Valediction – Paul Masvidal on the Discipline of Holding Focus

Valediction – Paul Masvidal on the Discipline of Holding Focus

by Fallow Heart

As I write this, Cynic have reached the midpoint of their North American tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of their debut record. Even from the remote altitude of the peanut gallery, this is a remarkable moment. It’s the closure of a prodigious loop and (perhaps) the definitive coda to a holy legacy. It’s both a jubilee and summarization of everything that’s always made Cynic so inspiring and provocative. It’s also a kind of ceremony, the ritual assembly of sonic cairns across twenty-five cities in honor of two absent legends.

Paul Masvidal is currently supported by a new ensemble, reprising a work that hinges on such a potpourri of happenstance and unlikelihoods that Focus surely would’ve fit more snugly in another, more canny timeline -a timeline less congenitally hostile to fundamental shifts in consciousness. Cynic has long operated as our interstellar tour-guide, dovetailing the hypothetical boundaries between the inner and the outer reaches and Focus is a device of neoteric frequencies and stubborn futurism that’s altered the terrain of extreme music forever.

It’s only natural that long-standing disciples of the record would approach Focus’s complete remix and remaster with nothing less than trepidation; it’s like reconnecting with a loved one who’s undergone massive reconstructive surgery. What if the alterations are too distracting or are egregiously unflattering or (worse) what if we no longer recognize them at all? Well, not only are your concerns valid, you’re in good company. Paul had to sort through his own reservoir of profound misgivings when it came to the ReFocus project. Consider the degree of psychological and spiritual soundness required for him to return to Miami and engage so directly with this portion of the Cynic estate -particularly on the heels of Sean Reinert and Malone’s recent passing. The smallest perforation in resolve could have waterlogged the entire project in grief and maudlin energies. The endeavor was sure to be isolating; it would require courage and yes, unwavering focus, (lest the surgeon’s work be undermined by their duress.)

Paul and I set aside a few hours to mull over old, color faded memories and to discuss the impact of the Refocus sessions late last September, shortly after his return home to L.A. Here, we climb back down, deep into the recesses of youthful presumption and barely governed virtuosity, we gaze into the ever bubbling stockpot of nagging ‘what if’s’, and we discuss the sanctity of really, truly letting go. This is it. Where we might end up from here is anyone’s guess.

Primordial Egg Scramble

Fallow Heart: So I’ve been wondering: Cynic’s demos were packaged together and released as a compilation a few years back. Was that something you were comfortable with and were you involved at all in that release?

Paul Masvidal: Comfortable? Not 100%. But I was involved; definitely. We’d been sitting on an email from Ula Gehret saying, ‘Hey, Century Media wants to do something with the demos; we can offer you this advance.’ Now, we’d been offered demo deals since back in the day and we were always opposed because our attitude was that the demos were just sketches and the realized vision -the fully realized work- was Focus. We knew what we were trying to do and we felt that we’d all but captured it. The sketches though, (and I’m not trying to compare us to Michelangelo,) but Michelangelo burned all of his sketches. He didn’t want anyone to see them and we could totally relate to that. But of course in the age of YouTube the demos are already everywhere and Reinert was excited to do it so we ultimately decided to go with this deal. Century Media got the physical rights for ten years so they have it for another five, maybe four years… I thought they did a beautiful job with the packaging and yes, we had a say in everything down to the artist we worked with for the cover; every single detail. With anything Cynic, (at least until I die,) there’ll be a high degree of detail with anything that gets released. So everything for that demo release was taken into consideration, down to the exact sequencing of the songs, (which is the final demo going backwards to the very beginning so it’s a reverse order approach, you know? It starts with the ‘91 demo and then goes back.) It was very conscientiously done with just a lot of love and frankly, I would be fine with releasing it on the streaming platforms as well again, (I had them taken off the streaming platforms awhile ago.)

FH: Why was that?

Masvidal: Well, I had this incident years ago where I was working with a friend on this project and they didn’t know Cynic’s history or our sound, (they were more of someone that I was just getting to know.) So he’s like, ‘I want to check out Cynic!’ as we were hanging out. So he fucking pulls up some streaming platform and the first thing that he hears is like the ‘87 demo; I was horrified! I was like, ‘No, that’s not us! That’s not the first thing that you need to listen to!’ He was like, ‘Wow, it’s kind of punk!’ I was like, ‘No,no,no,no,no,no!!!!’ I literally contacted Ula that day and told him to take it off the streaming sites immediately because we had the digital rights, not Century Media. I was just like, ‘Ula, I just had a horrific, nightmare experience!’ Other people, (like the president of Seasons of Mist,) are always like, ‘Dude, just put “demo” next to it.’ I’m like, ‘I know but if someone’s just discovering Cynic, that’s not a fair assessment. It’s not cool, you know? And a lot of people will just go with whatever the algorithm sends them to. So I’m still a little reluctant to have it on the main outlets. Maybe we’ll do a Bandcamp drop and then eventually release physical copies again down the line when we can get it back from Century Media.

FH: So the track listing runs in a chronologically reverse sequence. Why go in that order rather than an ascending one?

Masvidal: You know, I have to reflect on my thinking at the time to answer that. I remember that I was in genuine terror of officially releasing this stuff – I guess my thinking was, ‘if they’re going to hear this shit then I want them to hear the best and latest stuff first.’ And I think the ‘91 demo is fierce and badass to this day; I still listen to it. Some dude from France just sent me this whole interpretation of “Pleading for Preservation” that he did and it was really well done! I was like, ‘Dude! Can I throw some guitars on that and finish this for you? That’s a really good cover!’ That demo really points to where Cynic was going and I love that I finally have this one, well documented moment where my growls were where I wanted them. I sounded like a hybrid of (Jeff) Becerra and Chuck. I was just in full, peak powers of ‘growl mode’ and I’m glad it’s documented because I couldn’t do any more of that after nearly losing my voice, (I wasn’t meant to growl long term.)

So that was my thinking on the order of the tracks and also I just liked the idea, (almost like the Sephiroth or the Kabbalah or the Tree of Life,) how the roots go downward. It’s as if you’re going down; the earliest demos are way below ground, you know? So the thinking is about the energy going inversely rather than upward. It’s inward and downward.

FH: Yeah, that’s a cool image: descending from Kether down to Malkuth.

Masvidal: Exactly!

FH: Scott Burns was involved with the final two demos. Was that a result of your connections through Death?

Masvidal: So the ‘90 and the ‘91 demo happened before we cut Human. The ‘90 demo happened because of Kelly Shaefer from Atheist; he was really championing Cynic, (I mean, he’s always championed us but at that time he was just intent on spreading the gospel to the whole Florida scene.) We became good friends and played a lot of shows with Atheist. We were always at their rehearsal spaces and our bass player [Tony Choy] ended up joining them…there was a real family thing going on. We connected as outsider bands in this scene. Kelly was like, ‘I gotta bring you guys to Scott Burns, man! He’s killer!’ So he started that whole relationship. Kelly actually does a backing vocal on the ‘90 demo. It’s on “Cruel Gentility.”

FH: I didn’t know that! Man, I love both versions of “Uroboric Forms” (the demo recording and the take from the Focus sessions.) They’re distinct enough from one another to where I have no desire to pit them against each other but I just love the propulsion of the demo. It’s fucking mean!

Masvidal: I know man! It’s so raw and it’s ultimately the reality that if Hurricane Andrew had not hit, Cynic’s first album would’ve been a technical death metal album with no vocoder and probably very few clean parts. It would’ve just been a very different record. But that’s not what happened.

FH: No, it’s not. And you just said something that alludes to a question that I had a little further down. Would you define your idea of what ‘tech/death metal’ is as what those demos represent while Focus presented something else outside of that classification?

