DATE OF INTERVIEW:
22nd November 2008
When Cynic unleashed debut album 'Focus' back in 1993, arguably one of the most genuinely progressive and innovative works to emerge from the scene at that time, technical metal would never be the same again, with its perennial influence still discernible in the music of many contemporary bands. A masterpiece combining virtuosic musicianship with skilfully crafted compositions, the album remains unique in its unparalleled fusion of jazz, death, rock, and even elements of traditional metal and prog. Few bands since have pushed the boundaries of metal, and progressive music in general, as far as Cynic did with 'Focus'. With the band formed in 1987 by two school friends, vocalist/guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert, Cynic's untimely split in 1994 saw their ephemeral existence come to a premature end, leaving many speculating what might have been had a second album been recorded. Well, they say good things come to those who wait, and with the very welcome announcement towards the end of 2006 that Cynic were to reform for a series of live shows the following year, it was perhaps an even bigger surprise when news broke in early 2008 that they were working on a new studio album. And the fifteen year wait has most certainly been worth it as, with the recently released 'Traced In Air', Cynic have once again eschewed every subgenre of metal to produce an album that pertains to the iconoclastic aesthetic for which they've become associated, further extending the boundaries of experimental music that will indubitably prove as big an influence on the scene as their 1993 debut.
Main support band on Opeth's extensive 2008 European tour, I arranged to meet up with frontman Paul Masvidal at Rock City in Nottingham to quiz him about the band's past, present and future. Emerging from an interview in Opeth's dressing room shortly after 6pm, I wander into the backstage catering area and manage to hook up with Paul a few minutes later. I'm surprised to discover that he's already heard of me through my photography, and humbled by his praise of my Cynic photos from the recent Dutch ProgPower festival. Retiring to a quiet corner, we begin by discussing their lengthy headline set at ProgPower...
METAL DISCOVERY: We’ll start with ProgPower - your set last month was absolutely awesome. How was the show for you and was that the longest set you’ve played since the reunion so far?
MD: Is that why you were speaking a lot in between the songs?!
PAUL MASVIDAL: Ever! And I don’t know if we’ll ever do it again! You know, it was kind of the pre-requisite to when they said “can you headline the show?”, we said sure, they said “well, we want ninety minutes”, and we were like, man! But then we kinda did the math and thought between the two records and in-between songs and all that, we could just manage it, and we didn’t have to do any covers or extra songs…
PM: Probably, partially! But I think we were fine - it wasn’t that strict where they were gonna do something if we were like 85 minutes or something so…But yeah, it was definitely a long one and I’m not sure if we’ll ever go at that length again. Because our music is so kind of concentrated and, you know, there’s a lot of information there and sometimes I feel like it’s…and especially that festival, it was all day and people were drinking since like noon, and it was just like, wow, I’d rather play a really powerful thirty minute set and get outta here, you know, and just give ‘em a…’cause it’s a lot of music at the end of the night! [laughs]
(Paul Masvidal on reactions to Cynic's music post-reunion compared to the early days)
"...it was just really disorienting to hear a sea of 10,000 people singing ‘Veil of Maya’. You know, it was just wait, the last time we did this song I think a bottle hit my head and we were in Texas somewhere with Cannibal Corpse..."
Cynic in their dressing room backstage at Rock City, Nottingham, 22nd November 2008
Photograph copyright © 2008 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: How did you enjoy Baarlo, because I remember you describing it as like a retirement town?!
PM: Yeah, and I guess I made some people laugh when I said that ‘cause apparently it’s not necessarily a retirement community but it’s older people like to live there. You know, and coming from…growing up in Florida, it’s like when you see a concentration of elderly people, you think it’s retirement, you know! [laughs] But apparently they’re working older people and stuff. It was really cool - did you guys get a chance to go around there?
MD: Yeah, we’ve been there the last five years; I love Baarlo.
PM: Oh, of course, yeah. What a great little town.
MD: We go a day before the festival each year just to, you know, hang out.
PM: Nice. Yeah, I really dug it; I was really kind of impressed with the, er…there’s even this ferry that we almost took. Have you been on that ferry that kinda goes to some other…it takes you from one part of Baarlo to another?
