For Richard Pinhas, music and philosophy go hand in hand. After obtaining his PhD from the Sorbonne, studying philosophy under Gilles Deleuze in the late ’60s, Pinhas released seven influential albums as the leader of Heldon between 1974 and 1979.
His philosophical ideas and great interest in sci-fi and literature have permeated his work, eventually leading him to study Kabbalah – a strand of mysticism that can be seen on such recent releases as 2006’s Metatron and last year’s collaboration with Oren Ambarchi, Tikkun.
Although this sounds like heavy stuff, Pinhas was a joy to talk to, frequently laughing and joking as he spoke about the world going wrong and how music can be used to fix our ever-proliferating decline.
What inspired you to start playing guitar?
Jimi Hendrix. [laughs] Oh no, The Yardbirds’ “For Your Love.” When I heard this, I said, “Woah, man.” But my main influence was Hendrix, of course. I saw him six, eight times. First time at The Olympia in Paris in 1966, opening for Johnny Hallyday, and the last time at the Isle Of Wight Festival. It was groovy, man. [laughs] I was only 19 and I had a press card so I could go backstage. I met Eric Clapton. In fact, my main influences were Hendrix and Clapton, of the Cream era. I love Clapton’s playing, he’s incredible.
It was very easy to travel from Paris to London then. So I spent a month in London and saw all the rhythm and blues black Americans who were playing at the 100 Club. I’m very into blues rock history. If you ask me what’s influenced me the most, it’s blues history. Lots of bluesmen was playing in London at this time. And every week at The Marquee it was like one day Jethro Tull, one day The Taste with Rory Gallagher, they were the resident band. [laughs] That was very cool. And after the British blues, Peter Green was an incredible discovery for me. And of course I was blown away by [Robert] Fripp. But although I have influences, I’ve never tried to make a copy of anything.
When do you think you found your sound?
The guitar sound was very easy for me. I think that the sound comes from your fingers and your heart. I remember touring with Wolf Eyes, we changed our amp every day and got the same sound all the time, more or less. So I don’t think it comes from the guitar. Of course I’m very attached to my guitar. I love my Roland because I’ve had 35 years on the same neck. And I work with delay mainly. I don’t make loops. I’ve got two Eventides, with special programs so I can make very long delays. I love this. The only thing is you can’t make an error.
Heldon’s sound was the mix of the Moog synthesizer, the guitar sounds, and the drumming. It came very naturally. Though some albums I love and some I hate. I hate Heldon II, too gentle. I love Stand By and Interface. I can see that Heldon I (Electronique Guérilla) is good. I don’t know about Heldon IV. But when Cuneiform Records were reissuing the cds twenty years ago now, (label boss) Steve Feigenbaum told me, “You don’t have to judge, the public will judge.” And I said, “OK, I understand that point of view.” And now I realise a lot of people prefer Heldon II but I don’t. [laughs]
Why do you think it was too gentle?
The music is a little bit cheesy. It’s too much dulce. [laughs] This is like a war, you have to make innovation. A friend once told me, “You don’t realise how important Interface is for the future of music.” I said, “Let’s see.” And after thirty years I think it was a good album, good innovation. And when I started to tour in the USA, Canada, and Japan, 15 years ago now, and I met a lot of great people and started to realise how important it was. When I first met Merzbow, Yoshida (Tatsuya), all these new friends, they all knew Heldon from the beginning. I don’t know why. Perhaps they are younger than me. [laughs] It’s a great pleasure to play with them. Last year we played in Tokyo with the line-up of Yoshida, Merzbow, Keiji Haino, and me. It was fantastic. A mix of extreme noise, Japanese noise music, jazz, and rock & roll.
I think the main difference between Heldon and other bands at that time was that we always used real instruments and real drums. Even if I used some electronic drums, there was always real drums on it. I love to play with real drums, with a drummer. Recording real drums is another thing, not like recording guitar and synthesizers. You need the mics and to know where they go. It’s a real full-time job.
Did you study sound engineering?
I got my PhD very quickly in Philosophy and taught for one year. I was very young and Heldon was working at the same time. While we were recording Heldon IV, I simply watched the engineer and that’s how I learned to record.
How did you get involved with synthesizers?
