Interview with Paul Masvidal of Cynic

After the split from Tymon (guitars, growls) and Robin Zielhorst (bass) in early 2011, it wasn’t quite clear what to expect from Cynic. But 2011 turned out to be quite a productive year for the band, with a new EP release (Carbon-Based Anatomy), a new touring lineup and headlining tours throughout the US and Europe. We caught up with Cynic guitarist and vocalist Paul Masvidal on December 21, 2011, just before the final gig of the European tour in Aschaffenburg, Germany.

Interviewer Michael Schetter with Paul Masvidal (right)

This is the last day of the tour, how has it been going?

Good! It’s been really fun … and intense – no days off, 19 shows in a row. It’s required a lot of focus and energy, but it’s been a ride, it has definitely been a solid tour overall, the shows have been great.

What’s up with the two opening bands cancelling today?

Chimp Spanner are from England and it made more sense financially for them to have a friend pick them up in Amsterdam yesterday and drive them back to England. Otherwise they would’ve had to fly with all the gear. And Hypno5e were never on the tour. Not one gig. It was a lot of confusion involving the agent and them and miscommunication. And basically, financially they couldn’t afford to come on the tour. They’re an independent band or something and it was just …

Are you happy with the turnout on this tour?

Yeah! I think for the most part – I mean, some shows weren’t as great as others, but overall it’s been pretty good.

So how are the new guys holding up?

They’re great! Brandon [Giffin, bass] is a kind of road dog, he’s spent five years on the road with a group called The Faceless that he helped form, so he’s very familiar with the ins and outs. And Max [Phelps, guitar and growls] is doing fine, he’s been doing great, so it’s been a really great vibe with the band, we’re really enjoying it.

The new guys in the live band: Max Phelps (left) and Brandon Giffin (center) with Sean Reinert (right)

How did you find them?

Brandon – we toured with The Faceless and Meshuggah. He lives in L.A. and we just knew each other, so we kind of just became friends after that tour – so that was like three years ago. And Max was one of numerous people that e-mailed us with audition videos. It was just after we announced that we were letting the other guys go and that we’re moving forward and everything is fine. And I remember that we got a lot of e-mails, dozens of people, really. And he stood out, he just really seemed natural and he got it, he understood how to play this stuff and he happens to growl which is a special skill that comes in handy for us, too.

It wasn’t really quite clear how things went down with the split from Robin and Tymon. Can you talk a bit about this?

Well, there was numerous reasons why we let them go. I know there’s some confusion about it, but – and I think it was leading to this anyways – but basically, in a nutshell, when we finished this Traced in Air / Re-Traced touring cycle and we got back to L.A., we realized we were in a situation where we didn’t have money to support them anymore and we were supporting them in the states.

I was always wondering how that worked, moving to the US just for a band…

The Re-Traced lineup with Tymon and Robin Zielhorst - "It was very expensive to have European musicians in the band."

Yeah, we were paying their rent for apartment and everything. It was very expensive to have European musicians in the band cause you have to pay for work visas too and all that. So every year it was a lot of money that … I think there was just a lot of things that it just made sense to not have them in the band. And the big one, then most obvious one was when we said “We can’t support you in the way that we have been”, they – I think – quickly realized that it would be much easier for them to go back to their home country and rely on a system that supports them. And I think Holland in particular is very … they just give money to musicians or something (laughs), cause somehow they end up with money and opportunities to pay for things that is different, I think, for American bands. So I think they decided it was in their best interest to move there. And although they wanted to keep the band going as kind of an internet project and us flying them, I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to be in the same room as the people that I’m working with. And I think it just had ran its course, it was ready to move on, that’s really it. I mean, things are definitely in a better place now, we have a great band and a couple of guys that are local. I mean, Max is from Maryland, but he has family in Los Angeles, so it really works out perfectly. It’s nice!

So what’s the official status of the new guys? Are they …?

They’re just touring guys right now. I mean, for the last record, Carbon, it was really just Sean [Reinert], myself and [Sean] Malone. But who knows what’ll happen with the next record, I don’t know. But we just needed that, we needed good, solid guys that’ll come on the road and deliver.

How did you come to work with Sean Malone again? He hasn’t been a full-time band member since the mid-90s, and yet here you are working with him again.

