I Feel Like Cynic’s Job Is Always to Polarize Its Audience: an Interview with Paul Masvidal

Cynic’s newest, Kindly Bent To Free Us, is the most polarizing album they’ve released. Well, since their last one. Or maybe the one before that. If you’re a Cynic fan hopefully by now you’re used to getting the album that the group set out to make, instead of the one you wanted. But really, isn’t that the appeal of Cynic? 25 years of uncompromising artistic vision. Kindly Bent To Free Us largely eschews modern metal recording techniques and leaves the band far more naked than fans are used to hearing them. It’s refreshing to hear musicians as talented as guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal, drummer Sean Reinert, and bassist Sean Malone without the layers of mixing obfuscation. You’re allowed to simply hear them play.

I caught up with the Cynic gutiarist to discuss the new mentality behind the new record, the difficulties of having very complex sounds in the days before the tools fit into two rack spaces, and the band’s lengthy period of hiatus, and more.

What are your thoughts on the new album? I’ve seen some reviews pop up and it seems that reactions are two-fold: on one hand it’s the least aggressive record the band has done. But it also seems less commercially-minded: longer songs, more exploratory.

Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like Cynic’s job is always to polarize its audience. We’ve managed to do that very well with every release. And this album in particular, although it may not be as [heavy], it’s also more difficult to digest because of the longer songs and bigger, longform arrangements, versus what we used to do. Our previous releases were very tight, short arrangements. As I see it, this is just another step in our creative process. It’s where we are now, and that’s all we’re interested in doing is just staying honest about where we are as artists, as writers, and as musicians, and just trying to capture things as transparently as possible.

So who played on the record besides you and the two Seans? Was there a second guitar player, or did you play all the guitar parts?

It’s just me. It’s a trio album. That’s one of the big differences compared to the other records. Although I did all the guitars on [Carbon-Based Anatomy] as well, that was a really layered kind of thing. And Cynic is characteristically a very layered-sounding group, especially with the guitars. On these [new] songs I intentionally went the other direction where I tried to limit it to one main guitar part for most of the material, and occasional counter parts or a keyboard that I would record. But I’d say 90% of it is just one main guitar riff, one driving bassline, and a drum part. It’s really a real trio sound.

So are you going to be touring on it as a trio? Or do you need to take out another guitarist for when you play older stuff?

We’d love to do a trio tour but because we’d have to play older material we’d bring a second guitarist. Max [Phelps] has been with us for a few years now and he can do the growl for those songs if we do that stuff, and handle guitars and even keys if needed. So we’ll probably tour as a four-piece. That’s the plan, I think.

So how are you going to handle the arrangements of the new material? Just a lot of doubled parts, or are you going to mix it up, embellish a little?

I think it’ll vary from song to song. I intentionally laid out and just sang for some stuff and had Max play the main guitar part. I think we’ll just, depending on the context… you know, live is a different animal anyway, so I figure we’ll give it more beef maybe and double up a lot of the guitar parts, which happened on the record regardless. So it’s either going to be that: a lot of doubling what’s happened on the record or just leaving space and not playing, which will be either me or him. We’re going to go on a song-by-song basis.

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How was the record recorded? I know you do a lot of scoring work. Do you have a home studio? Do you still go to an external space to track your guitars?

Yeah. We played the basic tracks at this studio called Perfect Sound. A friend of ours, Jason [Donaghy], runs it. It’s in Hollywood. It’s a house hidden in the hills with a really crazy console and a great drum room. We went for this really transparent thing, so the drums sound very drum-like, versus processed and big, which is a lot of what Sean’s done in the past: these really big drum sounds. We went smaller and pure. Everything has that kind of transparent quality to it. So I went to that studio and I played along with Sean always, just to get the vibe going, and when he gets a take he likes we just move on to the next song. We were very old-school about it: no grids, no click-tracks. It’s very elastic, the performances, and we push and pull on purpose just to give it an organic quality because that’s how the stuff comes together.

