Hello again and welcome to the third and last installment of our marathon interview with Arjen Lucassen of Ayreon (and Star One, Guilt Machine, Stream of Passion, Vengeance and Bodine)! We talk about omnicient beings, Alice Cooper and just which character from a tv-show Arjen most resembles.
I know that you have a list of people that you would love to work with and that your number one is Paul McCartney but who would you place in second and third place?
– David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and Robert Plant. Those would be my top three but this could be a Top 100, you know? Of course I would love to have Alice Cooper as he´s my all time hero.
Almost every time you´ve said you´d wish to have Alice Cooper on an Ayreon album you have these great Alice Cooper parts and somehow always finds a singer that knocks it out of the park doing that part! Take the great, late Mike Baker from Shadow Gallery for instance who does an incredible job on “Loser” from “The Human Equation”.
– We were both huge Alice Cooper fans and we were always mailing each other and every mail ended with an Alice Cooper quote, hahaha!
Oh, that is so sweet!
– And again, “Loser” was a song I wrote especially for him! I wanted to have him on the album but the album was finished so I thought; let´s come up with one more song, hahaha!
And it became a stone cold classic!
– Yes, it is weird how things turn out.
And for “Transitus” you actually got Dee Snider (Twisted Sister) and, man, does he deliver or what?!
– It is amazing how much power he has at 65.
He´s 65?! Holy sh*tsnacks!
– I noticed it when I heard his last album, what is it called, I have it somewhere…
Are you thinking of “For The Love of Metal”?
– Ah yes, I felt that this guy can still really do it, my God, this is not fake, he can really deliver! He is better than ever. I really felt that he would elevate this song to a higher level, because let´s face it, it is a basic 80s rock song (“Get out! Now!”).
I love that song and Dee nails it! It is one of those songs that I would play for someone reluctant to listen to Ayreon, you know, those that doesn´t like concept albums and long songs, just to show them the different aspects of your music. A gateway drug, if you will.
– Hahahaha, yeah! It is totally not representative of the album. I like that it kicks in, it has all those songs around it that are totally different and then in comes Mr Snider and eats up the whole scenery.
The wonderful things is that the cast around him doesn´t flinch, instead they enhance his performance.
– Yeah! Marcela Bovio for instance is always so great and she did all these backing vocals and stuff. She is one of the best really.
She really is. Did she record this while she was recieving cancer treatment?
– She did it before, I think.
She had a tough year there, poor Marcela.
– Oh, we were so afraid because it was really not looking good, it was a terrible time.
On a lighter note, the comic book: such a stroke of genius! The last time I´m aware that anyone did anything remotely like this was, again, Alice Cooper with his concept record “The Last Temptation” so my question is this: what took you so long?
– Hahahaha, I know! The thing is that it is expensive and time consuming to do something like that. First, I would never work with an inferior artist, you know, I want the best illustrator in the world. So it takes a long time to find this person and once you have one of the best they are not cheap. And since I´m such a perfectionist I just know that it will be a years work, which it was.
– Indeed. I think we worked for two weeks on every page so it took a good part of a year. I sent him my instructions of what I wanted, panel for panel, then he made a sketch and sent it back and I was “no, no, I want this instead and so we went back and forth. But it was great fun and as I was a huge comic fan when I grew up but I didn´t know if I could make one myself ´cos I had no idea how to do that but I just went for it and luckily we were a great team and he understood what I wanted most of the time. If you get the earbook of “Transitus” all the sketches are there and also all my suggestions so you can follow the whole process from the beginning.
I am eagerly awaiting my copy. They are such a great value for money.
– That is very, very important for me and it was so cool of the record company to throw the magazine in for free in the earbook. And in this world of corona where people are having problems with money we didn´t want to do this expensive package but instead make it as affordable as we can. Because if you keep spoiling the fans and never disappoint them, that´s the only way to grow in this world. If you let them down a couple of times…
Arjen stops for a moment and gathers his thoughts.
-You know, I know this from the past, if my favourite bands release an album that didn´t sound or feel good… After a couple of albums you just gave up on them.
Which, for a music fan, the worst feeling.
