Interview by Andy Read
It’s been a tough few years for Arjen Anthony Lucassen. The renowned Dutch musician has been through hell and back, with a painful divorce, severe depression, and a rare illness, through which he lost his sense of taste and smell.
However, with a new Ayreon album about to hit the shelves, Andy Read speaks at length with the tall man about his futuristic storylines, his biggest ever cast-list, and how music is the best healer.
We also discover how Mr Lucassen almost became a country and western singer; why he’s fighting for a return to vinyl, and why he really, really hates trumpets!
With his Ayreon project, multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Arjen Anthony Lucassen has achieved worldwide critical acclaim with an ambitious series of rock operas. The seventh Ayreon output, “01011001”, is probably his most ambitious project yet. A space opera of epic proportions, the double CD features the biggest cast he has ever assembled. Over a period of several months, a veritable “Who’s Who’ of progressive rock and metal passed through the doors of the 47-year-old’s home studio, known fondly as The Electric Castle.
Blind Guardian singer Hansi Kursch and Pain of Salvation frontman Daniel Gildenlöw, were followed by the likes of Tom S. Englund (Evergrey), Jonas Renkse (Katatonia), Jorn Lande, Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-Gathering), Steve Lee (Gotthard), Bob Catley (Magnum), Floor Jansen (After Forever), Simone Simons (Epica), Phideaux Xavier (Phideaux) and Ty Tabor (King's X).
In addition, ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian, Tomas Bodin (The Flower Kings) and Joost van den Broek (After Forever) provide some symphonic virtuosity, whilst Symphony X guitarist Michael Romeo and Stream Of Passion's Lori Lindstruth added their signature power solos.
I open our interview by asking Arjen how he selects the guest musicians for his projects.
‘The only criterion,’ he explains, ‘is that I have to get goose bumps when I hear them sing. I just write all their names down and approach them to see if they are interested. I write the album instrumentally, then I place the singers on the album, and then I write the lyrics. So basically, I make them fit. It’s not that I’ve got this part and I need this sort of singer. It’s not that way.’
‘There are 25 guest musicians on this album. I don’t set out to do that though. Each time I actually aim to do a single album with just four or five singers and not so many styles of music. And I fail miserably. Before I know it, I’ve got all these different emotions – I can’t help it.’
Possibly the most surprising name in the list is that of Bob Catley, vocalist for erstwhile British rockers Magnum. Arjen is clearly delighted to have him onboard.
‘I’ve been a big fan since "Storyteller's Night". However I thought I could never get him. Then when I was doing the last album, I got an email from his manager Annie who said that Bob would be interested in working with me. I was like: ‘Wow! Yeah!’ So he was the first one I approached this time around. I sent him some tracks and he liked it and came over. He’s such a great guy. It was really an honour having someone who I listened to as a kid, sing on one of my albums.’
Sadly, as a trumpet player, I am saddened to learn that I am unlikely to ever be invited to one of Arjen’s guest musicians. He hates trumpets…and saxophones too!
‘Sometimes I can tolerate a saxophone, like on the Floyd albums and in some songs like ‘Baker Street’ and in Hawkwind, when it’s like part of that spacey mess. I can't explain. I just really hate the sound they make.’
Central to every Ayreon album is a futuristic storyline. This time we are introduced to Forever; a race of aquatic beings living on Planet Y. Through technological advancement, they have found the secret of longevity, but have advanced to the point that they have become completely dependent on machines and are losing their emotions.
A passing comet provides the opportunity to revitalize their race. Forever harness the comet to carry their DNA to a new home. When the comet and Earth collide, the impact exterminates the dinosaurs. But from the ashes, humans arise.
At first, the experiment with seeded DNA seems successful, and through the humans, Forever relive the emotions they experienced before the age of machines. But eventually, the humans develop a similar technological dependency and their emotions wane too.
I am interested in how Arjen chooses to expand on this theme. Is this part of a personal concern, that people in general are becoming too reliant on technology and detached from the real world?
‘It’s not really a concern. It’s more of a fact. It’s stuff that I see happening. Luckily I grew up in a time before computers. I can see the difference between what is happening now, and I must say that children nowadays miss out on a lot of fun. Things are becoming a lot faster and easier, but I don’t think they’re getting better.’
