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Baker's Dozen

It’s Always Rock & Roll: Richard Pinhas’ Baker’s Dozen
Warren Hatter , April 13th, 2022 07:41

The revolutionary guitarist-philosopher talks Warren Hatter through the records that have touched and inspired him, and which changed the era he has lived through

Photo by Richard Dumas

These days, Richard Pinhas looks back with finality and forward with contingency. He is constantly busy on his social media accounts sharing artefacts of his 50-plus years as an artist, to make sure his memories survive him. Every forthcoming Heldon album is “probably the last”, as is each continental tour.

He looks back gratefully. “I'm going to be 71 years old soon, and I realise that I’ve lived through, for the first time in Western Europe, 70 years without war. And I’ve seen the beginning of rock & roll – I even saw The Beatles in 1963 when my father took me – and maybe the end of it. It has been an incredible 70 years in music, and in philosophy too, thanks to the likes of Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan.”

His own life is a history of making decisions and going all in. When Muff Winwood offered to sign Heldon to Island but wanted to wait a year before releasing the first album, Richard tempestuously decided to strike out alone, and set up France’s first DIY label, Disjuncta, in control of all aspects from recording through to distribution, years ahead of the DIY culture kickstarted by Spiral Scratch in the UK. When he wasn’t up to recording and performing any more, he disappeared to the Alps for a decade, mostly spent doing winter sports. And, most recently, he moved to Nantes because he wanted to play with the two young nantais musicians who now play with him in Heldon, Florian Tatard and Arthur Narcy.

It’s impossible to say how much of this decisiveness comes from his participation in France’s near-revolution of May 1968, when workers and students came close to overthrowing the state. He was on the barricades, celebrating his seventeenth birthday there. There has often been a political dimension to his almost entirely instrumental work, raising funds to ensure Red Army Faction prisoners got a fair trial, and explicitly using Disjuncta to undermine the existing economics of exchange. But, more than anything, he is driven by a love for what he unashamedly calls rock & roll, as his Baker’s Dozen makes clear. His recordings from 1973 onwards, whether with Heldon or playing solo, are often blistering or beguiling attacks on musical convention, yet his first performances had been in a band doing blues covers, and his early recordings – as Schizo – are blues-psych excursions. For him, it’s all the same, as the third Heldon album’s title makes clear: It’s Always Rock & Roll.

If you read the list of his chosen thirteen, you won’t notice his twin obsessions of science fiction and philosophy, but they are never far from the surface when he is talking. He became friends with some of those who taught him, in particular celebrated philosopher Gilles Deleuze, under whom he studied at the Sorbonne, and has worked with and met many sci fi writers: Norman Spinrad (who gave Heldon its name), Maurice Dantec and Philip K Dick for starters. And for him, these two deep pools of inspiration are related: his PhD thesis was on “Science Fiction, The Unconscious And Other Machines”.

His Baker’s Dozen reflects his love for guitars and guitarists. It’s what got him interested in music in the first place – he talks of the impact of hearing ‘Telstar’ as a child in the same way Éliane Radigue speaks of hearing Schaeffer’s ‘Étude Aux Chemins De Fer’ on the radio – and has shaped his life. What’s much less present is the synthesizers that he has also used so distinctively in both Heldon and in his solo work.

What about his own work now that it is coming to an end? Pinhas watchers will have spotted his inclination to talk down a small number of his previous albums, but he has very recently come to terms with them. “Twenty years ago, I'd say that there are one or two Heldon albums I don't like very much. But people now say to me that you loved it when you did it. And of course I did. If I hadn’t been satisfied, I wouldn’t have released them. At the point you finish an album, you are 95% satisfied; that's great, it never gets to 100%. So now, I accept that I don't have to choose. It’s up to the people to choose.”

The positive reaction to the recent reissue of his 1979 solo Iceland, both bleak and meditative, has encouraged him. And now, there is the final Heldon album Antelast, which manages to hold the line held for nearly 50 years: there are guitar bands who use electronica and electronic bands who use guitars, but Heldon, perhaps uniquely, are genuinely both. This time, drummer Narcy gives the album the same percussive flow he gave Richard’s 2017 solo Reverse, adding a dimension to the Heldon sound heard on only a few tracks from their 1974-79 run of classic albums. Fans have often distinguished between Pinhas’ solo releases and Heldon efforts, categorising the former as more contemplative and the latter as more challenging and experimental. To the extent this was ever true, it no longer is. The two almost parallel lines have converged, welcoming the horizon.

Antelast will be released on 22 April by Bam Balam. Richard Pinhas’ 1979 solo album Iceland was recently re-issued by Bureau B . He will be playing live in the UK in November.

To begin reading Richard Pinhas' Baker's Dozen, click the portrait below