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The Way Forward: An Interview With Electronic Music Pioneer Richard Pinhas

The Way Forward: An Interview With Electronic Music Pioneer Richard Pinhas

Photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records

For over 40 years, Richard Pinhas has innovated and entranced through music and sound. Founding the massively influential French electronic rock band Heldon in the 1970s, Pinhas and his colleagues stood out with a unique blend of futuristic synthesizers and classic rock instruments. He went on to record many boundary-pushing albums under his own moniker, as well as in collaboration with notable musicians and writers worldwide. As a result, his mark can be found on many musical movements, from industrial rock to techno to ambient to noise. It comes as little surprise that fans of all ages continue to find and embrace his work.

As the youth and progressives of the 1970s were given paths to open their minds and experiences through both Heldon and his solo works, such as Chronolyse and Iceland, consider how many children of the 1980s and 1990s might have cause to give thanks when the throb of a synthesizer dances with a real drum kit and distorted guitar. Today Richard Pinhas is seeing that interest increasingly across different age groups, scenes, and countries on his 2016 tour across America and Canada and now heading to Japan. Unlike many contemporaries, Pinhas is not playing the music of yesterday. Instead, he is moving forward, this year releasing two very powerful albums: the towering Process and Reality, which was recorded with two Japanese legends in their own right, Merzbow and Tatsuya Yoshida, and the fascinatingly timeless, world-traveling Mu, recorded with the dynamic Barry Cleveland. I had the pleasure of speaking to the inquisitive, intelligent and generous founding father of electronic and experimental music during his stop in Washington, D.C.

Welcome back to America. How was your first night of the tour?

Incredible, incredible. I’m happy to be here. These four or five last concerts were unbelievable. We stopped in New York with a tremendous concert at Ambient Church. The best concerts were the three last ones, probably since Nashville.

Excellent. This is a good time to see you because this year you have two stunning albums out. On Process and Reality, you collaborated with Masami Akita (Merzbow) and Tatsuya Yoshida?

Yes, we recorded it in Tokyo. It was mixed by Joe Talia, a friend of Oren Ambarchi.

You’ve collaborated with each of them in the past. What was it like to collaborate with them as a trio?

I played a lot with Merbzow around 2007, 2010, and 2011, more with Yoshida since. We had a big Japan tour for three or four weeks a year ago, and now we have an upcoming Japan tour for two weeks starting November 2nd in Tokyo. We’ve played as a trio a couple of times, but mainly now we try to be Yoshida and me with a featured guest like Merzbow. The show in Tokyo is a quartet with Keijo Haino, Merzbow, Tatsuya Yoshida and me. We also played in the Victoriaville (FIMAV) festival in Canada. Nice place. The formations work the best. I can always work with Yoshida. We have some other recording invitations now. We have the guitarist from The Boredoms coming, Kawabata Makoto from Acid Mothers Temple, and Ryoko Ono from Sax Ruins, who we’re close to.

Richard Pinhas with Merzbow, photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records
Richard Pinhas with Merzbow. Photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records

It’s much easier for me to be pushed out of my limits and experiences with Yoshida and Merzbow because they’re completely dedicated and very extreme. They’re fascinating musicians. They make me push forward, and now I’m more Japan-inspired in the sound of my guitar. I’m proud of that. The last three or four formations were very noisy. That doesn’t mean that I don’t play a lot (laugh), more that this is just another way. I’ve changed all the sets since we started the tour in New York. I start with a constricted sound, and it gets louder and louder, more layered. And then I stop, right in the tension, and start into a more clear sound.

Merzbow, Yoshida and I have recorded a lot, so when it was time to do the trio it came very naturally. When I’m touring with them – it’s very strange – after 24 hours they’re speaking to me in Japanese. They know of course that I don’t speak Japanese. We’re so close and friendly now that they forget that I’m an alien to them! (laughs)

You have a song, “TVJ 33 (Core Track),” that’s over 36 minutes long. How much writing or planning do you go in with? Do you just let the moments guide you?

