Posted on by Oran

2020 was a profoundly strange and difficult for year for the world, but by no means was it an easy year for Paul Masvidal; vocalist and guitarist of legendary progressive-metal act Cynic. Find our exclusive interview below…

In 2015, after a very public and confusing online fall-out within the band, drummer Sean Reinert (Cynic, Death, Aeon Spoke, Gordian Knot, Aghora) decided to part ways after being a core member since the bands conception in 1987.

The sudden news of the bands demise left many fans, the world over, scratching their heads about the future Cynic. In a candid and exclusive interview with Norrie Kivlehan, Paul Masvidal opens up about the bands’ past, present and future…

After being on hiatus from 1994 to 2006, many wondered if a similar theme would follow – however Masvidal (Cynic, Death, Portal, Onward With Love, Aeon Spoke, Gordian Knot) and long-time bassist Sean Malone (Cynic, Gordian Knot, Aghora) went to work on a new album (alongside new drummer Matt Lynch), to ensure the audience that they were still going strong with a surprise single, titled ‘Humanoid‘ back in 2018.

However, in a tragic twist of fate, after the night of 24th January 2020, news began to sprinkle online, reporting the sudden death of ex-drummer Sean Reinert.

To add to more heartache, mere months later, in December 2020, it was announced that bass player, Sean Malone had tragically taken his own life.

One would be correct to guess a total breakdown of the self after being acquainted in the public eye for over half a lifetime with these fellow musicians, and in the situations that arose prior. After taking a year to process reality, Paul Masvidal turned his battle with grief and anguish into something defiant, otherworldly, and refreshingly serene, in the latest Cynic release ‘Ascension Codes‘.

OD Cynic’s last release was ‘Kindly Bent to Free Us‘ in 2014, and you went solo for a little while after that with three album releases titled ‘Mythical‘, ‘Human‘, and ‘Vessel‘ respectively. Can you explain the catharsis behind these releases, and why you went solo?

MASVIDAL – There are two answers to that. ‘Kindly Bent To Free Us‘ was around that touring-cycle when everything imploded with my drummer (Sean Reinert) leading to a lot of chaos.

On social media, the news went around that the band had broken-up, which was news to me and Sean Malone (bass), so, as you can imagine, it was a very disorienting space.

In the dissolution of that friendship, I was grieving. I was grieving the end of that friendship and these records became this vehicle to process that, and to also figure out who I was without Sean as my mirror. I had basically forged my entire musical identity with Sean – we started music as children together, and I never knew who I was without him.

Photo credit: Press

Everything was with him as a reflection, so this was the first time I went on my own, essentially. I had other little things here and there, but this really was an attempt to see myself without that reflection. That’s why there’s barely any drums on it; those songs could have lent themselves well to drums, and I did have a drummer play on a few songs, but it was mostly drum-free, and part of that was: “Who am I without Sean?”.

When I started to write again, I wanted to approach the process and come from a place that was very pure. I didn’t realise this until I started the overall process. I wanted to make this album an offering.

I got really into isochronic tones, and binaural beats, so it was an opportunity to do something different and clear my head. Sean Malone, who was working with me at the time on a new Cynic record, had to leave our work together to look after his mother.

It got more and more intense, as she became more ill, so, I had to give him more and more space to show up for his mom, as he was her full-time caretaker. It was a situation where I found myself with some time to do something different rather than go back into Cynic, because Sean (Malone) needed to ride that time out, and show up for his mother. So, it was really those things; having the time, and realising why exactly I was doing this, which was due to the falling out; the first grievance of the loss of this person in my life.

OD – In 2018, a single called, ‘Humanoid‘ was released – was the intention to release an album including that song?

MASVIDAL – The original intention was that it would be part of a record. It was the first song of a series of material that was gestating, but it didn’t end up making sense by the time that this record got finished, so, it just became this one-off tune.

I think the reason for this was that after everything publicly imploded with the ex-drummer people thought the band was broken up. There was a lot of confusion out there. Malone and I said: “let’s get this one done”, which was the most furthest along piece of music we had towards a new record, and just put it out there to show that this band still exists, and to also introduce Matt Lynch, our new drummer, which was also the point of that. The record ultimately took so many new turns, that it didn’t make sense for ‘Ascension Codes‘.

Photo credit: Toontrack

OD – 2020 was an incredibly raw and painful year with the tragic death of two long-time, core band members. I was aware that you dropped everything in life to focus purely on staying alive and functioning. It was definitely a turning point in life for you, as it would be for anyone. What did you do to cope?