I ended up borrowing my friend Tosin Abasi’s… he plays in a band called Animals As Leaders, I borrowed his Fractal amp rig setup. I didn’t have the new Fractal and he was telling me about it.

He has the [Axe-FX] II and you have the original one?

Yeah, I have an Ultra and he has the II. So I went in there and modified and created [tones]. I spent way too long actually. [laughs] That’s the thing with those amps. I love them but there’s just too many damn menus, and you can live inside a menu of a sub-menu for weeks. So I spent as long as I could, as long as my patience would endure, to find a dirty tone that I liked, and a clean sound. And the whole point with this record again, in comparison to previous records, is that I always had a thousand tones: this semi-distortion, this fuller distortion, this other distortion, this clean, this synth clean. Just tons and tons of patches. And on this record I said I just want one good dirty sound and one good clean sound and that’s it. Maybe a semi-dirty. But I want most of the record to be two guitar sounds if possible, and I was really going against everything I did in the past, but again this was about just making things very transparent and raw and naked, and just trying to let the songs stand. So I think I ended up with this rig that was an impulse of a boutique, suped-up Marshall. This guy [Dave] Friedman makes them.

Was that a Friedman Brown Eye?

Yeah, it was a Brown Eye.

I think that’s what a lot of the Axe users tend to be using. Like the Periphery guys use the Brown Eye model also.

Yeah, I really liked that. I did this Brown Eye hybrid kind of thing. The tone of it was like a Bogner or something, but some kind of couple of amps, and I know that the Brown Eye was a big part of it. I just liked the tone: it was not too heavy, not too clean. A lot of the guitar stuff on the record is very open voicings so I wanted to get the clarity if possible, which means less overdrive, usually, but still trying to give it some girth. So it’s always that fine line. I feel like it’s an endless search for the perfect tone, which has never happened. You’re always hunting, you know? And I used his amp, that Port City setup with the cabinet. It has Celestions or something. It was a 212.

Yeah I saw that in one of their videos. I think the last time I saw Animals As Leaders they had the Axe-FX going into it, but I think they had it going into the input and not an effects return, which I thought was interesting.

I have no idea. I’m not sure how he’s running it now. It was just an experiment and I liked how it sounded so I just went with it. And again, I wasn’t trying to fuss too much. And they brought up this whole thing about reamping so I did a direct DI track, but just the idea of that freaks me out, because for me a lot of recording is the tone which I’m recording with. I’ll mute differently, and my whole feel will change depending on what’s coming out of the amp. So I don’t like to go back and reamp. That could be madness for me, and I feel like I could spend another year changing the tone. [laughs]

It seems to be the new hot thing, where a lot of bands, especially in the metal scene, don’t even consider the tone when they’re tracking, and it’s just “let’s track with whatever. We’ve got a 5150 around, whatever. And then we’ll just reamp later.” Which I don’t totally get, but I guess it saves time.

Yeah, it’s one of those things where I’m trying to just trust in where my head’s at during the process. I’m in the middle of this material: what do I hear? And I’m definitely old school in the sense that I like to play to a tone, and I feel like even subtle variations in that tone are going to affect the way I play. We’ve always been that way: I don’t think we’ve ever reamped anything. We’ve always just gotten the sound. And we usually record with effects too. We just commit to tape with everything. What I gave the mixer was everything, just ready. It was more about just EQing and compression. That was really his job.

Since Sean was going for a more natural drum tone, and you had this straightforward philosophy, did you consider using analog amps in the studio?