Masvidal: I hate putting anything that Cynic does into genres and boxes. I like the term ‘sui generis,’ meaning ‘without genre.’ But I know that this is what we as humans do; we like to categorize. It’s a way of understanding things and Cynic of course does have certain parameters it follows that do fit at this point -especially in this day and age- with genres related to progressive music. But…man, Monte Conner recently sent me the press release for when we signed to Roadrunner; I was literally just reading this. The end of it says, ‘Cynic enters the studio in August with Scott Burns to record their Roadracer debut. Some songs planned are “The Eagle Nature”, “Uroboric Forms”, “Pleading for Preservation” and “A Cynical Sphere”.’ (Man, that song was so cool and there’s no real document of it out there…) But anyway, the release goes on, “Paul Masvidal has the following to say about the music of Cynic: ‘We don’t want to be labeled as a death metal or thrash band. Musically, what we’re searching for or approaching is beyond definition or labeling. We play structured, expressive music designed to entertain and attract. Our songwriting approach could almost be considered scientific. Each moment is crucial and the message and mood behind it has got to be convincing.’” I was like, ‘Wow, that’s cool! We were saying that before we even made Focus.

FH: I think that even the use of the word ‘scientific’ in relation to what -at the time- would generally be considered a death metal band is really telling. I dig that quote; I actually recall reading it around the time of the release.

I don’t know if you’ve kept up with Tony Teagarden at all but you know that he became a life coach?

Masvidal: I know! I heard all about it. Jason [Göbel] said he makes a lot of money!

FH: Well he refers to the music that he used to involve himself with as ‘energetic music.’ That’s his categorization and hey, no argument there; it certainlyisenergetic.

Masvidal: Like, it says that in his life-coach bio?

FH: Exactly.

Masvidal: It’s funny the changes we undergo, (especially when you look back and try to take it all in.) You know, it really wasn’t until I talked to Reinert’s mom [after his passing] and unpacked a lot of this that I began to really get some clarity on why things were the way they were. I mean, we barely knew each other except for as these creative beings that were deeply, empathically connected; we didn’t really know each other as people. We kind of bonded through our wounds. That’s something that I got into with Jason Göbel during the ReFocus sessions as well. We were all such damaged children. We were so traumatized and fucked up and we started so young that we were just abusive to each other as kids and we didn’t even really realize it! We were purging and processing all of our problems while also trying to be killer musicians so it was a really crazy, complex environment. That’s part of the juice of early Cynic. It was rich with conflict and tension between members and that can produce some really intense music…Even though you’re best friends you also have these hidden tensions and traumas from your childhood that you’re projecting onto each other. So it was fertile ground, man… and really, I wouldn’t have it any other way; it’s what made the art so cool. And in terms of moving forward and working through old stuff, (old baggage and grievances,) I’m constantly trying to get better. And how do we manage that? We meet reality at its edges, right where we’re uncomfortable and we keep pushing.

FH: There’s a lot of creative power in the act of forgiveness, (whether it’s forgiving yourself or forgiving someone else.) Forgiveness is open to progression whereas recalcitrance and enmity are not. Those things look like strength only because we’re so linear in our thinking. You can be labeled as weak just for having the heart and the foresight to let the old baggage go. But that’s emblematic of a pioneering spirit, right? Cut it loose! Move on!

Masvidal: Yeah, man! But at the same time, that rage is juicy stuff. I mean, we were kids with rage, (I still have fucking rage, you know?) But we had a lot of unexamined trauma from really fucked up childhoods and it was music that saved us. I mean, for all of Cynic’s spiritual prowess, we were coming from incredible hardship and I guess that’s part of it.

FH: Let’s talk about your thoughts on Focus’s original production. How did you initially feel, hearing those compositions played back and buffed to a kind of clarity that you hadn’t had the opportunity to hear them in before? Did you feel connected to the tracks or alienated from them? Were you satisfied with them?

Masvidal: Well in that period, (basically the early ‘90’s though I could go even further back from there,) we didn’t have digital audio workstations yet, right? It was 4-tracks and if you were a little more sophisticated, maybe an 8-track in your home studio. Either way, you’re dealing with incredibly crude environments in which you’re referencing your work as a recorded document so we never really knew what our music actually sounded like until we got into the studio and it was always really exciting, (especially Kelly bringing us in for the demos with Scott.) It was like, wow! Suddenly you can hear details and richness. But with Focus in particular we were exploring new spaces and trying new things out. Other than my really shitty 4-track demos of this vocoder thing that I was doing and these weird guitars…it was so raw; it was like a gamble! So I have a distinct memory where I was finally able to hear the record after it was mixed, (and I don’t know if it was in the context of me being a little stoned or if it was actually playing in another room,) but I initially perceived it as being someone else’s music! I remember finally being able to hear it objectively and I was so disoriented. I was like, ‘what the fuck is this shit? It’s fucking cool but what is it?’ It was literally like I had a disembodied relationship to the work. You know, we’re now in a day and age where people’s demos become records and you can just record everything at that level basically at home but it’s one of those things that -back then- we didn’t have that capability so it would almost sound like a different band. I heard details in the vocals that I’d never heard before. I didn’t even know what I sounded like as a singer. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what I sound like!’ It was all these ‘aha’ moments where there’s a revelation about what it is that’s coming through us and it’s very disorienting and it can also be heartwarming. Sometimes it’s even terrifying because (this is the thing that’s so delicate about the recorded environment and why people pick their producers and engineers so carefully,) you’re trying to capture something that maybe lives more in a live space. It’s such a delicate moment for the art to translate and sometimes it really doesn’t work. I’ve had many songs where I tried to capture it as a recorded work and it would go through 30 iterations before it finally landed. Or maybe it never lands. A lot of Cynic’s material is like that.They’re songs that I had for years that weren’t ready yet. And then they finally bubble up and it’s like, ‘Okay, it’s time to finish this baby.’ It’s a weird alignment of your own self knowing what a composition needs in a recorded environment…you know what I mean? It’s like you finally think you have a clear understanding or the channel is just open enough to communicate it directly. This is the alchemy of recorded music and what’s fascinating about it is how mysterious it is to capture a performance that actually feels true to what’s coming through.

Angelic Manifestation

FH: Let’s talk about the vocoder and how it was perceived by the rest of the band. Why go that route rather than simply sing the lines directly?

Masvidal: Well, in terms of my natural singing voice, the more I got to know myself, the more honest my vocal performances became. It’s like I was able to tell the truth more. (I feel like I’m still trying to peel back all the layers and tell the truth.) Singing without an inflection is trying to be as naked as possible. Some people hear my singing as earnest and childlike and almost precious and I can hear that quality in some things I’ve done but there are a lot of moments (especially in Aeon Spoke and the solo acoustic stuff) where I finally got to the truth of the matter. It’s like I finally feel like this is me in the most naked way possible. It feels like the most transparent version of my voice but back then, I was so terrified of singing. I was always the guitar player that happened to sing, I was never ‘the singer.’ Cynic was always looking for a singer and I’m still kind of that guy. Even with all the talks about these upcoming tours I’m like, ‘can I have some sort of hologram step in for me and do the vocals so I can just play guitar? I don’t want to fucking sing!’ I was always insecure about my voice but in that era I was super insecure! And I wasn’t a fan of the power metal school; it wasn’t right for Cynic. We weren’t going to do the melodic, operatic metal thing so it was either going to be death metal or something hybridized and weird and stumbling upon the vocoder I was like, ‘Holy shit! Here it is! Here’s that strange, in-between thing that I can hide behind that sounds like an empathetic alien and it’s also kind of like an instrument!’ It was this perfect balance of everything that I was looking for and it was birthed out of an insecure place. Maybe it was a gift that I wasn’t some kick ass singer who was confident because maybe we would’ve had an entirely different record! I was a growler and now it’s like I could hide behind this trippy effect and it actually sounded cool! And of course it became a signature thing. By the time Traced in Air happened I had become comfortable with my singing voice so it was more like, ‘I can sing these parts and just add this vocoder element rather than doing the traditional Focus version of it. It’s still evolving though. We never land! This UFO is constantly orbiting around different star systems, you know?

FH: Were the rest of the band immediately open to the vocoder or did it take a bit of nudging?

