In Conversation With: Cynic’s Paul Masvidal

By Navjot Kaur Sobti

After having being recommended to check out the post-Death progeny of Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert by a friend, coupled with my being the rather un-closeted and uber Chuck Schuldiner (Death, Control Denied, Mantas, you name it) fangirl, my eyes (to see) and ears (to hear, slay, and dissect, à la metal reviews) weren’t quite prepped for the melodic, jazzy, groovy, and altogether peculiar sound that I was to encounter in Cynic. That, and the bold move on Masvidal’s part to employ melodic, vocoder-nuanced vocals – free from the familiar guttural and visceral growls we, as metal kin, affectionately refer to as “singing” – was a shock. As I heard “Evolutionary Sleeper” on a local east coast radio station, I couldn’t help but wonder, “how is this metal?”

To dish out some history – Cynic is a band that has been embraced by fans of Death, Dream Theater, and Led Zep alike, since the release of debut Focus, through to the 2008 release of Traced in Air. Their follow-up release quickly assembled a crowd of dearly devoted headbangers to their record stores, who picked up their copies right before the band hit the road with Meshuggah. Thus began my journey into the realm of Cynic: as I began to spin, respin, and (thanks to the persistent calls of listeners of my radio show, who requested songs off of both records) spin their music some more, I started to sink deeper and deeper into the transcendental lyrics of “Adam’s Murmur,” through to the introspective whispers of “Evolutionary Sleeper” and groove-driven “Uroboric Forms.”

Unconsciously, the shockingly different and seemingly “mellow” tunes of Focus and Traced in Air started to grow on me. This occurred, until I found myself digging deeper into their tunes, back to their early Portal days, and feeding off the even more experimental Retraced in Air, which showed again Cynic’s willingness to break the stereotypical necessity for “brutal” and heavy sound. They embraced instead innovative song structures, human emotion (through some seriously beautiful lyrics), and a vocoder-freed metal “singing” voice which was refreshing to hear and added a new, emotional dimension to acoustic remixes of older Traced in Air tracks. Over time, my own attitudes towards metal as a genre grew, opening up as I listened to the band’s newest compositions.

So, when I was offered the opportunity to interview Cynic, I jumped on the chance to delve into the minds of the four-piece that pioneered an evolution of metal sound, abreast Atheist, and the multitudes of loyal listeners who listened, followed, and slayed with ‘em. Amidst their busy touring (alongside Dysrhythmia and Intronaut), I got a chance to exchange some words with the founding father of Cynic himself – Paul Masvidal.

How have the last few tours been?

Great. We’ve had a really solid run for Traced In Air and got to play with a lot of cool bands. We’re currently on a headline tour where we’re playing all of Focus and Traced In Air plus some extras and it’s going well.

How has Traced in Air been received? Do you find yourselves surprised at all by the reception of Traced in Air, so too, Focus, fifteen years after its release?

It’s been really positive. We’re excited to be back in the game doing Cynic again. I knew the music was coming from a genuinely inspired place and I try not to have expectations before a release so I wouldn’t say I’m surprised as much as I’m grateful that the music is communicating.

Was the touring (and the reception received from audiences) at all an inspiration for writing a follow-up to Traced in Air so soon? I’d imagine the last couple of tours, coupled with Atheist’s reunion must have provided a catalyst!

The touring has certainly pumped us up with more energy. I think performing as much as we have will directly influence a new record process. It’s gonna have more of that collective band vibe.

What has it been like, writing music on a regular basis in the “reunited” Cynic? Do you find that your mindset towards the music and Cynic at large has evolved drastically, progressing from where you left off in 1995, or that it has grown out a completely separate and new place?

Our intentions are in a similar place, but I think my process can be a bit different now in that when I’m writing songs, the melodies determine much of the process. But then again there’s plenty of music I’m writing that is strictly instrumentally driven and doesn’t have a melodic thread so it varies depending on the tune. Overall, it seems like anything else, you get better at writing and refining your skills the more you do it, and so I’ve grown a lot musically and personally and that’s affecting the work and strengthening it and the guys have grown a lot also, so we’re on this trajectory together. On the new record we’re engaging in more of a live band process, by playing the material more as a group and possibly doing shows before recording which will certainly make for a different record as a production.

