Interview Arjen Lucassen
Hi Arjen and thanks for answering a few questions for auxportesdumetal.com
Your new album “The Source” will be released at the end of April. What themes did you want to tackle this time?
Well, “The Source” is actually a prequel to the whole Ayreon story. You might know the Ayreon story about Planet Y and the Forever race… and somehow when I started Ayreon I didn't even know I would make a second one you know, and then I made a second one and a third one and they were not connected yet. Then suddenly all these albums started to be connected. There were references to older albums and the whole Ayreon universe started to take shape… and it got so complicated that when I did the 01011001 album I said « ok, this is the last one of the story ». And I shouldn't have said that because I lied (laughs). So obviously, I'm coming back to that story but this time it's about what happened before. It's about the source of Ayreon and also about the source of mankind.
So the title fits the album on different levels…
Yes, on many different levels because it's also about water which is the source of life as you know, and the source is also another word for « liquid eternity » which is the drug that the people from the Forever race use to communicate with each other.
The artwork is familiar and different at the same time; a bit Matrix-like… what was the idea behind it?
Well, first it's different because this artwork was not made by Jef Bertels. You know, he made all the previous artwork and usually, I worked on the story and told him « this is the story, can you make this painting? ». But this time I did things differently because I think that Bertels is more a fantasy artist. When you look at the "01011001" cover, I know it's supposed to look sci-fi with this big sea of machines but it looks more like a weird organic alien, it wasn't really what I had in mind. He's one of the best painters in the world but not really a sci-fi artist, you know. So I wanted something different this time and I googled “sci-fi art” on the internet, I looked at tons of illustrations for three weeks and Yann Souetre really stood out. Especially what inspired the artwork for “The Source” which was a bit different than the final version, just a woman under water with the tubes attached. And when I saw that, I thought « Wouldn't it be cool if that was actually a Forever? ». So I thought that this would actually be a good twist to the story, that the Forever race was once human.
Did you prepare this new album the same way you did with the previous ones? When you wrote the melodies, did you have a particular singer in mind for each part?
A few things are different. Like I just said, this time I started with the artwork. I usually don’t do that. But this time, because I had this artwork, I had more of a direction and I think that's what makes this album more structured as well. From the beginning, I knew what I wanted, I had a vision. Another thing is that on “The Theory Of Everything” and “The Human Equation”, for instance, I only worked with new singers. It was the rule that I wanted to follow. This time, I said « No limit, I just want the best singers in the world ». It was just like « this part has to be Hansi's », you know the chorus for “Planet Y Is Alive”, it can only be Hansi… but I had already worked with him so I thought « ok, let's forget the rule and let's call Hansi! ».
But it’s cool you managed to get singers everybody has known for quite some time, like James LaBrie, Russell Allen, Hansi Kürsch or Floor Jansen but also some new or more recent faces like Michael Eriksen for instance…
Michael is such a great guy, he’s amazing. It’s the first time I work with him… I promised him to plug him in every interview so I’m doing it: Michael and Circus Maximus rule! He’s such a great singer and he’s a lot of fun to work with as well, he’s got this insane laugh, you know…
Yes, I met him four years ago for an interview, he was very nice and you’re right, he laughed a lot…
So you know how funny he is!! (laughs). Yeah, it was great working with him.
Did you have the opportunity to have musicians working with you in the studio or did everyone record their parts on their own?
Unfortunately, this time, a lot of singers just couldn't come. For the previous album, they all came but this time it was harder. The reason is that most of them are really busy with their own bands. Tommy Karevic wanted to come over but he told me « I'm touring with Kamelot and I'm working on a new Seventh Wonder album, I can't do this, I can only do that when I have an afternoon free, I'll go to the studio and record ». So yeah, I had to make more compromises this time. Michael Eriksen came, the two girls, Floor and Simone, came as well… but all the others sent their files.
What part do you enjoy the most? Writing music or writing stories?
