Mark Holmes of Metal Discovery conducted an interview with guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal the progressive rock/metal band CYNIC on December 5, 2011 in London, England. Check out the interview below.
You have a new EP out, ‘Carbon-Based Anatomy’, which is quite an ambiguous title but is there a concept or motif which binds the songs together because the music and flow of the tracks seem to point towards that?
Paul: I don’t like to be too literal about concepts just because I want the listener to have their own journey with it but there’s definitely a thread there, a slender thread that’s bridging it all together. It’s kind of a journey about life and death which is pretty much what every Cynic record is to some degree. This one, in particular, is very earth-based and that’s why it’s that title because humans are comprised of carbon. It’s really a lyric taken from the first song, from ‘Carbon-Based Anatomy’, and then I just ended up titling the record that way. So yeah, I don’t know, I don’t like to be too literal in breaking down concepts. For me, there’s a lot going on there but I’d rather everyone just get their own experience.
I gather there was a shamanic tribe from the Amazon Jungle that inspired some of the writing?
Paul: Well, the opening track is an Icaro. It’s a classic Icaro based on a tribe from the Amazon called the Shipibo tribe from Peru. They’re a jungle tribe that basically lives without electricity and very seemingly primitive but they do this really sophisticated healing work, shamanic healing work, with certain medicinal plants and they tune your biology so to speak. And those songs, those Icaros, are healing sounds. There’s some indigenous language in there but it’s really more of a sound that’s based on… what’s really curious is they have these tapestries and fabrics, and things that they paint and draw and sew, and it’s very fractal and interesting looking, and they can sing them. So that’s why that melody is so interesting and kind of all over the place. It’s just there to ground the body and ground the listener, and soften the heart a little bit, and get ‘em ready for the record… [laughs]
So do you hope Cynic’s music is healing in any way?
Paul: I can’t claim any of that, I just know that this is what interests me and I just feel like music in general, for me, sometimes the most seemingly negative pieces of music can be very therapeutic for certain people and vice versa. So, for me, that’s what it represents in terms of what we’re doing. And what we’re trying to do, at least to some degree, is help people maybe wake up a little bit, see a little bit clearer. I think, again, it’s always a self-reflective process so as long as I’m telling the truth to myself, the listener will get that also.
Kind of cathartic then, in that sense?
Paul: Yeah, definitely. I think all the records for me are a massive purgative experience. It’s one of those things that overtakes me… [laughs]… then I’m in it and I don’t know how I got there. It’s just consuming and crazy but that’s how it goes.
I also read the ambient sounds of Brian Eno influenced some of the new material?
Paul: Yeah. I’ve been a big fan of Brian Eno’s and I think that was my reference point of someone saying, “where’s all this ambient stuff?”, and I always say, “well, of all the ambient artists, he’s probably the one I’ve listened to the most”. So I think it just surfaced more, you know, my Eno inspiration. Again, there’s no way to rip off Eno that way but I think the vibe and sentiment’s there.
I’ve read online where some people have been saying the new EP is basically a new Aeon Spoke record just based on the fact there are no death growls in there, so they’re saying it’s Aeon Spoke under the name of Cynic. Do you think that’s short-sighted criticism from listeners that maybe don’t get what Cynic are and always were about?
Paul: Yeah, perhaps. I think that, to me, Aeon Spoke and Cynic, it’s still the same songwriter so it’s just one of those things where you can call it whatever you like but it’s not like another band per se. It is a different name and, obviously, Aeon was more folk-based, but I think Cynic’s constantly exploring and evolving and this just happened to be how this record sounds. We don’t really pay attention to what anyone says anyway! [laughs] We just do what we do.
I guess it goes back to what you say about people’s own interpretation of what they hear, music-wise as well.
Paul: Totally, yeah.
So while on the subject of Aeon Spoke, will there ever be another album?
Paul: I don’t know. Possibly. I have a lot of material that’s Aeon material in terms of super folky, almost innocent songs that I think lend themselves more to the Aeon aesthetic because Cynic’s aesthetic is more futurism-based and modernist and proggy. Aeon’s more folky so it’s a different realm to some degree. But it’s possible. Right now, I’m just in the Cynic realm.
