So, last week I had the fortune of talking to one of my absolute favourite musicians, Paul Masvidal of Cynic. Cynic is a band that needs no introduction among the metal and progressive rock communities, having released two highly influential and respected albums that amalgamated both genres into a unique sound that has aged like wine through the years. The nature and origin of their third full-length album, Kindly Bent to Free Us, reveals a new side of the band and portrays a sound that is uncharacteristically calmer, and more slow-burning than anything we’ve heard from them in the past. Luckily, I got a chance to speak with the legendary frontman himself, and had him dissect the album in his own words, as well as discuss what he foresees to be the next big journey for the band.
Anyway, without further ado, here is my interview (hey, that rhymed!):
Ever since Traced In Air came out, you guys have kind of been steadily peeling away the death metal sounds that were present in Focus, and evolved into a band with a far more abstract sound. Every thing you guys have been doing since the release of Focus, has become more experimental, more melodic, and you guys have even been emulating the cosmic sounds of the ’60s and ’70s a lot more as well. What inspires you guys to direct the music of the band into new and more complex directions with every release?
It’s not really a conscious thing. I think that we’re just artists who process, and we’re just trying to stay honest about our process. We don’t really think it through, or conceptualize it. it’s a very raw, organic, and messy thing to make music. As progressive as it is, the nature of what drives it is pure instinct and feeling. It’s really just trying to stay true at what we do, regardless of what we’ve done before. This same mindset that’s interested in creating new work, and growing and evolving as an artist is the same mind that created Focus and Traced In Air. It’s again, all about staying true to what we do, and not staying in a comfort zone. That’s boring to me. I’m interested in growing, expanding and exploring. I became an artist to explore, and potentially inspire other artists, and seeing where I land. So it’s really a journey. I’m a fan of bands and artists that take their listeners through a journey over the trajectory of their catalogue. That’s fun to me. It’s like going on a ride and enjoying what’s happening. It’s just staying true to process, and I think that’s what drives this whole thing.
What would you say were your influences musically in this album? What kind of stuff were you guys listening to during the recording process?
Well, it’s funny. We’ve been working on this one on-and-off for a while, but when it comes down to that final stretch of really trying to get it done, I try to not listen to anything because I have too much noise in my head. I’m so immersed in the arrangements of each song, and living in a million and one details, that I kind of rarely stray. I’ve probably been more influenced by the sounds of the city I live in and just, you know, kind of… ‘human things’ than by actual other bands.
I’m always listening to all kinds of stuff though. I definitely stay current with new music. I think with this record that — now that I’m a little further away from it, because we delivered it last summer and I’m starting to finally be able to hear it somewhat objectively — I can hear references to some of our early influences like early King Crimson and Rush.
Yeah, I definitely hear that myself. Particularly a ‘Rush vibe’.
Yeah, Sean Malone (bass) and Sean Reinert (drummer/keyboard) are both Rush freaks. That’s how they started playing their instruments. They learned all the Rush songs.
There’s that kind of thing going on. There’s a less obvious metal [sound]. It’s not like ‘metallic’ at all. As a guitarist, I was deconstructing what I thought was a typical Cynic riff, and I wanted to just try things differently. I was like, “I’ve done these kinds of riffs and rehashed them every which way, let me try and open this up, and approach this without all that double-picking.” There was a lot of that deconstructing happening. I think we were just in process. Not really sure of what was happening, or what it was going to sound like, but then we ended up going, “Okay, this is what it is now.” (laughs)
Also, if you look at my Spotify playlist, last night and yesterday afternoon I was listening to Johann Sebastian Bach a lot. I was totally immersed in Bach piano fugues, which are like mini masterpieces. Every single tune is insane. It almost wakes your brain up and you feel smarter listening to that stuff.
I get what you mean.
Have you listened to his fugues?
Unfortunately, no. I can’t say I have. Although, I have listened to some of his other works and other artists who manage to really captivate me in a similar fashion. So, I understand your description of that feeling. There’s a handful of songs in which I get lost in and it becomes kind of like a mind-expanding experience. If that makes sense.