‘If I think about my youthful quests for unknown vinyl. I still remember going to England and finding a Kaleidoscope album and not knowing anything about the band. You had to investigate. Now, you can go on your computer and read everything about the band, and download or listen to the music. It’s all so easy. But so much of the magic has gone.’
So are we maybe reaching a time when some of storylines created by the famous science fiction writers of the 60s and 70s, are now more fact than fiction?
‘I think some of the science fiction writers were kind of prophetic. There is a difference between what I think myself, and the stories I write. On the album, the end of the world is 2084. I don’t believe it will be that fast, but I definitely feel that we’re heading for extinction.’
In a recent interview with label-mates Sieges Even, I was surprised to hear that the whole album had pretty much been created via the internet, with the singer not even stepping into the studio with his fellow band members. For them, it was a good way to work. However, noting that Arjen invited all of his singers into his studio, I invite him to comment on the benefits of direct human contact in recording an album.
‘I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s very important for me that the singers are standing right next to me. The singer knows I am a fan of their voice, because that’s why I invited them, and so they want to show off. There’s always magic going on. If something doesn’t work, you can find another way. That’s cool and you give each other the high five! When you see the DVD with extracts from the recording studio, you can see there’s always magic going on. It’s a lot of investment, but in the end it’s worth it, because people can feel it when they listen to the music.’
However, with so many people now only accessing music through downloads, there is a far great emphasis in the music business on selling individual songs, as opposed to whole albums. By producing 100-minute long concept albums, does Arjen worry that an increasing number of potential fans no longer have the patience to go the distance.
‘Certainly I wasn’t sure when I started Ayreon. But to my and everyone else’s surprise, it sold like crazy. Apart from my second album, each one has sold more, and most have been released in the downloading decade. Two months before the last album was officially released, I saw it on the web with 500 people downloading it. I thought: ‘Oh my God. This is the end.’ But to my surprise, that album is my best selling album.’
‘It does sometimes appear we have what seems like the iPod generation. I’m sure there are a lot of people downloading and listening to my albums once, and deciding they don’t like it. But I’m also sure that there is still an audience that wants to dive in and go on an adventure.’
The new album is available in three versions, the tastiest of which is a limited deluxe edition. This comes in a fold-out slipcase, with 36-page booklet containing sumptuous artwork by Jef Bertels and Felipe Machado Franco. There’s also a DVD featuring a 45-minute behind the scenes, making-of documentary and a state-of-the-art animated video for “Beneath the Waves”.
Arjen denies that this all part of an attempt to provide fans with an added incentive to pay out for the real product, even if they may have already downloaded the music.
‘As a kid I bought albums because of the artwork, so I know how important it is, especially for my music. It sounds pretentious, but my music is more than music, it’s like an adventure. Doing a rock opera, and having 17 singers coming to my place, it would be such a shame not to document it and share it with people.’
I am both surprised and delighted to hear his new album is also set to be issued in an unusual format – vinyl!
“Funny you should mention that,’ he laughs. ‘Just an hour ago I phoned the record company and said we really have to do this. I’m really gonna fight for the record company to release it on vinyl. So I can say with 99% certainty that it will happen. If they don’t, then I will myself.’
‘I get so many people asking. Vinyl seems to be really coming back – especially people who enjoy the artwork. The original painting for the new album cover, is one metre by one metre. It’s a real shame when you hold this little thing of just 12 centimeters. Obviously it’ll be a triple album, so we’ll have to do something special.’
While still touching upon the contemporary issues that Lucassen frequently writes about: humanity‘s ever-increasing dependence on technology and the dehumanising effect of mankind’s loss of emotions, thematically, “01011001” is much darker than previous Ayreon releases. The reason for this becomes clear as the interview unwinds.
‘I'm sad to say that I've been through a personal hell,’ states Arjen as he goes on to explain that he was suffering from a rare disease called Anosmia ‘It’s horrible. It can have several causes, such as a trauma when you hit your head, or maybe a tumour. But in my case it was a virus, which destroyed the nerves and I lost my sense of taste and smell. It has only an 18% chance of returning and it must be within a year. It’s been a year ago now. I’ve got my sense of taste - sweet, sour, bitter - but the flavour has gone.’