I’ve been e-mailing with him on and off over the years and when we were working on this stuff, we just got back in touch and sent him some of the demos and he felt like we had to work out some stuff with each other historically that we were working through, but I think we kinda turned that corner and realized that we’re on the same page. He really is from the same … I don’t know, he just seems to get things on multiple levels in terms of musically, where we’re coming from. I think he’s a real integral part of Cynic as a bass player in relationship to Sean. Especially as a rhythm section, but even his harmonic and compositional sense is insane. I really think Malone is one of the great bass players of our time.

I absolutely agree, I’m a big fan of his – of his writing, as well.

Yeah, beyond just his chops it’s his voice, his melodic voice – it’s incredible. And he approaches bass as a composer. It comes from having a PhD in music theory and composition and years and years of studying and living in music. He’s just one of those guys, he just has it. (laughs)

Which leads me to the question, what is he up to these days? He’s pretty much disappeared off the internet, his website and his blog were taken down…

He’s just teaching. I know he’s still writing a lot, but … he had a few books he was working on and then he’s a full-time professor at a university, for music theory. And he’s really engaged as a teacher, so I think his students are getting the most out of … he kind of closed off the public world and went into just living a normal life and focusing on his work, which is really honorable. I think, cause he does have a real skill as a teacher. So it makes sense that he decided to put his energy there.

The second Gordian Knot album Emergent featured the entire classic Cynic lineup

You played on the second Gordian Knot album, have you heard anything about about a follow-up, have you been approached?

No, he hasn’t mentioned anything. I don’t know if he’s even talking about it. (laughs)

He mentioned about five years ago that he had the core group together, but, well – it’s been five years and nothing, so… Speaking of former members or collaborators, there’s one thing that I’ve always been wondering about: There was some talk about a Cynic reunion tour in 2006 where the lineup was supposed to be you and Sean with Chris Kringel and then Santiago Dobles from Aghora and I think Tony Teegarden…

Well, Chris joined us for the reunion dates and Santiago was someone that we were talking to, and of course when the news leaked, everyone was like “oh, he’s the new …”, but it didn’t go ever beyond like one jam together, and it was just me and him. And I think it was one of these things when it didn’t work out because he has a lot of responsibilities at home with his kids and his wife there, and it was too much to take off and tour with us.

Would’ve been an interesting choice, though! I like his playing quite a bit.

Yeah, he’s a great player!

The new Cynic EP - Carbon-Based Anatomy

Alright, enough talk about the past for now – let’s talk about the new EP! Ever since Traced in Air has come out, there’s been a shift away from the metal elements in Cynic’s music, and I think it’s even more obvious now on Carbon-Based Anatomy. Is this a permanent change or is it a phase?

I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I think every record kind of develops its own thing based on a process and I don’t really know what it’s gonna sound like until we’re really doing it. I think Cynic was always outside the box and never a traditional metal band to begin with, so we’re probably going further in a direction that’ll sound more like Cynic and less than anything else familiar. Really, it’s too soon to say right now – the material exists, but not as a production. They’re just little songs, so – we’ll see. (laughs)

Personally, I don’t really mind it not being metal, but I do miss the dynamics a bit. Because, especially on Traced in Air with a song like King of Those Who Know, it goes from those really smooth and melodic parts to some of the fastest and heaviest parts you have and it creates a nice contrast and I kinda miss that a bit on the EP. Just my personal comment…

You know, all I can do is stay true to a process and I think if I get caught up in what I’ve done before, I’m gonna try to repeat something and I can’t do that. I think that’s a dangerous place. It’s more just being true to whatever is happening now and trusting in that.

I heard that you want to release a new album next year already.

I think so…

Think so?

Yeah, as long as nothing too crazy happens, hopefully by next summer. You know, we have the material, it’s just a matter of playing and playing and playing. Fleshing it out and recording it and all that. Yeah, I think it’s doable, we’ll see!

So this will be an album, not an EP?

Yeah. I mean, to me it may be like two EPs bundled together or something, I don’t know. But that’s just semantics to me, because Carbon is like a record to me, it’s a mini-album. So it’s one of those things where … who knows! But I do feel like I like concentrated pieces of music, and I don’t wanna just put 12 songs because we have them or have extended solos because it’s longer. It’s just really about the quality versus the quantity.