Masvidal: That’s a good question! I think everybody knew that I was reluctant about the whole thing… but it’s funny. Now I’m thinking there was probably just like Reinert and Jason -the bass playing compartment was kind of a living, moving organism at that point- but I have a feeling there was support… I’m just trying to remember. We were so supportive of each other in unorthodox ways so I would think that it was like, ‘yeah! That’s fucking cool.’ I also wonder if it was just like, ‘Paul’s just doing his weird thing.’ I’m not sure; I don’t really remember the extent of how accepting they were.

FH: Well, it’s so distinctive. And anything that has that quality of otherness is bound to turn some people off or unsettle them in some way…

Masvidal: It was definitely a polarizing quality. It’s interesting. I think this is part of the weirdness of perception -for me, as someone who creates and composes- I think of an element like this as obvious and natural and ‘of course, this is what’s supposed to happen!’ This is very characteristic of a lot of Cynic’s records where I’ve spent so much time with the material that I understand how it works; I’m just so close to it. It’s a different degree of relationship to the work and it takes time for people to catch up with that, right? But I do believe that as long as one of us is authentically meeting a creative idea in the moment and it’s coming from a pure and genuine place, everyone will connect with it because we’re all connected so there’s a degree of fluidity there. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, these aren’t my ideas, these are everybody’s ideas and we’re all sharing them in a collective process.’ Yeah, I think it was supportive. We were always about doing new things and pushing. And we already felt trapped in the extreme death metal scene and wanted to expand but we didn’t know how. So besides just using these weird chords and being informed by other kinds of music, there was this other aspect with the vocals harmonically that could kind of embody something else too.

FH: Right. But it’s not just about the melodic values. The idea of the empathetic alien -that’s a great way to put it. It’s textural and it has this quality of otherness to it. Almost like Voïvod always had the Voïvod character and concept as something that separated them from everyone else, this device gave Cynic a character too. The vocoder is robotic but it also has a corporeality to it.

Some people don’t know how to be open and/or they’re not in a space at that point in time where they can be open and if you’d only been listening to Gorguts or Suffocation circa 1991 you may not have been ready for that, (and I don’t know if that’s a fault on anyone’s part.) Cynic was -in its way- far more revolutionary than a conservative, extreme death metal band -which is rather funny when you think about it because there’s an overarching gentleness to Cynic. Sure, there are controlled bursts of ferocity but also a pronounced gentleness. A lot of folks probably couldn’t handle that. Not right off the cuff when they were under the impression that they’re snagging another Scott Burns produced death metal record.

Masvidal: You’re right, that was one of our distinctive qualities. We were a band that embodied gentleness in contrast to aggression. Focus held both of those two things and I think that that had rarely been heard in this scene before. We could be gentle and we’re saying that it’s okay for you to be gentle and ethereal as well as brutal. You could be all of it. I’m glad that we stuck to our guns and were weird and stubborn kids because it made for an interesting record. It probably led to the destruction of the band as well because we felt so unloved and misunderstood. But this is the story. You can’t argue with the way things unfolded. I’m just trying to meet the weird trajectory of this band as it happened, right?

FH: It’s a paradox because at that time, (in that scene,) there was nothing audacious per se about a song like “Hammer Smashed Face” yet there’s something really audacious -and it really took stones- to perform something like “Sentiment” live. That required a sort of courage that a band like Suffocation didn’t necessarily have to possess.

Masvidal: I think so. Also, we were obsessed with trying to bring something new to the table. At the time I was talking to Robert Venosa pretty frequently and he would always encourage me to think outside the box and as kids, we were obsessed with bands that lived outside of those boundaries like Voïvod… I mean I loved some of the generic death metal stuff but once you had the roots of Possessed and Death and Slayer in your immediate field, all of these other bands just felt like they were doing watered-down versions of the source material. It was like, ‘holy shit, they ripped off that Hell Awaits riff! Holy shit, they just ripped off Leprosy!’ You name it. We were always calling riffs out! And I’ll admit that at the time it was almost a snobbery that we had about it because we were such music nerds, you know? We were like, ‘This is half-assed shit!’ That was our attitude. But now I feel like everyone meets art where they are and everyone’s creating from where they are. And curiously some of these bands that didn’t really have a distinct voice carved out legitimate careers (really just out of endurance as much as anything.) Regardless, some of the best, most amazing shit ever created, you and I will never hear because it never had its moment, you know? This is the art versus commerce thing that Cynic has always been stuck in.

FH: I’m of the belief that the best music -by its nature- is something that we can’t ever hear. I think the finest music lies somewhere beneath the scrim of a musician’s consciousness. I think the record or the performance that we listen to is really just a symptom of something much deeper and far more beautiful occurring somewhere below the surface. As a musician, I’m sure you’ve had all those dreams of compositions that you try to capture or materialize when you wake up. It’s like, ‘What was that?!! It was the best thing that I’ve ever heard!’ I think it’s always happening right below and we just get an allusion to it.

Masvidal: Yes to all that esoteric stuff! [Laughs] You know, it’s weird that that would remind me of this but we’re putting this video together on the making of Focus and we have all this material and I’ll just pull up these random clips while I’m transferring everything to Dropbox in order to pass along to an editor friend. So I pulled up this random clip and it’s me and Jason cutting guitars. Jason’s playing a part to one of the songs on Focus that I had either never heard before or had never clearly heard because it was a newer idea that was over a vocal part in a verse and it’s like suddenly you’re hearing it under the microscope in the studio. Anyway, I was like, ‘Dude, that doesn’t work…’ and he’s like, ‘but that’s my part!’ and I’m like, ‘I know but it’s competing with the vocals and it’s not catchy. That’s not catchy!’ It’s funny that way back then we were thinking about a hook. In my mind it wasn’t catchy; so here was my delusional sense of us trying to write our version of catchy songs.

FH: Well you did though! Focus is very melodically legible whereas an album like Unquestionable Presence…it’s kind of a big ask of the listener more along the requirements of a Bela Bartók or something. It’s a big leap whereas Focus, I don’t think it requires that because its structure is so immediately intelligible.

Masvidal: You know, it’s funny; I have to give a shout-out to Monte Conner for that. Back then when Monte signed us, our attitude in terms of arranging music was like…well, “Pleading for Preservation “ is a good example of it where only one riff in the song repeats, (the verse riff,) and then everything else is a constantly evolving arrangement. I was so excited about that idea. I was like, ‘We’re not going to repeat anything! We’re just going to have these arrangements that just evolve and go on these journeys. And I remember Monte, (like he was talking to a kid,) was like, ‘Hey, you guys should really consider adding some choruses and repeating parts and having more traditional arrangements.’ We were just like, ‘NO!!!’ But it’s clear that we listened; we heeded his advice. This is where I started to recognize the sophistication of certain types of pop music. It might sound simple but it’s actually really clever in the way that it’s repeating ideas because it’s doing so in ways that aren’t obvious. That challenge became interesting. You know, how do you do the repetition of parts where it’s not cookie-cutter, copy/paste approach to arrangement and where things are still evolving? That’s the sophisticated side of a lot of pop music that keeps it interesting to listen to. It’s like, this whole part sounds really repetitive but things are moving within that repetition that keep it all developing in a subtle way. Monte was like, ‘l urge you to include more choruses,’ and we probably listened to him. We obviously did because by the time we finished Focus, I remember thinking, ‘This is some catchy stuff! [sings the refrain to “Veil of Maya”] That half-step and all of these sections like the chorus of “The Eagle Nature ” were so catchy to me. They still are…

FH: The songs on Focus do evolve. There are all of these different movements where the bass and the drums and the guitars individually go off and explore something but in having everything arranged in a verse/chorus structure, it’s like you’re giving the listener a table of contents or something. You can navigate this; you won’t get lost. I think it’s the best of both worlds. And I enjoy albums like Unquestionable Presence that don’t follow that template. I love Debussy and Alben Berg and Pyrrhon and whatever else. I don’t necessarily need it to be so linear but I love that Focus straddled that. It was almost like a courtesy that you were extending to the listener.

