Pioneer: Richard Pinhas

Long considered a “Father of Electronic Music in France,” Richard Pinhas is sans doubt a pioneer in the art of mixing guitar with electronics to push the instrument’s envelope. You can get a detailed bio at his website. I took the opportunity to talk to him when he made a rare tour stop in Nashville. He candidly filled in some of the blanks in the official story, and discussed two recent releases: Process And Reality, featuring Pinhas, Tatsuya Yoshida and Masami Akita, and Mu, a project with guitarist, producer, and former Guitar Player Magazine editor Barry Cleveland.

Like so many guitarists of his generation, Pinhas was taken with the music coming out of England. “I started guitar very late, at age13,” he remembers. “There were no university guitar courses then. The main attraction was British blues, also “Telstar,” produced by Joe Meek, and the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love.” When I was young, I tried to be in London at least one month every year, so I saw all the bands between 1965 and 1972, like Hendrix, The Doors, and The Who. At 14 I was still a terrible guitarist, but at 17 I got serious.” Pinhas received a degree in guitar, and went to on to also study philosophy, getting his PhD in that subject in1974. Though heady concepts have always been hallmark of his art, ultimately music trumped academia as his main pursuit.

“I started as a professional musician at 22 and did two EPs with my band, Heldon,” he says. A fan of King Crimson, Pinhas first took his music to their label, E.G. Records, who needed a year before they could sign him. Not content to wait, the guitarist started his own label. He wrote and produced the first Heldon record, which sold 19,000 copies in France.”

Making electronic music was not as easy then as it is today. “It was very difficult to find synthesizers in Europe,” says Pinhas. “I went to London, to EMS.” In 1974 he bought a Moog from Paul McCartney for $2000. This enabled him to become a successful session musician as a Moog specialist, but after four or five years of “not seeing the sky,” he decided to stop. Simultaneously, his solo recordings and Heldon records were being released in France, USA, and Japan. Pinhas’ solo performance career started at a concert in Seoul, Korea. “I was touring in America. When I got back to France I had a good offer from the Nam June Pak Art Center, in Korea,” he recalls. “It was $1500, but I was very tired so I asked to be flown first class. It was my way of politely saying no. Three weeks later I received a first class ticket that cost them $8200. [Laughs] On top of that, when I got there, the organizer came to me and said, ‘I am sorry, but can you just play a twenty minute set?’ He made me come from Paris to Korea for a twenty minute set. [Laughs]. That was my first solo performance. After that it was easy for me to do solo tours, but it is better to play with great musicians.”

At the height of his success, Pinhas spent a decade away from music. Around 1982 he began a period of clinical manic depression and gave up guitar. “Medication didn’t work,” he reveals. “I stayed in the mountains.” He spent his time skiing, hang-gliding, parachute jumping, living for ten years on royalties and selling his gear.

In 1992 he received three simultaneous record distribution offers from France, Japan and the US, which put him once again on the musical front lines. From 1992 and 1994, the guitarist learned all about digital recording. “We had the first version of Sound Designer [which became Pro Tools,” he says. “It sounded like shit. It is all about the converters; the rest is zeros and ones.”

Pinhas was reluctant to revive Heldon again. He had been collaborating with cyber-punk author Maurice Dantec and they formed Schizotrope. Speaking about one of those recordings Pinhas told me, “After three remixes I realized the singing was not right. Usually I work very fast. This was the only time I had an unlimited budget, so I spent a year in the studio and it came out badly. A British composer once told me, ‘You need five weeks to record and three weeks to mix—any more than that and you are going wrong.’ I think he was right.”

Soon after that experience he started to make solo records again. “I discovered that Japanese musicians like Merzbow, Kenji Haino, Tatsuya Yoshida, knew about me,” he says. “We formed a quartet. We have played in Montreal and Tokyo. I tour mainly with Yoshida. He is a very strange guy—I love him. [Laughs] He was the father of noise music. We have been doing it for 15 years in Europe and Japan.”

Somewhere along the way Pinhas found time to write two books of philosophy, “Because they paid me,” he jokes, but adds, “I am friends with Jacques Derrida.” His philosophical ideas revolve around time and duration—”Very close to what you find in music.”

His ability to theorize about music has led The Wire, an avant-garde music magazine out of England, to request that he contribute articles. “The first time I failed to send it, but this time, though two months late, I wrote the piece between Detroit and Chicago on this tour,” he says.

Pinhas also spoke about his recently released records on Cuneiform. In addition to Barry Cleveland, Mu includes bassist Michael Manring and drummer Celso Alberti. Mu seems as much a Cleveland and Manring project as a Pinhas one, placing the French guitarist in a bed of lush ambience, soaring soundscapes and busy, but gorgeous bass lines.