I wouldn’t mind those extended solos. (laughs)

You wouldn’t, huh? You’re a true classic proggie. (laughs)

I play in an instrumental band myself, so I gotta love this stuff, otherwise I’d be in the wrong place! (laughs)

Yeah!

"It just always comes back to Sean and I cause that's familiar. We know how to do that."

We touched on this a bit already, but how has the writing approach changed compared to the old Focus days in particular?

Well, the Focus days were different, I think it was four guys in a room yelling at each other. And these days it’s me alone with a guitar or a piano doing little demos and then getting together with Sean, the drummer, and just jamming. You know, we improvise over the arrangement until we get something we like. So it’s more intimate now and personal, and I think it just always comes back to Sean and I cause that’s familiar. We know how to do that.

So how do you feel about the classic Focus material now?

It’s fine. I still enjoy playing some of it.

Some? Only some? (laughs)

The classic Focus - "It was a solid album, so it's cool that it got some recognition."

Well, sometimes you just burn out on material and we have toured Focus quite a bit. It does have a history and it obviously had an impact as an album, but at some point you do have to move on. With another album under our belts we’ll have enough material to really give people a whole body of new material to focus on instead of the past. But I enjoy Focus and to me it does seem like a record that represented something for us that was really honest. And I think it was a solid album, so it’s cool that it got some recognition.

I believe there was some talk of you guys releasing a live DVD at some point, but it seems nothing came of that. What’s the deal with that?

Live? Well, there was a “Making of Focus” thing, and then there’s been a bunch of stuff. I think it’s the reality for us with doing something like that is saying “we’re just gonna do this now instead of doing a record and tour and put our time and energy into that”, and we just haven’t done that yet, we’ve been always doing something else. So it’s like kinda there, a little bit here and there and we worked it for little moments, but who knows when…

I know there’s material of your early Hovefestivalen performance out there. Did you film any other shows that might be released on DVD at some point or would that have the be a new performance?

The Hove thing wasn’t us, it was just the festival. We haven’t officially filmed anything in a proper way. That would be cool – just to do like a tour and then take the best of it, kind of what Meshuggah did on the US tour that we did with them, that would be really cool.

Well, you have four releases under your belt now, time for some live footage!

Yeah, that would be cool!

Aeon Spoke - "Pretty much on hold."

Now for something a little bit different – what’s the current status of Aeon Spoke?

It’s pretty much on hold, you know. I was just playing a bunch of it today at soundcheck, but I haven’t really been thinking about it too much. I mean, I’ve got a lot material that maybe at some point in time will be released, but I don’t know – it’s one of those things, it’s kind of there, lurking, but I don’t know when it will reappear. There’s a bunch of projects I have in mind right now beyond Cynic. Like a world music thing that I wanna do. There’s a few things, there’s an ambient record that I’ve been working on it forever with an old friend. So at some point, all of those things will come to fruition, but I think that we’re one of those bands, or at least I’m the kind of artist that works very steadily and fairly slowly. I get very immersed in details and I’m just thinking about each project very specifically, and then I move on to the next one. It’s kind of hard to do five things at once, although I’m always multi-tasking, creatively it’s very consuming to do one thing well, I think. So that’s kind of how I work. So it’s been the Cynic train lately. At some point though, maybe after the next record, we could do another Aeon Spoke, we’ll see.


Aeon Spoke's debut album Above the Buried Cry later got reworked for the self-titled album on SPV.

Why did you re-do so much of the first Aeon Spoke album for the self-titled SPV release?

Cause those were the songs that they wanted when we licensed it. They kinda licensed that album and then they said “why don’t we repackage it and do all this stuff?”, so we did this revision of the album, remixed it and added some songs, put some away, but it was all related to the first album.

Do you have any plans to transform Aeon Spoke material into Cynic material? As has happened with some unreleased songs before…

Yeah, it’s happened with some songs … I don’t know! Right now, all the material we’re working on, all the new stuff that I have is all Cynic-written, kind of. But it’s possible! At this point I realize that any song for me is more about putting on a production cap of the band that we’re in, cause a great song is a great song, regardless of style or genre. It’s like, if there’s a song in the catalog that seems to fit … Cause really, what it boils down to now is shaping an album and creating a feeling and a mood that has one concise theme. Although I kinda think I know it already, it could change. You’re always recording more than what you have. So it’s possible – at the end of the day it’s the same songwriter, it’s just calling it a different name.

