For the continuation of my chat with Liam Wilson we’re finally poised to really dig into Cynic’s Focus—a record that’s had a profound impact on Liam and (by extension) the otherworldly Azusa. But mind you, we’ll be looking at Cynic’s debut via the lens of its lyrical content rather than its music. Maybe a little unusual for you tech-death piranhas but—all in all—far less unusual than Focus itself was in consideration of everything else that was happening around it back in 1993, (or anytime in its prehistory, really). Focus arguably had no brethren. Its release was like pimp-parking a Nissan Skyline GT-R blasting a W.A.S.P. eight-track into the gallery of Queen Anne’s House of Commons. This was alarming, mind-tempering thaumaturgy. And it’s easy to misremember the record as being universally celebrated upon its arrival. Paul Masvidal will be emphatically correcting us on that particularly thickheaded conclusion but we’ll get to him a bit later.
Also, in order to settle your furrowed brows, I’ve included a small glossary at the end of the piece. Paltry yeah, but better than nuffin’. So quit your whining, light that incense, bust out those japamala beads and park your keister, Meister. The ceremony’s about to begin.
Fallow Heart: Before we really get started, let me ask you: do you know what one Mr. Tony Teegarden’s up to these days? I mean, no way are you going to guess so I’ll just tell you.
Liam Wilson: Tell me. I can take it.
FH: Okay. Sure, you’re ready? Mr. Teegarden is a professional life coach now.
Wilson: Wait. So, Tony Teegarden…like, the vocalist?
FH: Yeah, man! He’s got a website that’s cited on Fox Business, ABC News, NBC News, the fucking Miami Herald… The dude is a professional mentor and life coach now. Tony Teegarden!
Wilson: Whoah, that’s bonkers! Now let me make sure that I’m thinking of the right dude. I know he’s a vocalist; I know he’s a metal dude. Is he the dude that sang on Bloodbath’s Nightmares Made Flesh? …Is it that dude? Or is it….no, wait a minute…
FH: Bloodbath? What?! Ref, time out! My boy needs electrolytes or something… Let me tell you, the only bath that’s going to be happening here and now is a bloodbath of shame. My man, Tony Teegarden contributed the harsh vocals on [Cynic’s] Focus!
Wilson: Oh! Okay, as you say that, that makes total sense but where I get confused is that live it was a woman doing the death vocals. But okay, you’re right; you’re right. I’m like reading Focus’s liner notes in my head as we speak. But who the hell was I thinking of?
FH: Well, I fucking don’t know! I mean…he sounds like a wonderful person; let me think. When you think of Bloodbath, you’ve got all your European death metal first stringers as possibilities, right? Were you thinking of Peter Tagtgren?
Wilson: [snapping his fingers] That’s who it is! That’s who I was thinking of!
FH: Okay. Well regardless, this is great news -really for all of us- because when you’re finally ready to pull your shit together, Tony Teegarden is just waiting in the wings to mold you into a more actualized and dynamic version of yourself. And this is especially fucking interesting: he refers to death metal as ‘energetic music.’ That’s his preferred term, (just so you know before you contact him.) It’s energetic music.
Wilson: Okay, good to know! Now, just because of the pedigree associated with [first off] ‘life coach’ and (second off) Fox News…is he Christian now? Dare I ask?
FH: Well, you did ask and now it’s too late to put that genie back in the bottle. Unfortunately… [reading silently] no; the mission statement on his site doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer to your question so I suggest that we just jump to wild conclusions on that particular front.
Wilson: That’s cool, [I mean, either way]. I’ve kind of come back around to at least finding some solace in the New Testament. I don’t have a problem at all with Jesus. He was the nicest dude in the world and was like the ultimate symbol of ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ Right?
FH: I can’t disagree with that. Okay, man, let’s get into Focus.
