Interview with Paul Masvidal from Cynic: Shining A Light

Cynic is used to hard times. After forming in 1987, it took them until 1993 to release their debut album, the now legendary Focus. They’ve had their gear confiscated by foreign authorities, they’ve had their practice space destroyed by a hurricane and then, before anyone could take notice of their innovative sound, they stopped being a band. For 12 years.

So it should be of no surprise when the group’s main songwriter, the terminally philosophical singer/guitarist Paul Masvidal, recalls, “Since we got off tour last August 2010, it’s been a whirlwind for Sean [Reinert, drums] and I. We’ve been to hell and back. From legal situations… to just re-questioning everything, we kind of fell apart and put ourselves back together and then fell apart again and didn’t put ourselves back together. And I almost feel like [the new EP, Carbon-Based Anatomy] became that. It was like, I don’t have to put myself back together. It’s okay and this is what it is right now and this is where we are.”

In 2006, Cynic returned to the delight of scores of new fans who finally understood what the band’s ambient, progressive metal, jazz fusion ramblings from all those years ago were all about: Seeking truth, exploration and embracing life—good and bad.

Masvidal maintains, in the face of all the negativity, that Cynic is a blessing. “It’s completely perfect because, even creatively, it’s been such a wonderful gift to bring Cynic back and know that it can do whatever it needs to do. It’s just a very liberating place for us as artists.”

Cynic released Traced In Air, the follow-up to Focus, in 2008. Successive tours with top metal acts led to headlining tours of their own, as they began to reach the threshold they had so long worked towards. Re-Traced, an EP made up of four alternate versions of songs from Traced In Air and one new song, followed in 2010.

Their new EP, Carbon-Based Anatomy (due out Nov. 15 via Season Of Mist), contains all-new material and, in typical Cynic fashion, is a dense and beautiful offering of celestial proportions. Masvidal’s nebulous guitars give birth to lush chords and weave intricate patterns through an ever-expanding space defined by Sean Reinert’s percussive maelstrom and Sean Malone’s heart-wrenching fretless bass work. Over top of it all are Masvidal’s plaintive vocals. Accentuated by a vocoder to varying degrees on each tune, he sings of transcending human wants, breaking free of the material world and finding truth in life.

Those are the themes that, Masvidal says, make the name of his band so fitting. “The original cynics were like the yogis of Ancient Greece,” he explains. “They were very introspective. They were all about not externalizing happiness. Their whole motto was that we can live like homeless people and we’re still going to be happy… It’s trying to extract truth from any situation.”

The new offering is less a reflection of the turmoil that had occurred in the lives of Masvidal and Reinert and more an expression of their healing from it. “Sean and I moved into a house together and really started taking care of each other as old friends,” Masvidal explains. “We knew that we needed to support each other and create an environment that was safe for us… And we thought it would be an interesting project and experiment to do that and make a record. And it did become that; it was really about being around each other a lot and just showing up for these songs.”

Although the results are extraordinary, the genesis of Carbon-Based Anatomy was anything but. Masvidal already had demos near completion for the next full-length Cynic release, however, management suggested he shift gears and work on an EP, something that they could release in 2011 to keep them in people’s minds and get them on the road again. Masvidal says that every Cynic outing is born from an amalgamation of previously existing material that has not yet been properly recorded. When it’s time to put something out, he looks through his library of ideas and goes with whatever moves him most in that moment.

And Carbon-Based Anatomy is no mere preview to the next full-length; it’s a worthy benchmark in the band’s career. “I’m now so grateful that we made it because it needed to come out,” Masvidal says. “This thing needed to happen. It almost feels like a mini-album to me, it’s not really an EP. It’s a completely realized work; it has a beginning, middle and end. It just happens to be 23 minutes, but it’s all there. It’s just a matter of living with that album because there’s a lot of detail, it’s very dense. Every time you listen to it you’ll hear new things, it’s kind of designed that way.”

Cynic’s music is arranged more similarly to that of a classical ensemble than a rock band with each instrument playing unique parts that work together. Masvidal works alone to build the structures of the songs then brings them to Reinert, the other founding member of the band. After the initial guitars, drums and vocals are written, they send the tracks to Malone, a full-time music theory and composition professor with a doctorate, who then writes and records his bass parts. “What’s amazing about a bass player like Sean Malone is that he won’t even start writing his bassline until he hears the vocal melody,” Masvidal explains. “He’s very interested in every component of the music. He really approaches bass from a compositional standpoint. That’s why I think we’ve always resonated with him, because he’s into serving the song versus serving himself.”

After bass is recorded, Masvidal revisits the arrangement and includes more and more guitar tracks while polishing off the tune. “It’s just this big, colorful tapestry that merges into one sound. It’s always a mixer’s nightmare,” he laughs.

One notable change on this release is more conservative use of the vocoder. But Masvidal maintains it has little to do with improved confidence as a vocalist. “It’s really more of a creative decision based on the moment and seeing what fits and what serves the track as a production versus whether I have to use it or not. It’s like the vocoder is a certain color, and it’s not always appropriate,” he says. He really came into his own as a singer in his and Sean’s band Aeon Spoke, the project they started after Cynic disbanded. “I kept the vocoder element,” he continues, “and I always think I will to some degree with Cynic, because Cynic has that futurism; we’re like half-android, half-human. There’s always that component woven into Cynic’s music.”

Allegiance to the moment is what inhabits every aspect of the band, starting with Masvidal’s spirituality and subsequently affecting the music he creates. Masvidal describes his spiritual focus as Buddhist but insists, “It’s really a question of what’s resonating with you because the truth comes from one source—and I don’t mean God, I mean there’s just one truth. It’s a universal thing and it’s just a question of how you want to get to it because there’s a million and one ways.”

Writing music, though, is another monster. One in which he doesn’t necessarily feel he’s in control of. “I’ve learned that the creative process for me is really messy and very spontaneous and very liberated and really charged,” he explains. “I almost go into this zone and I can’t do a whole lot of anything else. When I was making [this] album, I kind of ignored everybody. I neglected all my friends, it was just like I disappeared for a few months and just buckled down and put in eight to 12-hour days every day.”

“It was almost like something was going through me. I always feel like that. A lot of times you feel like your body is just being used. As a musician, if you’re really kind of coming from a pure place, you don’t really own this stuff because it just kind of happens. I don’t feel like it’s me, I feel like I’m just being used to make this sound. It’s weird but that’s what it feels like.”

With a tour on the way in support of Carbon-Based Anatomy, Masvidal is again prepared for months of unpredictability, which is why they will again not be joined by Malone. Cynic will hit the road with Brandon Giffin, formerly of The Faceless, on bass and Max Phelps as second guitarist. Of Phelps, Masvidal says, “He’s really like the American version of our last guy [Tymon Kruidenier]. He can play like [Allan Holdsworth], he’s a really great musician overall and he can actually growl, which is just like a .01 percent of the population who can actually play guitar like that and do a really amazing growl; just kind of an odd, curious combination of skills.”

The band will tour the U.S. and Canada in November and Europe in December. As for the new record, Masvidal is hoping for a spring or summer 2012 release. When the touring is finished, he and Sean will begin working Cynic’s third record. He alludes that there will be a significant shift in the band’s direction, and then says, “It’s going to kind of get quiet again and we’ll disappear.”


Cynic will headline Day Two of The MetalSuckfest at Gramercy Theatre in NYC on Saturday, Nov. 5. For more information, go to