Sometimes, I get to do really cool things as a music journalist. Sometimes, I get to do amazing things and this is one of them. Arjen Lucassen, AKA Ayreon, has been a musical hero of mine every since the first notes of The Human Equation played in my ears, right after I had purchased the album in Paris. (I was there seeing Iron Maiden and Dream Theater. Good trip.) It was a split earphone cable arrangement and I was listening to it with one of my best friends, who had insisted I get it. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed; vocal lines by some of the my favorite singers (James LaBrie, Devin Townsend, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Devon Graves, to mention just a few) echoed in my ears, set to amazing, progressive instrumentation. An obsession was born; over the next few years, I bought every single Ayreon album I could get hold of and start following him fervently.
It hasn’t always been an easy road. Not all of Ayreon’s output ranks on my favorite albums of all time but so much of it does that I kept the flame alive. And he has rewarded me; his upcoming The Source is nothing else but a return to form, a striking example of the power still inherent in Lucassen’s style. Thus, it was a rare pleasure for me and an honor to speak with him just a few short weeks ago and publish this interview so close to the release of what might be one of my favorite releases by him. Head on down to the post to read about his creative process, how he chooses vocalists, hills still left to conquer and much more!
Thanks for making this a reality for me by being our readers; I love you.
Eden Kupermintz: Thank you so much for taking the time.
Arjen Lucassen: No problem at all, no problem at all.
I’m a huge fan, so it’s an honor to speak with you.
Great—great, that’s a good start!
I’ve been listening to The Source for a couple weeks and going back to some of the older albums…when you set out to write the “forever” cycle [the Ayreon story], did you plan for it to be such a long story from the get-go, or did it just create itself?
It’s totally random, really. When I started Ayreon, I didn’t even know if I was going to make a second one. And the second album, of course, had no connection to the first one at all—it wasn’t a part of the story—and then I did the third one (Electric Castle), which had some references to the first album, and then suddenly the next albums had more references and before I knew it this whole Ayreon universe was growing—but, no, it wasn’t planned at all. Basically, I never plan—I plan, but I never stick to the plan.
[Laughs] So now you don’t plan that the next album is going to be forever, and then end it from there?
No! Not at all, no. When I started this album, I had no idea what it was going to be. It could’ve been a solo album—I think it started out as a solo album, but it got a bit too heavy for a solo album, and then I thought maybe it’s a Star One album, then, but then all the violins and the folky stuff came in, and I thought, “No, I think it’s going to be an Ayreon album.” And at that point I had no idea what they story’s going to be—you know, it all depends on the music: I still think the music’s more important than the story, so I let the music inspire me to come up with the story. So, yeah, that’s how it slowly grows—it’s always baby steps, basically.
So, it starts from the instruments and then from that the story gets born?
Yup, that’s the way it goes. And then at some point I have the music and I have an idea for the story and then it’s time to think about which singers are going to fit this music and the story, and then I go looking for the singers, and then eventually I approach like twenty singers and not all of them can do it—ten singers say yes—then I divide the singers over the album. So that’s the first step—like, on this album each singer sings about nine tracks, so it’s equally divided over the album. The last step is to write lyrics, and even the characters in the story are based on the singers.
Yeah, they’re tailored to each singers’ range?
Right, and even their personality.
And when you reach out to vocalists, do you think about pairings—who would work well with one another—or do you think of them as one piece, each one of them as a separate vocalist?
A: This time I wanted really distinctive voices—you know, the voices of Tobias [Sammet, Edguy, Avantasia] and Hansi [Kürsch, Blind Guardian]—you can recognize them from anywhere. That was very important to me, distinctive voices, because if you have dialogue singing, and singers all sound the same…it’s just boring. I heard a couple of these rock operas with only four singers screaming really high, and it’s like, “Who’s who?” That’s very important to me. I learned that on The Human Equation, where I had really different singers from each other. In the end, it all works out—I’m not really thinking “this singer fits well to that singer”—I just want them to be as different as possible.