I actually did bring in, at one point… what was it, a Matchless? A tube setup. I ran through a Diezel at one time. And I did a few different kinds of analogy old-school things, but it’s funny. I ended up back in that Axe, the Fractal. And I think it was just something in the… I don’t know. I think maybe if I had a physical Friedman there or something it would have changed. And there were moments with that Matchless that I felt were close. But in the end somehow I was able to get just a little bit more precision in the tone I was looking for with that, that I couldn’t get with those other amps. I think I have a playlist of all of my takes of all those different amps. But I ended up with that Fractal setup. I ended up going “this is the one” and double-tracking that one and sticking with it. It was a pretty obvious decision in the studio.

And [while recording] the clean stuff, everything was pretty much the Axe too, using different kinds of [amp models]. I think it was primarily the Bogner [model], or Budha something. And then I have the Strandberg guitar for everything, which was nice. I was using all Strandberg. I was using this prototype of my signature model. And then I was using this other one, this number 35 which I have now, which has Seymour Duncans, which is awesome too. But the EMGs are the main dirty [pickups] on the record.

You just switched somewhat recently right? To using all Strandbergs?

Yeah. In the past year, basically, we spent designing the signature model. And I had the 35 as of last year. That’s when I met with Ola [Strandberg], when he was here for NAMM. We talked about making something. So it’s really been just under a year.

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The one thing that I noticed with Cynic that’s kind of interesting, although I guess it’s a little less so with the new record… especially way back in the day, the band always stood out as being more organic, a little more of an, I don’t know, spiritual kind of vibe than other bands. But it’s always been a very digital kind of sound also. And I think there’s an interesting dichotomy in that with the band.

It’s one of those things where we’re obviously interested in technology and exploring the more modern elements, but at the same time I kind of dig this more organic, earthy kind of band as well. I think a lot of cynic has been that contrast of something really earthy looking into the future or something. [laughs] A marriage of something old-school meets new school. And it’s very much been our thing from the beginning: both worlds colliding in a weird way. A lot of that is the harmonic sensibility with the songs. The writing can be more modern, so you marry that with a more organic approach and somehow it shifts. There’s definitely a lot of different things interacting there that can affect the way it’s heard and felt.

I feel like there’s no final answer here. The production is an ongoing, moving environment that’s never really set. I just know as a modern listener that I’m really burnt out on Pro Tools production, and hyped-up mixes which are very common in metal. Everything’s shock value impressive, but then over time your ears fatigue and you don’t want to keep listening to it. It works at first, but then you just burn out. It’s too grating. So we’ve been going intentionally more organic and dull. I just feel like, over time, it stands better. It’s not about [being current]. It’s about trying to capture something that isn’t “hot” in that sense. It’s a different approach. And like you were saying this reamping, and retooling of drums especially… like Sean’s never been a trigger guy. He’s a real drummer. He’ll play the kick drum softer and harder, and hyper, hyper sensitive snare work: ghost notes all over the place. So it’s all about capturing that in the purest way. And a lot of times what’s going to translate is something less processed. So on this record it became more about that. Even the vocals—there’s a lot of vocal layering but it’s not super processed. It’s pretty pure.

Definitely one of the most noticeable elements as Cynic has progressed, ever since when you first introduced the melodic vocals, although they were [run through a] vocoder back on Focus, is how every single record has been less processed on the voice. Has that been you honing your craft as a singer, more confidence?

I think it’s just me being an artist in process, and bored with using the same things: trying to explore more, finding unique ways of approaching. Vocally I’ve just found that something less processed translated better with these songs. I mean, we could have a record in the future that’s completely over the top vocoder. This is just where I’m at right now. It just felt most appropriate. I’ve explored processing the vocals on these songs. At times sometimes I’ve had a few moments there where I was like, “should I really…?” And then I would listen to it and didn’t feel it. I was like, “no, I want a natural voice here.” We’ve done our share of vocoder and it was time to try something new. That’s not to say we won’t return to it but it’s just where we are at this point.

