit to another, Terno Recordings founder Toti Dalmacion shared with us his long history of involvement in the local music scene – from being one of the pioneers of the house and rave culture way back in the 90’s, to running a record store and a lounge for jazz music in the early 2000’s, and to establishing one of the most distinguished independent record labels in the country today.
What started out as an intense love for collecting records and British music when he was young turned to a full-pledged passion, life mission, and calling. In this discussion with Toti Dalmacion, he talked not only about the record labels or bands that shaped his preference, but more importantly his vision for the local music scene.
As a man who has been in the industry for more than 20 years, we also found out how it has evolved through his point of view. Lastly, we learned that all his involvements are ways to ultimately lead to his goal – to provide alternative music options to Filipinos and to further elevate the standards of local music.
All these and more we discovered when we sat down with him one night surrounded by his rich record collection in his recently-opened and well-curated record store, ThisIsPop!, tucked in the busy neighborhood of Legaspi Village in Makati.
Interview by Tricia Quintero & Photography by Charico Cruz
First, can you tell us something about yourself?
My name is Toti Dalmacion. I’m known to some for my record collection. I also run my small independent record label called Terno Recordings, which is the home of bands like Up Dharma Down, Yolanda Moon, and more.
I’m married, and I have two kids. One of them is nine-years old, and the other one is fourteen. I recently revived my old record store from the nineties, which was called Groove Nation then, but now called ThisIsPop! Pretty much everything I do is connected to music except for one business of ours which is the Cuban sandwich shop called Pepi Cubano over in Legazpi Village, which was named after my son.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in music?
I didn’t really choose it. It’s inevitable given that I come from a family of musicians. My uncles are Rene and Dennis Garcia of Hotdog, a 70’s band who are still active to this day. Music has always been around me. Because of this, it’s certain that I would go towards that direction.
It’s also because it’s connected to my record collection, which I started at an early age. Collecting records is something I know like the back of my hand. It just comes naturally to me.
So the idea of starting my own independent record label was kind of evident from the very start. It was due to my favorite record labels who inspired me and continue to inspire me until today.
What are those record labels, musicians, and bands that inspired you?
They are small British record labels like El Records, which is my favorite record label. There’s also Postcard, Fast Product, Factory, Cherry Red, Creation, and Rough Trade.
I’m really more into British bands and music. My most favorite band is XTC. There’s also David Sylvian from the band called Japan, Paul Weller from The Jam and Style Council, and The Blue Nile. Those are the bands that I really looked up to.
Since the convenience of the Internet was not yet accessible before, how did you come across all these record labels?
Admittedly when I was young, I wasn’t aware of these record labels. I was more into the mainstream music, and I was also very trendy or “nakikisabay sa uso” when it comes to music preference. That’s why I got into so many mainstream bands and artists, from AOR (album-oriented rock) to jazz, but by 1978 I started seeing punk and new wave from magazines like Rolling Stones, Cream, NME, and whatever I can get my hands on. I was fascinated with what I saw because it was not the usual classic rock. It was new, subversive, and strange. The names were exciting like The Clash, The Jam, and XTC.
So I found ways to discover as much as I can through relatives who might be coming home from abroad. I also have an aunt who lives in England, so she would send me records. Eventually, it solidified my preference as far as music is concerned so I pinpointed what I really liked which is punk, post-punk, new wave, and indie.
Not a lot of people know, but Groove Nation was one of your earliest music pursuits. Can you tell us more about it?
I used to live in the US, but at some point, my folks wanted to go back here. And the only thing that would make me go back was to do something that was connected to music. I really had fun collecting records so I always leaned towards that.
Back then, I also DJ-ed when the raves were starting, and house and techno were rising. I heavily went to the parties and managed to play for a bit before going back here.
So when I got back here, I thought the next best thing for me to do was to open up a record store together with some friends and partners. It didn’t really work out, though, because I wasn’t much of a businessman back then.
But I would like to believe it made an impact to people back then because I don’t think there was such a record store at that time, because there in Groove Nation you can order records that you probably wouldn’t get anywhere locally.
After a few years of the store, I was able to share my discovery of the raves back in Los Angeles through it. Groove Nation became more than just a store but also a promoter for the early raves in Manila. The name of the club that I had back then was called Consortium.
So from Groove Nation, how did you go about establishing Terno Recordings?
Groove Nation wasn’t really managed well. It was really more for me to get records for cheap because I get them wholesale. It only lasted two or three years because the rent was raised so we had to find a new place, but that didn’t happen.
Aside from that, we also ventured into the rave thing that went on for some time as well, but come 1999 everyone jumped on the bandwagon. All of these multinational corporations joining the whole rave parties, and I got disenchanted with it. So we (Groove Nation) folded.
We also opened a bar back then called Lava Lounge, and again it introduced Filipinos to lounge, exotica, or kitsch music. It went on for maybe two years, and then it folded as well.
So the next thing I did was bring in foreign bands that I liked and I thought that would work. I started with Lotus Eaters, which is something people my age here would know because of the new wave era back then. And then there was China Crisis and D-Sound. I thought my direction was headed that way, but that also did not really last that long.
But that gave me the idea to finally start my record label because I initially wanted to get tracks from everywhere around the world. For example, if I find an indie band in Japan or Malaysia that I like, I would make a compilation of it, and it would be something I would release.