Cool. So, talking more about The Source itself—it seems like there’s a lot more Queen influences on the album—
Was that something that just grew out of the instruments you were writing then?
Again, it’s totally random coincidence—really, that’s how I work. I’ll explain how the Queen influences got there—so, I had finished the album, I had ten singers, and I had this one part in “Run! Apocalypse! Run!” that I just couldn’t find a good melody for (it’s when the band stops and there’s just vocals), and I kept going back to [the Rainbow song] “Gate of Babylon”, and I couldn’t get away from it, so I contacted Mike Mills, who, of course, sang on my previous album The Theory of Everything—and he’s this Australian guy who’s a huge fan of Queen, and I asked him if he could write a chorus for me—I didn’t even want him to sing on the album—and he said “yeah, sure”, and a week later he sent me this complete symphony, and it was so fantastic and so great that said, “well, you won a part on the album—maybe I can find some space here and there that you can sing on” and, of course, the vocals are really layered and he’s a huge Queen fan—like, Queen, Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack and Night At The Opera…
So, is that him on the choirs in the first track?
Yes—it’s all him, and he basically wrote most of his own stuff, and we basically did it together (I told him the lyrics and approximately what he needed to do). This is a guy who is a genius, and you need to give him a lot of freedom to go for it.
Cool. So, let’s shift away from The Source…I actually attended the Theater Equation in Rotterdam last year—I think it was the second date?—so let’s talk about that. How was that for you? Because, you know, you obviously weren’t part of the show, but you were there for the applause at the end—I know your relationship with lives shows can be complicated, so tell me: how did that feel for you? Was it a good experience overall?
It’s a bit of both…the shows themselves were a great experience…mostly, you know, seeing my story come alive on stage…I think the musicians and the singers did an amazing job—especially all the singers with no acting experience whatsoever— they were amazing, and the audience was great—I was on stage looking into the audience, seeing people laugh, seeing people cry and so many emotions…that was all fantastic. The negative side was that I wasn’t involved in organizing any of it, and it was badly organized, just a mess…and they didn’t want me involved, because they know if I’m involved, I take over, you know? I’m a horrible egomaniac control-freak, so, no, we don’t want that…so it was just down to one person, and that one person was trying to organize everything on their own, and she couldn’t do it. The last two weeks I was already suspicious—“Is this arranged? Is this arranged?”—I got involved and found out that, like, 80% of it wasn’t arranged, so a lot had to be changed. Like, there was no light show…some singers didn’t even know they had to act onstage—they didn’t know it was a screenplay—so those last weeks were total hell to make the show the way it was in the end. So this person arranged the DVD and camera shoot was awful—the camera crew was awful…and in the end she spent all the money, so she couldn’t pay the people…it was a total mess. But, the show itself and the musicians were awesome.
Yeah, I can tell you as someone who was in the audience that you didn’t see all those problems. How it was it to hear Anneke [van Giersbergen, ex-The Gathering] doing Mikael Åkerfeldt [Opeth]’s parts?
Well, I was the one who chose singers…that’s not Mikael’s thing, you know, he’s not an actor—he just wants to stand there in his t-shirt and make jokes…I didn’t expect him to do it at all, so I was thinking who could do it—maybe Dan Swano, and Dan was like, “no, I’m not an actor either,” and I was thinking about some other people, and then I thought if I take a singer who’s close to Mikael, they’re all going to compare him to Mikael, and no one is going to be better, you know…so I thought to completely change it—let’s use a woman and let’s go an octave higher and do a totally different approach to avoid comparisons. And, of course, I think Mikael’s one of the best singers there is, you know? So for me Anneke was the best solution, but she did a great job.
And did you find the choir?
No, that was all arranged by this person—they worked with them for two years (that’s where the money went)…she rented a big hall for two years and built the whole stage in there and they rehearsed for two weeks with this choir—a choir from the whole world, you know, so they had to be flown in every time.
