Click here to read part 2 of the interview
We are accompanied by rain and thunder, when we enter the courtyard of Ayreon's Electric Castle - the studio of Arjen Lucassen. This Electric Castle is nothing less than a rebuilt stable, with a guesthouse in the back, situated in the woods in the south of Holland.
We pass the deserted swimming pool, which is 'guarded' by a beautiful peacock and we enter the farmhouse through the backdoor. Jolanda, Arjen Lucassen's wife, welcomes us. She leads us into the grand living-room, saying that Arjen would be down in a minute, 'cause he was upstairs due to a leaking roof.
In the meantime we get to know two of the six cats and I thoroughly investigate the big oil-paintings by the Belgian oilpainter Bertels, who was responsible for the artwork on Into The Electric Castle and now for The Dream Sequencer. As soon as Lucassen enters the room he starts to tell the story behind these two paintings. Lucassen got to know this artist by accident. The man appears to lead a solitary life, away from the 'real' world, creating his own on canvas. Lucassen made him explore his artistic boundaries, because he asked him to use red in the painting, which is situated on the surface of Mars. Bertels finally agreed, but asked Lucassen a favour in return: he should use more 'monsters and men' on the next album, 'cause he loved painting 'monsters and men'. In the background the new Rocket Scientist album played. Lucassen seemed very satisfied with the results.
Before the interview is to start, Lucassen shows me his studio, The Electric Castle itself. On the wall there are pictures of John, Paul, George and Ringo. In the corner, next to the mixing desk, there's an ancient Hammond. Opposite of the mixing-table there's a pile of keyboards. Lucassen kneels in front of his MiniMoog: "I'm not worthy", he jokes. Apparently he's very proud of his keyboards, especially of the older, analog ones, like the Moog and the Prophet 5. Both were found after a long quest.
For a guitarplayer, this studio contains very few guitars. Lucassen explains: "I mainly use the Gibson for the riffs and the Fender for the solos".
Lucassen guides us back into the house, where we are invited to his TV-attic: a large room under the roof with lots of LPs, CDs, and videos. In the middle of this all: a huge TV-screen. With a cup of lemon-tea, a piece of cake and a cat, we settle for the interview. The number of interviews he has done over the last weeks is innumerable. Lucassen just returned from a promo-trip to France: "That was really Incredible, I was met at the airport with a limousine, brought to the hotel and immediately had five big interviews. I've been there four days, and the final day I did seventeen (!) interviews with magazines, fanzines, radio. You have to realize that the results of my music are only presented to me in figures, because I don't play live. But now I was suddenly confronted with my fans. Some of them were very nervous, only because they had to interview me. I could feel them shaking when the pictures were taken. Incredible, what you bring about as a simple musician. Electric Castle was the first album available in France, but the sales weren't spectacular. But now, with these new albums, promotion is incredible."
"For France I have a license deal, which means that -contrary to a distribution deal- the local label has all the responsibility for the album, because it's their own product, but they also run the risk. As a result they put much more effort in promoting it. On the other hand, I receive less money per record, but I don't mind. I'd much rather have less money from more CDs, than lots of money from less CDs. I just want to have my music spread. Money is not that interesting, even if it's more, it's going into the next album."
Universal Migrator is Ayreon's fourth concept-project carrying the successful name of Ayreon. Although it's impossible to imagine, putting out the first Ayreon rock-opera, The Final Experiment was very difficult: "When I quit Vengeance, I finally decided to do what I liked myself. In a band you always have to compromise: one likes Iron Maiden, another one Saxon, a third one is into AC/CD. So you're partially writing for someone else's taste. So, for one time, I really wanted to make an album that I really liked myself. Beatles, Pink Floyd, ELP, Deep Purple, Rainbow it all had to be mixed with my own style on one album, even if it wasn't of any interest to anyone."
"This idea ended up as a rock-opera, which is a curse, especially when it's progressive as well. So, when it was finished, it contained some pretty big names, like Barry Hay (Golden Earring), Lenny Wolf (Kingdom Come) and Edward Reekers (Kayak), but still no-one was interested. I tried fifty record-companies, but they were all too busy with Nirvana and Hip-Hop."