‘I actually went out with Heather Findlay from Mostly Autumn. We had a heavy night and the next day those senses were gone. At first I thought it was just a cold. But after a few weeks it still hadn’t returned, so I went to hospital, had lots of checks. That, together with the divorce from my wife brought on the most horrible depression, which I’d never had before. I was the happiest man alive before that.’
‘Anyway, the drugs worked and the songs began coming back. Initially they were quite dark. But after a while, more of the happy songs started surfacing. As always, music is the best healer.’
It certainly can be, and now with seven Ayreon albums under his belt, plus a host of successful side projects, I ask him to look back to the early days. When he was putting together the first Ayreon album (“The Final Experiment”) in 1995, the whole idea of producing rock operas was pretty much dead and buried. Did he always know that his musical vision would be such a long-lasting success?
“I’d been in bands like Vengeance and Bodine since the early 80s. It was the early 90s and we were lost. We didn’t know what to do. We tried to sound like Nirvana. We tried to sound like Alice in Chains. I did a solo album and released a country and western song as a single, and it flopped hopelessly. I thought, this is not what I want. I have to do at least one album that I can be proud of. That I can play to people and say this is what I am. The first record was definitely a one-off project. It wasn’t even called Ayreon – it was a solo project and the name of the project was Ayreon. I thought, let’s get it out of the way and become an accountant.’
So is this country and western song still available?
‘It was called “Midnight Train” from my solo album “Pools of Sorrow, Waves of Joy”. I did it under the name of Anthony. I know it sold out a few years ago. There were only a few thousand. I’ve got a couple here and you can pick them up now and then on Ebay. It had some of the rudimentary beginnings of Ayreon on it.’
‘Looking back, it is amazing to do something you like, and to have success with it. Imagine if I’d have had a hit single with that country and western song. It would have been horrible. I’d have been stuck with that forever. Now I have fans all over the world. I don't have to think, ‘What am I going to have to do next’, to be commercial. I do what I like, and people like it.’
Of his other projects, Arjen confirms that he has ceased his involvement with Stream of Passion, and that there are no current plans for a further episode in his more metallic Star One opus.
Six years ago Arjen released the debut Ambeon record, a mysterious and ambient side project, which featured a young and very talented female vocalist called Astrid van der Veen. I enquire whether there is any chance of a follow-up.
‘She was 14 at the time and the biggest talent I ever worked with. This was the first time she was in a studio. Unfortunately she’s not doing well mentally. She did a solo album called “Seamless Borderline”; the title says it all. I asked her to be on this album but she wasn’t ready for that. But I told her, if she ever wants to do another Ambeon album, to just let me know.’
One of Arjen’s first musical experiences was as a member of popular Dutch heavy metallers Vengeance, who recently marked their 25th anniversary with a live album and tour. I wonder if he had been tempted to join them for old times sake. The reply is firmly in the negative.
‘For me, that was the 80s. The 80s were great and we had a great time, but I hate to look back and play the songs I played 20 years ago. Luckily I can leave the past behind. If Ayreon had failed, I’d do the Vengeance thing again, because there are a lot of people who want to re-live that period. Luckily I can update the Ayreon thing. I want to look to the future.’
That being the case, with the new Ayreon album on the record store shelves, what are the tall man’s plans for the future.
‘Well, I never plan anything. I let it come naturally. When I’m doing an Ayreon album, I put everything into it. I work solidly on it for up to one and a half years. When I’m done, I’m completely empty and fall into this horrible black hole.’
Once, I did a cover album called “Strange Hobby”, which was great fun. So maybe I’ll do something like that. What I do know, is that the next album won't be an Ayreon album. I definitely need a side project between the Ayreon albums, so it could be anything really. I’d love to do a solo album one day, to make up for my country and western past!’
Interview for DPRP by ANDY READ
Ayreon Official Website
Arjen Lucassen Official Website
01011001 Official Website
Arjen Ayreon Lucassen MySpace Page