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Fifteen years after the release of the revolutionary 'Focus' album, one of the first explorations of death metal combined with jazz/fusion sounds, the American outfit Cynic are back. And how! A more elaborate context of the band and their significance is given in the review this month of their fantastic new album 'Traced In Air' elsewhere in this issue. Below you will find a report of the conversation that yours truly had with main composer, band leader and guitar virtuoso Paul Masvidal right before their legendary show at this year's ProgPower festival in Holland where Cynic played both 'Focus' and 'Traced In Air' in their entirety. In the famous Golden Tulip Hotel in some shit-hole nearby the venue Paul proves to be a very likeable, softspoken conversational partner whose love of music and integrity as a musician seeps through in each and every word he says.

By: Richard G. | Archive under death metal / grindcore

The question that is probably asked the most: why did you decide to reform back in 2006, but I would actually like to look back a bit earlier: why did you decide to originally form in the 80s?
Well, it was just a result of Sean (Reinert, drums, RvG) being the only other colleague in my elementary school who happened to be a musician. We were introduced to each other by a mutual friend who said “he's a guitar player and he's a drummer, you two should hang out”. And in a week we were making music together. So that was basically the beginning of my working relationship with Sean, we were both twelve years old at the time. Inevitably within five years of working together, we became Cynic.

But in terms of the reunion, the 2006 thing happened as a result of synchronicities. I did not have Cynic in my mind at all for a very long time, but then over a course of two weeks, Cynic appeared in different ways. It started out with an e-mail by a Cynic fan from Russia who said that he had a dream that he saw Cynic play at a big festival, it was an amazing concert and he hoped that we would reunite. I found that a pretty curious e-mail and I forwarded it to Sean. Within a couple of days a bunch of other things started happening, like me and Sean having the same dream, or e-mails from other people and Kelly Shafer from Atheist calling me and saying 'It's time'. I think it was after the seventh or eighth thing within this concentrated period that I went to Sean and said that we just had to go and do this. There are no coincidences and the universe was clearly instructing us, so it was time to take this direction. It was very interesting to have that concentrated information come at you in that way. And in some way it makes sense, because Cynic has always had that kind of freak of nature accidents, events that happened to us which seemed to work in our advantage and they don't make sense till later. And that was the case with this reunion, which actually only started to make sense to me once I had written the new record. It was like I was supposed to make this record.

Was the fact that Cynic disbanded around '94 also due to such a curious string of events?
It was really 96. After 'Focus' we changed into a new band called Portal. Our sound changed and we brought in a female singer, Aruna, and it wasn't really Cynic anymore. And then by the end of 96 we just disassembled. We were frustrated, because we were contractually tied to our record company, but we wanted to be free from them, because Portal wasn't really a Roadrunner type of band, since it wasn't metal. So there were all kind of things that frustrated us as young musicians, the nature of the music business just became too much and we just wanted to be musicians again without any other pressures of people telling you what to do and numbers. So we disbanded because we wanted to pursue that freedom without the constraints of the business.

And this time around you don't think the business side of things will not be a problem for you guys?
No, I think we have gotten better at navigating now. Our minds are better, so we are not as sensitive to it as we were then. We got a really good rearing into the business through Chuck Schuldiner of Death and the experiences that we had as musicians in his band. And it was so incredibly corrupt that I feel that the Cynic experience was maybe even a little less corrupt! Anyway, we have been through a few other record deals since the Cynic days and we understand the business more and we don't have such a charge with all the hopes and expectations that aren't met. Hopefully that is part of the process of getting older: you get better at managing your life, hehe.

So when you decided to reform back in 2006, was it immediately clear that you were going to make a new album as well? When did you decide to do so?
No, it wasn't clear until we returned from the Eastern Europe tour. We had this kind of guinea pig song, 'Evolutionary Sleeper', that I was demoing that we decided to take out so that we could actually also play something new apart from just the 'Focus' material. Curiously the response was really amazing for that song and that definitely was encouraging. And then we got back from the Eastern Europe tour, I sat down with Sean in my studio and I said 'let's just explore some stuff'. And within a few rehearsals I knew we had something to say again and that there was something of substance, real music there. And it was not going to be forced, it was natural and in the beginning the new music actually came really effortlessly. Sure, once you get into the details of a song it can be torture, but in the beginning it was really easy to get started, some basic concepts were there pretty fast.