MASVIDAL – I learned how to grieve. I’m somebody who has known grief in different ways throughout my life, but this was the most direct experience of grieving that I’d ever encountered.

I’ve lost family members and friends before, but I never anticipated the loss of two life-long friends, who were bandmates and had an incredibly intimate relationship with. They were really like brothers; they were my family. I loved them. It was a journey into the heart of grief and letting myself fall apart completely, and not put myself back together.

I didn’t have to put on a face like: “I”m okay and I’m strong”, I just let myself be in the heart of the sadness. I lived there for a while and really got intimate with it, and that was the only way. I wont even say through, because there is no “through” – there’s just change, and it’s always there. There’s no ‘other side‘ of it; there’s the journey into it, it gets integrated into your life and your personality.

I feel changed, fundamentally, by the experience. I’ve lost my two life-long mates. One of the most difficult parts about this type of grief is that suicide is unique in itself with Malone, but with Reinert there was that unresolved aspect of the relationship where we weren’t on good terms, and then they’re.. gone. It’s just like, “fuck”.

With suicide, it’s such a unique type of grief. On a more practical level, beyond falling apart and not putting myself back together, I joined a suicide survivors Zoom group which I found very helpful. Just to hear people tell their stories. What was really powerful about it was there were a lot of parents – there were an average of twenty to thirty people in these rooms, and I’d say a third or half of the people were parents who had lost their kids to suicide. It’s heart wrenching. It helped me a lot to hear other peoples stories, and to realise we’re all grieving in a similar way.

There are some threads of connection to that type of grief, unlike someone who died in a car accident or died of a disease. Suicide is very unique. I’m still processing it every day. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think of them. You just try and knead it and make friends with it, and trust it. I try to not argue with reality because you just don’t win, you just have to roll with it.

I mentioned this to another friend; I thought I was supposed to die. Right when I found out after Malone, because I was already grieving Reinert, I was immediately like: “oh no, am I supposed to die now? Is this how this story ends?”. I contemplated my own suicide. I thought if I don’t take my own life right now, I’m going to get hit by a truck.

OD – Like Final Destination level stuff?

MASVIDAL – Totally! I was convinced that it was my turn next. It was a weird psychological phantom that entered my brain, and I dealt with that for a while.

I was really exploring the concept of: “I think I’m supposed to die now”. There were so many unexpected twists and turns that came out of that. You never really come out the same, it’s just something you have to work with and it becomes part of your life.

I don’t want to carry it like a cross or a burden, but these are the things that make us more beautiful, I think. If you can survive these levels of hardship, it makes for a more interesting and beautiful person; I feel like some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met have suffered the most.

OD – I noticed that despite still having the classic ‘Cynic‘ aura, ‘Ascension Codes‘ has a significantly different approach in sound, almost ethereal or more slowed and soulful. I’ve always seen Cynic to be a band that focused on the technicality of the instruments and the performance, while that skillset is absolutely still there, it doesn’t ring in the forefront, compared to other Cynic albums. I guess this is because since this is an album full of emotional outpour and release, that a less technically aggressive approach was needed?

MASVIDAL – That’s a big compliment. With every Cynic release we were always trying to not put the technicality in the forefront. That’s why we didn’t fit in with a lot of progressive bands, we were never like; “watch me play”. We didn’t have extended guitar solos and twelve minute songs – we were never that kind of prog band.

We were more interested in conveying ideas in a very direct way, but we happened to be skilled musicians, so it had a technical quality, but it was never like; “this is the badge that we’re wearing”. So, when you say it obviously has that but doesn’t come across as strong as the others, that’s awesome, because that’s actually the goal – to hear a song to convey a feeling, and not get caught-up in technical stuff.

OD – Not a fan of; “look at me wank this guitar” then?

MASVIDAL –  Sometimes it’s cheap! For me, none of that stuff holds up well and it doesn’t survive.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s something impressive about people who always have that high-level of mastery, but ultimately it can feel very sterile, and doesn’t really have any meaning.

It’s like; “is that all you have to say – you’ve accomplished physical condition on your instrument but what’s the content? What are you really trying to say?”. Chops are a dime-a-dozen these days, especially with guitar players. There are twelve year-old guitar players shredding for days, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s how you use it. Once you have that kind of skill and vocabulary as a musician, it’s learning how to not let it get in your way. Like figuring out how to say things without being so self-absorbed, because you have chops – you really have to get past that and be more; “what am I really trying to say here?”.

