Arjen Lucassen, Ayreon interview – March 2017

I recently sat down with Ayreon mastermind Arjen Lucassen to talk about the new album due out soon, the live shows planned for September, and more.

As all your albums have a strong story element, when you start to work on a new album, what comes first – is it the music or the story.

Usually I start with the music.  I still think the music is more important than the story. The story adds an extra dimension but it’s all about the music, so I always start with the music, it’s little ideas, just on a guitar or a melody or keyboard thing.  I record it all on a little recorder and when I’ve got 50 little ideas I listen to them, see which ones inspire me and the rest I erase.  Then I start working on them in the studio.  At that point I don’t even know what project it’s going to be, so I don’t know what the story is going to be, nothing.
I work on the project then it starts forming itself and I start seeing pictures, so the music inspires me to come up with a story.  Once I’ve got a story then I know what kind of project it’s going to be, and once I’ve got the story and the music I start looking for the singers that will fit the music.

Doing that, if you find you’ve got some music where it doesn’t fit the story, do you ditch that bit of music or change the story?

I adapt the story to the songs, absolutely, and I even adapt the story to the singers, so I write lyrics based ont he character I get.  A good example is on “Electric castle”, I had Fish who plays a highlander.  It wasn’t a case of I had a highlander in the story and had to look for someone Scottish to  do that part.  It was a case of I got Fish and then wrote the Highlander into the story.  So I base the stories, even the characters on the singers, which is crap when a singer doesn’t do it at the very last minute – then I have a problem.

Quickly looking round for someone who fits the character that exists?

Yes, and then you limit yourself.  It’s exactly the reason why I work this way – I don’t limit myself.

I imagine that one siger’s voice might be perfect for a song whereas with a different singer it doesn’t quite work so well with that piece of music.

That’s a whole puzzle.  Once I’ve got these lets say 20 songs, I write them all down and cut them out, so I’ve got 20 pieces of paper, and I’m working out which singer I want on that one, and what about that, and it’s this whole puzzle.  Before you start writing the lyrics you have to decide on the order of the songs because you can’t switch it around anymore in a story.  Then you’re dividing the singers over the songs, and you want them to be divided well – you don’t want a singer on 5 songs on this album and no songs on the other album, so it’s a big puzzle.  That puzzle, designing all those things, in the end makes the story, so it’s basically totally random.  At least that’s how it works for me.

I imagine you must have delays in the process.  You write the music, then you approach the singers to see who is available.

I do yes, and that’s never easy.  I think I approach about 50 singers and a lot of them don’t respond, or they say they can’t do it because they’re too busy, and then I start till shifting and shifting till in this case I’ve got 11 singers who say yes.  Then I can start writing lyrics.

There’s a lot to consider there.

There is, and that’s why I don’t do an Ayreon album every year – it would kill me.

That’s even before you start thinking of who you want to play guitar solos and so on.

That’s easier. At some point you’ve got all the singers and everything mapped out, and you know ok I’ve got some open spaces here for solos.  I also map that out – I’ll put “solo” and I’ll have five options for that solo. Then I start approaching these guitar players and hope that one of the five says yes.

How long does it take from you starting to write the album to it being completed and ready to start recording?

Writing and recording is kind of the same process.  Writing and recording the ideas on a little cassette player takes a few months, then I go into the studio, and as I’m writing, I’m recording.  It’s my own studio, it’s on the computer, so you save everything and you’ve building the whole time.  The whole process is about a year, writing, recording, getting the singers over, and mixing.

It must be a lot easier for you as you play most of the instruments, so you don’t need to rely on other people to record stuff.

That’s the great thing.  I’ve got all the instruments and all old keyboards at home.  That really helps.  Basically the demos are not really demos, they’re already the final product – all I’ve got to put in afterwards is the drums, because obviously I want real drums, and all the acoustic instruments – the cello, the violin, all that kind of stuff.

You use the flute in all your albums don’t you?  It does have a lovely sound.

Yes. I think that’s all Jethro Tull’s fault, I grew up with all that stuff.

The Hammond organ is another you use a lot and has a lovely distinctive sound.

Yeah, it’s so powerful.  I always thought that bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer was almost a metal band without guitars, and of course Hammonds in Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and all those bands – I love that sound so much I will always be using it.

You’ve described the new album, The Source as a prequel to 01011001.  What can you tell us about the story for “The source”?