Process and Reality featuring Tatsuya Yoshida and Masami Akita [Merzbow] is far more aggressive fare, with relentless thrashing drums and walls of electronic noise.

“The trio with the Japanese musicians is more what I like to do,” Pinhas says. “I did one overdub on each track. Joe Talia mixed it in Australia. The tracks for the California album were done at Barry Cleveland’s house with a fantastic drummer and bass guitarist. Then I told Barry, ‘Okay, it is your baby.’ Barry did very nice work. I also did a record in Oakland with the terrific percussionist, Will Winnant. In the future I hope to collaborate again with Oren Ambarchi.”


For the live gig I attended, the guitarist’s signal path went from the Roland Gr300 synth guitar (with no synth module), sporting a Gibson 59 humbucker and a Sustainer from Fernandes, into a Zoom distortion pedal (with a Boss distortion as backup). From there it goes into his rack-mounted Eventide processor, which is “like a double computer.” Pinhas dedicates one side to delay and the other to effects like flanging. On the delay side he usually sets up two second and five second delays for layering parts, but some times he will go as high as ten and twenty seconds. He can send the guitar to the delays, or not, and controls the feedback with the parameter wheel of the Eventide. “You can do this with any delay from $100 to $10,000, it works the same way; it is the delay time, the regeneration and the volume, that is all,” he says.

Asked whether he sets his delay times to synch with the drummers he works with, Pinhas says, “Oh, no, I play differently with other musicians. If I play with the delay, the drummer matches my time. When playing with other musicians, if I don’t play for ten seconds, nobody cares.”

SIDEBAR: Barry Cleveland on his collaboration with Richard Pinhas.

How did you meet and start working with Richard?

Richard and I had discussed recording together for years and the stars finally aligned to make it possible. We were also very fortunate that Michael Manring and Celso Alberti were available for the session. I’ve worked with Michael for many years, and he and Celso were both featured on my previous album, Hologramatron, as well as in the band of the same name. Hologramatron had opened for Richard twice here in California, so he was familiar with Michael and Celso’s playing and was eager to record together as a quartet.

How did you divide up the guitar chores on Mu?

The primary tracks for nearly all of the music were entirely improvised in a single four-hour session, with both of us playing, so there was no discussion of who would play what. All of the guitar overdubs—including Moog Guitar, electric 12-string, bowed guitar, and sitar guitar—were played by me in subsequent sessions. The single exception is the opening piece, “Forgotten Man,” which began with a guitar-synth track Richard recorded in France. I added layers of sequenced percussion and dubbed in all the melody guitars using a synth program I created in the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, along with some bits of ambient guitar and the half-speed distorted figure that ends the piece.

How much was recorded with everyone playing together and how much was overdubbed?

All of the core tracks on “I Wish I Could Talk In Technicolor,” which runs 25:41, and “Zen/Unzen,” which runs 9:28, were played straight through as a quartet. A lot was done to develop them after the initial session, but there are no edits in the sense of cobbling parts together. Once I had developed the music to a point close to what you hear on the finished record, however, Celso replaced nearly all of the electronic drum parts he had played originally with acoustic drums. The original parts sounded great, but he wanted the performances to be more dynamic and nuanced than was possible with electronic drums. He recorded the replacement drums in more-or-less single takes, which is absolutely astonishing when you consider the ever-changing and nonlinear nature of those lengthy improvisations. He also overdubbed several layers of percussion.

What kind of post-production did you do on the record?

In addition to the guitar overdubs mentioned previously, I played zither, gong, kalimba, incidental percussion, and a few bars of Mellotron. I also triggered a Vienna Symphonic trumpet sample using a Vocalizer 1000 MIDI woodwind controller, which is how I got some of the solo sounds on “Zen/Unzen.” The trumpet sample was processed using a pair of Eventide Harmonizer plug-ins to get a Jon Hassell-esque effect. The other solos were done with the Axe-Fx. A tremendous amount of post-production processing was done before and during the mix, ranging from subtle to over-the-top. The plug-ins used to create some of the more dramatic effects included the Eventide Blackhole and H910 Harmonizer, Soundtoys EchoBoy, PSP Echo, Lexicon PCM Native reverbs, and the UAD Cooper Time Cube.


One thought on “Pioneer: Richard Pinhas

  1. Great article. I think starting guitar at age 13 is actually pretty normal. That’s when I got my first guitar. I would not say that I started “very late”.

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