How do you feel they did the Devin Townsend parts?
Let me think…
That’s a very distinct voice, right?
Yeah, of course…Devin Townsend sent me multilayered vocals—I think he sent me 48 tracks of voices—and, you know, one person can’t do that live, so it’s great to have a choir to solve this. I was present during the auditions of the choir, so I did choose the eventual singers. But I think that was a great addition.
Cool, cool. Talking a little more about The Human Equation—what is your relationship with that album nowadays, because I know that for a lot of musicians that one big album becomes a love/hate relationship because everybody asks about it and everybody still wants to hear it, you know, and everything is measured in that light, so how do you feel about Human Equation nowadays?
I personally think Electric Castle was my stand-out album, production wise…you know, that was just my break-through album…The Human Equation, I think, as a whole, is great…I have no hate relationship towards it at all: I just think the production could be stronger. The drums were recorded where we had a lot of problems, and the sound didn’t work out, and we had to redo drums three times…so I’m not happy with the drum sound—that’s all. I mean, the cast with James LaBrie and Åkerfeldt and Devin Townsend was amazing, you know…and I think the compositions as a whole…it was just a complete album, I think.
I have two more questions…One: I’m really interested in the side projects and how you bring them in—do you see them as side projects? Like, Star One and Guilt Machine—are they just as important as Ayreon to you?
No…I always call Ayreon “my mothership”, because Ayreon has all the styles…it has the rock and the folk and the metal, and then the classical and electronic, etcetera…but sometimes…I just can’t do two Ayreon albums in a row—it’s just not possible for me. It would take too much out of me, both compositionally and logistically arranging everything—all the singers and stuff…in between Ayreon albums I have to do something else, something simpler. Basically what I do for my side projects is I take one of these styles out of Ayreon—so, for Star One I just take out the metal, or the folk for The Gentle Storm or electronic for Ambeon…if I do a solo album its more on the poppy side of Ayreon. Every so often I like to limit myself a little bit because it’s a challenge, and I just like to do new things all the time—I don’t think there’s a rule saying you should stick to just one project or one band or whatever.
Is that how you kind of stay fresh?
Yes, that’s very important.
So what do you do to keep yourself fresh?
Every album I do is a reaction to the one before, though it’s always different. The album before this was The Diary, which was a very female album…of course, Anneke sings, and she’s very female…and it was a loss story, so after that I was like, “let’s do a very masculine album, you know? Let’s do a heavy album. Let’s get back to sci-fi and stuff like that.” So that’s how I try to keep it fresh, by constantly challenging myself to do something new.
Cool. So, my last question: is there a vocalist that you’ve always wanted to work with that you haven’t gotten the chance to yet?
It’s an endless list of vocalists…I could name you a hundred or something.
[Laughs] Name your top three.
It’s all my heroes that I grew up listening to as a kid…unfortunately, some, like Dio, are not among us anymore. It’s guys like Robert Plant and David Gilmore and Kate Bush…
The legends, of course…to hear a legend sing my song, like it happened with Bruce Dickenson with “Enter the Black Hole”…
One of my all-time favorite Ayreon tracks, by the way.
Cool! Well, as a kid I was watching TV, and watching Bruce Dickenson on Monsters of Rock…I even followed him when he was in Samson, you know—I loved Samson…and when I heard he was going to be the new Iron Maiden singer, I was like “oooh, yes, that’s the right choice!” You know, so, the heroes that you grew up listening to…to work with them is just fantastic.
Cool. So, thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Have all the best luck with the album release—when is it being released again?
28 of April.
So, we only have a month to go.
Yeah, one more month of agony.
I bet it’s a nightmare waiting to release it to the world.
Yeah, it’s awful. But the first reactions are great to the first few songs, and the people are really excited about it…I haven’t heard too many negative—really no—negative comments this time.