I feel like I enjoy singing, and the problem with the vocoder is that you have to sing to it. It’s a flawed device, still to this day. [laughs] It’s almost like I became a bad singer learning to use a vocoder. I couldn’t just sing in the way I wanted to sing. So there’s a lot of freedom in reducing that quality, and it shows especially on this new material. I think that’s why I got so vocal happy, because I felt less restricted in a way, and I could just freak out and add tons of harmonies, and sing in a more fluid way. The vocoder has this mechanical, precise… you know, there’s not a lot of in-betweens. It has that pitch-perfect thing. It just makes you approach things differently as a singer.

Back in the early ‘90s when you first started integrating [the vocoder], especially live, how much of a nightmare was that to set up? The technology obviously was pretty different then than it is now. Were there glitches? You had a keyboard triggering it, right?

I had this touch pad device. It was this little Digitech effects processor that you could screw around with, and it had this weird algorithm. I remember talking to one of the techs over at Digitech, when I was trying to discover it again for the reunion tours, and he was like “yeah, that algorithm’s really weird and we haven’t made that since.” It was a bizarre sound. So that was run with the keyboard and then over time I discovered this modified version of it using the T.C. Helicon thing with an octave above and below, doing different coloration things with the way it was treated. That gave it this vocoder quality and I could remove the pitch thing from it and just sing, but you just found that if you just sung in between the notes a little or went up a scale it would respond weird. [laughs] It’s not perfect. So there were a lot of little things like that that I just had to learn how to use. That’s partially why live, even if I use a vocoder setup I have to have an in-ear. I have to hear my voice very clearly to work with the vocoder so that it translates. Otherwise it gets wacky if you’re just singing to sing.

Now I’m just using that T.C. setup. I have a few different patches, but there’s definite a few that are the “Cynic voice” that’s become a staple for us. But more and more, even on Traced In Air, I sang everything naturally and had the vocoder as a separate track, and then we just blended it: pure vocoder with natural voice. It was a decision of how much vocoder vs. how much natural. It would be interesting to hear what that record would be like with less vocoder, which would be easy to do if we ever remixed it.

It’s one of those things that I feel like I could still explore a plethora of effected vocals, but I’ve found that my voice, over time, has a unique, interesting quality to it that I never really exploited in the context of cynic. And I enjoy singing really mellow against a more abrasive kind of sound, so I think it’s an interesting contrast in what we’re doing. So it became more about that: just capturing the dynamic of this plaintive kind of spoken voice vibe with this heavier tone. That’s one thing that the record has: there’s not a lot of cleans. It’s a distorted guitar-driven album for sure.

One thing I’m curious of: as I see a lot of bands that are using Axe-FX in the studio a lot of bands tend to even advertise: “we’re using the exact same tones in the studio as we are live.” And some bands I hear with Axe-FX live sound great, and some of them sound really muddy, and I’m wondering if some of that is because they have the capability to take those exact studio sounds and use them live. But maybe that’s not always ideal, since live sound can be a different beast. Well, I guess your Axe-FX is actually a different model than the one you used in the studio, but how do you approach your live sound vs. your recorded sound. Do you EQ it differently, or approach it differently?

Yeah. I think live is such a different animal, and live you’re running through, generally, a mono PA where everything’s being essentially cheapened. So I think people being really caught up in those kinds of specifics, it never translates live, so you have to just think in the context of what’s going to sound best. A lot of times, at least at the beginning of a tour, I get in the room with our engineer and I say “what needs to happen to my tone? Do I need more low end? Do I need to cut more? Is it too dirty? What’s happening here? Are my cleans level with my [distortion]?” And we try to do almost a guitar sound rehearsal with the sound guy, to get things sitting right, so he’s doing less behind the board.

Especially the level of detail that we spend is just lost in a live setting [laughs], so you have to go more broad brush stroke and raw, and think what’s going to make the song come across most effectively without getting too hyper caught-up in those details, because no one’s going to hear that other than you.

