Q: Who is
Richard Pinhas and what's he done lately?
A: A philosophy professor, writing theoretical works on notions of time
and repetition (and an ever-unfinished book on the rapport between
Friedrich Nietzsche and music), who has "always thought it more
important to release another album of new music rather than adding
yet another book to the corpus of classical philosophy";
a very humble and immensely influential electronician/guitarist
whose recent Paris concerts sound-checked at 116 dbs and whose stage wear
consisted of classic black wing-tips, pressed blue jeans, a blue blazer
and a Rage Against the Machine sweatshirt;
a musician whose most recent album, "Cyborg Sally", is named after
a character in a bleak sci-fi novel by Norman Spinrad ("Little Heroes",
a novel Spinrad dedicated to him!). An album of fiendish hi-tech guitar
and electronics, very much holding its own, and then some, with the most
highly praised and regarded aggro-industrialists between New York and
Mars, LA and the moons of Saturn, Paris and your favorite frozen
By now, you should be getting the idea Pinhas is a bit of an unusual
character, not yet another grungeoid venting his suburban angst
through an amplifier turned up, like, kinda loud!
In this day and age of endless classic-rock recycling, there is
something quite refreshing, liberating even, in meeting a true originator,
friendly and self-effacing, who seems genuinely surprised when I describe
him as the fountainhead of a musical movement that has come into
full bloom with the likes of NIN, Ministry, the Butthole Surfers
and Rage Against the Machine.
In 1974, Pinhas, the holder of a Doctorate in Philosophy from the Sorbonne,
decided to drop out of university teaching to launch himself full-time
in the musical vanguard with his experimental group, Heldon.
Stimulated into action by his love of Jimi Hendrix and the ground-breaking
works of Fripp & Eno, he was to define the universe of guitar-heavy
electronic music for the next decade, and more. Though he is aware his
Heldon/solo albums of the '70s "were way ahead of their time," he
is not one to dwell upon the past, much to the chagrin of old fans.
"This new album, Cyborg Sally, surprised a lot of people who did
not expect something quite so cold and industrial. I find it fascinating
to have, on one side, people our age (Pinhas is 42) who say, 'shit,
it's not like before,' and, on the other, kids who are going to
find it very actual, very aggressive, very industrial. As a matter of
fact, I find the last Heldon/solo albums (Standby, East/West, L'ethique,
released in 1978, '80 and '81 respectively) to be very aggressive
and I think that, now, we're picking up this aggressivity with digital
technology, the coldness of digital and very much the coldness of
Pinhas is both amused and dismayed by people who wish music would never
change and want to keep on listening relentlessly to the same thing: "I
think that's a really reactionary attitude, waiting for an artist to keep
doing the same thing; that's lamentable. It has no reason to be
since, fundamentally, artistic creation is to always find new things
to say and new ways to say them." Listening to Cyborg Sally, it's safe
to say Pinhas has fairly well succeeded on both counts, and I fail
to see, or hear, why old Heldon fans would be disappointed by this
The snarling fuzz guitar with endless sustain, the synth rhythms
and sequencer loops, the barely recognizable voices ground through Vocorder
circuitry, the overall menace of the music -it's all there, sounding
indeed icier and more precise, but clearly showing Sally to be Heldon'
Back in 1983,
Pinhas found himself at a dead-end: "I felt I had nothing more to
say. Everything would have had to be a replay of the previous two or three
albums, and that decided me to stop. What bothered me most was not
playing guitar at all anymore. I felt I had no more contact with the instrument.
It was just a piece of wood to me. I even thought music had definitely
left me. After fourteen albums, there may be an overload phase, a
sort of lassitude."
Did it bother you?
"Let's say it redistributed my activities. I re-picked up a guitar in
1990, met John Livengood in '92. I wanted to explore the new technologies
and play a lot of guitar again, and, one thing leading to another,
it's back to being a full-time occupation". Along with two churningly
voluminous Paris concerts, this full-time occupation has yielded
a brilliant new album.
The opening track of Cyborg Sally, "Intro:Hyperion" introduces
what could be described, loosely, as the foundation of the album: a handful
of guitar chords, sparse and haunting, slightly treated and echoed,
recurring several times throughout the disc, including a stunning five-minute
segment on the centerpiece track, "Gille Deleuze: Beyond Hyperion." While
this first segment is perfect chill-out music, ambient and spacey, the
second half of the ten-minute cut puts out some of the most lithely somber
guitar playing, fast and highly saturated the way you like it!
Because this is very much a guitar album, more so than it would seem at
first hearing. Pinhas explains:
"I wanted the intro guitar riff to be an intro to the album. What's important
is that, for the first time, we have an album based on guitar, not synths!