So it was not difficult to pick up the writing process where you left off thirteen years ago, to start thinking again within the sound of Cynic?
No, it is like Cynic vibrates at a certain frequency for me and I just have to tune my antenna into that radio station, and then I understand what Cynic's music is.

OK, then the next question is probably going to be a stupid one, but I am going to ask it anyway: did the 'legacy' of 'Focus' hinder you in any way in composing the new material? Were you, for instance, scared to disappoint the fans?
No, not at all. I am not really interested in making music with fear or any of that stuff in the back of my mind. I want to keep it very open and pure and just not think about boundaries or expectations. It just has to be an open process for me. I did not even reference 'Focus' at all, it wasn't in my mind.

So were there any specific things you wanted to do differently on the new album? Some new sounds that you wanted to explore?
Yeah, sure. One of the most obvious things is, having written on average ten to twenty songs a year for the past fifteen years, I feel I have gotten better at it. So the song writing is just more developed. Melodically the new stuff makes a lot more sense, it sounds more mature to me, more cohesive, not as jarring. At the same time it feels incredibly dynamic, it has some really huge stuff and then some really tiny stuff. It just feels like it's the next stage, it makes sense as a second album now, whereas had we made this in 96 it probably would not have made sense. It just comes from the consciousness of the song having to come first. In the 'Focus' era, we were song oriented, but I didn't base the whole foundation on the song and with the new record it was all based on the song. The song had to work on a piano/vocal or a guitar/vocal base before I would take it to demo phase two. So there is a really organic and pure root to the new songs, where 'Focus' was more jumbled in terms of riffs suddenly appearing and it wasn't necessarily making sense in context to the greater arrangement. Of course it worked, it had his own peculiar quality, but I think there is just a very different approach in arrangement and sensibility

I also understood that the new album is a concept album, is this correct?
Kind of. I don't like to get to specific about that, I do not want to limit the possible interpretations of the album, but yeah, there is a beginning, middle and end. The opener 'Nunc Fluens' and the closer 'Nunc Stans' are Latin for the passing present unfolds into the eternal present. And that whole kind of washy layered stuff in 'Nunc Fluens', that actually has moments of 'Focus' in it, and that is probably the only moment where that album appeared, but that song also has moments of every song of the new album in it amidst layers and layers of music. So this first song is kind of the birth, this rebirth and then the record goes through this sequence of songs that, I realised this later, is telling a story, and 'Nunc Stans' is the death song, it is the goodbye saying that the story is over. At the moment I am actually beginning to imagine that the being on the cover, this half-alien half human entity, is having a human experience, and on the album he is then kind of referencing all his experiences in life within this kind of spiritual perspective. But that is a loose interpretation and ultimately I think it is the journey of the listener to bring their own meaning to the songs.

I read somewhere on the internet that some of the new songs were actually already written back in the 90s, is this true?
No, I would say that ninety percent of the record was written in the past year. There are a few pieces in some songs, 'Integral Birth' being one of them, that came from music that I had written over the past four or five years. So just some little things, it is all pretty much new. There isn't any of the old, old stuff on there.

And I also wondered, while you were writing when did you actually decide to make use of death vocals again? Because at the time of writing, you did not have a member in the band capable of producing those vocals, right?
Yeah, well even in the Cynic days I was writing without such a band member. Tony Teegarden came in later, and I was doing it myself at some time, but then I had to stop doing it because I strained my voice. So I have always kind of thought, while writing 'ok this makes sense, this section needs growls'. So the growls that happened with Tymon Kruidenier (new guitarist, RvG) were literally me telling him 'ok, this is where you growl and this is where you growl'. It was very instructive. But I pretty much knew where they were going to be. I thought about it from the beginning. I think it was more a question of how much and not if it was going to be in there at all. How much do I want to sprinkle this colour into the music. Because now, instead of it being a featured vocal, it's more a colour, it's like another instrument that emphasises sections.