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Whenever I get the chance to talk to bands that were playing years and years ago, I think about how the tones that were available then were so different, and so much more limited. Cynic was trailblazing the ability to jump between so many different genres, which was a lot harder to do back in the early ‘90s. What were you and Jason playing through on the Focus tours? And how difficult was it to achieve the breadth of tones?

Was I running an MP-1? I think I was. Yeah, at that time I was a rack guy. I had a 15-space rackmount. My main preamp was an ADA MP-1 and I used an ADA midi controller. I had a Roland GM-70 guitar synth, which was really cool back then because it had Portamento [pitch glide between notes, instead of set intervals]. You could assign custom midi controllers to the unit on your guitar. It was just really hip for its time. It was very clunky in terms of a big, bulky thing, but what you could do with it was phenomenal. It just had this natural, flawed, organic kind of thing that was very cool at the time.

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And I had a Digitech, and then a Rane: different EQs that were programmable. So the EQs were constantly changing the guitar synth. And then with the guitar synth I had a, I think, a Yamaha TX which81Z, was an FM analog old-school synth module. And I think I was using a Rocktron Intellifex back then. I had a bunch of different stuff, and it was all interacting. It was kind of a midi nightmare, but it was functional.

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Did you ever have any sync issues?

Yeah. You just had to constantly stay on it because one little cable goes and your whole rig is done. [laughs] It was a lot of different moving parts. And I think that’s the appeal of these modern amps now. You can just have one that does it all, or close enough. I even at one point brought out the guitar synth setup, when we did the reunion stuff, and over time I was like “no one will notice.” And no one did. I was like “okay, this is fine.” It just becomes more about a practical kind of approach with performance. Back then you just didn’t have a choice. You had to have numerous devices. But it was fun. It was the rig I had at the time and I loved that old technology, but then again we’ve come a long way, especially in the digital realm. So things sound a lot better now, I think.

There was a big gap of time between Focus and Traced In Air, and it seemed like the band grew in notoriety over that time, so what was once a cult grew became a big reunion when you guys came back. How much of that do you think was just the case of an album that was unique and needed to spread by word of mouth, and how much was maybe a whole scene of new bands that were influenced by Cynic actually creating a new scene around you guys? Because it seems like a lot of the bands now, bands you have or would tour with, are bands that were directly influenced by you, like Scale The Summit or Animals As Leaders.

It was a combination of things. I think back then our contemporaries were influenced by Cynic. I know that Opeth and Meshuggah were into the Cynic thing. And then there was the next wave of them, which was really the advent of the internet. Because we weren’t an active band, obviously. Our record was around, but it wasn’t being promoted or anything. So it was a completely word of mouth thing that spread from the artist community first. It was all fellow musicians and people in the scene that started talking. At least that’s what I’ve heard and noticed, was that it was other bands talking about Cynic, and that we had influenced them. And that led to the whole fan thing that kept it alive in a modern context.

I think we’ve had a lot of anomalies that came together. We made a record and disappeared. We literally were not available, and not in communication with the scene at all. There was a lot of mystery surrounding us, and it was at a time when you couldn’t just Google someone. No one knew what we were doing or what happened. We literally did intentionally disappear and went into a different world.

You did that record under a different band name right? Portal?

Portal, yeah. We were signed to Roadrunner. We had been working on a second Cynic album and then we started getting into this ambient pop, and we were really into the jazz thing, and just exploring other stuff, and I remember at one point I was like “I want a female singer.” It started to sound so different that we were like “let’s just call this something else.” So it was like a side project under Cynic, essentially. And what’s funny is that Roadrunner was okay with that. They probably thought we were weird, like “why aren’t you making this your second album?” But we just felt like it needed a different name.

So that’s essentially what it became, but it never got released. We ended up making a demo that got shelved, and we ended up breaking up before we made a record. But yeah, that was a post-Cynic moment, a post-Focus moment, and then it was over by ’96 for us.

So why did you decide to make another record, and why so much down time?