Totally. That’s the vibe. There’s so complete and realized. I always walk away feeling inspired after listening to that kind of stuff. Just thinking to myself, “Man, I want to play my guitar!”
Another album I’ve also been listening to, which came out around the time we we’re working on Kindly Bent to Free Us, was Lonerism. The new Tame Impala album.
Yeah, that was a good album. I’m actually a big fan of theirs as well.
Yeah, I love them. Actually, a friend of mine mentioned that he heard a lot of Tame Impala in us. I was like well, it’s probably the psychedelic ’60s thing, because, we’re definitely a different school. And he was like, “Yeah, but the dreamy kind of aspects are similar.” And I thought it was really cool that he was connecting that dot. Tame Impala have that similar sensibility as the ’60s-Beatles brand of psychedelia, and that’s kind of where we’re coming from too.
I think you’re a different brand of psychedelia though. Cynic, to me, isn’t really characteristic of something “dreamy,” but it is a sound reminiscent of something cosmic. I especially get that vibe in Traced in Air. It’s kind of similar to 2112-era Rush. Whenever I listen to either record, I feel like Dave Bowman in the ‘Beyond the Infinite’ scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You just feel like you’re floating through space. And I love that about Traced in Air because it makes the music feel like this otherworldly and mind-blowing experience.
I love that. I’m a sci-fi geek as well. Like Blade Runner changed my world. I’ve always been interested in futurism. I have a signed painting by Syd Mead. I don’t know if you know him, but he did these amazing renditions of what the future would look like. I actually have a painting of his in my house from 1974, I think. Anyway, he was commissioned to do the 200th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby. To imagine what it would be like in 2074. And it’s insane. He did the painting in 1974, and in the painting he has a kid holding this mini-iPad like device, and these other crazy things that we don’t have yet in terms of the clothing. There’s still horses racing in the course, but there’s these floating spaceship things, and one of them has this LED screen which displays race results and stuff, and it says ‘INRNET’. It’s fucking 1974, man! This guy was like seeing into the future. So, yeah I’m into that stuff. I eat that stuff up. I feel like Robert Venosa’s artwork has that astral, otherworldly thing as well. And I love that ‘interplanetary’ type of sound. That’s always been a component in Cynic’s music.
What I liked about Kindly Bent to Free Us is that it kind of balances a lot of different sounds and influences. You can definitely hear the influences from ’70s progressive rock and jazz fusion bands, but it doesn’t really sound like a ’70s album- in the way that other albums like Opeth’s Heritage or Steven Wilson’s The Raven… did. It sounds very modern. And while it is kind of heavy and loud at times, it’s not exactly a “metal” album, nor is it a typical prog-rock album either. It’s got a kind of perfect blend of everything.
You’re right. It has those reference points, but it’s not really all that vintage. That’s kind of this weird thing with Cynic, I think. Because of our harmonic sensibilities, you know, and maybe it has to do with our jazz interests, there’s like a chromatic quality to our music.
A lot of that classic prog was very blues-based, and just the sounds that the scales used. There’s another scale they used back then, I can’t remember, but Mastodon uses it a lot and it has a vintage type of quality to it. And I feel like we’re doing something different, it’s its own weird thing. It’s a hybrid that has some of those influences, but it’s not as recognizable. It’s like you hear it, and it’s kind of its own hybrid trippiness. It has to do with note choices, and you know, a little vocoder doesn’t hurt. And we also use ambient textures as well. Like Heritage isn’t very ambient, you know?
Yeah, it leaned more towards a folkier and jazzy kind of sound. With some early-’80s Dio kind of metal mixed in.
Yeah, it’s more ‘roots/traditional’. I think this record is us at our most ‘roots’. It’s a real trio, bare-bones kind of sound, but I can’t help myself but still add synth textures. That element kind of gives it a modern feel.
Was it difficult to find and formulate the sound of this album?