MD: No we’ve not, but I've seen a signpost for it.
PM: It’s kind of a little, cool village - it’s really great!
MD: What were your original expectations for the reunion and have these been met so far?
PM: Yeah, I try to not have expectations. It was really just kind of being present with the whole thing, and going in and just going for it, you know. It was just taking it one day at a time, and I was really surprised actually, I have to admit that, when we finally got out there and had our first series of shows, in particular Hellfest, that was the first show, it was just really disorienting to hear a sea of 10,000 people singing ‘Veil of Maya’. You know, it was just wait, the last time we did this song I think a bottle hit my head and we were in Texas somewhere with Cannibal Corpse or…you know what I mean, it was kind of…
MD: Like the Blues Brothers in the country bar or something?!
PM: Yeah, just a totally different reception, and it just kind of taught me, wow, a lot’s happened ‘cause Sean and I had really been so removed from that world, and here we got thrown right into it. So I was kind of blown away by the whole thing and inspired by it - it pretty much fuelled this record. I think it was one of those things where it was just…I had so much energy and enthusiasm that I think it just kind of the channel opened up and boom, here’s a new record for you! [laughs] It was just…I just had to show up to my studio and it seemed to just kinda come through really…
MD: So you didn’t plan a new studio album originally when you reformed?
PM: Not at all. The reunion was its own thing with no plans - I just thought let’s give ‘Focus’ back to all these people who have been kind of asking us to for a long time, and then there was kind of a cosmic synchronicity period - I don’t know if you know about that word - there was a two week period where Cynic appeared in Sean and I lives, like really concentrated. And that was when we kind of - okay, let’s do this reunion and with no intention. I had this newer song that I thought I kinda morphed it into a Cynic song. I had these pieces of an idea, you know, I was like let me finish this song, ‘Evolutionary Sleeper’, and then it was like, wow, this feels like Cynic, and then that got a great response, but that was as far as I was gonna take something new. It wasn’t with the intention of going beyond it, but the response was just phenomenal, I mean just…and it says a lot about the metal scene ‘cause it’s just grown so much, and…
MD: And diversified as well.
PM: Totally, there’s all subgenres and just…it’s so cool.
MD: You say synchronicity - would you describe yourself as a fatalist then in terms of did you see it as like events happened and you thought ah, that’s kinda fate, we should get back together.
PM: Yeah, I kind of just almost felt like taking direction from the universe. Instead of questioning why things happen, just kind of allowing them to unfold - you know, I just didn’t want to force anything…
MD: Go with the flow kinda thing.
MD: That’s cool. The release date for ‘Traced In Air’ has been put back by a few weeks…actually when is it released?
PM: It just came out on the 17th.
MD: Do you have it on the merch stall tonight?
MD: I’ve still yet to get on the Season of Mist mailout list for review promos so I’m gonna buy it!
PM: Yeah, we got it.
MD: Why did it actually get put back?
PM: It was a packaging issue. We were having the cover embossed ‘cause there’s a kinda subtle embossment on the artwork and apparently they had to ship it to another country to do the embossing. Some kind of thing involving packaging that just delayed it! [laughs]
MD: I’ve read that the new album was recorded entirely using analogue methods - what were the motivations behind that?
PM: Well, Warren is kind of an old school guy, the mixer/engineer that we worked with, he kind of mixed and engineered the whole thing and he was definitely into…he preferred this studio called Broken Wave that he had good connections with. Broken Wave is in Glendale; it’s kind of where - I guess System of a Down are from that area of LA - they had just amazing, old…one thing in particular is this old Neve console that he loves, I think it’s an 88R, and it’s just one of these boards that he just loves the sound off, the way that the pre-sound and everything. So it was one of those things I think of also we’re kind of purists and just into great performances and I don’t really like to look at music, I like to hear it, you know, and…[laughs]. I’m not a big fan of staring at a computer screen and kind of tweaking wave forms and all that, it’s just not…I try to avoid all that, you know. Call me old school, but yeah!
MD: I gather Sean Malone has recorded all bass on ‘Traced In Air’, but he’s unable to perform with you live because of teaching commitments in the States?