Masvidal: It also came down to us learning how to write songs in a different way because, (although I had this classical foundation and then kind of got into heavier music, trying to go beyond my brother who was a classic rock guy,) we got so deeply enmeshed in the technicalities of becoming good musicians that it almost bypassed actual songcraft. I have these memories of hearing songs by David Gates [Bread/The Avalanches] and Simon and Garfunkel in my mother’s home as a child. I remember hearing this stuff and thinking, ‘I wanna do songs like this!’ But I bypassed that until essentially my 30’s. I went right into this weird, technical, extreme music and then came back to those origins of all that childhood stuff. So we kind of didn’t have a foundation. Focus represents the beginning of trying to approach a foundation in terms of arrangement and song in the context of this really complex, layered music. It was as if we were trying to merge all that stuff and it somehow worked.

FH: Tell me about the experience with Scott Burns. You’d already worked with him prior to Focus; you had a relationship. I always saw him as a no-brainer to engineer and mix Focus but it does make sense that Cynic would prove to be kind of challenging for him. I mean, he’d worked with Atheist but still, his bread and butter at the time was Cannibal Corpse and Deicide, those first Gorguts records…that sort of stuff. My assumption is that he would’ve come out of this experience having probably learned as many lessons as Cynic did. What’s your memory of that experience?

Masvidal: Well, I’ll start off by saying that Scott has always been the most patient, sweet, kind, and loving person who held an almost paternal presence in those rooms. He’d deal with band fighting and the neurotic need to do takes over and over…just all that stuff -the land mines of dealing with this very delicate creative space and being young- Scott just knew how to navigate it. Scott knew how to be transparent in a sense; he was so selfless. That was part of his magic: he held space for us but in a very subtle way so that we didn’t even recognize it within the moment. Always above board, always kind, always making an effort and being supportive…that’s really what I look back on from that period. And of course there were those moments. We had rambunctious fights, we’d just go for each other’s throats and Scott had to stand in the middle of that. ‘C’mon, guys!’ He was like the parent, you know? (But in a cool way that was more like an older brother; a homie.) Now, I think with the music side, Scott was in a combination of awe and confusion and also excitement. He knew us to a degree. He’d done the demos before but now we were suddenly introducing the vocoder and I think he was pretty much a trooper but there were those moments where it became challenging, like, ‘Oh no, what’s Monte going to say?!!’ And I think with Sean’s drumming, Scott realized that his normal techniques for tracking a drummer…Sean had this high degree of finesse and mastery that Scott hadn’t really experienced in a studio environment so he was really learning along with us. I think he was realizing the degree of attention to detail and subtlety that a band like Cynic was conveying and what we were trying to do musically -really our whole mindset– was different than probably 98% of the bands that he had worked with -bands that were more interested in creating something brutal, you know what I mean? I think with Scott there was a combination of confusion and excitement. But you look back and you hear Scott talk about that period, to this day he’ll just sing Reinert’s praises! It was just a real eye opening experience for him to record that…Sean Reinert in the peak of his prowess, you know? There’s a moment that’s captured in the footage for the upcoming Cynic documentary we’re putting together that exemplifies some of what was going on; it’s a peak Scott moment. We were having an argument about the opening of “How Could I?” and I think it was Sean Reinert’s playing that sounds like it’s a keyboard but is actually Sean triggering it on the drum pads…

FH: I actually didn’t know that but it makes total sense; that passage is so percussive!

Masvidal: Yeah! It was played on a drum-pad and then I added this guitar line on top. Now, to us it felt really obvious and to this day I’m not sure what Scott was hearing. I mean it’s in 4/4 and I’m playing this semi-contrapuntal clean guitar part over this textured, percussive thing that Sean’s playing but Scott was really at odds with that in the studio. ‘You can’t do that!’ We were like, ‘Umm, what do you mean?’ And he’s like, ‘How do you even count that?’ We were just, ‘1,2,3,4…’ [snapping his fingers] To us it was super obvious but it escalated and turned into this thing that was really tough! And I don’t know if that connects to the moment that he quit…it was either us fighting with each other and Scott was exhausted with us or it was something related to “How Could I?” where he was like, ‘Fuck it; I quit!!!’ [Laughing] We have footage of that going down and it’s so juicy and great! I think he was like, ‘Who the hell are these fucking aliens?!’ At the same time, he loved us to death and we loved him to death; it was like a family environment, you know what I mean?

FH: What went through your mind when Scott quit for that brief moment?

Masvidal: I don’t remember the circumstances exactly, I’d have to watch those videos again. It’s kind of blurry but I remember thinking, ‘Oh no! Scott’s reached an edge. He never reaches an edge! He never loses his cool or his patience! He’s the guy that’s holding it down for all of us and now he fucking bailed and we’re in so much trouble!!!’

FH: Sure! That would’ve scared the shit out of me, for sure!

Masvidal: Yeah! We were like, ‘What are we going to do? This is our record and we just drove him out of the room!’ But this is how we were with each other. We were just too used to the abuse because this was just our dynamic of using each other as punching bags for our trauma. That’s how we spoke to each other but Scott wasn’t having it, you know? He was just like, ‘this ain’t cool, bro!’ So I think it was that. He was in the throes of the Cynic hurricane, man.

FH: It’s funny to think that he wouldn’t have already built up sufficient callouses working with (say) Glen Benton and instead it’s these hippy, metal-fusion kids that push him over the edge…

Masvidal: I know! We were a different kind of stubbornness. It’s funny; I’m catching what I just said and there’s an obvious metaphor there: ‘the hurricane of Cynic.’ Maybe that’s the through-line of this story. Literally, it was a hurricane that shaped that record.

FH: We were talking about this recently, how the last few years for you have been a metaphorical hurricane. Ascension Codes basically came out of that and that violent storm-system led you on this pilgrimage back into the past. Everything is so circular for you and especially for Cynic right now.

And On The 7th Day, God Created ReMaster

FH: Were there any choices that were made during those original Focus sessions that had direct consequences on how ReFocus had to be approached? Like the way the drums were recorded or the effects the guitars were cut with?

Masvidal: Yeah…I mean Warren Riker would be better to speak with about this stuff in detail but from what I understand the drum-sound was evolving through certain songs. Scott was changing how certain things were miked and I think he was learning how to record Sean throughout the record. So the environment around the drums was shifting -not to mention Sean changing snares, changing symbols. His kit was very modular and specific so that on this song he’s using this snare and this tom and this symbol. He treated his drum set like a palette of instruments; he was always in the details of very subtle stuff. It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s my kit, this is what I play throughout the album.’ His cymbals spoke, it was like language for him. All that stuff was moving. And I think (also characteristic of these early nineties records) there wasn’t a lot of low-end, right? I think this is because in the Death Metal context, it was such a barrage of noise and distortion and it was so difficult to get clarity in the context of what was going on that Scott would scoop out a lot of those low frequencies to kind of make space. It’s where you get the clarity, right? All that low-end tends to make things muddy. So from what I understand, the drums didn’t have a lot of that going in, (although that is naturally part of the drum sound.) And again, this is part of that ‘90’s inflection with a lot of these records: where drums would normally hold all of that low end presence, the kick drums were thinned out because they’re playing so fast that it was more about preserving clarity with the kicks. So they became that signature, thin, staple-ly kick-drum sound. Whereas in a normal, Led Zeppelin, rock context, they’re huge! The kick is the fattest, boomiest thing in the mix. But if you do that in the case of extreme music where there’s fast double kicks it’s going to sound shitty. So I know Warren had to basically create that low end. I’d say the first two weeks of the mixing process was spent basically manufacturing low end with what he had. They say you can’t create those frequencies, it has to already be there but he had to find a way to bring it back using what he had of Sean’s and whatever technology… He brought back a low-end environment that’s almost old school; it’s almost raw. I love that Warren did that; he wanted things to feel like us, the four guys in the room because those performances were so fierce that when you hear those raw tracks with nothing on them you think, ‘Holy shit! This doesn’t need anything!’ I kept saying to Warren, ‘We don’t need to do anything to this other than to push it forward and make it balanced in a modern way without the signature of the ‘90’s.’ I think Warren did that in almost a punk, raw direction but it feels more accurate because the performances are so tight that it still has that precision without being overly polished. I think what happens now in a lot of progressive music is that it’s so processed and so relegated by tempo-maps and drum triggers and processed sounds and there are so many layers that are stripping it of it’s humanity that it’s becoming a new sub genre, a more electronic or a different kind of music, do you know what I mean? Whereas Focus has the roots of something very raw and so Warren and I were trying to bring it back home to that. But curiously -because we were always pushing the envelope- everyone was doing tape at the time and we recorded onto tape too but we used the first digital tape machine. It was this Mitsubishi thing that we had brought in that was the latest and greatest, coolest technology for studios so we didn’t do old school analogue, (although I think it ended up on that for mastering -2 inch tape or something…) But yeah, it’s pretty wild! I actually have all the old tapes here. It’s interesting how we were even trying to do some new kind of technology that wasn’t well known yet. I think that machine had just been out for about a year but to us it was, ‘Yeah, cutting-edge! Something new!’