From the early demos, Focus, through the Re-Traced EP, I think that one of the most innovative qualities of Cynic is your ability to fuse dissimilar and unorthodox sounds – jazz, groove, death metal, to name a few – to produce music that’s just as “brutal” and heavy as it is melodic and meditative. What compelled you to really push the “boundaries” when the band formed, and to date? I think that experimentation definitely rings true in Traced in Air.

We’ve always been obsessed with originality and having something to say versus going down a familiar road or doing something that’s been done before so, that’s what drives the creative process. If we had two musical ideas and one was less orthodox than the other we’d go with that one. At the end of the day, the song takes precedence and articulating a sonic environment that rings true.

In terms of Retraced, I think there’s definitely a huge step taken in the more rock direction. Was this more jazz, progressive rock-driven vision one the band had in mind when getting into the studio to mix Traced in Air tracks, or a progression that ended up happening more organically?

Organic. We just showed up for the process not sure what it would sound like and just went with the flow. Once we knew we were onto something interesting we decided to release it. We had no idea what we were getting into other than just revisiting the tunes from a rooted place and seeing where they took us. Each song began revealing what it was asking for and we just trusted in that.

It’s interesting to trace the use of vocoder in much of Cynic’s work. It seems to have been a staple of the (vox) sound, but definitely less prevalent on Retraced. Did you see this as a deliberate stylistic divergence, or did it just feel natural to use it less?

Both. The ep was about doing something different with the song arrangements as productions. A clean vocal was exhibiting the roots of the songs, so in some ways it’s a purer translation of the songs origins. The vocoder didn’t really fit with these arrangements and they didn’t seem to be calling for it.

What made you decide that you wanted to rework some of the songs – particularly “The Space for This,” “Evolutionary Sleeper,” “Integral Birth,” and “King of Those Who Know?” Was “Wheels within Wheels” a completely fresh track, or unearthed and completed from the early Cynic days?

Just instinct drove the decision making process. Any song could of worked on TIA, but those just felt right from the get go. “Wheels” has been around a bit longer than TIA, and we actually recorded drums for it during the TIA recording sessions, but scrapped them when we decided it didn’t fit with the rest of the record. So when we went to make this EP, we revisited the song and made it new again by changing some details here and there which included re-recording the drums.

There’s a step in the more acoustic, slower style – a contrast that’s audible in the Retraced vs. Traced version of “Integral Birth.” Equally cosmic. Do you view both as complimentary, separate, and/or more evolved versions of a single concept you had in mind while recording Traced in Air?

I see them as complimentary. They work together as two sides of the same coin. The re-traced version is essentially what the demo of the song sounded like before we made TIA.

In songs like “Adam’s Murmur,” the lyrics definitely resonate a very cosmic and spiritual energy. From “Sanskrit,” Adam, through to the image of the one, universal soul – I can’t help but think of yoga, transcendentalism, anatomy, and Genesis. What are some of your philosophical and more personal influences, that come to mind when you are writing lyrics for Cynic?

If we had to get literal, that’s certainly an accurate assessment of Adam’s Murmur. I’m interested in various philosophical perspectives in relation to the inner workings of the mind and how that relates to being a human on planet earth. So there’s this balance between earth and cosmos and merging micro with macro. Something as simple as observing a flower one can see the entire universe contained within it. I’m also influenced by love and the variety of human emotions, sadness and despair, joy and happiness. Life is so incredibly rich and intense, it’s all there, happening all the time, I just have to open my eyes or more importantly heart to it. Life constantly informs us, if we could just pay attention.

Has the emergence of modern bands (metal, rock, and other genres) influenced your views and approach towards the music you write at all? What are some of today’s musicians that you admire?

I appreciate all kinds of music, and realize I’m more a fan of great artists than styles. To name a few classics…. the beatles, my bloody valentine, led zeppelin, ben monder, pat metheney, allan holdsworth, jaco pastorius, joni mitchell…

Shifting into the present: Cynic will be touring yet again! With Philly-based Dysrhythmia, no less. What’s on the band’s mind for their third post-reunion tour?

We’re going into hiding and working on a new album. Most likely won’t be doing any more touring until the album’s finished.

Any concluding words for dear and devoted Cynic fans who may be reading?

Peace and love friends. Thanks for reading and listening.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.