On the last tour with Yoshida – I’m talking only on tour and not experiments with other people I’ve recorded with – at least 80 percent was improvised, as opposed to concerts where everything was written. I make a kind of song that’s like a can of notes, so it can be improvised at the beginning. So this is between improvisation and completely written music. It’s not as written as much as Heldon, or even on Mu, but not as improvised because we’ve done it for so long. Writing music is not such a problem because you can take your time. You’re not obliged to put out a book of music in a half hour.

Speaking of Mu with Barry Cleveland, it’s fascinating that this comes out at the same time as Process and Reality, because they each have very distinct sounds. 

Mu was recorded in Oakland. Barry made most of the work, I have to say, but we talked a lot about it. He would send me arrangements, the drumming and rhythms, and I’d give my feedback. And it was very nice work from Barry. I was there, of course, when we did a live session and some overdubbing. It’s a work that put us together as composer and main leader. I respect his vision.

Richard Pinhas and Barry Cleveland with Michael Manring and Celso Alberti recording Mu, photo Courtesy of Cuneiform Records
Richard Pinhas and Barry Cleveland with Michael Manring and Celso Alberti recording Mu, photo Courtesy of Cuneiform Records

Process and Reality has such a vast sound, a beautiful menace to it, while Mu has an almost global, yet maybe more delicate atmosphere. It reveals the diversity throughout your catalog. Do you enjoy going back and forth between moods, instruments, even projects?

Oh, of course, it’s my life. I spend a third of my life in studios, a third in touring, and a third working, reading, seeing movies, those things. When I went to Japan 10 years ago for a collaboration, it was like opening a window. It was same when I recorded yet another project in Oakland. It’s not finished yet, but I spent some time there in a fantastic studio where John Coltrane recorded. This one was with a jazz band and some noise bands. The noisy scenes don’t sound good to some, but they can all play well. They’re good musicians – they’re not just computing and trying to make another bit of noise. It’s a pleasure to play with so many different people.

I have a forthcoming solo album, but it’s a secret. (laughs) It’s coming out in 2017. Too many things have been done this year. The tour here is mainly covering Process and Reality. As I booked the tour in Japan starting in November, I couldn’t add any more dates in the States, but more dates were coming. This is my first break for three days, and I’m enjoying it.

Can you tell me about something that you specifically do, which is called Metatronic live looping?

This is a delay system of 2.5 to 5 seconds, or 5 to 10 seconds, or 10 to 20 second delays. It’s the only machine that can manage me. There’s always some other effects, like a fuzzbox, but it’s very simple. It’s amazing the way you can travel all over the world with just a bag of clothes in your right hand, a bag of your rig in the other hand, and your guitar on top of your bag.

And would you say that your album Metatron is named for the Archangel of recording?

Of course, of course. It’s obvious, no?

It is, I thought I’d ask. Has the study of Kabbalah been a more recent exploration or has it always been an interest?

About 10 years ago I decided to read Spinoza, the philosopher from the Netherlands. From Spinoza I read the Alsace philosophers and French theorists. That gave me a way to see the environment around Spinoza. I went through people like Ari the Lion, who was a Kabbalah and spiritual leader, one of the more recent Kabbalists in the 13th through 15th centuries. They’re all in a school called Safed. I read the readings in a philosophical, not religious, way, since I don’t believe in God. It was interesting to read it like you read some ancient text. It’s important to read about nonlogical systems since nowadays the logical systems are going to fascists.

You’ve come to us at an interesting time in America.

The world is starting to go to fascists again. While I follow mainly France, I am very interested in American politics right now. France has been very close to America since the country formed. In Europe, you see the effects of the 2002 invasion of Iraq, and now we’re paying a high price. But France and America are very close, no matter what some politicians say. We’re like two brother countries. I don’t care about flags, but there are reasons they are the same colors, both red, blue and white. We’re not too different in some respects.

France is in a difficult time now, much more difficult than Americans think. We could have a civil war tomorrow, or in two years.  Of course I’ve seen the debate between the devil Hilary Clinton and the clown Donald Trump. They’re both fascists.

