Hollywood Babylon: Paul Masvidal’s Life in LA

Few people have a professional circle that includes Chris Barnes and Alex Webster, sexy pop starlet Terri Nunn and global film star Jim Carrey. One of them is Decibel Hall Of Fame inductee Paul Masvidal (enshrined with his Cynic bandmates for Focus). When Cynic fell apart in the mid-90s, Masvidal relocated to Los Angeles, where he has steadily built a career that includes songwriting, studio work and, most recently, working with Jim Carrey on the children’s book How Roland Rolls (check out a video of work on the book). The same curiosity that propelled Masvidal’s work in Cynic has made him an in-demand Hollywood talent.
Masvidal talked to us from LA about his life in the dream factory. After the conversation, check out a sampler of Masvidal’s film work. You can preorder Cynic’s new album Kindly Bent To Free Us in every format imaginable.

When did you start writing music for Hollywood projects?

I moved here in 1996. I was a student at Musician’s Institute. A faculty member knew Terri Nunn from Berlin, the pop band from the 80s. She played her some stuff I was doing and Terri loved it. That was my big welcome to LA moment. Suddenly, I was writing songs with Terri Nunn. The big leap into TV work was a neighbor who lived next to my brother’s apartment building. She was a junior agent at CAA and is now an agent. She worked with film and TV composers. I approached her and said I wanted to get my foot in the door. She hooked me up with one of her clients. At first I was getting coffee but after he learned I had chops and could play he brought me in as a musician. Pretty soon, I was immersed in session work for network TV.

Did you know all the 80s Berlin tunes like “Metro” and “Sex”?

And “Take My Breath Away,” that was a huge one and was in Top Gun. I was hanging out with Terri and even though I wasn’t a huge Berlin fan we ended up recording three tunes. I thought she had a cool record that was sort of spiritual, electronic pop before Madonna did it. But it never came out. It got shelved. She stayed in the world of nostalgia. It’s a shame because I thought what we were doing was strong. But when you have that much success sometimes you’re afraid of going out there again.

And a song like “Take My Breath Away” can probably pay your bills for life

Kind of, although (Giorgio) Moroder wrote that song. He wrote stuff for Donna Summer and Motown. I think he got most of the money but the performance royalty was substantial. It was on the radio 24-7 for a year.

Did you play her any Cynic material?

I don’t think so. When I moved here Cynic was gone. It was a past life I wasn’t trying to revisit. It ended in such a sad way. I didn’t even want to tell anyone. I wanted to shut down that part of my past because it was painful and anticlimactic. We tried and it was so hard that we broke up. There was no love out there. I’d been doing Cynic since I was in high school and didn’t know anything else. So I had to rediscover who I was without the band. Cynic wasn’t even really in my language until 2006.

So, like a lot of people you came to Los Angeles to reinvent yourself.

I had a brother here and I came out here to go to school. I finished all my core classes at UCLA. One summer I went to Musician’s Institute and auditioned because there was a jazz teacher I liked. They gave me a full scholarship. That sort of said the town was embracing me. I took it as a green light to move. Having a brother here was helpful because I lived with him and was able to transition. (Masvidal’s hometown) Miami is dominated by Latin music and hip hop and there isn’t much work there for musicians who have their head elsewhere. The pool was small compared to a place like LA. There is a tremendous amount of work here.

When you were transitioning to this new career was what you did in Cynic applicable?

Oh, totally. At the height of Focus we developed chops. That was the result of years of practicing. But I couldn’t do a real world application of my knowledge until I was thrown charts and was forced out of my comfort zone. The unorthodox world of Cynic led to all this stuff. A guy I worked for at one point actually told me I was overqualified for the job. But it was cool he understood the value of underground music. Our music was never easy to play and having that ability on your instrument will help you elsewhere.

When you work with other people on film projects it’s about helping them realize their vision. How do you do that and remain true to yourself as a musician?

It depends on the job. I’m so self indulgent with Cynic that I love being a side guy under someone’s wing or serving their muse. It lets me wear different hats. Jim Carrey is a master and a comedic genius and it was incredible to just be in his presence. I was more than happy to just help make him happy.

Can you tell us more about the project?

I’m the music director of an organization called GATES, which is the Global Alliance For Transformational Entertainment. Carrey and (author) Eckhart Tolle are two of the big names behind it. It’s an organization that’s trying to provide a new language for Hollywood media. The guy who started it has known Jim for a long time. He called and asked if I was interested. Next thing you know, I’m working with Jim day in and day out. It was an incredible experience. As an artist he works on a level that I’ve never witnessed. He’s present and engaged and a true improviser and can channel his innate talent in a way no one else I’ve met can. It was a life-altering journey.

Did you talk at all about death metal?

Not much. We’ve met a few times in other contexts. Early on, I said some old friends of mine were in your first film. Ace Ventura was now over 20 years ago. He found it funny. I know he has eclectic taste. I think his heart is more into classic rock. But I know it was really cool for Cannibal to get that. It changed their whole trajectory and they’ve been permanently associated with that movie. It shifted everything for them.

So you didn’t get to ask if he got the Torture LP.

(Laughs). No, we didn’t get into any of that. I think he is very open and curious. He obviously knew about my past. When we met to talk about the children’s book I played him some new Cynic stiff. He was curious and excited to hear it.

It’s interesting that Cannibal appeared in Ace Ventura considering that Jim removed himself from promoting Kick Ass 2. Yet his film was indirectly responsible for launching one of the biggest death metal bands ever.

What spoke to him about Cannibal, if I understand it correctly, is that it’s so over the top it’s hilarious. If you don’t take it very seriously it’s hilarious. That’s what Jim saw: it’s so extreme I can make it hilarious. The scene is so fun and Cannibal became this pop culture death metal staple. The guys in Cannibal aren’t like these Scandinavian people being evil in real life – they just happen to write crazy shit.

A lot of people criticize Hollywood but it sounds like it’s been a positive experience for you.

Hollywood gets a bad rap for materialism and glamour and all that nonsense. At the root of it this town thrives with creative output. The standard of artistry is so high. There is something sad about people that come here and try to make it, the fame seekers. But behind the vanity people that come here there’s this insane and creative underbelly that drives the town: writers, musicians, artists, painters and illustrators. I think it’s so inspiring. So many people want an opportunity to get their vision across. It’s one of the few places where a freak like me can come from an unorthodox place and make it a career. If you have something to say and talent you can go a long way.