FH: Right. It seems like everything about those sessions involved a kind of baptism into a new era or new way of thinking. It sounds like you guys were really exhausted by where you’d been and what you’d been exposed to and the limitations of the possibilities that had been advertised to you.

Masvidal: Definitely. And we started young, man! We were doing tours at 16 and 17. I missed my high school graduation ceremony to tour with Death in Mexico. It was a very accelerated childhood being immersed in all this stuff; it was really a fertile space to grow and to expand and get out of any traditionalist trappings. And as you know, the scene (particularly in Florida) was peaking and there were so many bands and everyone was doing their thing… It was an interesting time, really. You and I have talked about this but I still wonder what the hell made this particular sound come out of that state? I mean, Cynic was obviously from a slightly different area. We were coming out of Miami but I still to this day wonder how it happened exactly. But then again, you look at different movements in music and it happens like that sometimes, right?

FH: Without question! Birmingham, England or Gothenburg…it’s like a frequency. It’s like a frequency that seems to have been very accessible to the people that lived there for a period of time. Something that people could easily be possessed by, (for lack of a better word.)

Masvidal: Yeah, it’s so true! I wonder if anyone’s ever written a book on the frequency factor with how parts of the world suddenly birth movements in art. I mean, obviously you think of Dada-ism and the Berlin stuff and all these schools but even in music… Grunge and Seattle, Birmingham and Heavy Metal… It does happen. England’s an anomaly of its own. It’s so fascinating, the shit that comes out of that little place.

FH: Yeah! How does a country of such inarguably unimpressive size have the right to produce The Beatles and Pink Floyd and Sabbath and David Bowie and The Rolling Stones and Radiohead? It’s like, ‘Sorry guys. You’re not zoned for all this; some of these bands are going to need to come out of Belgium or something…’

Masvidal: …and Zeppelin and Judas Priest; it’s crazy! There’s something relating to frequency there for sure.

FH: Backtracking. You were talking about the panning of guitars and what you had in mind versus what actually happened and Scott Burns approach…

Masvidal: Yeah, I think that the instinct for any engineer is to create more space. If you have two guitar parts, you pan them hard left and hard right, (even just two guitars playing the same riff, hard left and hard right.) Create space and distance; widen the stereo image. That’s a very practical technique in mixing and engineering but I was so obsessed with Shoegaze and Noise, (I still am by the way,) and that My Bloody Valentine sound, just this amorphous wall of blurry guitar parts. That includes that kind of portamento quality where the notes are bending and they’re almost going in and out of tune, (the opening of “I’m but a Wave to…” is a good example.) We were trying to play with all that back then and it was directly inspired by a lot of those Shoegaze references: Cocteau Twins, Curve -but I think My Bloody Valentine were the peak for me just because the guitars were so weird and cool. So I remember saying to Scott, ‘Although we’re playing these different parts, we want them to sound like one, indistinguishable part so please don’t pan them hard left and right. We want them to be a little blurry.’ And I think that became part of the mysteriousness of Focus because it was almost indecipherable. I was a little torn when we first did a transcription book for Focus. I was like, ‘Oh, fuck! We’re giving the parts away.’ But then I realized, ‘You know what? This doesn’t belong to us anyway. It’s all to be shared; there’s nothing proprietary about this stuff.’ But I did have this weird thinking about it being the secret sauce or something. I think that approach was probably challenging to Scott to a degree…

David Gehlke wrote a whole book on Scott that’s going to come out. Did you know about that?

FH: I didn’t.

Masvidal: Yeah, the same guy who wrote the book on Obituary.

FH: I’m surprised that someone hadn’t already written that book; Scott was in the maelstrom. His work still informs the metal scene  in so many ways.

Masvidal: Yeah, I think Scott went through a situation where he really pulled himself away from the scene. He made so many records in such a short amount of time that he burned out. He bailed. He really just wanted to detach, I think. But lately, he’s slowly been warming himself back up to it. I know that -and I think this is really beautiful- when David Gehlke approached Scott and said I want to do a book on you, Scott said that he had one rule: you have to talk to every band I’ve ever worked with. Even the weird little demos of bands that never really took off, the one-offs, he had to talk to everybody! I thought that said a lot about Scott, you know? It really points to his wisdom.

But anyway, with Scott we were like, ‘We want to go more Shoegaze-y; don’t pan these guitars. It’s not about the distinction of the riffs, it’s more about the wall of the guitars creating this really weird, complex color.’ We didn’t want to create this ‘my riff/his riff’ dynamic. And that was the approach with the remix too. As much as me and Warren wanted clarity and the EQ-ing and the more modern guitar tone, (because it was so fizzy, that was my problem with it. The guitars sounded so fizzy- ‘I was like de-fizz it!’ But this isn’t direct-tracking, these guitars were cut wet with effects and all. There’s no going back and changing a parameter on a plugin with a remix like this, you’re working with what you’ve got.) So here I am pushing Warren to de-fizz everything and Warren’s telling me, ‘We’re losing a lot of top end information when we do that and that’s where a lot of the excitement is.’ So it’s these weird aural mysteries surrounding how it affects the energetic environment. That top end information can create this sense of urgency and presence. That’s all the mystery of understanding how frequencies work and balance in a mixing environment. It’s the alchemy of this stuff. Warren and I really went round and round this because here I am wanting to de-fizz everything and Warren’s telling me, ‘Dude, I’m going to go as far as I can but you’re going to lose something if we’re not careful.’ We straddled that line.

FH: And by ‘fizziness’ you’re describing the quality of the distortion? I’m not familiar with that descriptor.

Masvidal: Yeah. And I thought our original tone was pretty good… You know, I’ve been selling all my old Focus gear. Just today I sent four rack pieces to Japan! I’m literally purging. So again, there’s this full circle thing going on. I’m literally unloading all of my possessions from that era; it’s interesting.

But yeah, it was the quality of the distortion. We were using an A/DA MP-1, which was like the latest, cutting edge digital preamp but it had like a little tube…it was like what would be the equivalent of a Neural DSP plugin today. Something like that was what the A/DA represented in ‘93. It was the most badass, cutting edge guitar preamp you could get. And even with that and my EQ and all the things I was doing, I still was always like, ‘this is not the sound that I hear in my head.’ It was never quite there. (That’s probably true with everything, right? It’s what keeps you reaching.)

FH: Right. Supposedly it was chasing that sound and not ever being able to fully eke it out of the speakers in playback that drove Syd Barrett crazy. He couldn’t reach it and it literally drove him mad. (That and the acid…)

Masvidal: Yeah. Well that’s the fine line in the creative process. It’s like that push and pull of staying out of your own way and also trying to summon ‘the voices.’ That’s the alchemy. There are a lot of records that get suffocated by a controlling songwriter or a producer. The record gets too managed and too sterilized by all that handling. You’re too close to it to have any objectivity anymore; that happens, right? It really is a dance to know how to let go and trust that it’s coming through in the way that it’s supposed to and that however it is evolving and shape shifting is part of its growth and evolution. It’s turning corners that you would not have taken it down otherwise and just having trust in all these variables. There’s a lot of letting go.