I don’t vote. Anywhere you go you don’t have much of a democratic voting system, rather you vote for a grand elector. That’s very strange for us. We have a “direct” democracy, but it’s not really. The only direct democracy I’ve seen is Switzerland and the UK in the respect to elections. If you have 60% of the people who vote, you’ll have a president. We don’t have these electors. If 90% of the people don’t vote, then the elected president will be ridiculous. It doesn’t represent anybody. You have governments in Norway, Sweden, or wherever they are more honest, politically. For four years, perhaps it works well without a president (laughs). I’m not sure it’s really necessary. We have to reflect on this.

Anyway, France and America are going in a very bad direction. In France, now, the first party was the National Front, but the right-wing party is now more extreme than the National Front. It’s a real mess. As an English guitarist friend says, ‘It is as it is. You may continue to do music. It’s the best I can do for me and the people.’

Absolutely, and if that’s what you do, then do it well.

Yeah, I try. I’m very pleased to be here. I have discovered a lot of cities I didn’t know, like Nashville. I am going to play New Orleans in four days, and in Houston and Austin, and then to Tokyo. As of now I’ve done 22 concerts in a row. At my age it’s not so easy!

Richard Pinhas recoreding with Tatsuya Yoshida, photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records
Richard Pinhas recoreding with Tatsuya Yoshida, photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records

How old were you when you first picked up a guitar? Did you have a moment when you knew this was what you wanted to do?

I wasn’t so young. I started at 13, but I started playing live in a lot of places, playing with Klaus Blasquiz (Magma’s singer) at 17. I became a full professional at 22. I learned with someone showing me chords hour by hour, because at that time, even learning an electric guitar was a secret.

And so you’d worked some with Magma?

No, I started a British blues band with Klaus. A lot of friends, brothers and musicians played with both Magma and Heldon, or went from one to the other. They are very much cousin bands. I saw their first recording in ‘69, I went to the studio.

Who were your guitar influences?

The major influence is Jimi Hendrix. I love Johnny Winter and Peter Green. The best guitarist alive is Jeff Beck. As a music composer, it would be Robert Fripp and King Crimson, yet I was more incensed by Evening Star and the first one, No Pussyfooting. The first Heldon record came out in 1972, the same month. I was in touch with management and they asked me to wait a year. And this 22-year-old realized how much work it could all be. Anyways, I mainly hear classical music, Bach and Wagner especially, and I love David Bowie, who I was listening to when you called.

Which one?

A fantastic remix of “Blackstar” I just discovered.

I’m big on that record myself. You’ve also made waves in the synthesizer realm. Did you become interested in synthesizers at the same time as the guitar, or did that happen a little later?

A little later, around 1970 when Herbie Hancock was playing with Miles Davis. I’d studied guitar for seven or eight years before that. When I heard them play a synthesizer I said, ‘I want this, I want this.’ So I sold my photo operator, I went to London to EMS. It was not so expensive, maybe the cost of two photo operators. So at 19 I built my first EMS synthesizer. The technology was improving quickly with the Moog and everything.  I spent 15 years, 20 hours a day, on the modular system. I had the big ’65 Moog added to it, and the new analog system, which was very rare. They’d made only 20 in the world. I enjoy it, but I’ve played guitar only for the last 15 years.

I’m planning next year to be back to a synth/guitar album, a work in line with Interface, but with very new musicians. I’m working with a very young French drummer named Arthur Narcy. We played the RiO Fest after Magma 2 weeks ago, just before coming here. He’s a fantastic drummer, coming from a jazz school of music. Sometimes I have to put a break on it, there’s too much energy! He’s fully dedicated. That is rarer and rarer to find. At RiO Fest, I saw a lot of people dancing. I was amazed! I didn’t know you could dance to such music.

There’s always a way to dance!

Yeah, yeah! It’s good, it’s good. Of course a lot of people my age or older come out, but the more I go, the more I see 20-30 year old people, like a third generation of kids. They’re very plugged into what’s happening. When you play to people with grey hair, kids can’t go because it’s too expensive. That happens in France all the time. I prefer affordable places that have a mixed public. In these new scenes that last 5-6 years, more and more young people come to this kind of music.

Photo courtesy Patrick Jelin
Photo courtesy Patrick Jelin

How did Heldon come together? How did you found it?

