Oli Warwick travels to Heidelberg to dig into the rich catalogue of a pioneering label that revelled in jazzy ambience and experimental techno.
That may be partly down to the other artists involved. For every familiar name on Source, Records, there are at least two more relative unknowns. Stylistically, Source moved freely from explorative machine music to jazz-rooted moods and back again, which made it a tougher sell in the '90s. They weathered plenty of industry storms, from distributor-related woes to the changing favour of the music press. And yet, with hindsight, the music they put out was consistently brilliant—experimental but soulful, shot through with a laconic cool even in its feistiest moments. There's no one definable sound, but rather a mellow vibe that binds together the catalogue, one that can be felt hovering like a mist over the spring from which this modest, homespun operation sprung.
Back to Heidelberg
To get a clearer picture of what Source is all about, I took a train to sleepy, leafy Heidelberg. An hour south of Frankfurt on the train, Heidelberg is utterly picturesque. One of the great emblems of German Romanticism, it's a city defined by its university and student population, but also a broader legacy of bohemian hedonism. There's a whiff of privilege in the air. The local university caters to the German elite, and the city's free and easy atmosphere reflects a community unhampered by the pressures found in other urban sprawls. But the wide, placid Neckar river and shapely hills that frame the beautiful patchwork ruins of Heidelberg castle do have an intoxicating quality. It's not hard to see why wistful souls of an idealistic nature found reasons to stop there on the hippie trail from Amsterdam to Istanbul.
Source Records founders David Moufang (AKA Move D) and Jonas Grossmann grew up in Heidelberg, and ran the label until its closure in 2005 from among these cobbled streets. Moufang lives there to this day, while Grossmann has since moved to Berlin. Speaking over Skype, Grossmann reflected on the cultural context that feeds into the city's unique vibe, and in turn Source itself.
"Heidelberg was always a place for people basically to hang out and use drugs," he said. "In the romantic times, Heidelberg was really the quintessential idea of what people thought German Romanticism would look like. People would travel to Heidelberg, sit at the river and be all melancholic about how beautiful stuff is. So you're not exactly going to conquer the world like this."
Walking the streets of Heidelberg's old town with Moufang and his family, it was easy to see why he feels at home here. He stopped to chat with Alfredo, an elderly man he described as "the Heidelberg Frank Zappa lookalike." A few feet further along, he bumped into Ovi, a former resident of KM20, the fabled flat that acted as a hub for Source and many related jam sessions during the '90s. People stopped to ruffle the hair of Moufang's two-year-old son Luis and kiss his wife Denise on the cheek.
Moufang pointed out a café by the river that had a brief spell as an idyllic ambient hangout in the '90s. We walked down Kleine Mantelgasse, stopping outside number 20. It had been a while since Moufang last walked past, and he was surprised it hadn't been renovated, given the fierce property market in the area. In a street of pristine townhouses, it stuck out both in its diminutive size and its relative disrepair, overshadowed by the wealth and splendour of its neighbours. It wasn't hard to envision its heyday as a hangout for the long-haired Source Records alumni and visiting luminaries of electronic music between 1992 and 1998. Moufang listed Baby Ford, Roman Flügel, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Chez Damier as some of the studio's guests. As well as countless unreleased jams, some of the sessions committed to tape in KM20 have seen the light of day over time, such as Moufang's collaboration with Bedouin Ascent, and some of Moufang's archival jams released on Off Minor.
Kunststoff photo session, 1994
Building a consistent label identity around the sound of Kunststoff, Reagenz and the Deep Space Network albums might have helped Source establish a more coherent appeal for record buyers to latch onto. Even the more overt techno sounds from UK artists (Rob Gordon, Vulva, Baby Ford) and Roman Flügel's career-best spot as Ro70 could fit into this world. But Moufang and Grossmann weren't interested in calculated signings.
"In Germany there's a saying, to say you are 'in between chairs,'" said Grossmann. "It's like, you just don't really fit in. The distributor had a hard time with us. They tried to fit us into a scene to sell, saying, OK, these guys are ambient.' And once they did that, we came around the corner with a house record and then that sold very good. And they'd say, 'Great stuff, keep it up,' and the next thing was a treated piano record where we sold 52 copies. Whenever they thought, 'OK, finally they're there,' we blew it the next day. Of course, we never thought of it this way. For us a treated piano record was just as good as a house record."