PM: Yeah, he’s pretty much kind of a fulltime teacher. That’s his gig, you know, he’s a professor at a university, and it’s like he’s pretty much committed to that path and we didn’t really feel like he was cut out for the road anyway; I don’t think he ever was. He’s more kind of about being in a certain location and, you know, road life is a whole other person [laughs]. It requires a completely different…
PM: …a different thing, yeah, so we knew we just had to kind of shift that, but with the idea that Malone would just be the studio guy.
MD: When he said he couldn’t tour with you, was Tony Choy ever a consideration?
PM: No, Tony…god, I don’t think we’ve ever reconsidered Tony since we parted with him after the last demo. It was kinda just, not that there’s bad feelings, I think it was just Tony’s always been busy with his own things and…
MD: …and Atheist, of course.
PM: Yeah, and Atheist, and apparently he’s been over here in Europe doing the new Pestilence too, so he’s busy again, you know, doing his thing and definitely an old friend, but I think we kind of even musically just went off in different directions, and just realised we wanted a different kind of bass player. Tony’s great, but it was just another thing we were going for, so…
MD: Who played Chapman Stick for you in Holland because there was a guy who came on for one song?
PM: Stephen Woodcock. British guy actually. Yeah, he plays also in a group which I don’t know if they’re still together, he says they’re kind of on hold - Linear Sphere - have you heard of them?
MD: I’ve heard of the name, yeah.
PM: They’re kind of a London prog band - really cool stuff. They opened for us when we played in London last year.
MD: Is he here tonight to play Chapman Stick?
PM: No. No, he’s not here.
MD: That’s a shame!
PM: He actually did the first show with us though. He played either Glasgow or Ireland I think he joined us onstage which was cool.
MD: Right, that was the one to go to then! I understand you’re friends with Kelly Shaefer?
MD: Has there ever been any discussions about a Cynic/Atheist joint headline tour?
PM: That would be great, you know, we haven’t played with Atheist in so long, and those are great guys, so it probably would be something we’d consider, it just depends on the timing. I know that I’ve been talking with Kelly, emailing with him every couple of weeks, and he’s got his work cut out, he’s got to write a new record right now. He’s like “man, I’m about to disappear and go in deep”, and I’m like I hear ya man, get to work! [laughs]
MD: You’ve done it. And you’ve done it before them!
PM: Yeah, I’m over that now! Yeah, but who knows what the future will hold, we’ll see. It could be cool.
MD: As with the Atheist reunion, Cynic seem to be regarded as more popular now than in the early nineties. Do you think that’s because both bands were ahead of their time, and metal fans are now more open-minded towards technical and progressive music?
PM: Yeah, that seems to be the case and it’s also, what I’ve noticed probably helped us big time is the endorsement from all of our other bands. You know, Meshuggah saying in nearly every interview, including The Rolling Stone, that “we love Cynic”, I mean that’s exposure, you know, and that’s credibility from another…and I mean even the Opeth guys, I mean all these other bands that were kind of our period that grew up with us and are still working, just citing Cynic as an influence…I think that helped us a lot, just in terms of the credibility factor and people going “who’s this band everyone keeps…other bands keep mentioning?”. I know that helps. For example, who was it that…I think like Sigur Rós, you know, that band from Iceland, like their whole career got launched because Radiohead backed them big time, right at the beginning and took ‘em out on the road, and all of a sudden they were Radiohead’s band and it was just oh, if Radiohead likes them, you know what I mean, and it’s amazing how that works.
MD: You need Muse to say “Cynic were the reason we started”!
PM: Exactly! [laughs]
MD: And then you’d be at Wembley Stadium!
PM: Exactly! [laughs] It’s amazing how that works though, because everyone’s looking at these artists, you know, and trying to get a sense of what they’re listening to, and who they appreciate. So I’m really grateful for that because that’s definitely helped too, but also the scene - there’s so many different fractures there have come together, curiously, really to our surprise again. It’s one of those things that we’re just kind of happy to be making music, and it gets an affirmation from me about the trusting our instincts, you know, and always kinda doing what you love and not letting people around you tell you what you think you should do. It’s just going straight to the heart and saying I’m gonna do what feels right, for me, and hopefully it just doesn’t take another 15-20 years to get the results! [laughs]