-It´s terrible! And it happens to almost every band or artist where they release an album and again you go; meh… It´s awful.
I´m gonna change the subject here and I think I know your answer to this but here goes: if you had the opportunity and all the finances are secured, all the singers, full production and so on, would you like to take Ayreon on the road like Trans-Siberian Orchestra or Avantasia?
-No! I´m really a terrible recluse. I don´t wanna tour, I don´t wanna perform. Obviously we did it three times now (The Theater Equation, Ayreon Universe and Electric Castle and Other Stories) but that´s different. After the show I get to go home again, I don´t have to tour, be on a bus or a plane. I hate it so much, hahahah! So no, touring is totally out of the question. I mean, I know that if we did it, it would make Ayreon bigger and there would be a lot of money involved but it´s just not my thing. Money is not a problem, it´s just the way I am, the way I function. I have to be creative and I can´t be creative in that environment, I simply can´t. And I know because I´ve tried it for 15 years with Vengeance.
So my next question is pretty obvious: when and where are you the most happy?
-Oh, that`s easy. Right here, now. I wouldn´t change a thing.
-Oh, God, I thought this was gonna be a hard question but it´s not. This is where I want to be, this is how I want to live. I want every day to be exactly the same. I know a lot of people would hate it.
You love routine.
-I really do. I´m totally… I don´t know if you saw that tv-series, “Monk”? That´s me, I´m a total control freak, OCD, everything to the minute, you know? Dinner is quarter to seven, breakfast is ten past eight. It´s terrible (laughs) and poor Lori (Lindstruth) has had to get used to it all. But that works for me, then I can be creative, then I can function.
I understand if you can´t speak to much about this but can you divulge any information whether there will be another live show?
– Because Ayreon Universe and Electric Castle were so successful I think we have to keep doing this. So we plan shows for 2021 but it is all up in the air because of the corona situation. We need a year to set it up and we need to sell 12 000 tickets to 64 countries at least half a year in advance and that is tricky under current circumstances. So by the end of the year we have to decide if we´ll do it or not. Joost (Van den Broek, Keyboards) is always positive and he sees a chance to do it while I don´t think it will be possible. I´m afraid that it won´t happen next year.
Yeah, Covid-19 is a paradigm shift and will most certainly won´t be the last pandemic in our lifetime.
– It´s like I say in my lyrics, I think it´s in “Unnatural Selection)… Ah, can´t remember…
– Yes, it will happen again, only a matter of time. It will keep going. Ugh, terrible, let´s not go there, hahahaha!
This sure as hell got dark, hahaha!
– Yeah, let´s change subject.
Well, speaking of shows, me and my wife and one of our best friends flew down and watched the Ayreon Universe show, the saturday one that was recorded and on a personal note I must say it pretty much was the best two and a half hours of my life.
– Oh, thanks man, cool!
And the thing is, when the live dvd/blu-ray/cd of that show came out it wasn´t tampered with in the least and I have made the same aural observation with the studio albums; a very clear lack of discernable autotune on the vocals.
– We have great people doing the live sound, we all had in-ear system so we all heard everything very well. It was the first time I sang with in-ears on the Electric Castle shows and you really hear yourself well. We had autocue where you see the lyrics which helps of course. Unless you miss the lyrics, then you are late anyway.
But I have to be honest, here and there, I use autotune. If someone does this amazing high pitched scream but it´s not a 100 % there, I sometimes help a little but on the live dvds, absolutely nothing has been redone or been tampered with and it wouldn´t be possible to begin with when you have 50 singer from all over the world.
And the blu-ray was released within six months of the shows.
– Correct, I started to work on it the week after and it took something like three months of work to get it done, to edit it and mix it. The record company needs at least three months to manufacture and print it so I start working on it immediately after when it is still fresh in my mind. But back to the autotune question, yes, my singers are that good. It´s amazing for me as a singer to be surrounded by all that talent, very humbling and very scary, hahahah!
One of my favourite singers of yours, he´s been doing your last few albums and that is Mike Mills and he sings lead on the terrific “Dumb Piece of Rock”. When I saw that title I thought; “hmmmm, yeah that´s not the best songtitle ever”, hahaha!