There are some things I play with Cynic that are deconstructed and go against technique to make it come across right. The message and the vibe always takes precedence over technical skill. Obviously, this record has a very unique journey, and it has a very ethereal overlay, it’s how it all sits and with help from the vocals and how it was produced, it’s definitely its own work; separate from the other albums.

OD – There was a lot of isochronic tones and binaural beats in the ‘Carbon Based Anatomy‘ EP (2013) and the concept of these sounds being a means of vibrational mind and body healing crossed my mind.

There is a similar but of course much stronger play on these sounds within ‘Ascension Codes‘ – particularly the; ‘in between songs‘. Was this the intention? Was this album not only to gain healing through creative and musical release, but also through the type of sounds and frequencies used?

MASVIDAL – Absolutely. It’s completely next level on ‘Ascension Codes‘, it’s the most refined version of what we were doing in a more subtle way. It got more literal on this record because I was trying to use all those esoteric modalities of sound to create a vibe, and produce some sort of healing.

The whole thing around those interlude tracks is also beyond the codes themselves, these little messages that are tucked in them, is almost like a rest between the main tracks. You have these moments of just air; you go back to the meditation and focus on your breath and then go back into the journey.

In a way it’s kind of coming home and then going back out. I saw that a lot of people didn’t really understand it. There are nine interludes and they are serving a very specific purpose in the context of this whole work – some people are getting it. The record has been out a month now, and people are slowly getting it. It’s not an easy listen! It takes time and you have to kind of sit with this stuff, and I feel if people do, it will reveal itself and offer a lot of beautiful gifts.

OD – I picked them up as workout rests – for example doing a warm-up, doing a regime like 25 push-ups, taking a 30-second breather, and then going into another regime before another break; but with this it’s in terms of listening.

MASVIDAL – It’s almost like a palate cleanser, because the songs are so dense and have so much information that these interludes are almost like cleaning your ears out. It’ll make more sense when I do this film – that’s another part of the story. People will start to go; “Oh! I get it”. There’s a whole concept to this that will be visually represented when the film is made, but I don’t want to give away too much with that.

OD – What are the strange song titles of the interludes?

MASVIDAL – They’re tone sounds. They’re related to these certain types of codes that are based on certain studies I’ve been doing, these ‘ascension teachings‘. The idea is if all of those titles are put together, they form a mantra, almost like a phrase, and when you tone them it activates energy centres in your body.

The idea, which will again be revealed more down the road, is that they are the tones and codes. In ancient Tantric and Indian teachings there are these things called ‘Bijas‘ that are called “Seed Sounds“. They can have a very “HOOMH” sound – these are similar to that, but more, dare I say, alien/outer-space sounding rather than the old Indian mythicism version of it – but more like trans-dimensional tone sounds. They’re the codes, but all kind of broken up, so, when you put them all together and tone them this is how they work. This will be revealed later, in terms of how to use them.

OD – Ascension Codes‘ has no bass player. The role was switched to a synthesizer to fill that job. Was this to experiment with a new sound, or because you didn’t want to feel as if you were completely replacing what would have been Sean Malone’s duties?

MASVIDAL – It was impossible for me to replace Sean. First of all, the gift of being able to work with a musician of that level – I feel like he’s one of the great bass players of our time, I don’t think people realise the scope of Malone’s skill, or how ridiculous he was as a bass player, to the highest level. When Malone would work on music with you, he would give you so many ways to interpret a song. He had such a vast and deep vocabulary, and he would say “we could do this”, or, “we could do that”, so, I was always spoiled by having the best bass lines ever.

I thought; “I can’t possibly get another regular 4- or 5-string bass player, this is not going to work, it doesn’t make sense”. Not only was it too close to Malone’s loss, but anyone I tried to put in his seat to try make sound like him, just wouldn’t be fair to the bass arrangements. The only way that could get turned on its head, was to get a different instrument to replace the bass.

I had known Dave Mackay (synthesizer) through Plini and mutual friends. We had performed together in the past and had a good connection. He had done some acoustic gigs with me in LA. I noticed with his left hand he has this certain groove that is like a bass sensibility. Like a pianist, they have the left hand playing bass and the right playing the upper register – he just got that left hand groovy bass thing going on which is part of his style. It was like; “wow”, this guy has the vocabulary and he is a beast of a musician, and I thought; “this could work”.

He’s deep into the Moog synthesizers – these analogue vintage synths that have a very organic sound to them. It’s funny, because I feel like it’s one of those things where if I hadn’t have said anything about it being a synthesizer – you know, if I just said; “Dave Mackay – bass” on the record, and didn’t specify ‘bass/synthesizer’,  I’d say half of the record sounds like a really killer bass player! You know what I mean?