Based on the new EP, I’ve recently read journalists describe your music as “space rock” which brings to mind Hawkwind, I guess. Do you think that label over-simplifies your sound and might be misleading for some people?
Paul: I think labels in general and the moment you start deploying semantics to describe sound architecture, you’re limiting it already because it’s such an ambiguous thing, you know, music in general.
That’s what journalists have to do though – they only have the written word and musicians have the sounds!
Paul: Right, exactly. And there’s this subjective quality to music that makes it very mysterious because every each person has their own interpretation based on their own experience. But I definitely hear some space rock in there, for sure. That’s part of Cynic’s thing is, for some reason, it always ends up sounding modern and futuristic.
You get labelled as progressive a lot more these days more so than when ‘Focus’ was originally released which I think can be quite limiting too for a band like Cynic because progressive has unfortunately become regarded a genre. Would you say being progressive for you is more an attitude towards creating music?
Paul: Yeah, exactly, I like that. I like the more vague meaning of progressive which is forward-thinking music in general regardless of genre. There’s obviously progressive metal, progressive rock, progressive pop, progressive fusion… but, yeah, I don’t know, we’re pretty hybridised in that sense. You can’t really put us in any particular niche; we’ve always been outsiders in that sense.
And as one particular musician in a band said to me once, to have a genre of prog at all is a paradox.
Would you say being progressive for you is also about challenging yourself as a musician as much as trying to write innovative music?
Paul: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s always trying to push the envelope and explore and keep things moving, instead of staying in safe comfort zones. Cynic has always been about getting out of our comfort zone and, without it even being intentional, I think it’s just the natural process for Sean and I as musicians to keep it interesting. That’s just what happens; I don’t know why but I don’t like to stay in cocoons. Especially as an artist, you just want to keep breaking and pushing boundaries, and exploring. Thankfully, I think our first record set that up to some degree because it did cover quite a bit of territory.
So what’s been your biggest challenge as a musician and songwriter during your career in terms of pushing yourself and your abilities?
Paul: I don’t know; I think there’s this overwhelming aspect to just being a musician and the nature of music itself is so vast and deep and complex that I’m kind of in awe of it constantly. And I realise how I’m a beginner for the rest of my life and even if I just locked myself up and practice for twelve hours a day I’m not sure I’d still get to where… you know what I mean? You’re always reaching for something so it’s that endless task of trying to write the perfect song and execute everything. That’s just one of those things that is part of the tortured reality of being an artist and musician that wants to make everything right. You’re just consumed by it and it’s never quite there. But that’s the beauty of it too; it drives the whole thing.
So you never see yourself as having peaked as a musician in terms of your skill level?
Paul: I don’t think so. I like to think I’ll be doing this well into old age, writing and playing music. That’s one of the wonderful things about music is you can do it for the rest of your life.
Paul: And get better, and your compositions can expand and… because it’s constantly referencing life experience so, for me, as long as you’re living and breathing, and life is happening and you’re actually paying attention, how can your music not get more interesting, expansive and colourful? That’s what’s kinda cool. It’s always informed by that, you know.
In that sense then, to date, would you say there’s not yet been the perfect Cynic record? Like the next one’s always going to be better?
Paul: Yeah, exactly. And I’m always thinking the last thing I’m doing is the best thing. You know, the current song I’m in the middle of is the coolest song ever! [laughs] But that’s good! I don’t wanna ever think that it’s not. That means that something’s not working, I guess. But there are those peaks and valleys in the creative process and it’s really about being patient with yourself and just keep showing up for it regardless of… or, as I see, it, what else is there to do?! There’s no real meaning behind it; you just do it.
There’s an interesting quote from Ben Ratliff on your website, the NY Times jazz critic, about your music being better understood out of a metal context although your audience seems to be predominantly a metal one still, but have you ever had feedback from jazz guys or people from other genres of music that love what you do?
Paul: Yeah, sure. They’ve always been there, woven in, even from the ‘Focus’ period it seemed like a lot of our best shows back in that period were the college towns and it was all the jazz guys.
Paul: Yeah, and they were studying and had eclectic tastes. We were this freaky heavy band that had jazz elements. So, yeah, I think that they’re a big component of our audience. It’s just they’re maybe not as obvious concert goers and we’ve been obviously associated with the packages and the scenes and the record companies that are more metal. And we have a heavier sound per se than a lot of jazz and whatever groups. Yeah, definitely, some of our peers and contemporaries have given us the nod which is nice.