I discovered the synthesizer through Herbie Hancock. It was used in the background of a Miles Davis album and I said, “What is that very strange sound?” I got my first synthesizer in 1970 or 1971. It was an EMS. I was entranced when I first saw King Crimson in ‘72. They played a tape before the concert and it was was Fripp and Eno, but a year before the record was released. That really influenced me. So much that I went to Island Records and asked them for the tape, but they told me I had to wait a year.
I stopped making music altogether in 82/83. I felt I didn’t have much to say.
I had never heard Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze or Kraftwerk at this time. Jean Francois Bizot from the French journal Actuel introduced me to German Krautrock. I liked Phaedra very much but the main German band I loved was of course Kraftwerk. And later I would meet with them when they came to Paris, lots of times from ‘76-’81. During those years, I was a session musician, working 300 days a year playing the synthesizer in these big analog studios. I enjoyed it for four years and then I got depressed. [laughs] You make money, but not so much. [laughs] It was okay because when the session ended, we had the key to the studio and could work there. But then I stopped making music altogether in 82/83. I felt I didn’t have much to say. This lasted six or seven years. Instead I went to the French Alps six months a year to parachute, paraglide, and read philosophy. At this time it seemed music was in a depression. Eno didn’t make anything very important then. Kraftwerk didn’t make anything important in the ’80s.
The main thing in the ’80s was Michael Jackson [laughs], to be honest. And then came Nirvana. Wow! And they freed the music. For real, I don’t joke. Nirvana was a really important thing. Then I came back to music. That was a miracle. Because normally when you stop, you’re out. Out of the music, out of the market. It was a new revolution. When I came back I went directly to digital, and learned digital recording in Sound Designer. Pro Tools didn’t exist yet. So I learned everything. Before I stopped in 1982, we had been working on the DWW album, in analog of course. And when I came back I finished it with digital technology. I started it in 1982 and I finished it in 1992. [laughs] Mainly done with guitar and one mini-Moog. We did all the drums with one finger, you know.
I wanted to talk to you about your interest in Kabbalah.
I’ve been very interested in Kabbalah. I’ve spent about five or six years studying it – “immanence Kabbalah,” like Isaac Luria, who is also known as The Ari, “The Lion.” I’m mainly university trained so I read the texts. Only books for me, not like Madonna. [laughs] I started by reading almost everything by Gershom Scholem. He writes about the sources of evidence, in a historical rather than religious sense.
Have you read much Thomas Pynchon? Gershom Scholem’s writings were a big source for Gravity’s Rainbow, which has a lot of Kabbalistic ideas in it.
Of course. It’s quite universal. And yes, Pynchon is one of my favourites. A lot of French people read Pynchon. I started with Gravity’s Rainbow and V a long time ago. I read Mason & Dixon five years or so ago and I just got the new one, but I haven’t finished it. Because I move so much I don’t buy books. [laughs] But I read a lot. Every morning I try to read. Like normal people, I wake up, put on the lights, have a coffee, and read for two hours at least. Everybody does this, no? [laughs] I hope so.
I spent 36 hours with Philip K. Dick in Orange County once... And afterwards I went to Disneyland.
I wanted to talk more about your idea of tikkun (the Kabbalistic notion of the correction our souls have come to the physical plane to make and the title of Richard and Oren Ambarchi’s 2014 album).
I’m not alone on this point. As individuals and as a society we’re quite broke. And there’s a lot of struggle. Even with just a quick look you can see we have a lot of problems – ecological problems, techno-fascists looking towards the South, in the East we have Ukraine, CIA, Putin. We have to try to repair something. No, not repair, to fix. And I think music can be a way of fixing, particularly in societies, fixing an idea of what can be okay. Don’t ask me what can be okay because I don’t have the answer. I’m not like Philip K. Dick, he was the last prophet we got. Ubik is a very important book. As is The Man in the High Castle. He describes a society 50 years ago where America had lost World War II and the whole continent was divided between Japan and Germany. So the U.S.A. is ruled by Nazi and Japanese law. And we are not far from this now.
I spent 36 hours with Philip K. Dick in Orange County once. I was with Norman Spinrad (novelist from whose book The Iron Dream, Pinhas took the name Heldon). We talked mainly about Jung, the great Jung. Dick was really paranoid. He said the FBI had burned all his manuscripts. He was really incredible. And afterwards I went to Disneyland. Straight from Philip K. Dick to Disneyland. Wow. That’s America. [laughs]
You were saying you can use music as part of your tikkun?