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And was this aspect of being able to produce those vocals a factor in selecting Tymon for the band?
Sure, with Tymon it was a combination of him having the skills as a guitar player and then also the question of what's his growl like. Curiously enough, he has this old school, classic, Teegardenish, Schuldinerian quality to it that we loved. And it worked out perfectly, because he happened to be a very capable guitar player also. Tymon is one of these musicians that kind of grew up on Cynic, and I feel that all the sensibilities in his playing are right in line with what we have been doing in terms of knowing what is right and appropriate to play. I have actually known Tymon for ten years now. He was in the Cynic circles, he was active on the message boards and I kind of knew him through that. But he was introduced back into my consciousness when I was having lunch with Ad (Sluijter), the guitarist of Epica, in LA, and he mentioned Tymon. And I immediately e-mailed him asking if he was interested. And he said of course. And it was pretty quick that I knew he was the right man.

Of course the new live bass player Robin Zielhorst came through Tymon. He has been playing with him for two or three years now. Robin is a very experienced bass player; he even played with the Blue Man group. He is really a natural player and he has interpreted the stuff that Sean Malone has done really well. He just got it, you know, and to me, that is a very rare quality. So that worked out pretty beautifully. Because Tymon and Robin having experience together, combined with me and Sean having a lot of experience together, that makes the band stronger to us.

So will Robin only be playing live when Sean Malone is not able to do so?
No, Sean won't perform with us live. Robin was even considered for the new record, but I ended up going back to Malone, because we kind of reopened this old relationship and he really reached out and was very enthusiastic about the music. Since he was part of our history and we love his bass playing, I really wanted to give him a try again. But Malone is pretty much a full-time teacher and that is his career, so Robin really is the better option for touring, not being too distracted by this other career.

And will Tymon be creatively involved on future endeavours?
Yeah, I think so. He already was involved a little bit on this record. He did some solos and a few little counter guitar things here and there. But I think as we evolve and as our relationship evolves as we play more together and we tour together, I can definitely see that happening. I would actually love that, because sometimes I sort of miss the interplay that I had with Jason Gobel (Cynic guitarist in the 'Focus' days, RvG). It would be great to get into that more with Tymon.

So can I deduce from your answer that you are actually working on new Cynic material already?
Not necessarily actually. I mean, I have new things of course, but I do not know if it's going to be Cynic yet. I am always writing, but I don't always know where it is going to go. But yeah, I cannot really predict the future, but I am not ruling out a third Cynic record. Cynic is definitely not a project, but a band and Sean and I kind of decided to just sleep less and do more! We are simply being more specific about a schedule and being more useful with our time. We actually have a new Aeon Spoke album written (Sean and Paul's other band, RvG), which we want to record somewhere in 2009.

Ok so tonight you are playing the ProgPower festival and you are scheduled to play a 1,5 hour show. This suggests that you will be playing the old and the new album entirely. Are you nervous showcasing such a big part of the new stuff?
No, more excited! This is going to be the first time that we are going to play the entire new album. The album isn't out yet, but I know that a lot of people have downloaded it and whatnot. So I figure that at least fifty percent of the audience will be familiar with the material. But it comes across great live, it will be fun for us to play the stuff live. It is powerful.

Do you feel bad about the fact that so many people have downloaded the new album already?
The only part I feel bad about it is that they might lose out on the artwork and there really is some amazing art on the album. Because Robert Venosa, the artist who also did the 'Focus' art, did the cover art for the new album as well, but he also did a unique painting for each song in the booklet. And there are all kinds of little cool things that make it a worthy, tangible object versus a disposable mp3. And I am kind of old school in this that I really like the idea of a 'record', the story of an album and the feeling. And you don't get that indexing and the flow of the songs when you are just hearing mp3s. I was even opposed to the label sending out his i-pool stream, promoting the album via mp3 promos only, because journalists wouldn't get the feel that we put into the songs. Because the space between one set of songs is really tight whereas the space between another set of song has a little bit more air. So when they download, I think the audience loses out on this greater experience that the album can provide. There is a much bigger concept at work which will make more sense when you have the package version.