OD – Yes, to be honest I didn’t realise it was a synthesizer until someone mentioned it, and I had to check it for myself!

MASVIDAL – Yes, most people said the same thing! It would fool the most sophisticated ears. That’s what it is; it’s just killer bass lines, which just happened to be played on a different instrument.

The difference with this also is having someone like Mackay and those Moogs, is the instrument has this incredible low-end sub-frequency, so, it’s really fat and heavy. It gives the record this depth and a real low-end heaviness to it, which we never had before.

Malone was a fretless player and he was a very mid-range player, so, it was oftentimes difficult to get his sound to sound ‘right‘ because it was in the same range as a lot of the guitar stuff. We were always kind of caught-up with each other, in a way. The Mackay sound has this density, so it kind of becomes way more supportive in terms of the production, and makes everything sound bigger.

OD – Definitely – there are sounds and frequencies coming from all directions in the songs that it’s hard to decipher the layers – it’s huge.

MASVIDAL – Yes, thank you – it is. The deep role the bass plays in this record sits in its own place. It supports everything and becomes this womb-like low-end that holds all the upper frequencies and grounds the record. If you hear the record in a proper room with really good bass, you’ll really start to hear it. Like; “holy shit, this is huge”.

OD – How do you feel after the release of this album? Did you ever feel like dropping it, like the content became too heavy to sit through? Or do you find the record helped you release so much emotion that you’re glad to have completed it?

MASVIDAL – I literally thought this record would never get finished. I was convinced it would not happen and that the band was over. It was the most difficult creative process I’ve ever been in, in terms of to have finished this and what I’ve been through.

A lot of times I went into the space of thinking; “It’s not supposed to get done, this is the end of the journey”. Then I started to realise I wanted to finish for my band mates, for myself, for the audience, for the fans who have been so patient with us.

I really had to push myself to do everything possible to finish this, and I’m so relieved that this happened because I feel like it produced a really interesting work of art. You couldn’t ever put these circumstances together any other way – it’s so unique to the story of this record, and here it is captured. I’m grateful that I found the fortitude to continue and to finish – it annihilated me; I don’t mean to be dramatic but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, if not the hardest. To finish this record completely took everything out of me.

OD – Especially after three decades of making Cynic records with the same core members up until now, it must feel weird or alien.

MASVIDAL – Yeah, totally disorienting. To get it done without my guys. I mean, I have these new guys who are brilliant, but they weren’t playing the same kind of role, because I didn’t have the history with them, it was just… yeah. I do feel relieved, and grateful, and I’m pinching myself all the time, thinking; “The records finished, and it’s out! I did it!”. I didn’t think this day would come.

OD – As you mentioned earlier, there is talk of a film correlated to ‘Ascension Codes‘, which is connected to Martina Hoffman and Robert Venosa’s artwork (ed: Venosa’s work is renowned for being the cover of every Cynic release, up until ‘Ascension Codes‘ where his wife Hoffman took this duty). Can you elaborate more on this?

MASVIDAL – What I want to do, and there’s a real concept and outline for the story which is of course connected to the record, is kind of like a hero’s journey type of thing – using that mythic structure that Joseph Campbell created – but definitely more ‘alien‘ than a classic hero’s journey.

The idea is to make this immersive visual journey into the story of the record but using the artwork of Robert Venosa and Martina Hoffman – two of whom are brilliant artists, and it completely blows my mind that these two legendary, incredibly inspired beings that make this insane art – their stuff has never been properly animated.

We’re in a day and age where you can take 2D paintings and animate them and make them fucking awesome. You can turn them into these things that become alive in a visual and a video sense. I’ve been working with this guy Jonatan; he and his girlfriend have this art duo called Greymar. He’s really taking this on and he understands their work as painters, as he has a fine art background, and he’s deep into the new technologies and immersive stuff.

My thinking was rather than a traditional tour, I would go and take this finished film to domes, science centres, unorthodox theatre spaces and have this screening of the film, but also I would play some songs, perhaps do a Q&A. I really want to push the envelope with the film and do some new things. I thought maybe we could have an art opening featuring local artists, and create this community around the work and do something different rather than just touring clubs and pumping out a set as a band. Just mix it up. This feels so exciting to me; this record lends itself so well to that visual environment, that I think it would be cool to take it all the way and have it as a companion piece to that album.

That’s where I’m at next; I’m not big on planning things but this is where my heart and mind are going now, to focus on this film.