It is indeed a prequel.  Basically all my albums are connected.  They weren’t in the beginning.  When I started I had no idea I would even make a second Ayreon album, I never expected to be sucessful. Then at some point I started making refences to other albums and before I knew it, all the albums were connected, so it became one big story.  But, after six albums, seven albums, it was getting very complicated and I wanted to stop the story because I didn’t want to alienate people, and for someone who doesn’t know me, how do you get into the story? So then I did “The theory of everything” which was a departure from the story, so something different. For this album I saw artwork, actually I saw this woman with the tubes and the water and somehow I connected it to the story.  I know I’d said to everyone that I would never revisit that story again, I shouldn’t have but I did.  It’s a prequel, it’s the source of the Ayreon story, the source of mankind. It’s how it all started, it’s where we come from.

Having all the albums connected through the story ties in with the title of the live shows later this year – The Ayreon Universe.

Yes it became a whole universe of it’s own and this album is connected again, so what we’re doing to show during these shows is the Ayreon universe.  It won’t be a continuous story because that’s very complicated, but it’s very cool to have, like George Lucas did with Star Wars, and Gene Roddenberry did with Star Trek, to create that whole universe is very cool.

Tolkien did it with Lord of the Rings too

Right, good example.

Ayreon live shows are almost non-existent, with Theater Equation shows in 2015 being the only ones so far.

It was but it wasn’t even an official Ayreon show.  Basically it wasn’t my thing, I got involved at some point.  It was my idea but I did not set it up because I know nothing about theatre, I can’t do that, I have no idea how it works, I don’t even go to the theatre, so I don;t really see that as an Ayreon show.  I really see this as the first ever Ayreon rock show.

With The Theater Equation shows, how nervous were you about it beforehand?

Well I was nervous of course, but not as nervous as if I’d had to perform myself. I wouldn’t have survived that.  Now with The Ayreon Universe, I’m going to have to do some tracks.  I’m already terribly nervous, I have terrible stage fright. I go involved in the last weeks of Theater Equation, only to find out it was a total mess. It was not arranged well at all, so a lot had to be salvaged there in the last weeks.  It’s lucky I got in there because it was a lot of helping the musicians. A lot of the singers who came didn’t know they had to act, they hadn’t seen a screenplay, that’s how bad it was arranged. In the end, the musicians and singers were so amazing even though they’d never acted before, they really saved the whole show.

Watching in the audience it really did come across as a fantastic show that brought the album to life, and there was no sign of any problems.  You must have been pleased how it came out.

Oh my god yes, every evening I was standing there at the side and everyone coming off stage was saying how great it was, and I was standing there, This is my music, that’s James LaBrie singing my stuff, and this band playing my stuff, and I was looking into the audience and seeing people crying and it was like woah.

I imagine that when the albums are recorded people tend to record their parts individually so this was probably the first time you’d had the whole cast performing together.

True yes. That was amazing to see, almost surreal how it happens.  It was a fantastic cast I had there.  They weren’t all big names, and unfortunately we didn’t have Devin or Michael Akerfeldt there but yes that was some kind of a magic cast.

Did the success of The Theater Equation inspire you to do the Ayreon Universe shows?

It was absolutely the catalyst.  Basically the audience reaction.  You had this meet and greet thing and had to pay for it, and I didn’t like that idea at all, I don’t want people to have to pay to say hello to me.  I feel like a monkey or something.  I said “Ok you can do that, but I’m just going to go into the audience each evening after the show and sit there and meet the fans”.  If I’d known that…wow that was heavy.  I went in there and there were like 500-600 people waiting.  Every day I sat there for two hours signing stuff, but to see those smiling faces…Everyone was happy, everyone was positive, nobody was pushing anyone, it was all just great positive people.  That was definitely the catalyst to do this.

How long has it taken you to put the Ayreon Universe shows together?  With 14 singers it must have been tough to find dates that worked.

Oh yeah.  We started a year ago.  You have to arrange the singers that far in advance because they have so much to do – they have their own bands and projects, so that’s a lot of arranging. We still haven’t got all the contracts back yet.  It’s hard for them too – they have to commit to something that’s so far away, and tell their own bands, “sorry we can’t play then”, and obviously that’s hard. Obviously not all the singers I asked could say yes, some of them simply couldn’t.  Tobias (Sammet) said “I’d love to do it, I’d be there in a jiffy, but I can’t because I’ve got an album coming out with my band and just can’t commit to it”.  So there were a lot that couldn’t commit.  It’s a lot of arranging.

It’s a big venue – around 3000 people, but judging by how fast it sold out you could probably have played a big arena and still sold out

I think so but I would not have liked that.  The first time I played in this venue (013 in Tilburg) was in 1982, so I’ve got a history with it, and it’s just my favourite venue.  Even though it’s big, it’s still intimate.

Even since they expanded it, it’s still great and has more atmosphere than a big aircraft hanger style arena.