That guitar is a source of samples and has almost always been digitized
so we could work on the guitar as raw sound material. It's not midi-guitar;
we used the material, with samples and what-nots, in the same way we would
have worked with analog synths, digitizing and resynthesizing the whole
thing. It starts with a guitar through a direct-box, with a couple of
effects, and it's then extensively manipulated with various software,
where John did a lot of work constructing a digital synthesis composition.
Actually, the work on digitalization of the guitar and its resynthesis
is as important as the guitar playing itself, if not more."
To John Livengood, it means "working on the textures, on the color of
the timbre. We can use time-based processing, texture processing and formal
processing. It would have been an impossible concept in analog, before
the advent of computers. In a way, it's a continuation of the work of
Pierre Schaeffer. We work with sound objects".
"Next time you call me an object, I'll slap your face!" Laughs Pinhas.
"All I do is musical smoke" Livengood continues, "everything I do goes
through 'forgetting', first of all. I try to work on the unconscious.
That's why I'm slower, in a sense, because I need the imaginary, the unconscious.
What I get there I render conscious, I formalize."
Pinhas can be and is more direct. He likes playing guitar live (sitting
down, mostly) and likes to record with bass and drums. "I still come from
the Cream-Hendrix tradition."
But he is conscious of the musical current in which he swims, regardless
of his position in it. "Back in the '70s, what I liked best in the synth
world was what Brian Eno was doing, which I found very beautiful and very
much in the musical vanguard, and today, a sort of equivalent would be
Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Naíls, and even though my music is
different, I feel very close to what he's doing, and I'm very happy that
after 15 or 20 years, there's a new genius of electronic music that's
appeared, doing things that are totally new, and I'm happy not to feel
too far away, to feel that I belong to the same family. I consider, without
a doubt, that Downward Spiral is a very great album, and that Trent Reznor
is the great electronic musician we'd been waiting for since the '70s.
He has a fantastic touch and he interests me all the more since he blends
guitars with electronics, and I love it."
A little intrigued by the strength of his admiration for Nine Inch Nails,
I ask whether he thinks he may have had an influence on Reznor. "I have
a great respect for him. I've had no contacts, but I have all his records
(laughs); we're all in the same data stream, if you will, so, without
being inspired by it, as a musician with a passion for avant-garde electronics,
he may very well be aware of what I've done, consciously or unconsciously,
in the same way I was aware of what Fripp & Eno were doing when I
started up even if I wasn't directly inspired by them. I like what Eno
does, but I don't think his music has influenced me at all. The records
that might have influenced me are the Fripp & Eno albums, but Eno
solo, not at all. I like what he does, though, and I think he's a great
producer and that his latest, Nerve Net, is fantastic, one of the most
beautiful albums I've ever heard, and, with Downward Spiral, one of the
great albums of the last ten years. But it's not something that has had
a direct influence on me the way King Crimson did. Cyborg Sally is certainly
much closer to the sound, not the music, of today's vanguard bands than
to the German synth school.
In fact, I feel much closer to Nirvana than Klaus Schulze."
The title track of the album is going to be dance-remixed by David Danger,
a French remixer.
Though Pinhas likes rap and house, "in terms of sound density," he doesn't
care much for techno or bands like Prodigy or Stereolab: "they sound like
things done in the seventies, with a dance beat added to it."
Speaking of '70s, all the Heldon/Pinhas albums have been reissued on CD
in the US (on Cuneiform) and in Japan. There are only a few shows planned
for this year, one in Toronto and one in Tokyo, with nothing in the US,
so Cyborg Sally will have to do!
Pinhas has always had a link to sci-fi. As a writer for the French hipster
magazine "Actuel," in 1974, he was sent to LA to interview Norman Spinrad,
who introduced him to Philip K. Dick. "Norman collaborated with me on
East-West, and we decided to do it again for Cyborg Sally.
He wrote the lyrics, sang on the album and we manipulated his voice a
lot. Very nice!"
Even though he never met Frank Herbert ("Dune is a book I flashed on"),
his solo album Chronolyse has titles talking of Paul Atreides, Duncan
Idaho and Bene Gesserit, and other outer-space references can be gleaned
here and there over the course of his 15 albums.
It's back to philosophy, however, for the next one, to be titled "De l'Un
et du Multiple" (Of the One and the Multiple), expected out and ready
Considering the band's level of computer technology, I ask if they knew
of an email network operated by fans, exchanging info about Pinhas and
Heldon. "We don't really have time," pleads Livengood. "I realize it's
a way to be social and it's the only international socializing possible,
but we just don't have the time to dedicate to it and make it worthwhile."
Same with Pinhas: "When I'm not writing music, I'm playing guitar, or
reading philosophy. So all I have left is just an hour or two for Claudia
(Hell, Richard, if it helps you write more and release records more often,
take a whole weekend with her! ! !)