We were studio musicians working for mainstream singers, and we decided to combine our efforts. We had this fantastic drummer, Francois Auger, and Patric Gauthier, who played in Magma for 5 years, doing keyboard, MiniMoog, or bass. I had the keys to mix stations in big studios, which I’d been at for four or five years. Later, when one of the original members wanted to leave, I disbanded Heldon. By that time, it was enough. That was the fashion at the time. When a lot of bands had success back then, they stopped. (laughs) Very anarchic. But I don’t regret it. Perhaps we could have been rich today but what’s the matter? Music is first, no?

Not only did you found Heldon, you also founded a record label to release this music on, Disjuncta. That’s very ahead of your time, because nowadays it’s very common for a musician to have no other way than to self-release.

I think it was the first time in the world that anyone did this. The goal was to sell it and make the same benefits as producer/musicians, as the record companies, but by selling it at half price. It was a political campaign. The big stores opened their doors to us and we sold LPs at half price, increasing our money as if we were on a main label. In the first shot, within that first 15 months, we sold 19,000 of the first album. During these 15 months I exchanged my Moog 3-piece and got the P3, my big Moog. (laughs). I learned all the processes of cutting, mastering, shipping, and marketing, but after a year and a half, I had had enough. I understood how it worked, but felt that this wasn’t my job. I’m sure it was the first time a musician did this, maybe in the world. I hope so.

I don’t like the streaming/paying model. I prefer selling LPs. I love vinyl and giving songs away for free on Soundcloud. Hours and hours of music online, given for free. It’s better to give it. A lot of musicians are doing this. I saw that Aphex Twin put out 60 hours of music for free over the last five years. We’re doing this more and more, to destroy this kind of rape from Spotify and iTunes. Giving it away for free is a way to compete with the internationals. It’s saying, ‘This is better than 10 dollars a month.’ On the other end, we have to live, and produce everything. The best support is still the LP.

Richard Pinhas recording Chronolyse, photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records

Chronolyse has been given a beautiful reissue this year on white vinyl. Are you ever one to revisit or listen to older projects?

No, but still I like Chronolyse very much. It had been recorded at my flat on two tracks with my big Moog, except for one track, which was at a studio with a drummer.

How does it feel to see earlier projects getting a re-release?

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They’re always in the market being re-released in Europe and Japan, you just have an American point of view. There are more than 45 albums I’m involved in, be it solo, duo or band. Some are out for 1 or 2 years, but they’re always being released at one time or another, some even 5 or 10 times. They head to America later. I’m mainly interested in producing new music. I’m not very interested in the past, just what’s coming up next.

Speaking of moving forward, was it a big shift to work more with synthesizers when you began making solo releases, as opposed to the guitar?

No, because I loved it.  I decided to tour with a stage manager, so I didn’t have to worry too much about it. It was a challenge anyway, even if I didn’t know it at the time. We were on a big mission onstage, much like Tangerine Dream or Klaus Shultz. We were the only ones who were incorporating rock n’ roll.

What was the reaction from people who knew you as founding guitarist of Heldon as opposed to a synth pioneer?

I didn’t ask them. I go my way and if people like it, that’s good. If I’m wrong, I’ll realize it or people will tell me. But I don’t get the reaction of the public. Sometimes I see it from the stage, but I don’t do my music in reaction to people’s reactions. I played new songs the day before last, because I knew all the people would like it – if not, they wouldn’t have come! The past is not my concern. Keeping the music on the best path possible is my task.

Absolutely. Now, it’s not so often that we have a musician with a PhD in Philosophy. Your career has shown many instances of using philosophy.

The main philosophical concept operating in my musical process is the school of philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and his book Process and Reality. They are the same thing, and even if I don’t use it for composing, I’m entranced by his concept. We can see our philosophical influence in music, or the concepts can be operative, but I hope music influenced my way of seeing philosophy.

Do you see your relationship with philosophy and music evolving over time?

It’s the same thing, it’s my life. My life goes through philosophy, music and love. I don’t see it as a career. It’s just a process, another side of the same process.

How do you view the concept of time?

If you listen to my music, the repetition process and the delays sync in ways that are obvious. So, people who don’t see the relation of time, event and repetition in my music don’t hear the music! (laughs) You just have to open your brain, your soul, to the music and it becomes obvious.