FH: So, if Cynic had moved on from Focus in a direct fashion (rather than dissolving for years between records) and the band had released a sophomore album in the typical timeframe that most bands adhere to, do you think that the band would’ve worked with Scott Burns again or do you think you guys would’ve wanted to keep expanding by shaking up that producer role?

Masvidal: Hmm. We probably would’ve stayed with Scott because the rapport we’d developed was really sacred. You just get to bypass so much when you have that established. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t have to be said again, (which is why a lot of people end up in relationships longer than maybe they’re supposed to.) It’s a familiar space and we loved Scott…so probably but it’s hard to say.

Holy Fallout

Masvidal: This is funny: Someone had sent me this old newsletter of ours, (I used to send out a mailing list for Cynic,) and I’m looking over this old thing and I see the quote, “We are currently working hard on new material and hoping to record lp #2 by late December. The new music will be full of beautiful surprises.”

FH: Wow!

Masvidal: Right? And later I say, ‘We will not be touring again until the completion of our next LP which will be released in early ‘95.’ And then it’s a listing of what we’re all listening to; it’s me, Jason and Sean’s ‘top 5’s.’

FH: Jesus. The mind reels at the thought of that unrecorded record… You were all geared up for that and what would that record even have been like? You guys were evolving so rapidly.

Masvidal: Yeah, I don’t know what happened but I will say that we had given our whole childhood to this band. We gave everything to it. We didn’t do what regular kids did. We didn’t really ‘hang out’ in the traditional sense. Everything revolved around our music and our band so we kind of never had regular lives and I think that we’d reached our early twenties and basically had invested everything into this project that just wasn’t landing in the way that we imagined. We got a record deal and we played with these other bands and we had a taste of what it was like to tour and it was like, ‘Oh, fuck!’ We felt contempt from the scene and just felt very out of place…especially seeing as Sean and I were queer; we were so at a loss. Where do we fit in? How do we come to terms with this? Who are we in this scene where every other sentence that comes out of someone’s mouth is, ‘That’s so gay, dude!’ Homophobia was the default language and you had to be tough. We had to toughen up ourselves to even navigate that environment because it felt dangerous at times. So, I think that that was a large part of it, down to where we played our last show at The Limelight in NYC, (you know, the old Church.) That was with Sean Malone and it was the tour we did with Cannibal Corpse, (it was actually a really good show, a great ending for that tour.) But it also ended with Malone shifting gears and getting into this really dark space and then suddenly we were at odds with him and I remember that he took a train home separately from the rest of us…It was this whole falling out with our bass player and it was this moment where it felt like everything was crumbling, you know? And then we had these reassembly moments like what’s captured in this newsletter where we’re going to work on a new record. But ultimately, I think enough time passed to where we were feeling like we wanted to make different music. I’ll never forget contacting Monte and saying, ‘We’re a different band now. We want to change our name to Portal. Cynic is over.’ And he was like, ‘Umm…maybe just do a side project? We can work with that. We’ll release it.’ And I was like, ‘No. There’s no more Cynic. It’s Portal now.’ And we got this friend, Aruna [Abrams] to contribute female vocals… We were really wanting to change everything. And then the Portal thing was basically strangled in that we were [tied up with] Roadrunner who were like, ‘We’ll release it. We own and release everything you do.’ But we didn’t want them to release it. We were like, ‘No, you’re a metal label. You won’t understand what to do with this music.’ So that meant lawyers had to get involved and it was just total exhaustion. We never said we broke up. It was a quiet going of separate ways. I was going to UCLA, (at the time I was in line for their composition program.) And then one day I auditioned at MI and they gave me a scholarship. Jason had an uncle in Oregon. He knew he could go out there and he was in a relationship and had a second kid on the way… It was just a lot of life stuff happening. Sean [Reinert] was in his first queer relationship and he was very much enmeshed in that. He was with this guy Ed, (who I introduced him to, by the way. It was at a bar; basically he pointed to this guy and said, ‘I like him!’ And I was like, ‘Okay, let’s talk to him,’ and Sean was like, ‘No, no, no!’ I’m like, ‘Why not?!!’ [Laughing] So I wound up introducing them and Sean went home with him that night and they stayed together for seven years…)

FH: Wow!

Masvidal: Yeah. But anyway, I remember at the peak of that relationship, when Sean was building a home and feeling a real sense of being in an intimate space and being out, he said, ‘You know, I could just open up a restaurant in Key West and let all of this go.’ He said that back then. So we were all very much wanting to reinvent ourselves. We were at that age and there was a lot of stuff going on so we just quietly dissolved. There was no press release. The reemergence of Cynic coincided with the internet age. It wasn’t until Kelly Schaefer calls me from a fucking Athiest tour and tells me, ‘You guys! The people out here like you!’ I was like, ‘What?!’ He said, ‘They like you guys!’ And there were a bunch of synchronicities there but we thought we were just this band that had been doomed and no one cared about what we were doing…

FH: It’s a funny thought: if Hurricane Andrew hadn’t impacted Cynic the way that it did, you guys would’ve put out your first record and it would’ve sounded much more like that ‘92 demo, right? I feel pretty confident that -in that case- you would’ve put out a second record before your initial split. Now, would that sophomore record have been just a little farther removed and radical than Focus? Is that the way that that timeline evolves?

Masvidal: Right! Who knows?!! It’s crazy to think that my entire musical trajectory (at least as far as Cynic goes) was informed by this hurricane. It put me on a path that would become such a huge part of my life.

FH: Here’s more conjecture: I think that the band may have found more immediate success if it had shaken out that way because the ‘92 demo was so much more orthodox, right?

Masvidal: That’s true too! We probably would be like a Meshuggah or something today.

FH: Maybe so…

Masvidal: No, seriously! This is another interesting point to make about Focus, (and I said this to Warren as we were doing the remixes because he and I had pretty recently worked on Ascension Codes so that was his last reference point with Cynic.) We were listening to this stew that makes up Focus and I said, ‘Do you hear it? It’s all here. All of the elements that made up our last album are here in our very first one.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah; you wrote the entire language on this first album and you guys have just been exploring all of that space that was set up here ever since.’ Whereas with Meshuggah, their first couple of albums were actually kind of generic and they didn’t really forge their own sound until a few records down the line. So you can see their trajectory over the course of those records whereas our trajectory wasn’t captured in that way because of all the disruption we experienced. It started with the demos and then there’s this massive shift with Focus.

FH: I’ve been listening to Ascension Codes pretty intently lately and I really feel like Focus is more overtly melodic and direct in comparison. I feel that Ascension Codes is more abstract. Now, it has some of your most beautiful writing in it but it blooms in these unexpected fits and starts. I told you this recently: it reminds me of listening to a storm and you just appreciate the storm for what it is. I find it important to let go and to listen to it more like a weather system.

Masvidal: I feel like the journey of Ascension Codes will reveal itself more over time. The roots of all those songs are actually really simple, melodic ideas but their recorded representation became this super ornate thing. Like, we recently decided to digitally re-release the album as instrumentals and it’s so interesting to hear that record without the vocals. It’s this crazy symphony of textures and parts and it changes shape and I was thinking, ‘man, if I stripped it back to just these songs in a barebones context, it would really give people insight into how simple these songs actually are.’ It’s like you said, you’re in this weather system.

FH: Vocals often function like an emotional chaperone and people seem to rely on them for context but when you remove them, it does seem to give the listener permission to explore a piece in a different way. “Diamond Light Body” is up there with “Banyan Tree” [Vessel] and “King of Those Who Know” as containing some of the most beautiful passages I think you’ve composed and yet I’ll go back to “Diamond Light Body” and it feels so bizarrely mutable. It sounds different every time I listen to it and seems especially reactive to the mood I’m in as its audience.