Wilson: Right! So “Veil of Maya.” Off the bat there’s an interesting tie into ahamkara: this idea of our individualized existence, (which is just an illusion.) You know I’ve heard this term and this abstraction so many times now…the whole idea of personifying Maya as something of a trickster but I’ve never necessarily heard it taught as resembling a veil outside of this song. I love that Cynic always brings me back to this specific conceptualization. They were my introduction to so much. Really, I always think about this ‘veil of Maya’ and the idea of duality and just kind of it being like my personal point of entry for a certain way of thinking. Like, being raised deeply Christian but being tipped-off by Cynic that like, ‘Oh, wait, there’s this whole other spiritual philosophy,’ you know? ‘What’s that all about?’ I think I translated it at the time as something ambiguously Eastern but otherwise had no clue as to what it represented. But it really turned my head.
FH: You know, one of the things that I like about the word ‘Maya’ is that in some very early traditions the word literally was applicable to a magic show. When you think about it… a magic show is something that’s performed for fun. It’s meant to entertain. And it’s like something that Alan Watts once said: We suffer because we’re not enjoying an experience that the gods essentially gave us to be entertained by.
Wilson: That makes sense because Maya is a trickster. I like the idea of Krishna being like a philandering thief at times. You know, he’s actually kind of this naughty little god. So I just personally dig the Hindu/Vaishnava point of view where it’s… I mean, it’s not like it’s all pure, you know? And there’s a reason for that. But beyond all the spiritual mechanics, I just really like the idea of Maya being personified as something of a rogue; an elusive, sometimes irritating personality more so than just a universal tendency or something.
FH: Sure. And it also makes the ‘peering past the veil’ they keep alluding to out to be something more of a game as opposed to an onerous spiritual calling or an ongoing struggle for purity, you know? To tie it to the other band and album you picked to discuss, this last portion of the second verse says ‘Her gay pictures never fail/ Crown each other veil on veil/ Charmer who will be believed/ by man who thirsts to be deceived.’ This to me sounds a lot like 16 Horsepower and frankly like something carbon-copied from the King James Bible. I could easily see a Fundamendalist preacher riffing on the same sentiment. You know, ‘beware the ‘Charmer’ because men are easily corrupted.’ The ‘Charmer’ to the Christian is the archetypical devil. In this case, none of this would be a game at all. Your immortal soul dangles in the balance.
Wilson: Yeah? I guess I can see that… But also, the idea of ‘veil on veil’ is―in a sense―like an allusion to the multiverse, you know? Or even just the layers of complexities within any given situation. And then on top of that, just the timelessness of this dramatic interplay. It makes sense that it would remind some people of Christianity and sound like something completely brand-new to others. I think again of hearing all of this stuff for the first time as a teenager. I think having the LSD in my system was just kind of the perfect introduction to it because, (sure) I was into metal but not about to go to a Hindu temple anytime soon. I just wasn’t exposed to it, you know? I think I got into LSD and stuff like that because the practice of meditation wasn’t readily available. I just wasn’t really exposed to that kind of thing. Cynic tapped into a part of me that needed to be satisfied in that way.
FH: Yeah, all of Focus’s lyrics pretty much circle around the same thing. For example, they reference a raft or canoe more than once. The canoe in “How Could I?” you absolutely can’t miss but it’s easy enough to overlook the reference to the one on “Celestial Voyage.” Water is an especially consistent device. And then there’s “Sentiment.” Of course, those initial verses are taken from…are you familiar with Paramahansa Yogananda? He wrote them.
Wilson: Of course I’m familiar with Yogananda! He wrote the Autobiography of a Yogi.
FH: Yep. So I’ll admit that I was not really familiar with him before prepping for this interview. Heard of the book of course but never read it…
Wilson: Yeah, at Steve Jobs funeral, every person in attendance got a copy of that book. And George Harrison also used to keep copies of it handy and would just give it to people. It’s a fucking crazy book and Paramahansa Yogananda is a pretty fascinating character. His life story isn’t even that old, you know? I mean, basically everything that that guy is saying is more or less vetted. It’s not some ancient story that had a lot of time for the game of telephone to distort; we’re really only going back maybe two generations here. And yeah, it’s just fucking bonkers; that book is nuts.