It just would not feel right in a huge venue.  Even though I’d have got more people and earned more, this feels better.  Three times it will feel like a family.

It was so fast selling out – the tickets went on sale at 9am and within a few minutes the first show sold out.

Really I didn’t expect to sell out two shows, so to sell out three shows in one day.  I was expecting that while doing promotion for the source we could do some promotion for the live shows and maybe sell them out eventually, but it wasn’t necessary, it was all gone within a day.

The Friday will be most special because it’s the first time and people don’t know what’s going to happen yet.  I noticed that with the Theater Equation.

Are there any plans to do a second Gentle Storm album?

Well as I explained earlier about how I work, which is totally random, I just start something and see what comes, it may happen or it may not happen. It’s definitely not a case of “Oh my god I never want to do that again”.  Everything is an option – Gentle storm is an option, Star one is an option, Guilt machine is an option, although of course Anneke has now taken the Gentle Storm band and turned it into her new band Vuur, so maybe that makes the chances of another Gentle Storm album less.

I’m fairly sure that if you were to say to her you’d written another abum that would be perfect for Gentle Storm she’d jump at the chance.

I think so yes, because we had a great time together.

It was a fantastic concept doing two versions of the same album, a gentle folk version and a rock storm version.  Hearing the same songs played in those different ways is so good.

I love that too.  I hate the fact that the soft album didn’t get as much attention.  I think there’s a big audience for that album that ever heard it.

It would appeal to an audience that is outside the rock community.

It does, but unfortunately that wasn’t explored.  It’s a shame.  You see it – we did videos for both versions of the first track and you see the storm version gets way more views than the gentle version.

It’s a shame.  I love both versions, but which I prefer depends on my mood at the time.

That’s the great thing about it.

The Source is the first album since you signed with Mascot Label roup.  What made you pick them to sign with?

I was perfectly happy with InsideOut, I’ve been with them for 15 years, all my Ayreon albums and all my other albums – Gentle storm, Star one, solo albums, everything is with them, and I just did Guilt Machine with Mascot and at some point we were talking about releasing Guilt Machine on vinyl and I went into the Mascot office.  They did a great job of the vinyl and sold it really well, I loved the way they handled that. Then Ed at Mascot said what about Ayreon? I said the contract was over with InsideOut but I like them and I’m a loyal person and wanted to stay with them.  He was like “yeah but you have to do it with us”, and he introduced me to the whole gang there, all the people and I loved the people.  All these nice people in the office and it just felt really good. It was close by, and Dutch people too and I loved the way they thought about things, but still I didn’t want to leave InsideOut, I’d feel like a traitor, so it took me half a year to finally decide.  I think the decision was because I wanted to try something new.  Maybe also because the last Ayreon album didnt sell so well which was very much a Prog album with musicians from Yes, King Crimson, Genesis and Emerson Lake and Palmer.  I don’t know, I just wanted to do something different, a new start.  It was very painful for me to tell InsideOut that I wanted to do it with Mascot because they were not happy obviously.  It had nothing to do with not being happy, it just felt like a good move.  So far it feels like the right choice because they’re doing such a great job. It’s so great working with them.

Working with nice people is always important.

It’s incredibly important for me. Maybe even more important than how many albums I sell.  It may sound weird to you but workign with them is half a year of my life and I want it to be great, and if I spend that half year being annoyed by a record company that don’t do their job, or do stupid things then I don’t have a happy half year.

That makes a lot of sense.  When you’re starting a career, how many albums you sell is probably the main thing, but once you reach a certain poin then being happy is more important than the money.

It really is.  I’ve had discussions with my brother and he says “you’re not married to them”, but it’s the same with singers.  I don’t like that guy; Yes but you only have to be with him for a few days; True but that’s a few days where it’s ruined, so I don’t want to work with that person.  I want those three days to be perfect. I live very conciously and I want every moment in my life to be as perfect as possible, which isn’t possible of course, but I strive to that, and that’s more important for me than how much money I’m going to make.  It’s the same now with pre-sales.  We used to do that in our own shop, and all the money came to us.  We made loads of money, yes, but we were slaving away for weeks signing everything (well I still do that), but also packing all the orders, so I said let’s let Mascot do it, we’ll make less but we’ll have a great time not having all that work to worry about.  Doing the whole production myself I’d have made more money but I want to be creative and in my studio, and have the record company do all the other stuff and remind me to do this and that.  I like that.

Thank you very much for your time.

About Ant May

I spend half my life at gigs or festivals and the other half writing the reviews and editing photos, and somehow find time for a full time job too. Who needs sleep - I've got coffee.