Masvidal: That song went through so many changes in arrangement! It was the last song that I finished and I’d actually worked on some of the early parts -the verses- with Sean Malone but it just kept shapeshifting and it was one of those songs where… its ending held the heart of the grief I’ve been experiencing. It was like the body of the whole record’s grief was held in that ending and I’ll never forget having this moment where I accessed that, (because I had kind of gutted the whole song; I was like, ‘This isn’t working.’ I was just constantly wrangling with “Diamond Light Body,” trying to figure out what it wanted to do and to say.) When it finally clicked and that moment happened, I just curled up in a ball and started crying like a child; it just unleashed all the grief. And later, when I actually recorded the parts…man, I was crying then too! It’s fertile with the energy of intense grief and yet it also holds the future to me. It seems to point to where Cynic could go if there were ever a record post Ascension Codes. It’s the most modern song on the record. It’s its own wild animal man.

FH: There’s an organic quality to it but it also feels mercurial, like a cat that’s fine with you being in the room with it but doesn’t want to be touched.

Masvidal: Exactly! That’s exactly it! It’s warm and fuzzy but it won’t permit you to get too close.

FH: It’s a special record. It just requires that investment of regard and awareness which is a hard ask for a lot of people. I remember when -as a kid- you’re dropping $15 on an album, (how precious was that money when you were in your early teens?) You weren’t going to waste that opportunity. I remember buying a Tankard record and listening to it again and again, trying to learn how to appreciate it. Now you just download shit and it doesn’t require any sacrifice and if somethings not immediately to your liking…off it goes! Who cares? And that’s a shame. We lose opportunities to really fall in love with a record in the same way because we no longer have the patience to really get to know it.

Masvidal: We’ve built an instant gratification culture and it’s the result of our technology. It’s the world we live in now. I still think that works that are more challenging and ambitious are incredibly important. It’s important to keep demonstrating all of these possibilities in art rather than just keep feeding into this throw away culture which is (for an artist) mostly about creating relatively featureless content. I mean…do you know how cheap that feels for us? I mean, you’re saying I need to produce content? What? Wait! I just want to write songs; I want to play my guitar but you’re saying what I actually need to do is just post more? Post more nonsense? And maybe I’m dating myself but I know twenty-somethings that are cutting-edge, interesting young musicians that tell me the same thing. They’re like, ‘Fuck this. This timeline sucks,’ and I’m like, ‘No, no; it doesn’t suck, we just have to work with it.’ You can’t go back. It sucked back then too, believe me! It was just a different kind of suck. It’s always going to be something, you know what I mean? It’s always going to be something.

The Space for This

FH: When did the initial decision to re-invest your energy into Focus occur to you? Was the concept of spending so much time with it intimidating or did you see it as a liberating process?

Masvidal: Well, there were definitely moments where I felt confident that I wasn’t going to do anything for the 30th anniversary of Focus. Like, ‘I’m done. Totally done.’ I had just lost my brothers…it’s too much, too much to take on. I was thinking it was time for me to do something else. But then it was like, ‘Wait a second.There’s something really cool about this too. It sort of represents the preciousness of having a human body and the preciousness of impermanence and art…and to honor that…in the way that Ascencion Codes was almost a tribute to my guys, this now is the full circle, the Urbouros. It’s really fascinating how this is all really coming back around. I mean, I have to go all in in terms of honoring these people and this work that we created. I have to give this everything I have because I need to do what’s right by these guys. I feel like it’s my responsibility. And I’ve also done a lot of inner work around it, (ceremony and psychedelics and journaling,) and I feel like this is not just my hands… I’m not leading this; this is happening and I’m just showing up. And I’ll tell you, ever since I started approaching it that way (just letting go,) it’s kind of all begun unfolding really beautifully where things are falling into place.

Also, for both Sean’s, I mean, there was never a public memorial so I feel like these shows are going to function as memorials as well. It kind of holds both things: it’s an anniversary and a memorial. And I’m talking about this with you confidently right now but really, I’m so raw that I’m still delicately stepping in, you know? As much as I just said that I’m giving this everything I have, I’m also in absolute terror on multiple levels. Part of that terror is just about reentering the domain of what we sacrificed our lives to. And the fans…the audience! I want to go back and give everything but I’m also like, ‘Whoah! Paul, can you actually do this?’ Because I’m so raw…I mean, I’m scared, man!

FH: What sticks out to you about this whole process as an especially challenging emotional hurdle?

Masvidal: It’s just meeting the grief publicly. I generally would grieve alone and just keep to myself but now I have to step into that and do it in front of everybody and that’s so extremely open and vulnerable. I know that that’s where we’re supposed to go. I know that’s the right place to be… So I’m slowly finding my way in and you’re catching me right now in a moment where I feel courageous. You might catch me tomorrow in a moment where I’m going, ‘No! No, no, no. I can’t do this!’ Because it has to be right! It feels precarious. It’s really about approaching this art and this band’s integrity with the utmost respect and reverence and humility. That’s the corpus of this band and it’s also Cynic to a fault. We probably sabotaged ourselves to a degree by holding onto that integrity in the face of a combative business environment… Fuck the business! We’re making this music.

So it’s all that, man. I have a troubled relationship with all of it and I think it’s bound up in coming back to the fans that have supported us and have cultivated so much love over these years and continually held space for us. It’s like, now we can do this together and I’m excited about that and yet there’s also real terror, (but again, it’s a good terror; it’s the right kind of fear.) It’s like that axiom: when you don’t know what to do next, think of what scares you the most and go there. That’s what this is.

FH: So did you feel something similar when it came to going back to Miami and interfacing with all the raw data, or was that more clinical?

Masvidal: Of course. Yeah.

FH: And have you experienced a catharsis through the remixing process?

Masvidal: I’m just trying to take things moment by moment. I have to be wary of getting overwhelmed. When I think of the broader picture it tends to exhaust me. I probably have those moments once a week where I’m just thinking, ‘Nope; no way. I can’t do this.’ That’s when I know that I need to ask for help, (I never knew how to do that.) And you know, certain people have appeared, (like Steve Joh [Prosthetic Records] who just said, ‘I’m here to help you.’) He’s taken on a managerial role which is…I can’t even put into words what that’s meant to me and what it takes off of my psychic plate. Suddenly I have room for a lot of other things because I know that someone’s on my team that’s actually helping! So yeah, there’s definitely an element of compartmentalization just to make it through. I have this very simple, beginner-mind approach to all this stuff which is just like: show up, do what’s in front of you; show up, do what’s in front of you; show up, etcetera. Just this morning after meditation I had some things I needed to do and I was looking at this suitcase that was full of cables; it was like a spaghetti factory of thirty years of guitar cables and power supplies and mic cables in a huge knot in this massive suitcase. It’s so overwhelming to look at that. I proceeded to spend almost two hours, slowly going through each thing inside that case and separating everything. That’s a metaphor for what’s going on, do you know what I mean? I dove into this knot of spaghetti and pulled out each thread and laid it out to look out. Now I’m doing that with everything in my life, trying to untangle and unravel and unpack this history.

FH: You were mentioning suddenly having an advocate -in a way- with Steve Joh and how powerful and vital that is for you right now. That makes me think about this: The big shift for Cynic in terms of the way the music came about compositionally seems to have happened with the reformation and Traced in Air. That’s when the compositions just came down to you, right? No more quarreling about whose riff was going here or whatever, it became all you, right? Is that correct?

Masvidal: Well, in the Focus days, Jason and I would develop the core parts in our home demos and then we would get together and merge them. You can definitely look at those days as four guys screaming in a room about how to do things. There were four chiefs and that’s part of what was ultimately a valuable tension as to where, I think by Traced… I had developed more of my songwriting muscle having become interested in more barebones stuff and the power of simple, strong melodies and chord changes, (the less is more thing.) That all became a new challenge for me. It’s the opposite of prog in a way. You’re trying to say a lot with less.

FH: Like the My Bloody Valentine inference you mentioned earlier.

Masvidal: Exactly! It’s like, there’s really just one idea here, right? But yeah, getting back to your question…with Aeon Spoke, I was the one writing the songs.That was always the thing. Sean [Reinert] always had his own side regarding compositional stuff and things he was doing but I’ve always been actively writing and collecting material and developing a body of work. It’s kind of how I exist, right? I’m always making things and I would just pass these ideas along to Sean. So I think Traced in Air was the beginning of that; it was the roots of a more sophisticated approach to songwriting and it was just coming from experience, really. Focus has that youth, you know? It’s sort of a different thing.