Another guy who is alive today is Radhanath Swami who wrote a book called The Journey Home, and that dude’s story is fucking insane, (I think you can listen to the whole thing on YouTube.) He’s telling stories about people who can make ashes fly out of their hands and shit like that and you’re just like, ‘say what?’ Just crazy, mystical, yoga shit. Levitating and stuff where you’re pretty much like, (you know, back to the dinosaur analogy [from pt. l]) what do I know? I actually don’t know anything. What, because I was raised in fucking Philadelphia I think I know some shit? I don’t fucking know anything. But whatever; I’m sorry man. I’m going to try to stop derailing you.
FH: No, that’s what I want you to do! That’s absolutely the point. And I’m grateful that you’re so much more spiritually literate than I am.
Wilson: Hey, All is One, right? I mean, I am you and you are me, bro!
FH: Okay, well I’m holding you to that shit. So are you familiar with who or what ‘Sri’ is when Masvidal says, ‘Sri, cosmic sea/all is within you,’ on “I’m but a Wave To…”?
Wilson: I’m pretty sure that Sri is just like a reverential term. Like, you would call a holy person Sri… as in Srila. It’s a title. So when he’s saying, “Sri, cosmic Sea,” I think he’s basically just evoking the cosmic sea, (which is the Brahma, the effulgent energy that is everywhere and that everything comes from,) you know? It’s the cosmic nectar that we’re all swimming in
FH: Right, and also the ‘sea’ that we’re each an individual wave of. That would make sense in context.
Wilson: Definitely! There’s a great poem by Swami Vivekananda, (who was a disciple of Yogananda by the way,) about like, being the froth in a wave and how life is like a wave lapping ashore. It’s pretty beautiful. And I know that I heard “I’m But A Wave To…” first and then when I saw this poem I was like, ‘Oh!’ And if you’re saying that Cynic was familiar with Yogananda, (which I wasn’t aware of,) then chances are, they were familiar with Vivekananda as well. In which case, they probably read this poem.
FH: Yeah, I would love to learn something about Paul Masvidal’s journey and also just to know how much the band was in harmony with all this stuff; how much Reinert was in harmony with it especially, you know? Because these tunes are… they’re demoing them in 1989/1990 so it had been a while that they were digging into this spiritual trove.
Wilson: Right, and were they just kind of like, ‘Oh, well, that’s our Paul,’ or were they like, into it?
FH: Exactly! Were they saying, “Oh well, there goes Paul…” or were they more like, “we are Paul”?
Anyway, “Uroboric Forms” is one of the few songs that has a transition that’s not quite as precise and yet it still works. I’m talking about right before it goes into that melodic, sort of occult-y sounding part where the lyrics read “Wherever there is other, there is fear.” I love how they honed this track over the course of the demos. That’s an amazing journey that this composition took.
I’d never thought to look up the word ‘Uroboric’ before and just discovered that it’s essentially the same thing as ‘Ouroboris.’ Duh. ‘Orouboric’ comes from the words ‘Ouro’ meaning ‘tail’ and ‘boric’ meaning ‘eat’, [ i.e. a self devouring form]. Simple but pretty cool. I don’t really have anything else other than that I didn’t realize the idea of the primordial egg went all the way back to 1700 BCE. It was depicted in Sanskrit scriptures at that point. I’d always associated it with the Orphic Egg of Classical Greece and didn’t know that the concept -not only went back as far as it did- but was also more of a worldwide, unifying conception. What do you know?
Wilson: Well… and I’m not saying that the Greeks didn’t come up with some things, I’m still fascinated by how much of modern religion comes out of the Vedic literature. Like, even the conceit of the Virgin Birth; stuff on that scale. It pretty much all comes from the Mahabharata and the Vedas. I mean, the Srimad Bhagavatam predicts the Buddha 3,000 years before the Buddha.