-I discovered him on Youtube, just browsing for new music and new bands and one of the suggestions that came up was Mike singing a Jethro Tull song, I think it was “Thick as a Brick”. And he was simply amazing! So I wrote down his name and then the next suggestion was this band; Toehider and I loved that as well! But I didn´t realise that it was the same guy, hahaha! I just thought that the Youtube algorithms were unusally good. So I left a comment on his Jethro Tull cover, just “hey, man, you totally did an awesome job here” and he responded that he was a great fan and loved my music as well. So that is how we got in contact and when I put two and two together and understood that he was the guy in Toehider I just knew I had to work with him. The first thing we did was “The Theory of Everything” and he came here all the way from Australia and he had no problem whatsoever with anything and it was so fantastic!
He does these incredible, multilayered vocals… He´s like Freddie Mercury and the drummer, what´s his name…?
– Roger Taylor?
Yeah! He does these insane highs that are just awesome. Toehider is a very underrated band.
– That´s why I keep plugging them every chance I get!
Back to the “Electric Castle and Other Stories”-shows and here the sci-fi nerd in me just have to ask you… I know that you love Star Trek. Just how in the world did you get John DeLancie who plays Q (an omnipotent, mischievous entity) on Star Trek – The Next Generation to participate in the giant puzzle that was The Electric Castle?
– I actually approached him for my solo album (Lost in The New Real) and I also approached Sir Patrick Stewart (who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek TNG). John Delancie had a voice agency together with the late Leonard Nimoy (Spock, Star Trek The Original Series) called Alien Voices and I wrote and never got an answer. Years later I got an answer from John DeLancie: “Hey man, I never checked this out, I saw that you were interested!” and I replied that, “Yes, but it is too late now but maybe one day?”. And of course we were gonna do The Electric Castle live shows and the actor who originally did the role of “Forever” wasn´t available. And I thought to myself, who can do this? Well, the character of “Forever” was totally based on “Q”, you know? This omnicient, god-like being who toys with human emotions. So then I contacted him again via his manager who in turn contacted John and went: “There´s this rockopera but it´s nothing for you, we should just cancel this”. But John checked me out on Youtube and went: “holy crap, this guy knows his stuff!”, hahaha! So he told his manager: “Hey man, I´m 70 and…”
He´s 70? He looks amazing!
– I know! So he said that this was his last chance to do a rockopera and this is it. And it is so cool because he became a friend, you know?
That is so cool!
– If you would have told me back in the 80s when I was watching The Next Generation that the guy who played Q would one day be one of my friends, we´re constantly skyping and e-mailing each other now. He is such a nice, intelligent, funny guy!
You could tell he relished that part as well.
– He had so much fun! I just got an e-mail from him that said “If Trump is re-elected I´m gonna move to Tilburg!”, hahahaha!
Wonderful! Tilburg is amazing so good choice. For my last question that kind of ties in with the current state of affairs with the pandemic, Trump, Putin, dystopia and so on. One of my personal favorites of yours is the second Star One album, “Victims of The Modern Age”. Can we have a Star Three sometime in the future? Pretty please?
– I´d love it! And it is indeed in the stars. It´s been ten years since the last one so it´s time for a new one. Every album I do is a reaction to the previous album. “Transitus” is not a metal album so I would love to do something heavy next time. Just blast out something heavy, guitar oriented so… But as I said earlier, I plan things but I don´t stick to them so I don´t know how it is gonna pan out but we´ll see. I´m hoping to get inspiration soon but Star One, or Star Three is definitely an option.
Arjen, thank you so much for taking your time and talking to me and on behalf of Stargazed Magazine I wish you all the best and that “Transitus” is a resounding success!
– Thank you, Marty! I was a true pleasure, take care now!
So that concludes my, dare I say it, epic, interview with Arjen Lucassen. If he comes off as good natured with a great sense of humour and humility, it is simply because he really is that way. Do yourself a solid by buying “Transitus” as it is one of the best albums of the year without a single doubt.
Thank you so much for reading! On a personal note, I´d like to thank the editor of Stargazed Magazine Johan Hagberg and Nusse Antoni from Mascot Records for setting up the interview.