Published in Carbon 14 No. 3, Spring 1995
Published in Carbon 14 No. 3, Spring 1995
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 hellspawn glacier!
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 today's world."
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 new album.
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' s daughter.
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 next year.
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 Schiffer."
(Hell, Richard, if it helps you write more and release records more often, take a whole weekend with her! ! !)