FH: Yeah? That’s pretty fascinating. So this leads us, (I mean, not really; we’re all over the place) to “How Could I?” And “How could I?” to me contains the most radical lyric. Masvidal says at one point, “If I’m harsh and unkind to myself, so I share these attitudes with you,” which is an amazing sentiment to put on this or really on any album. If this was in a mainstream pop song I would think it was a striking thing to say, essentially implying that he should be good to himself because in being good to himself he’s exercising goodness to others; it’s reflexive in a way that’s like a universal statute. ‘I must be kind to myself in order to be kind to you and I must be kind to you in order to be kind to myself,’ (talk about an uroboric form). Not the sort of maxim that contemporary culture would sit comfortably with at all and -need I remind you-this is on a death metal record!
Also, contrast that notion to David Eugene Edwards, (16 Horsepower vocalist/lyricist.) That dude would probably reply, ‘absolutely not, ya Philistine! You have to flagellate yourself until you’ve essentially earned redemption.’
Wilson: Yeah, that’s definitely an intense line. That reminds me of―yet again―that Radhanath Swami guy. There’s a story he tells where he’s at an airport in India and a minister or somebody prominent like that is also there at a gate talking about India’s pollution problem. And this person went up to Radhanath Swami, and she’s like, ‘Well, what are you doing about all this? We have major problems here! How are you helping us with all your prayer and your chanting?’ Basically asking: where does the rubber hit the road for you? And… for one thing, it’s worth mentioning that Radhanath Swami actually has a pretty amazing eco-village -which is one of the more sustainable communities I’ve ever heard of. But on top of that, his answer was kind of interesting. He was like, (and I’m totally paraphrasing here,) ‘Scientifically speaking, we probably have the knowledge necessary to reverse global warming or to clean up the rivers and so on. However, what we don’t have are the tools to fix our souls so that we don’t repeat these same mistakes.’ He’s basically like, ‘what I’m trying to get to the root of is the human problem; climate change is a symptom of that,’ you know? The idea is, we pollute because we’re polluted. And I think that that kind of ties back into the lyric and the basic idea that ‘as I do unto myself, I do under others. Likewise, as I do unto others, I do unto myself.
FH: That reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about Mother Teresa. Essentially, she was asked to participate in this anti-war rally. It was high profile; lots of celebrities were involved; loads of media attention. But she responded to the request by emphatically stating that she couldn’t participate on basic principles. She basically said, ‘I cannot be ‘anti’ anything. Contact me again when you have a pro–peace rally,’ (which ties into the story you just told me.) An anti-war rally signals obvious outrage and it may be cathartic but does it actually do anything to stop war? What if we adopted a pro-peace mentality instead? What if we started with ourselves on an individual level and cultivated a peace-aligned mindset?
Wilson: Wow! But that makes perfect sense. Like, if I want to see some sort of change in the world then I have to be that change. If I choose to treat others with kindness, I have to also be kind to myself. If I want to instruct others, I must first be able to live up to those ideals. You know, it’s a ‘practice what you preach’ kind of thing. Be pro-peace, pro-love and pro-expansion. Don’t equivocate.
FH: Right. You know, Focus’s lyrics are really beautiful. They could be repurposed for the hymns of some super charismatic church in Berkeley.
Wilson: Yeah, but these kind of are hymns though. I mean, I see these as like, really extreme, (or really ‘energetic,’ if you were to take Tony Teegarden’s terminology,) hymns. They’re energetic bhajans.
FH: Agreed. Extremely extreme bhajans. I can definitely fuck with that.
So I think that’s pretty much it. That’s Focus. Man, I really love your relationship to it. Sitting at the feet of Sean Malone [see part l] …that alone is such an amazing image.
Wilson: Yeah. That dude probably guru’ed me harder than anyone. And not only that but he also sent me the transcriptions that he did for Focus, (totally unsolicited. It was so kind, you know?) In its way, it’s also pretty intimidating. Like when he’s playing, it’s so much cooler than I’d initially thought now that I can actually read the transcription along with it. So in a lot of ways I’ve unpacked this record more than almost any other just because I’ve listened to it so much. I’ve memorized it; I’ve memorized the lyrics and now I’m basically working through every song from the inside out and like, really getting under the hood. And I know that he’s not like the lyricist or the songwriter or anything but just his presence and involvement… he’s basically one of the four gospel writers of this album, (and his gospel just happens to be my favorite.)