You know, it finds you. I can’t imagine sitting down with a pen and paper and thinking, “This is the kind of record I’m going to make.”
You just get in there, you write and record, you stay in process, and then finally you go, “Oh, here it is!” That’s how it happens. As much as there is a conscious aspect, like I was telling you I’m into the futurism and there’s other influences as well, but really you’re just showing up and just doing the work and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like you’re doing it. You just need to put a guitar over your shoulder and play, and the music kind of just writes itself. You know what I mean?
Yeah, totally. The music finds you.
I’m also interested in these “in-between” spaces. I love eliminating genre and kind of doing our own thing. There’s actually a term in Latin called “Sui generis”, and it means “without genre” or “of its own kind,” and I feel like we’ve always fit in that to some degree. Even when Focus came out the metal scene hated us. Everyone was like, “This isn’t metal, what is this crap? They have jazz interludes, and these weird vocals. It’s lame.” (laughs)
That’s funny because those exact characteristics are what drew me to Focus. When I heard “Celestial Voyage” for the first time, I thought it was simply amazing. It was like all over-the-place. It was progressive, it was metal, it was cosmic. I don’t know, it just sounded like the future. It didn’t really sound like anything else in its time. You guys are really great at what you do.
You got it. And I think there were a hand full of people here and there who got it, and we were wondering where you were back then when stuff were being thrown at us on stage. (laughs)
I think you guys were just ahead of your time.
We were kind of outcasts and nerdy kids from South Florida that got hurled into the metal scene, and really by association. Suddenly we were the “death metal” guys. Although we had moments where we were genuinely passionate about death metal and interested in it as an art-form, I never felt like that was what we were making as music.
How were the songs of the album composed? I get the feeling that you wait for inspiration to hit you, so were they the result of endless jamming or was it a more rehearsed process?
Pretty much since Traced In Air, it’s been the same process. I write at home in my studio. I just demo things basically. Originally they’re on acoustic guitar or piano, generally on acoustic guitar and it’s just guitar and vocal throughout the whole tune. Then I listen to each song constantly, evaluating them in my mind until I grow to like what I hear. Which means taking them apart, and putting them back together. There’s a lot of assembling and dissembling in the creative process, and it continues like that until there’s something that feels congruous and solid as a bare-bones idea. And that to me, it’s like your outline, your skeleton. And once you have a foundation like that, you can do anything to it.
So once I have that, and I record it– and I do that at any given time, there’s a pool of Cynic material that we have. I’m writing all the time, so I have shitloads of songs — so I go and purée my favorite things. I’ll give fifteen tunes to the guys, and say, “What do you guys think?”And they naturally gravitate to whatever they’re feeling, and then slowly we start to figure out what the record is. The other guys start writing their parts, and we go into the rehearsal room and start jamming, and that’s where the songs naturally begin to take form. We kind of throw ideas at one another like, “Oh, let’s push this tempo, or let’s expand this section, or let’s make this odd time instead of, you know, whatever.”
There’s this constant playing with rhythms and playing with the arrangements going on in the rehearsal room based on those original demos. Then we all record together, and from those acoustic demos comes the ‘band’ demos with all the other instruments mixed in. Then we maybe go through one more phase of pre-production where we create a more ‘refined’ demo that feels more like the record. And by then, I feel like generally we have all this stuff flushed out. You’ve turned everything inside out. You know, you’ve tried everything. You’ve taken these songs and experimented with every kind of interpretation you can think of without strangulating it. And as an artist, you can pretty much do that forever and just reinterpret a work in many different ways, but there comes a time where you have to stop. And that’s the name of the game with us. It’s almost like an organic thing, where you arrive at that, and say, “It’s ready.” So, you know, it’s a process. A lot of assembling and disassembling. Sometimes you throw away a song and it comes back. It’s a whole relationship with the material. And eventually we come up with something.