OD – So, a full 4D experience?

MASVIDAL – Yeah, fully immersive. There’ll probably be a VR version where you enter this space and you can interact with elements and have that as the immersive side of it, and then the actual film.

OD – And when people show up at the door, they get complimentary mushrooms and tabs of acid, right?

MASVIDAL – Exactly! [laughs]

OD – So, stepping outside of music, there’s the movie, but you’re also venturing into another realm of creativity in the form of orgonite models, and crop circle amulets. How did this come around?

MASVIDAL – I’ve been fascinated and obsessed with that stuff. All my tattoos are crop circle based, and I’ve just been a total crop circle nerd for a long time. I started to work with my hands making orgonite pieces, and I was doing these little unusual types of pyramids that were based on crop circles.

I started to make these little alien faces that are like little pendants, and I’m still doing that. In getting into the geometry stuff I started to get curious about making jewellery; making little sculptural crop circle amulets. As a musician who spent his whole life making music you realise you’re making things that you can’t touch, and it’s always an auditory experience.

For me, this is the first time I’ve worked with my hands to make objects and it feels like another expression of the creative process that I’m grateful to be entering. I’ve never done that, I’ve always been music based, so I love this tactile-hands-making-things stuff.

OD – What’s next for the entity called Paul Masvidal, the person who is definitely not an alien?

MASVIDAL – Really just the film is where my focus is at now, making more orgon and working with the amulets.

I’m starting to write music again too. I’m going into a more roots place, exploring ideas and journaling a lot; trying to have some breakthroughs with my personal writing – just writing down the bones trying to access some deeper stuff, which I think is a way for me to work through some deeper layers of grief.

I also plan to just continue making stuff; that’s all I know how to do really. I have some little music collaboration projects in mind that are coming to the forefront, so, I expect this year to be pretty active. I feel better when I make stuff, I feel like it helps everything.

OD – Finally, any words of wisdom?

MASVIDAL – Hmm. It’s so subjective to do that and I feel so humbled. I mean, I guess I’m just any other human being that has it’s own unique life experience, and that is worth something.

I’ll end it with this idea that for me these last few years has been a healing into life and death. It really has been this annihilation and rebirth. Getting in touch with something you can’t ever manufacture, you have to have the experience, to know.

I guess what I would say, and this is what has helped me through this, is to tread lightly, stay curious, and stay open. Stay open to that sense of humility that’s going on here – it’s a very incredibly profound thing to be alive. Go beyond the small me, and go beyond the little story of ourselves and try and reference that larger view, when possible, and realise there’s a lot more going on than just the story of your little life. I find one way to do that is to be of service to other people and show up for the world.

One thing I realise when coming out of long meditation retreats is that you start to see the suffering of the world, so clearly because you’re so empathic and raw.

I’ve had those moments where I was so overwhelmed where I felt like I was a baby coming back into the world and thinking; “Oh my god, this world… everyone is suffering”. You start to really see the pain and the hardship of this thing that we’re doing, and everyone is running around trying to make their lives work. It’s a really intense situation that we’re in, and to be connected to that and to know that that’s always there.

Some people are more in tune with that naturally, probably based on whatever traumas they’ve gone through, whereas others have a complete disconnect, and they’re totally in a material world.

I would just say tread gently, stay humble, and keep the witness alive. This situation is a lot more than what meets the eye. There’s a lot more going on here and it’s good to be always slightly aware of that – constantly – to have that reference point with everything; with every conversation, with every problem, everything you face; to have that bigger perspective on the nature of reality.

It helps and you feel more connected to everything, and you start to realise that we’re all in the same boat, we’re all suffering, we’re all in this together.

When you feel the interconnectedness of all species I think that helps to alleviate some of the suffering. For me, it’s like; “Oh wait, this isn’t just my stuff, everyone’s dealing with this to some degree”, it helps and it gets you out of ‘the little me‘. That kind of suffering is very self-absorbed whereas the suffering of the world is more profound and beautiful.

There’s this Tibetan teacher I love called Chogyam Trungpa, and he wrote about something called ‘The Genuine Heart of Sadness”, but it was a courageous heart.

In the depths of your sadness is this most courageous and beautiful strength, and if you can connect with that you can connect with the entire world. For me, that is a very beautiful way of connecting with what we’re talking about right now.

To just open yourself up to it completely and let it rip you open.. it’s almost like we’ve gone full circle here, we’re back to the first question! But yeah, I really connect with that; the heart of sadness, but with courage and beauty.

Norrie Kivlehan

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