It’s worth mentioning that Paul Masvidal’s spiritual pursuits have led him just a skosh afield of the space that he was in when Focus was still fresh out of the oven. At that point he was practicing Kriya Yoga, an intense regimen designed to purify both the physiological and mental spiritual systems. Given my assumptions regarding who Paul Masvidal is and must therefore perennially remain, (via Cynic’s debut record and an egregious lack of imagination on my part,) I was surprised when we first spoke to hear him describe his philosophy as Buddhist rather than Hindu but―of all people―this shouldn’t have confounded me in the slightest. After all, only five-plus years ago my spirituality revolved primarily around defeatism and bourbon, (in fact I had a mild but persistent antipathy towards any philosophy that wasn’t―at the very least―subtly nihilistic. But whether it’s you, me or Tony friggin’ Teegarden, folks are capable of profound transformation and thank goodness for that.
At any rate Paul relayed to me, “By [my] mid-20s I started practicing Tibetan Buddhism in the Vajrayana tradition although I connect deeply with non dual/advaita teachings too. They all point to the same stuff, ultimately. [They’re] just different paths.” I agree wholeheartedly with this point of view. As Damien Echols asserts in the book Ritual: An Essential Grimoire, “I am convinced that all of the…Abrahamic religions, (Judaism, Christianity and Islam,) are actually vehicles used to pass along the same coded information.” And sure, the likes of Hinduism, Buddhism and Shintoism certainly exist outside of that imposing, theological strip-mall but―as Homer Simpson once argued― “red M&M, green M&M…they all wind up the same color in the end.”
We’ll link up with Liam one last time in The Origin of Life pt. lll to discuss his deep and abiding affinity for 16 Horsepower’s debut, (an out-and-out heel-turn from Focus both stylistically and in regards to its fuck-your-shit-up, faith-based austerity.) Til then, fare thee well my Nightingale, the pleasure’s been mine.
Oh, and to Malone and to Reinert: let the love that we tend for you here nourish you forever on your travels. As it says in a traditional Buddhist blessing, ”…may your heart’s wishes soon be fulfilled/ as completely shining as the bright full moon/ as magically as by a wish-fulfilling gem.”
We will be renewed, Sean.
“Nunc fluens facit tempus, nunc stans facit aeternitatum.”
―Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy
“You may control a mad elephant;
You may shut the mouth of the bear and the tiger;
Ride the lion and play with the cobra;
By alchemy you may learn your livelihood;
You may wander through the universe incognito;
Make vassals of the gods; be ever youthful;
You may walk in water and live in fire;
But control of the mind is better and more difficult.”
― Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi
Advaita: the doctrine that reality consists of a one-principle substance or God.
Ahamkara: a Sanskrit term that is related to the ego and egoism – that is, the identification or attachment of one’s ego
Bhagavad-gita: the sacred `song of God’ composed about 200 BC and incorporated into the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata (a Sanskrit epic)
Bhajan: a Hindu genre of devotional songs and hymns. Derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “singing to glorify God.”
Brama: the creator god in later Hinduism, who forms a triad with Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.
Krishna: a deity worshiped across many traditions of Hinduism who is often depicted as a young cowherd boy with a dark or blue complexion playing a flute or a youthful prince giving philosophical direction and guidance. Krishna is the divine speaker of the Bhagavad-gita and the eighth avatar of Vishnu
Mahabharata: one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, (the other being the Ramayana.) Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War, the Mahabharata contains elaborations on theology and morality.
Maya: Krishna’s inferior, material energy. [Maya] creates and controls the material world, keeping its inhabitants in countless varieties of illusion.
Sri: literally ‘beauty.’ Sri is also an honorary term for a person worthy of profound respect.
Veda: derived from a Sanskrit word from the root, vid, meaning “to know.” Thus, veda means “knowledge” or “wisdom.” The Vedas are the most ancient Hindu and yogic texts. Believed to have been directly revealed to seers among the early Aryans in India, and preserved by oral tradition.