What’s your reaction to fans who complain about Cynic becoming too much like Aeon Spoke?

Again, it’s like you’re dealing with the same human body writing the music. It’s kind of like someone saying “Steven Wilson’s solo music sounds too much like Porcupine Tree”. All I can do is stay true to a process. I think fans wanna keep … a lot of times they forget that the artist is growing, too, and that you can’t keep us in the same place, that memory of this band that you wanna hold on to, it’s like “no, wait – we changed also! Life happened to us, too!” – so our music is gonna change! People get very precious about albums and how they want bands to sound and they want them to kinda repeat a certain thing. And I think the coolest thing a band can do, at least for me, my favorite bands take their listeners on a journey and have unexpected twists and turns and new vistas and sounds. I wanna be taken on a ride, so I’m trying to do that with the Cynic audience, too. And bringing in some Aeon sensibility, which is a lot of heart, into it, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

I usually save this for the end of the interview, but now that we’re talking about your favorite artists – name one somewhat recent album that you think everyone should hear!

Brian Eno's Small Craft on a Milk Sea

One that I … it’s kind of recent, I thought it was fantastic. It’s instrumental and it has a lot of interesting elements, it’s called “Small Craft on a Milk Sea”, a Brian Eno album. I really got into it for a while, it was just a really cool … great sounds and a lot of experimental elements and just super like in its own realm. And yet people don’t know it unless they’re big Eno fans. It’s kind of super cutting edge but again, it’s not part of pop culture or any trendy community, so unless people kinda tune into it, they don’t realize … But Brian Eno to me is one of these greats that … he’s kinda responsible for genres and people don’t realize how he’s been this quiet voice in terms of pop culture, but behind the scenes he’s influenced entire generations of music. He’s really brilliant. That’s a great one, I could just say that one for now.

Cool! Just two things left I’d like to talk about – have you heard the recent remix of Death’s Human album? What are your thoughts on that one?

Death's classic Human featured Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert. It got a complete remix and a deluxe reissue in 2011.

Yeah! I think it sounds really good. It definitely sounds better, you can hear everything better …

You can hear the bass, right? (laughs)

You can hear the bass, yeah! It’s definitely one of those they did justice. Jim Morris did a lot of justice to it, it came out nice. I was really pleased with it.

Back when the expanded edition of Focus came out, there was some talk of maybe remixing that whole album as well. In the end there were just three remixed songs and the rest of the tracks were only remastered.

Yeah, Roadrunner didn’t give us any money for that reissue, we spent everything out of pocket, Sean and I, to do everything, including the remixes that were there, the graphics, everything. We just spent what we had. On a practical level, if we wanted to remix the whole album I think we would have had to spend a lot more money and it was just one of those things where Roadrunner said “We wanna put this out this month. Give us what you got. If not, we’re putting it out like with nothing”, so we had to kinda do everything quickly and just put things together. I think it came out OK. Obviously a Focus remix has been talked about and we’ve been talking about like a box set kind of thing with all the video footage and vinyl and then a remix, which would be really cool, so it’s possible.

Like a 20th Anniversary box set? Cause that’s coming up pretty soon. It’s almost 2012 now …

Yeah, right, coming up! Wow, that’s a good idea, actually! Cause that makes sense, 20th Anniversary. And that’s like a year away …

I’d buy one! (laughs)

I would like to hear it, too. I’d love to hear Focus kind of redefined with modern production sensibilities. As much as I’m ready to let that album go, that might be a good way to wrap it all up and closure and all.

A perfect closing statement. We’d like to wrap up this interview with the Cynic setlist for the gig that followed:

Amidst the Coals
Carbon-Based Anatomy
Evolutionary Sleeper
How Could I?
Adam’s Murmur
Celestial Voyage
Elves Beam Out
King of Those Who Know
Veil of Maya
Wheels Within Wheels
Textures
Integral Birth
Box Up My Bones
The Space For This

About the author: Michael Schetter plays bass in the instrumental prog fusion project Relocator whose debut CD featured former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian as a special guest. Michael is also the organizer of the Generation Prog Festival and concert series.

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