As far as I know, you guys haven’t used a producer since Focus — who was Scott Burns. What is it like to produce an album all by yourselves? I know there’s bands like Radiohead who’ve said that they’d be lost without Nigel Godrich, but there’s been others like Led Zeppelin who pretty much produced themselves (well, mostly Jimmy Page) and they, like yourselves, went on to make great records. What would you say, considering your experiences, are the pros and cons of self-producing?
I think there’s different ways of looking at producing. One way is, you get by through trial and error, and try to intimately figure out what you’re doing. It’s a way of being closer to the process and you’re putting the finishing touches on it. I objectively love the idea of a producer, but I feel like it’s difficult to find someone who you relate with and have similar sensibilities, or if their sensibilities are different than yours, but you still trust them. Because it’s almost like having an editor looking at your piece, then tearing it apart, and putting it back together while changing your original vision. And then you’re left wondering, “Does it still feel like me?” A producer can kind of do that with your work. You have to find someone who clicks with you.
I’m sure that person is out there. And I’ve mentioned this in an interview a while back, that I fantasized about Brian Eno producing us. He probably wouldn’t even flinch or look at us (laughs), but he’s produced such amazing and cutting edge music for so many years. He’s one of the most influential artists, and I feel like he would ‘get us’. Or maybe, there’s some 20-year-old out there that might be on the same page too. It doesn’t have to be some legendary cat; it could be my neighbor. I don’t know.
Traced In Air introduced your desire to explore a lighter and more melodic sound. Carbon-Based Anatomy then expanded on that with its own influences from eastern spirituality. And now, Kindly Bent to Free Us finally arrives to a sound that is sturdier and less dynamic than your previous works. Were you guys ever nervous about how fans would respond to a more “restrained” Cynic?
I think there’s always a moment, if you go there — I try not to– where you think about how people are going to respond, and you go, “Oh, shit, they’re going to hate this one, or they might dig this.” Then, I just throw that out the window because I’m not here to make music to see how people respond to it. I make music because I enjoy the process of making music. At the end of the day, it’s really about that. It’s about genuinely approaching this from the heart and knowing that’s what drives this thing. Asking myself, “Do I like it?” You know? “Do I appreciate what’s happening here?” And I feel like a real fan, a real listener, can tune into that if you’re coming from a sincere place with your work. That’s what drives this thing. We really try to not get caught up in what people are thinking.
I avoid getting caught up in reading reviews and listening to commentaries because it will drive me crazy. I just feel like I have to stay focused on the work because I’d be doing this regardless. You know? It’s like you do this ‘to do it’. It’s about being engaged in that process and taking pride in your work. and not obsessing over the results. To me, a record, is like giving birth. As someone who doesn’t have children, these are essentially things that have come out of me. I want them to be treated well (laughs). I want them to be loved, I want them to have a good education, I don’t want them to get beat up in school, all that stuff. As a musician, you want these songs to be well received and to be loved, but ultimately you have to remember that you have no control over that. It’s out of your hands. They’re on their own, and you just have to trust that whatever happens is okay. My job is done. I put them out there. So whatever happens is out of my hands. So I guess, there’s a lot of surrender that goes into that. You just have to trust that you gave it your best and you have to move on.
How would you compare Kindly Bent To Free Us with Traced In Air, Focus, and Carbon-Based Anatomy? Looking back, do you feel it was a greater artistic accomplishment? Do you feel it lives up to the legacy of those albums? Was it, in any way, a more difficult album to construct than the others?
I always feel like, and this is perhaps characteristic of any artist, that the last thing you’ve done is the best thing you’ve done. I feel more aware, and more alive, and more engaged, and I have more experience than ever before. So it’s an accumulation of life that has lead to this record. I can’t even compare it though, honestly, I feel like it is a stand alone work that is representative of itself. I’m proud of it. I feel like the songs in it are the most honest we’ve ever done. It’s the most genuine collection of material. Both melodically and harmonically, it’s incredibly challenging. But what’s so funny is that people hear it is a ‘simplified’ or ‘reduced’ Cynic. And it’s actually more complex than any of our records, but it’s deceptive in that way. And this is kind of the paradox of Cynic. That, although we are a “prog”-band, we try to disguise that as much as we can. The prog factor of Cynic is just who we are as musicians approaching songwriting, but it’s not like, “Here, watch this scale!” or “Check out this riff!”. It’s more just like, “Is this a compelling song? Are you seeing a melody? Are you moved emotionally?”