 FH: I guess I was just wondering… It seems like with the change in that dynamic that there would’ve been a lot of new liberties -you have this palette of ideas and you’re going to thoroughly explore them come what may. But it seems like that there would also be a quality of sacrifice in that change in approach as well, you know? There’s something really powerful about standing there with someone that you’re close enough to be able to express, ‘I kind of want to tear your head off right now,’ …just bickering in the studio, at loggerheads over a composition.

Masvidal: Oh yeah! But also, Malone and Reinert were such forces of nature with their own voices on their instruments that it begs the question in terms of publishing, right? What actually constitutes a song? Is it the drums? Is it the chords and the melody? I guess most people would say that it’s the harmony and the melody; those are the two things that are dictating the major environments of this auditory space but that’s not always true and those two guys…we spent years working together making those other records and were so tightly knit, (especially by the time of Kindly Bent… my God, we were a real trio!) Their voices were heavily accentuated. If you listen to Kindly Bent to Free Us, that was me taking a back seat so that Malone could just do his thing. Granted, Malone was writing bass lines to my arrangements but he built these crazy, bass symphonies around them, just these beautiful contrapuntal lines so in some ways I really took a back seat; the guitar was very sparse overall. I was trying not to use any of the classic Cynic riffing techniques; I was trying to break that mold for us. And Malone really grew out of it. It was like, ‘wow, listen to this guy!’ because he was always there but…  And even with Ascencion Codes, having Matt Lynch, I feel like there’s a partnership. I don’t want to work with drummers where I’m telling you what to do and writing your grooves. I want you to have a distinct voice and to really come at this stuff to where it’s coming from your own world so that we’re creating something together; we’re in service of this thing. Matt’s like that. As a drummer he’s an artist like Reinert was. He has a very unique voice that’s unmistakably his own. You know what I mean? So, I’m writing this stuff but it’s also an active environment with incredibly strong players.

FH: There’s a quality of give and take there, yeah. I guess what I’m inartfully trying to suggest (and it doesn’t sound like this was the case) is that this facet of Cynic post-Focus might have felt a little isolating.

Masvidal: I mean, I think it did in that I had two musicians that were never interested in self promotion and never interested in…they didn’t want to play by the standard rules -for the most part- so I was on my own as the de facto band leader. Every band has that one guy who’s pushing the most, you know? I’ve always had that role and it’s looking for opportunities and trying to make things happen. Realizing how much work goes into trying to make a band function and thrive…it’s a lot! So they never participated in that part and in that sense I felt extremely alone. I remember being mad at Sean at one point because I felt so… like, ‘Wait. We’re splitting stuff and you’re not doing half the work that I am! I’m doing so much, dude! I’m setting up this whole tour, I’ve had no time to myself; I’m consumed!’ So it creates this dynamic because I think a lot of times in bands if you’re a really good musician and you have this collective energy, you think opportunities are just going to magically appear as a result of your presence and it’s just like, that’s not how it works. These opportunities are only appearing because somebody’s busting their balls behind the scenes trying to summon them and create magic. But I think that that’s a characteristic that’s missing in a lot of artist/musicians. I’ve just learned how to step into it over the years, more and more, to kind of embrace the business side and sort of ‘Bowie’ it, you know? David Bowie was the great teacher in this regard. He straddled that line of being this insanely brilliant artist and also a businessman. I mean, geez! How did he do that? I’m still in awe of the balance that he struck. But yeah…those guys [Malone and Reinert] didn’t want to do that so I felt very alone a lot of the time with that part. It’s funny, Malone was just starting to step into it right around the Ascension Codes early moments before he split. We were talking about creating a Patreon together and doing all this stuff and Cynic’s legacy. And then I think he was just like… he just didn’t have it in him, man. He checked out.

FH: Back to all of that old gear of yours that you’ve been offloading: were you inspired to begin the process of shedding that because of Focus’s anniversary? Why had you held onto that stuff for so long?

Masvidal: Good question. I’ll tell you where it all started: In 2015 we went to Japan. We were scheduled to play three shows there, and then on to China. After that we were going to come home for just a few weeks before heading off to Europe for the Kindly Bent to Free Europe tour; it was all mapped out. It was the first time we were doing a proper tour for Kindly Bent… which had come out in 2014. At the exact same time, I had to move out of the place I was living in in Echo Park [Los Angeles]. It was a house that Sean [Reinert] and I had lived in and then I continued to live in for many years after with various roommates. So, I found out that the owners were selling the house and I said, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got so much on my plate. I have these tours…can I deal with all this when I get back? I need time; I’m overwhelmed!’ The landlord was fine with it, (he had actually worked in the music business.) But then at the eleventh hour it was all so overwhelming, (the thought of taking that on in between the tours and the all the activity that was ahead,) that I was like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s go ahead and move out now.’ So I found this moving company who advertised that for X-amount of dollars, they come into your house and pack everything up and put everything into their storage. That was the actual beginning of a long, nomadic passage in my life. [Singer/songwriter] Amy [Correia] and I were planning to go to France after the Cynic tours and make a second OwL record based on Baudelaire poems. I mean, our whole lives were headed in this trajectory; Amy had been living with me and now she and I were leaving our home for good…. So Cynic went to Japan and -as you know- the rest is history. We played those three shows and then the band completely, violently imploded. Suddenly everything’s turned on its head and now I had all this stuff that had been in that old house in storage and…man, it just stayed there, ever since 2015. That baggage is this thing that holds the beginning of everything that happened with Sean. That was the house that he and I had lived in together and almost everything from that house and all the Cynic memorabilia…it all just went into storage! This is a great question you’ve asked because it’s making me realize that I’m finally unpacking it all from back then! It goes back to Focus but really, this whole thing happened because I had to move out of my old home and I never went back. I literally couldn’t even look at that storage for years. And now I’ve finally cleared it all out; it’s the purge! And I’m consciously pushing myself out of my current space at the same time. I think I need this. I’m going to paraphrase this quote from David Wojnarowicz. He was an artist from New York City in the 80’s. He wrote poems and he painted and was part of this amazing, avant-garde collective. Anyway, the quote was basically, ‘A destination feels like death to me. Freedom is in the constant state of not knowing.’ Again, we’ll bring it back to a Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa. His famous quote was, ‘The bad news is, you’re falling and there’s no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.’ Again, it’s the practice of the free fall, the true nature of reality. There is no security in these cocoons. The state of groundlessness, that’s where real freedom is, right? So I’m forcefully pushing myself back into that. I even brought it up with our manager… I was like, ‘Look, if we’re touring Europe and there’s some extended time between legs, I’m happy just to stay and work and live out of there for months if need be.’ I have this little sanctuary and I love my home, it’s so special. Really, it’s so magical. But I need to disrupt. I need to stay in an open space. I need the opposite of a cocoon.

FH: Sure, I get it. It’s like if the Star Trek Enterprise ever landed on a planet and the entire crew just said, ‘This place rules, let’s just live out the rest of our days here,’ well, good for them but the show is effectively over. That is not what that ship or that show was built for. It must keep exploring; that’s its function.

Masvidal: Well maybe after six months or a year I’ll need a cocoon again but for me…I love this nomadic mode. I have my little portable studio, I have a couple of guitars over my back, I can work anywhere. And also, I’m ‘filling the well’ as an artist. I’m getting back out into the world and cultivating experiences. For me, that’s not leaving a domestic home with a wife and kids and heading off on tour. This is how I live. The touring’s almost an interruption to this weird, bohemian existence. It feels right. But maybe you’re helping me to mentally unpack all this stuff because you ask these questions and I’m coming to an understanding as I’m trying to answer them. Like, I didn’t even go that far in the rabbit hole of trying to understand what’s at work here. I just trust in the spaciousness of not knowing.



There is no assurance of safety and no promise of return. There is only the heart’s relentless hunger for discovery and The Immortal Process. Travel freely Paul. Much love and gratitude to you always.