There’s obviously been some changes in Cynic since the reformation, but how did you hook up with Max [Phelps] and Brandon [Griffin] as live session players?
Paul: Brandon toured with us when we toured the States with Meshuggah. He toured with a group called The Faceless, they were the support group. So we’ve known him, I guess, for over three years now. He just became a friend because he lived in Los Angeles. And Max, when we announced that we were letting the other guys go we had a bunch of emails come in and he stood out amongst a lot of guys who wanted that position. He just had a natural sensibility and I think it is a 0.01% of the population that can actually play like Allan Holdsworth and, also, really complex, heavy music and growl on top of it! [laughs] It’s a very peculiar combination of skills! He had it all and was just right, and he’s really earnest, he’s young and he has a great attitude, so it just all kind of worked.
Sounds amazing and weird when you put it like that. I’d love to see Allan Holdsworth growl, or John McLaughlin!
Paul: Yeah, exactly! It’s a really peculiar combination.
Quite a niche. Did you have a lot of emails then from people; you were saying a lot of people asked if they could join Cynic?
Paul: Oh yeah. I’d say a couple of dozen of people wanting either the bass slot or the guitar slot. There were a few definitely, seriously, insanely talented musicians out there that we were humbled that actually approached us but I think it’s just one of those things where it’s not so much… I mean, beyond skill there’s also personality. You want people you can live with because you’re on the road in tight quarters. And just, also, a lot of different things have to come together beyond being able to play the music. And I think it’s intuition-driven for us too, like a gut thing and who feels right. But these guys have just been great.
So there were more people coming to you than having to go off and search for new musicians?
Paul: Yeah, we didn’t have to do any of that. It was nice. It was probably to our advantage that we did a press release announcing the departure and that did it. We almost put the word out immediately.
Last time we did an interview, three years ago, you said reforming was born from a period of “cosmic synchronicity” and you felt like you were “taking direction from the universe”. Is that still your ethos to this day with the band?
Paul: Yeah. Sometimes you don’t feel that because the nature of the music business can be really challenging and I feel disconnected occasionally but if I’m paying attention and I’m just having faith in the way things are, and generally not arguing with reality, everything seems to go okay… [laughs]… so that’s really the name of the game and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it since our early years. We were hyper sensitive kids in the ‘Focus’ period and a bit overwhelmed by the music industry, and now I’ve just turned it into a bit of a dance, you know, I don’t take it too seriously! [laughs] I just go – “ohhh, okay, here we go, this is how it goes, that’s fine”!
Older and wiser.
Paul: Yeah, exactly.
So the final thing I want to ask, are there any plans for a full length release because there’s just been the two EPs since ‘Traced in Air’?
Paul: Yeah, and ‘Carbon…’, to me, ended up feeling like a full-length. It’s so concentrated and has this beginning, middle and end thing, so kind of a realised mini-album per se versus an EP. To me, it’s all semantics these days because, again, we’re in a day and age where people are downloading single songs and it’s ADD to the max in terms of the nature of the internet and how music is distributed. And I’m always a fan of quality over quantity so the next album might be two EPs bundled together or… it’s one of those things where I just want it to be good and it doesn’t matter about how long it is.
It’s twenty three minutes long?
You’re only seven minutes off of ‘Reign in Blood’! So it’s just semantics, like you say. Fundamentally, it’s just a new Cynic record.
Paul: Yeah, exactly, and it boils down to the songs and, for us, this was just the right length. But, yeah, I’ve got a lot of material and probably, I would predict, like barring disaster or anything too crazy, by next summer it’ll be coming out.
Wow, that soon?
Paul: I think so because the material’s there; it’s just a matter of getting in the room with Sean, playing and jamming the stuff, and then building these little demos. Yeah, it’s doable. We’ll see if it’ll be released and everything but that’d be cool, right in time for the festivals and everything.
Are you booked for many festivals then next year?
Paul: I don’t know actually. We need to get on that.
Hopefully somewhere in the UK.
Paul: Yeah, it’d be great to play Donington or some big ones. That would be amazing.
Definitely. Right, thanks for your time.
Paul: Thank you. Thanks for making it.