That’s what I ask myself with this music, “Does it speak to you on a ‘soul’ level?” That’s all that matters with music and art. Who cares about brutality or technicality, prog/not prog, that’s meaningless! No one is going to be talking about that in 20 years. They’re going to be talking about the song.
That’s the mindset for us. And these songs are more honest, more real, and more in touch with who we are than ever. It’s truly the most, naked, transparent Cynic album we’ve ever done.
I’ve had several conversations with friends about our views on Kindly Bent to Free Us. To me, it feels a lot like your personal version of Mastodon’s The Hunter, in the way that it captures the progressive, jazz and metal elements of your past works, but in a more slow-burning and accessible way. It’s more welcoming and easier to digest, I suppose, for new listeners. Do you agree with that? Was it, by any chance, a conscious decision to make an accessible album?
I do. It’s not as bombastic and in your face with the aggression. So what happens is that it becomes a little more palatable, so to speak, and the general listener has an easier time listening to it. And it is a little more ‘user-friendly’. But at the same time, it’s more challenging because the arrangements are long-form. In the previous albums, the songs were short and tight tunes. This stuff burns a bit slower, averaging into 5-6 minute songs. So it has parts that are more accessible, and others that require your attention. And I think that’s kind of the twist of it, and it also makes it fun, in my opinion. I personally love albums that require your attention, and after multiple listens you’re picking out new things and hearing it in different ways.
A friend of mine who has been close to the record since it came out, or since I’ve delivered it, told me the other day that he can still keep listening to it and not get bored. And he’s been listening to it daily, almost for months, and I just thought, “That’s a good sign.” This is a non-musician. Just a listener of the street, who is a big music fan. And he tells me that he’s still absorbing this album, 4 or 5 months later. And I thought, “Man, that’s cool.” I’m glad.
That is cool. I don’t know if I’ve said this yet, but I liked this album. It’s a different shade of you guys. Much like Damnation and Heritage were new and different shades of Opeth, and it was interesting seeing them in that light. And now, Kindly Bent to Free Us reveals this different side of Cynic. So I personally enjoyed seeing this new side of you guys. It was interesting. So yeah, I definitely liked this album.
Well, I hope so. You’re interviewing me right now (laughs). I’m joking (laughs).
So are you guys planning on touring this album by any chance?
A little bit. We haven’t booked a major tour yet, but we are planning on touring. We’re looking at some stuff in the northeast in the summer. And probably some stuff in late spring as well, we might do some West Coast runs. We’re just kind of starting to explore stuff right now. There will be some full tours though. Unfortunately, it’s like a lot of times you come out with a record and everything books for a year. But this time, we’re trying to be more selective of where we play and how we play. I don’t know, I just don’t think were the kind of band that can spend two years on the road anymore. After a record comes out, we’re going to try to be more selective of the shows we do and where. I want them to be more special. But there will definitely be some shows throughout the United States for sure.
For my final question, and this is kind of a cliché one, but what do you predict being the next creative route that Cynic will be taking in the next album or EP? Do you see yourselves exploring the progressive rock side of the band even more, or returning to your heavier roots?
I wish I could answer that question. I think that’s the mystery of the band and our creative process. I have no idea what the next record will sound like. (laughs) I have material, but the way we interpret it could really go any which way. So at this point, your guess is as good as mine. It could be the most brutal record we’ve ever done, or it could be an ambient-new age kind of thing. Or something more in between. So it will definitely be an interesting new chapter, and that’s exciting to me. It’s like moving into another space, and seeing what happens. Who the hell knows.
So, it’s wherever the music takes you?
Yeah, wherever it takes you. You just show up and see what happens.
Kindly Bent to Free Us on Spotify: