Interview with Paul Masvidal, Progressive Metal Legend and Lead Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist of Cynic

Paul Masvidal has been playing metal for a long time. Coming out of the Florida metal community, he played with the seminal death metal band Death, and he and his childhood friend Sean Reinert founded the band Cynic way back in the late 1980s. After one landmark album, 1994's Focus, the band broke up, briefly reforming as Portal, and then he and Reinert worked together in a more acoustic band called Aeon Spoke. Finally, 14 years after Focus, Cynic re-formed and issued a followup album, Traced in Air, which I called one of the best metal albums of the decade. Masvidal recently spoke to me about his musical process.

Cynic is now more than 22 years old. In that time, you've been involved with several different bands -- Death, Portal, and Aeon Spoke, among others. When you write a song, do you think about who you're writing for? How did the songs on the album come about?

I generally am writing for myself in terms of what I'm hearing or trying to communicate. Ultimately, I don't know what that means other than maintaining an honesty and realness in the music. I write all the songs on acoustic guitar and some ideas on piano. We went through 4 stages of pre-production. The first demo started with a bare bones guitar / vocal. Demo #2 introduced sketch drums or percussion, #3 introduced counter guitar parts, bass, vocal layers and other ideas to build the arrangement. The 4th demo was very close to the album with production ideas in place and full blown performances.

You've described "Traced in Air" as the evolution of "Focus." (Musically, the final lyric of the album -- "It was not death, it was not life, it was love" -- seem to remind that Cynic is not, or no longer, a death metal band.) Can you explain the ideas behind the album's bookends "Nunc Fluens" and "Nunc Stans," lyrically and musically?

Nunc Fluens - Nunc Stans means 'the passing present unfolds into the eternal present'. I was trying to find a way to sonically create that idea. Traced In Air begins with Nunc Fluens which invokes the magic of the sonic environment or the "space" we are creating. It's the introduction song to the album and the layered wall of sound one hears when listening is actually clips of the entire record melded into one gigantic wall along with experimental guitar ideas. It also includes clips of Focus material which was in many ways letting go of the past by acknowledging its presence in the now. This is how I interpreted the "passing present" musically.

The album then goes on a journey of songs inward to outward through the human experience with a spiritual perspective. Finally, ending with Nunc Stans, which is a farewell song, acknowledging the nature of impermanence we all must face, and ultimately asking the bigger question of what really matters when we're on our deathbed facing our own mortality. It's a song about letting go in the truest sense and becoming a "Nunc Stans" soldier that has learned to live life to the fullest, with courage and love. Much of the inspiration for this song came from my volunteer work with terminally ill patients over the years.

You've described the origins of this Cynic reunion as synchronicity. Now that you've been touring behind this new album for several months, what is it like to be on stage as Cynic again?

It feels great to be performing with Cynic again. The full circle experience has been tremendously healing for Sean and me in particular.

What has changed? What has remained the same?

It's a whole new ballgame now in terms of our heads and sense of direction. We still have the same basic feeling that comes with performance, but the approach is wiser now.

What is your personal songwriting process? How do you write a Cynic song?

I'm always writing new music. When it comes to a cynic song, I extract the ideas in my library that have a cynic vibe. I then develop those ideas until they form into a cohesive song that generates a certain feeling or energy. Much of what becomes the cynic choices is the harmonic and melodic choices and how those are implemented with the rhythms. We lean onto certain colors and shapes that indicate the cynic space, and it seems to write itself when we're aligned with that energy.

Are you working on anything new at the moment? What can we expect from you in 2009?

I'm working on finishing up some new material that may be released as Aeon Spoke or under another project name, along with writing some new Cynic ideas. We may see the other project release by the end of the year, depending on how much time I have. Cynic touring and work has taken most of the year so far and very may take the rest of it... we'll see what unfolds!