I really like the whole creative process. Coming up with a good idea, a cool melody, when a song starts taking shape and I know I've got something cool, I just love it… but I equally enjoy coming up with the story, writing the lyrics… and I also love when the singers come over and I hear the music come to life.
It also seems that, sometimes, some singers create something on their own, like you explained in the video for “The Day That The World Breaks Down” with Michael Mills and the “01...” passage…
Yeah, absolutely. What happened is that I had this song called “Run Apocalypse Run” and there was a passage in that song that always reminded me of Rainbow's song “Gates Of Babylon” and I couldn't get it out of my head so I asked Michael to do something cool and he came up with this amazing part with these great Queen harmonies… And then I got greedy and thought « well, I want this all over the album!! » (laughs). Actually, we created this character, TH-1, especially for him. And I had that part in “The Day That The World Breaks Down” with which I was not sure what to do. I wanted him to improvise but he needed words… and I didn't want words. So I said « let's go back to this binary thing », I let him go for it and what he did worked perfectly, I loved it.
With everything you've done, do you find it difficult or challenging not to repeat yourself musically?
Yes but I don't let it scare me or hold me back because that would not be good… so I just go for it and then I have my circle of trust, which is ten people around me, and I send it to them and sometimes they say « hey, it's too much like this or it's too much like that » and then I change it… because I don't know, I really don't do that deliberately, you know. But of course, I've done so many albums by now, it's a real difficulty, of course, you're gonna repeat yourself. There's this girl who said that the riff for “The Day That The World Breaks Down” really sounded like a riff from a Star One song and I listened to the song and said « Oh God, yeah, she's right ». So yes, that's why I try to challenge myself and change things like this time, letting myself be inspired by the artwork, or what I did for “The Theory Of Everything”, that is going to the studio without any ideas. And that album was different, very prog, with lots of keyboards; the structure was very different too. The new album is way catchier, I think. It has more structure, more guitars… And the guests always bring something a little different too, that's why it’s important to change singers sometimes.
Science fiction has often been central to your work. What recent books or films did you really enjoy?
I'm ashamed to say that I have never read a book in my life. I just don't have the time, I don't have the patience… All the stories for Star One, for example, they were based on science-fiction films not on books, it's lazy I guess, but I never take the time to sit down and read… except for magazines when I sit down on the toilet.
Alright, I guess you could read a book there but then you would have to be really sick…
Yes, ha ha ha, absolutely, maybe if I had too much curry or something (laughs)…
Any good science fiction films lately then? It's so rare, I find, to be amazed by a great sci-fi film these days…
I agree. It's a genre that I like but most of the time, the films are disappointing. The last one I saw was Arrival.
Oh and you didn't like it? I actually thought that this one was good.
I didn't really like the main character. And it lacked a bit of humor as well… If only Steven Spielberg had done it, it would have been different. But no, it was a decent film actually but it didn’t move me the way Blade Runner moved me for example.
Ayreon and your work in general have become more popular with years and each new release… Has it become easier to get the musicians you’d like to have for an album?
It has become much easier to get the people I want to work with. At the beginning, it was hell, nobody knew me but now I'm the guy who worked with Bruce Dickinson, James LaBrie, Devin Townsend…
But do you still have people who turn you down?
Of course! Some refuse, some… I don't even hear from. For each album, I tried to reach thirty to forty singers… And for a lot of them, I don't even get through. Especially with the really big names, like Geddy Lee, I can do whatever I want, I won’t even know if my message got through to him. On the other hand, I rarely get a « No, I won’t do it; I don't like your music ».
Are there many artists you would dream of recording with and haven’t managed to work with yet?
Well, yes, of course. That would be the heroes from my youth you know, the ones I grew up with like Robert Plant, Ritchie Blackmore, David Gilmour, Kate Bush… Being able to work these people would be fantastic but they don't know who I am.