Sometime ago this friend of mine recommended me this particular band, and it was Orange and Lemons who I wasn’t interested in then because that time they were just doing new wave covers. But it turns out they have an all-original recording, so I figured that this could be my first release and I could make it work. It wasn’t super great, but it would do and I could skew it to make it more indie rather than new wave. So that was my first release.
I also used to write for a supplement where Lourd de Veyra was my editor. I found out that his band Radioactive Sago Project has a new album that no one would want to release so I helped them release that, and so on until I discovered Up Dharma Down, Sleepwalk Circus, Maude, and all these other (Terno) bands.
With all the years you spent in the industry and all the projects you pursued and continue to do, what have been your guiding principles in pursuing, creating, and producing music?
There’s no deep principle to it, but as far as Terno (Recordings) is concerned, I don’t want to put out just your average-sounding Filipino music. I don’t want it to sound too much of a Filipino staple formula. I don’t want another Eraserheads or many Eraserheads. Eraserheads is Eraserheads – that’s their time and that’s good, but to redo it is not really interesting for me. And it has been the case for most of the young local bands in the past, but the good thing is it has improved.
It has to be very interesting. The music, the band, or the artist that would attract me should be something or someone that is adventurous. Even if it’s not too experimental and even if it’s just a basic pop band, there has to be some level of quality. You have to raise the standards above the usual pop-rock band here.
I’m not putting them down; Filipinos are very good musicians, and we have lots of good writers, but there are some that limit themselves to a certain formula that appeals to most, and they should push it further in order for the Filipinos to appreciate more than what they are used to.
It’s no different from the movies because if they are not exposed to it, then how will they learn? It’s the same thing with the ear, if you’re just going to push them with the usual all the time, then that’s it.
You mentioned that you want to raise the standards or quality of local music, how do you see yourself doing that?
The label is an example. In Terno, we just continue to do what we do by putting out material that I think is not just the usual or at least it improves on something.
But it’s not all experimental in Terno. We have Giniling Festival, which is almost crass, but I see the intelligence aside from the humor in their music so I put it out. There’s Maude, a pop-rock band, but if you compare it side by side with another local pop-rock band, you will see there’s a level of slightly higher standards in terms of songwriting, music, composition, and arrangement. Like I said, put out music that’s not based on formula.
Coming from this, what do you think should Filipino artists and bands do more to achieve this?
I want them to really open their minds to not just the new music but the old as well. Go back, research, listen to more variety and not just stick to one genre.
If you’re a metal guy, don’t just listen to metal all the time. Listen to jazz, indie, and others. It makes you more well-rounded, and it opens up your mind as opposed to being close-minded and sticking to just one genre.
There are certain genres that we like, but be open when you hear something else. Don’t shut your ears.
Having been immersed in the music industry for quite some time now, how do you think has it changed over the years?
It has improved. There are so many acts right now, which is good. It’s good that the young ones are channeling their energies into something creative or positive, but I would want more quality and really exciting material because we just really need to push it more.
What is your long-term vision for the Philippine music industry, and how would you like to see it in the coming years?
I just want decent support, because we probably don’t realize it but we have a lot of great talents that can also be exported in order for people outside to know that there is something good going on. It would be difficult to compete outside without any support.
But at the very least if there were some financial support for you to be able to tour, maybe slowly but surely you can find a niche somewhere there because I’m sure one or two Japanese people will probably like you and will multiply – if you are able to fly and play in the first place.
From Groove Nation to Terno Recordings to now ThisIsPop! – What made you keep going in pursuing music?
It’s the only thing that I know to do. I didn’t go to college in the first place. I don’t have a degree.
So it always comes naturally for me to do what I do, which happens to be always connected to music. It’s the most cliché thing you can say, but that’s really my passion. The fact that I am able to provide for my family doing what I love most is something else. I owe that to my parents who never questioned my interests since the beginning.
Can you share to us more about ThisIsPop! – What is the concept behind this store and what made you decide to reopen a record store?
I’ve always wanted to reopen because “napabayaan siya” and we all got busy with other things that the store (Groove Nation) just closed. I’ve always wanted to because it helps me with my vice, which is collecting. Not only that but in the past five or eight years, the vinyl resurgence has exploded locally. I like to think that I can provide another option for people who are looking for records that are not the usual. The store is literally your alternative to what’s out there.
Coming from this, when you say alternative, how do you define it?
Alternative, the word itself, is a late 80’s word to describe acts that are not mainstream, but are not really too underground. It’s halfway. But I use it in a way to just describe something alternative similar meaning to an option.
What I focus on is new wave, punk, post-punk, and indie – specifically indie pop which was also big in the mid 80’s in England. But the store is beyond just that as far as area of expertise is concerned. I can also get you more experimental, avant-garde, or soundtracks.
I really find that there is no other record store like that here. It’s really giving you that other option, a variety. I don’t think people realize the potential of having a store like this, which is common in other countries. If you go to Tokyo or UK, there are probably 50 or 60 stores like this that cater to different people.
Can you give us your short definition of ‘alternative' music options?
In very simple terms, it’s really something that you don’t hear on the radio or what 20 of your friends know, which is kind of strange because in the internet age, you would think people would go and discover new music on their own. You have Spotify and iTunes, and they have all of these fancy features where they will recommend you music based on your interests. What I used to do manually, they already have a program for that so they can already make recommendations. But still, sadly, a lot of people still rely only on what the radio plays or what they are exposed to.
Lastly, what is one thing that you want Filipino music enthusiasts to know?