With all the beautiful paintings and such, will there also be a vinyl release of the record?
Yeah, they are doing a vinyl version and they are doing a limited edition DVD booklet that is going to be really beautiful. It's basically the story of the album, all of my journal entries, dreams and notes. It is going to be really personal but it's a booklet that is laid out very artistically telling the story of the album in a really abstract way. So there's a lot of good stuff that is coming out on terms of tangible objects besides just the record itself.

We started with a question about the past and I would like to continue just a little bit further into that direction. How did you decide to take the 'unconventional' musical direction that you ended up with on 'Focus'?
If you listen to the last demo, the Roadrunner demo, it was already pretty close to 'Focus' in some ways. Probably one of the newer elements was the android type vocal thing and some more clean jazzy stuff. But I think it was just to do with me learning and studying more as a musician and opening my ears up to more music. We were just indulging in all the good music that was out there, we were sponges. In fact I still am! There is just so much stuff to take in and you can't help but make it your own when you are a writer. I mean, I still hear 'Textures' and think I completely ripped off Robert Fripp and King Crimson, but no one else hears that so it's great hahaha So I guess some musicians are better at disguising that process and I think IO have this weird, own version of how I interpret and hear things and that happens in everything I do. For my own original work, it is just about being original and pure and trying to get to this honest place with it. I hate it when the ripping off is so blatant. Especially when I hear bands out there and I'm like 'how could you do that Metallica riff?!?' or that other version of a Maiden riff.

Back in 93, when you released 'Focus' it was not an instant classic, yet it is now more or less universally regarded as such. When do you think this kind of turning point of 'Focus' becoming some kind of cult classic metal record? Were you surprised?
I don't know, I am still kind of amazed that that's the case. We didn't realize it. We had been out of the metal scene for so long, that when we were doing the reunion tour we were really like 'who, where did all these people come from?' But what probably helped matters a lot was that all our contemporaries would cite Cynic as an influence, and they kept talking about us in the press all of the time. I mean, we are talking about Meshuggah and Slipknot and other layers and layers of bands. And it means a lot when bands are talking about other bands, it seems to become more important and that somehow made the difference over time. Because back in 93, you would have the feeling that you were doomed. We did not anticipate this recognition at all.

Cynic has obviously always been a band that does not sound like any other band. You seem to have had this need to sound different from the rest. Would you agree that that is something that is missing in a big part of the metal scene of today?
Yeah I do. I cant encourage enough the need for originality. I think it is the duty of an artist to do your own thing, to find your own voice and to really be unique. I remember when I was ten years or so, I used to say Voivod was my favourite band because they were so original. I did not even really care about their songs, it was just that they were so different from everybody back then. They were so pioneering that I was like 'that's what I want to be!' It really seems like what is happening nowadays is that you have a whole generation of people that are pursuing careers as musicians that maybe aren't really natural musicians. Just because the technology is better, they can sound better and more convincing, but they aren't really players. You know, they don't really have anything to say, it is just fame-seeking art. I mean, we have played with a lot of different bands recently and it was only once in a while that I thought 'well that's a cool band'. But most of the times I was like 'wow, really, you are still doing that stuff? Where is the new thing, how is the scene not evolved?' So in some ways I still saw room for us, we can still do something that doesn't sound like anybody else.

Ok, so 'Traced In Air' is released on the 27th of October, how do you actually think it will do?
I don't know. I am trying to not have expectations. I just try to have faith in the way that things are now. And how the record sounds. I feel we did the best we could and of course I could nit-pick about production details, but I think it sounds amazing. Of course we could have spent another month in the studio and spend more money, I mean that never ends. But I think the new record is magical, it's special and it's the best thing I have ever done, I really feel that. So there is a certain sense of security in that. I have done my job, so now it is in the hands of the listeners. Of course there is always going to be that person that holds 'Focus', its time and its release so precious and the way that it relates to your life experience, that there is no way that 'Traced In Air' will be as good as 'Focus' for that person, no matter how amazing I think the new album is. It's more a psychological thing then. But I do have faith that the Cynic fans will get the new album, because they are open and they are interested in new things.

Ok, that is a nice and positive way to end this interview. I am really looking forward to hearing the new material live. Thank you very much for your time and good luck tonight!

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