You studied with Gilles Deleuze. What ideas from him are the most enduring?

All of the ideas developed in his work and  books touched me. They’re all important in my life. There’s a very strong relationship between his philosophy, his life, his friendship with me, and what I’m doing. It’s very connected. You couldn’t have more of a connection.

Iceland is often considered to be a very seminal work on your part. In that, it seems like you were visiting a much more historic, or even mythical, place in the Norse world. Was that a sudden interest, or did that come to you over time?

I’d always been entranced by Norse Europe. My wife was Swedish, and my two kids are half Swedish, so they can tell you how close I am. It was like a fantasy because I had been through the reality. I’m more prone towards Japan and Korea these days. You can spend your whole life with the same fantastic world or creation. You have to change a little bit. Of course, that’s what’s happening now.

De Lune Et De Multiple and Event and Repetitions were the first albums where you were playing only guitar.

Yeah, yeah, that was a decision. De Lune Et De Multiple is simple songs within a simple album, yet I think it’s a quite perfect composition, even years later. Generally I don’t hear my music after it’s finished, but 15 or 20 years after I’ll hear something, and De Lune is a very beautiful album. It plays on time and repetition within a very simple song. It’s much more complex than it sounds, but at this time everything was based on the idea of composition in the way of playing it. I love the album.

There is a world-building that seems to be a theme. Maybe that’s unconscious. You hear that in Chronolyse and its relationship to Dune. I see a method of creating environments through sound in much of your work.

I’m very close with Norman Spinrad. I worked with Maurice Dantec, who just died this year. I was close to Philip K. Dick, both in friendship and through reading. You know, when on a tour, I try to spend the afternoon reading. It’s an important thing to me. Writers are very important. In America you are lucky. You have tons of writers like McCarthy and Norman. You have the best contemporary literature.

How did you end up meeting Philip K. Dick?

It was in ‘74 and I went with Norman Spinrad, who lived in New York, to Orange County. I was with my wife or girlfriend at this time, and a friend asked Phil if we could go to his retreat. We spent 36 hours together, talking about Carl Gustav Jung. He was Jungian then. I think that Philip K. Dick is the last real prophet that we have. He saw the future, exactly how we have it today.

I’d like to compliment you in building worlds and creating landscapes in your work. 2013’s Ventes Solaires is a very courageous effort to capture the nature of the sun. I would say the same for Cyborg Sally. Do you have any thoughts on those?

Cyborg Sally was redone on double vinyl about 6 months ago. That’s out on Souffle Continu, and there are maybe 200 more records left. The French and English ones sold out very fast. John, the guy I did this with, was into digital stuff in ‘92. We recorded this in ‘94 and it was my first digital experiment. It was very early for me learning digital, and I always prefer analogue things. I have a very simple ear for two instruments maximum, so four tracks is the best you can find. If you have a digital recorder, it’s easier to have some processing done in real analogue stuff. I always prefer analogue. I try to stay simple in recording so it doesn’t take too long. I don’t record drums, for example, at home. But at home I can record all the guitar I want with the sound I want, the same with synthesizer. I spend a lot of time in the studio. For example, after the RiO Festival, Yoshida and I had one more concert and then one day off. Kawabata Makoto joined us from Berlin and we had an all-day session, just to start a new project in a great studio.

What do you most look forward to when you’re about to play a show?

I try to concentrate and change the music every night. I reverse everything from the beginning of the tour. I’m not going layer by layer to build to the apex at the end, but rather I try to build the apex at the beginning and keep it centered there. I try to concentrate a half hour before. I try to be aware not to lose anything. Because if I lose another device, a special cable, I will be in trouble! I try to prepare every day with the same ritual, to wash my hands with hot water and check my strings. Every time it’s possible I go to Guitar Center and ask the people just to change the strings to have the best sound and keep me out of trouble. And I just try to concentrate a half hour before every show to make sure I completely have the tone, because the shows are very loud. And if the tone is good, I’m happy.

Process and Reality, Mu and Chronolyse (including the Chronolyse vinyl reissue) are available on Cuneiform Records.


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