Looking back and skating between releases, it's easy to detect a unifying attitude that binds much of the Source material, if not all of it. The idea of jazz's modern manifestation, which Grossmann described when he first heard Detroit techno and UK ambient, seems to hold true, even in the angular madness of a 160 BPM Rob Gordon banger (Black Knight's "Rungatung") or Alex Cortex's sleek digital ecosystems on his stellar debut album Laconic.
Sometimes the jazz was explicit, as on Sad Rockets' Plays. The debut album from Andrew Pekler (now most often heard on Jan Jelinek's Faitiche label) sticks out, even on a varied platform like Source. All red-hot Rhodes and brash in-the-room drums recorded on a four-track when he'd arrived in Heidelberg to study in 1995, you can sense the DIY roughness around the edges even if it plays out like a sharply-dressed four-piece jamming nonchalantly in a dive bar, eyes squinting behind cigarette smoke.
"I can't actually remember how one of my tapes found its way to David and Jonas," said Pekler, "but at some point in the summer of 1996 Jonas got in touch to say he liked what he heard and suggested Source put out a 7-inch and an album. When they came out, reactions were decidedly mixed. My album was generally considered 'a departure' from what Source had by then become known for. This didn't seem to bother David and Jonas at all, and their indifference to expectations, as well as their continued support even after I started releasing on other labels, was an important early lesson in following one's own musical interests and instincts without compromise."
Moufang's own love of jazz has manifested many times in his musical career during the Source days and since—it was also clear in his flat, where he casually sat at the Rhodes to jam out a few chords. In 1997, he formed the Conjoint project with Jamie Hodge (formerly known as Born Under A Rhyming Planet) and Heidelberg jazz legends Gunter "Ruit" Kraus and Karl Berger. Primarily a vibraphonist, Berger's long career in jazz-fusion had seen him play with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry among many others. Conjoint's first album came out on Source sublabel KM20, but their biggest splash came with the Earprints album in 2000, reissued by Demdike Stare's DDS label in 2018.
"I never thought about how we have to fuse electronic music and jazz," Grossmann said. "To me they're one more or less. Jazz was not about using a saxophone or a trumpet, it was the idea. This was working with Karl Berger in Conjoint. He was a very traditional jazz musician. You could see this guy never really listened to electronic music, but once he entered the studio with David and he could see what was going on there, he was completely hooked. He would say, 'Great! This is like back in the day when we used to say, We want to play textures!' and so on. You could see in this guy how easily the two worlds related."
Before the Napster-fuelled file-sharing boom dealt a savage blow to established music industry structures, Move D was an early adopter of MP3.com. For a brief time the platform allowed independent artists to upload their music and connect with listeners and fellow artists alike, and even receive profit share from advertising revenues. The company over-reached when it tried to offer users a way to listen to their CD collections online at any time, and lost out in a mammoth lawsuit with Universal Music Group. At its peak, though, Moufang used the site to connect with producers the world over, eventually pooling the best of what he discovered into the excellent, trip-hop tinted opensource.players compilation in 2001.
For all the well-known artists that sprung from early appearances on Source to achieve great things, there are just as many obscure projects and producers that make up the Source legacy. Some, like Cologne's Elfish Echo or Deltidseskapism (Malmö's Martin Abrahamsson), are tangled up in the web of aliases, netlabels and CD-r releases that typify much of the underground electronic music of the era.
One particularly unlikely signing was that of Yonder Kids, whose Arsequake LP, complete with a sleeve fit for The 2 Live Crew, brought a dose of mutant electro-funk and glitchy techno to Source. The music was actually the work of Thomas Geissler (affectionately referred to as Geiss T) in conjunction with krautrock veteran Konstantin Bommarius and Ulrich Faehndrich. Once a drummer in Karthago, Bommarius turned to sequencing on an Atari when he developed Parkinsons disease in the '90s. Notably older than Moufang, Grossmann and most of the Source contingent, Yonder Kids were regulars at HD800. Arsequake attained a certain level of cult status in recent years, which is not surprising considering the voracious appetite of the minimal scene for overlooked leftfield club tracks with a crisp digital edge. Baffling Noise, a sub-label of Alex Picone's Seekers stable, presented some of the original Arsequake tracks alongside other unreleased Yonder Kids cuts on a double-vinyl release in 2019.