"And then Hans van Vuuren offered me to release it, he really liked it. At first I was a bit reserved, because he only had some experience with re-releases. But he was so overwhelmingly enthusiastic, that I was finally converted. And then we started Transmission, which is a word from Final Experiment. And that was what I wanted. I didn't want to be with a big company, running the risk to be dumped if it wasn't an immediate success. But, to be honest, I didn't have much choice either."
"And when it was released, he called me: 'we've sold a thousand of them'. And I was like 'wow, imagine a thousand people in my garden, all having my album!' And then there was a contest on Dutch radio 3, where the single, Sail Away To Avalon, was nominated, and Hans started calling -using several pseudonyms- and the song won and it was played on five consecutive days and the album became a success. And because of that success, Hans asked for another album. But I thought I would only make one rock-opera, just like The Who or Pink Floyd. But Hans convinced me to call the project Ayreon, which I thought was impossible, because Ayreon died on the first record. Besides, you're not gonna name yourself after your main character? Imagine The Who calling themselves Tommy. But in the end, I agreed, because I realized that the public now knew the name of Ayreon , which would be a big advantage."
"But unfortunately, I became a bit arrogant, I thought I could do Actual Fantasy all alone, with only a few guests, because of the good sales-figures of Final Experiment. And it lacked a story, although it had a concept, Fantasy. In hindsight, we can conclude that Actual Fantasy wasn't a big success. Still enough to be profitable, but not as good as Final Experiment. So something should change or Ayreon would come to an end in the long run."
"So, I decided I really had to go for it and fortunately I had enough ideas. And, I could work with big names again, like Fish, Thijs van Leer (Focus) and Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering), top vocalists. And I wanted it to be a double album, but it shouldn't be expensive. So we split the financial risk for that and it was the right decision, 'cause Electric Castle really did incredibly well. Twice as many as Final Experiment, over 50.000 copies. Normally that would mean 'gold', but for that being official, you have to be member of a certain foundation, which we're not. But I don't care. It's fun, but not important."
Fortunately, a movie is in the making of The Electric Castle. A Czech team of animators is busy to add a visual side to the story of Ayreon's latest album. For fans this will be the only chance to have a visual experience of Ayreon, because Arjen Lucassen is not going to take any of the Ayreon records on tour.
"There are too many reasons for that. Firstly, I'll never get all these guest musicians together. It has cost me a year to get Bruce Dickinson into my studio, let alone on stage! 'Do it with just one singer', people often reply then. Well, on these albums, I have a song by a 16-year-old girl and a song by Bruce Dickinson. Tell me, who should I ask to sing both these songs?"
"Besides the singer-problem, I need guest-musicians: I want to have Erik Norlander on stage, Clive Nolan on stage. You have to rehearse and fly them in, pay for their hotels, rehearsals. For my music I need two keyboard-players, two guitarists, backing vocalists. Add to that the stage, a scenery with paintings. That would cost me a year to organize and I don't feel like doing that at all. I want to write music. I'm now doing promotion for two weeks, but then I want to start on the next record. I want to be creative, not repetitive. I don't need to play songs to let them grow, they grow in the studio. I don't hire a studio for six weeks and record. I'm working in the studio for a year and that's where I get my chemistry from, especially since I'm working with so many guest musicians, who are unfamiliar with the material I've been working on. But the bottom line is that it's impossible music to recreate on stage, or you should be using tapes, but what's the fun then anyway?"
"The only thing missing is the contact with the fans. That's difficult, but I try to contact as many fans as possible through internet and I reply to anyone who sends me an e-mail. But in the end I'm a hermit, living apart from the rest of the world. I love sitting in the studio all day, running in the woods, and then swimming in the pool and watching a movie at night. I don't know what a weekend is, I never go on a holiday. I should give it all up for touring and organizing and having troubles with all kinds of people. I prefer cats, you know."
One story that perfectly illustrates the way Lucassen handles difficulties, is the story behind the Hippy, one of the characters on Electric Castle. By now, we know that Lucassen did this part himself, mainly because of the trouble finding the right person to do it. Originally he asked legendary singer Donovan for this part, but he refused and advised Lucassen to ask Jon Anderson. Regrettably, the e-mail address he got bounced. Back to zero.