Well, to be fair, you don't really work in the same branch… Kate Bush, for instance…
Yeah and she's even more reclusive than I am. You know, once, I got as far as to her manager and she said « Kate listened to your music and she likes it but she's too busy » so I don't know, maybe that's true, maybe she never listened to my music…
And I was wondering, I suppose that sometimes you must be contacted by people who want take part in your projects too…
Yes! That happens or sometimes, I just hear it through someone else. A good example of that is James LaBrie. It was in an interview for a Dream Theater fanzine, a fan told me « Did you read this ? » and in the fanzine they asked him if he had ever heard of Ayreon and he answered « Oh yes, I love that band, if Arjen asked me to participate in one of his albums, I would do it ».
Good to know, right?
Yeaaahhh (laughs). Two minutes later, I was trying to contact him.
Now, this is a crazy year for your fans, a new album but also a live performance entitled Ayreon Universe planned for next September… where did this idea come from?
I think “The Theatre Equation” was the catalyst for that. Basically, seeing how happy people were really opened my eyes. I was behind the stage, watching the audience… and some were smiling, others were crying. I'm a recluse you know, so I don't meet many people, it's the first time this year I'm out of my house… So, seeing all these people and how happy they were made me think… But I hate playing live…
I wanted to ask you about that actually. What is it you don't like about touring?
Everything (laughs). To begin with, I have terrible stage fright… and I'm not a very good performer.
You seemed to have fun on the Star One DVD, though.
It was different because it was just seven shows. But before that, I toured the world for fifteen years and played the same songs for fifteen years and I felt like an actor on stage because I didn't enjoy playing the same stuff over and over again. Seven shows for Star One, it was just enough… before it turned into some sort of routine. And that's the problem: first, I've got stage fright but the minute I get rid of it, I don't enjoy it anymore and feel like an actor. What I prefer in music is being creative and performing live is not being creative, it's a lot of waiting, a lot of travelling. What is going to happen next September is very different. Still, I'm nervous as hell (laughs).
Yes, because you're supposed to come on stage at some point in the show. Do you know how many songs you're going to play?
No, not really. Not many, just a few really. I'm not good at performing. I'm a good producer, I'm a good songwriter but I'm not a good guitar player.
What can your fans expect in terms of stage, setlist? Costumes maybe?
No no, no costumes (laughs)
What? Don’t you want to repeat the Star One experience (laughs)?
Oh my god, no… what was I thinking? Silver pajamas… (laughs). More seriously, there will be a narrator, Michael Mills will do that. I want the singers to be themselves so I'm not going to ask them to wear this or that. We will have a big led screen, some visuals for the stage as well, maybe some robot stuff that will illustrate the album “The Source”. And we will play at least two songs of every album. So it will be a best-of setlist.
Star One included?
Yes. Every Ayreon and Star One album will be represented.
Nothing from your other projects, like The Gentle Storm, Stream Of Passion?
Oh no, it would be way too long. With two songs from every album, we'll already have two hours. We set for two hours and it will probably be a little bit longer but not much longer than that.
Will there be a DVD?
Of course, definitely, yes. We're gonna film the first two shows, so Friday and Saturday.
You have been involved in lots of different projects. So, what’s in store now that your new Ayreon album is finished?
Basically, I never plan anything. I just let the ideas come to me and I never know how they will turn. I do plan sometimes but then I change it and change it… The Gentle Storm would never have happened and turned out the way it did if Anneke hadn't called me in the first place, you know. That said I would always like to do another solo record but I hardly ever succeed and often drop it because I'm so limited, it's just me and my little voice… But I’m gonna try again, and I'll probably fail (smiles).
The last word is yours:
Buy my shit, god damn it!! No, more seriously… Even though I’m a recluse I like to be in contact with the fans so here’s the message: tell me what you think about “The Source”, even if you hate it, let me know what you think. I love to get feedback, I’m not one of those artists who say « I do what I want and I don’t care ». Of course, I have to like what I do but I also do it for the fans, I want them to enjoy what I do, I really value their opinion. Feedback is always a good thing.