I try. Because we can’t do anything in politics, we see that nothing can change. So I’m on the Nietzschean idea that only art can save us. But “art” now changes so much in ten years the word doesn’t mean anything now. So let’s say that music can at least change a little bit, in the same time frame as the people. I try to communicate. I can’t do anything else, a lot of people write better than I do, so I let other friends take literature or philosophy and I try to focus on music. Try, only try.
Tell me about your book (Les larmes de Nietzsche: Deleuze et la musique, 2001) about Nietzsche, Deleuze, and music.
Well, I was just writing notes for Gilles Deleuze and I was quite into Nietzsche’s philosophy at the time. I tried to make notes for the Deleuze book Mille Plateaux and I wanted to make a synthesis of philosophy with synthesizers. All my problems in philosophy were crossing with musical problems. Ideas about time, about repetition, about events. You have the same problems in music. When I first met Oren Ambarchi, he was very involved in all these things too, so we had a lot to talk about.
What do you do if you’re a brilliant musician? Even if you have the best producer, you’re still lost in page upon page of the internet.
What inspired your “de-evolution trilogy”?
I think people are becoming corporate zombies. [laughs] I don’t mean to laugh but I’m being honest. I don’t like the rich or the individualist rich society. The trilogy is the idea that we’re in the de-evolution of humanity. People don’t read anymore. Young people spend more time on video games. Why not? I don’t have any judgment, I just see that we’re not heading in a good direction. And for music it’s worse and worse.
What do you do if you’re a brilliant musician? Even if you have the best producer, you’re still lost in page upon page of the internet. You have to pay rent and have money to produce your music, but you’re up against free streaming to the wide public. Even if you sell out concerts everywhere this doesn’t translate into album sales. Spotify doesn’t even pay one cent per play. I prefer to give my tracks for free on SoundCloud. I’m not against free things, the only problem being that the mp3 is very bad quality. You spend six months to get good reverb, good EQ, a good mix, doing the best you can, and in the end many people are discouraged by the quality being bad.
But of course there are exceptions to all this. The latest example being Aphex Twin. He puts ten tracks on Soundcloud everyday for free. [laughs] All fantastic tracks. And when I go to America, very often I’m touched by the people who arrange the concerts and take care of me. They’re very concerned. I notice that all the people I meet don’t watch TV. [laughs] But there’s still the internet. It can turn you very stupid if you’re only on the internet, and you fail to read and have a real life.
Do you see much connection between mysticism and philosophy?
I’ve done studies of philosophy at university for 17 years. I saw Foucault on stage like a rock star, Deleuze and Lacan too. After getting my PhD at the Sorbonne, I found I was becoming interested in…something not rational. Not Cartesian, OK? I started looking at religion, not using it, just observing. Trying to understand how something can be immanent and rational at the same time.
After my second time reading Spinoza seriously, I started going back to the roots of Kabbalah and spent four or five years on this. The writings from the second century, of which there are very few, but then onto the 13th-15th centuries, which was an important era. Very traditionally, I’d go to the university and read texts on the text. Anyway, I don’t believe in God, so I take it like serious philosophy.
I have a big sense of ethics, not of morals. Not good and bad but what we call in French modalité d’être – the way you drive your life. To be OK with certain lines, not compromising. Of course you can say don’t steal, don’t commit crimes. No greed. [laughs] Just try to make music. I think it’s better to be a musician and to repair things than to be making algorithms for the bank or to be a trader. And music is the more abstract art. A bank can be touched. You can’t touch sound, it’s impossible. There is nothing more abstract than music, perhaps that’s what makes me so involved in it.
Say you had stolen a space shuttle and were flying it directly into the Sun. What would you want to be listening to?
Well, if I can steal a flying saucer or maybe a F35 Z rocket, I will be pleased to do it. But I won’t drive it towards the Sun, I will go in the other direction, towards the void. The trip will be a lot longer so I’ll take four or five things. No order – Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Wagner, Bach, and Scarlatti. Mainly the most important things that happened in serious music are from Bach, of course. If I’m feeling moody, I’ll listen to The Ring, I’ve seen it two or three times. And if I’m feeling happy, probably during the day, I will put on Scarlatti.