Well we didn’t intend on ever getting back together. When we broke up it was done. And it wasn’t like we had a contract and said “it’s over.” We just quietly went our separate ways and everyone started exploring who we were outside of the band. Sean [Reinert] and I had been doing Cynic since basically elementary school/junior high, in terms of being in bands, and even touring since high school. And I personally wanted to figure out who the hell I was outside of this context. What kind of artist was I? What did it all mean?

Cynic’s Focus was not well-received. It was really hard for us and we didn’t get a lot of reciprocation, so we felt unliked in the world, in the scene. We felt like our art was a failure, so we kind of just let it go. And we were all so overwhelmed by the music business. There was a lot of pressure and we were young, kind of sensitive guys that just weren’t… we didn’t want to play the game. I think we just wanted to make music and play our instruments. [laughs] So we were all like “let’s go back to school.” I ended up moving back to Los Angeles and got a scholarship to Musician’s Institute and just got deep into jazz again, and started exploring songwriting away from the electric guitar. I was just in a totally different place.

So it was that for most of us. We all just wanted to figure out who we were outside of the Cynic identity that was such a big part of our youth. So we broke up and we had no intention [of getting back together]. I didn’t even open… Cynic was put in a box in the closet. It was just a part of my past that was painful to look at, actually. I didn’t want to revisit it. I had poured so much of myself into the work, and then nothing happened. It was just something I didn’t want to look at.

And then in 2006 or 2007 a bunch of synchronicities happened. It kind of sounds esoteric and new-agey, but it was kind of weird that out of nowhere, in a two week period, Cynic came up. It started with a letter from a Russian fan who had emailed me, or no he had sent me a… no, I think it was an email. And he said “I had this dream that I saw Cynic reunited at a festival and I just wanted to tell you that it was amazing.” I ended up meeting this kid which was really incredible. And then after that email happened, and old friend asked me about Cynic out of the blue, and it was like all these things started manifesting. I remember saying to Sean one day, “should we do this?” And it wasn’t about being a band again. It was just about reuniting to play some Focus material for an audience that apparently was interested in seeing us, that we didn’t even know existed. So we did it. I think Kelly [Shaefer] from Athiest, at one point they reunited and he was one of the last people that pushed me over the edge, because he said “you have so many fans out there that want to hear you guys again.” And I was just in shock about it.

So anyway, we decided to just do it for the hell of it, just to get out there and re-experience the scene. It was a kind of closed door, and injured memory in a sense, and it was very therapeutic and healing for us to go back there and to see that, actually, we were liked; [laughs] that there was an audience. Back in the early ‘90s there were no in betweens. What we were doing was not cool, at all. So it was a whole other world, and they embraced us. It was a whole other generation of artists, and musicians, and listeners. And then all the bands, and the progressive nature of accepting all this experimental music, it just was like “holy cow.” And I think that inspired us to pick up again. I felt like I could integrate Cynic into my life as a working musician, and let it be this really interesting outlet, [a] real art for art’s sake kind of project that expresses all these different things in me that I wouldn’t have any other place to put.

Yeah it was pretty cool for me. I was a big fan of the band, but I got into you right around when you were breaking up, like ’94 or something like that. And then it took me until your tour with Meshuggah to actually see the band live, which was what, 2008 or 2009 or something like that? But to wrap it up, what are the plans going forward with the new album? Any tour plans or other ways to hear you live any time soon? Or any other big news?

At the moment, no. We haven’t locked down any tours, but we’re talking about it and we’re looking at a few things. And I’m sure there will be some tours. Unfortunately we haven’t set one in stone yet, but we will soon enough. Other than that it’s just getting the word out and sharing the music, and hopefully people get something out of this record that we enjoy a lot. But little by little we’re just seeing what unfolds and seeing how the record’s received, and then I’m sure we’ll do at least a U.S. tour and a Euro tour at some point this year. We just have to see what works out, timing-wise.

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Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.