By accident, Lucassen found Mouse, singer from Tuesday Child, a Dutch band from The Hague, Lucassen's original home-town. Lucassen convinced Mouse to come along and listen to the Lennon-esque part of the Hippy, despite Mouse's doubts about the symphonic nature of the project. "He seemed pretty arrogant, like 'okay, I'll do it and this and that is my price', which was even more than some others got. But I really liked his voice, so I agreed and he did his parts. Few weeks later, I called him and explained who would be part of it as well, and probably his manager egged him on that he should ask more. So, when I received the contract, there were all sorts of restrictions that we hadn't agreed on. Man, I started sweating..! Again, I prefer cats, you see. I took a red marker and put big cross through the contract. I send him a cheque and paid him, adding the words 'don't contact me anymore'." Lucassen was back to zero again.
"The same night, I went into the studio, set myself in front of the mike and did it all over again myself. And I was really satisfied, although I am not a top singer. A week later, he called me, 'excuse me, it wasn't meant to happen like this, forget about that contract'. But I replied: 'Forget about your contract? Your vocals are erased, I'm on it now'. He really seemed disappointed, and I appreciated his apologies, so -despite what happened- I asked him again for this album."
Another difficult, but successful story is the way Lucassen got Bruce Dickinson in his studio. The 'mailman' in this story is the manager of Helloween, who is connected to both Lucassen and to the Sanctuary management of Iron Maiden. He delivered a letter with a copy of Electric Castle. After a few phone-calls it appeared Dickinson was very enthusiastic about it.
"I was a fan already of Samson, Dickinson's pre-Maiden band. New Wave of British Heavy Metal, that's an incredible record, which will be re-released soon on CD. Production is very bare, but the vocals, at that time by someone unknown, mysteriously called 'Bruce, Bruce' are very strong. So you understand, that when he agreed upon participating, I was shouting and jumping in the room. But then distress started. How to get this man into my studio? This has cost me a 10.000 phone-calls and in the meantime he traveled all over the world. When I reached him in Paris, where they were recording the new Iron Maiden album, he said: 'call me in two weeks'. But after 5 times 'call me in two weeks', I thought: 'forget it', and I recorded two alternative versions with Damian Wilson and Lana Lane. So the last time he called, saying 'in two weeks', I said: 'No, it's now or never, no more delays'. And he replied: 'okay, I'll come over next Sunday'."
"When he arrived at the airport, he carried his home with him in a bag, 'cause he has to live abroad for tax reasons for a year. In the car I played him this song and he really got into it. So, he went directly into the studio, recording three takes. And that was so difficult, because I'm not gonna say 'that's awful'. I was already impressed when opened his mouth. But it really was incredible, superb."
"That night we spent here in the attic, listening to each others demo's and he was really relaxed. And the next morning we had a nice breakfast together and I brought him back to the airport again. A great experience and a wonderful performance".
One of the Lucassen's biggest influences are The Beatles, which becomes very obvious on The Dream Sequencer. The First Man on Earth has written 'Beatles' all over it. Spock's Beard frontman Neal Morse is responsible for the very fine vocals on this atmospheric track.
"When I heard Spock's Beard for the first time I was amazed. How is it possible to have a great band like this in these times? And when I saw them live, I saw Morse was great on stage too, so I really wanted to have him. So when I visited a concert in Utrecht, I gave him a letter and the CD. A month later he called: 'I really like your CD, let's do it'. So we kept in touch via e-mail and I explained that I was making two CDs and I gave him the choice, a real heavy track, or a Beatles-like track. Well, that was the magic word, so he replied: 'I'll go for the Beatles-one'."
"After the recorded 013 gig, we met again, and he appeared to be in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving. And I was there too around that time to work with Erik Norlander and Lana Lane. So we recorded in Erik's studio. And Neal's a real top-musician, so he also helped with the lyrics. At a certain moment he changed the lyrics, during the recording. So I already wanted to stop the tape, but he ended perfectly after a completely changed sentence. Incredible, I never experienced something like that before. After one-and-a-half hour he was finished. He really has a great voice."
"Then, Marc McCrite (Rocket Scientists) did the harmonies, 'cause Neal doesn't sing higher than a 'fis', and the result is wonderful."