Arjen Lucassen of Ayreon – Interview19th April 2017
Aryeon are due to release new album & his first since signing with Mascot Records, The Source. Arjen Lucassen took time out of his busy schedule to grant us a telephone interview.
Hi Arjen, hows things?
Excellent, obviously we’re here to talk about the new album The Source & once again it’s a really rich story. Where the hell do you get your ideas from?
It’s really baby steps. When I start a project I don’t even know what it’s going to be. It usually starts out as a solo project as that’s easy for me, mainly because I don’t have to arrange any singers & I can do everything myself in my own studio.
But this time I started to get some heavy stuff & I can’t sing heavy stuff so maybe this will be a Star One, which is my metal project. Then suddenly the folk parts come in, which has no place in Star One, so it’s probably going to be an Ayreon. So then it’s really small steps. Then slowly the music inspires me to come up with a story, then once I have a story I pick the singers. It’s not like I have this giant master plan (laughs) where in one vision I have this whole thing. I really have to work on it & work on it for about a year. When I say a year it really is 365 days. No weekends, no holidays, just full concentration on what I’m doing.
You have 11 of the best vocalists out there at the moment on this album. How did you pick them this time round?
People think that it’s easy picking the singers. It’s not. There are always people who want to do it but can’t due to scheduling etc. Or they’ve never heard of me (laughs).
Is there anyone you wanted to work on this album & they said no?
I would love to work with my heroes & singers that where an influence during my formative years. People like Robert Plant, Ian Gillan, Geddy Lee, Ritchie Blackmore, Dave Gilmour.
I keep trying, but I get responses from their management saying ‘sorry but he has no time’ So those are the people I can’t get unfortunately.
So who’s been the most fun to work with so far?
Oh man, that’s such a hard question to answer. Basically, I’m a total perfectionist so I only work with people who I really like or I’m a big fan of & I only use stuff that I’m 100% happy with. So it’s really hard to say.
Also, this time around, a lot of the singers couldn’t come to my studio unfortunately. In the past I always flew them over to my studio.
Do you still have the castle?
Yeah, but nowadays people got no time anymore (laughs) I don’t know what it is, & of course it’s so easy on the internet. If they come to me, they lose like 3 or 4 days. So if they do it in their own studio then they can do it in their own time. So a lot of the singers recorded the stuff either on their own or in a studio close to them.
So you’re finding it easier with the advent of the internet to record with musicians as opposed to sending CDr via snail mail?
(laughs) That was a pain in the ass back in the day. I’m so happy I don’t have to record on the old analogue tapes anymore. You had to wait for the rewind & the tape broke. Or the ADAT machines where you had to hook up like 8 of them & 1 of them wouldn’t sync (laughs). So I embrace new technology but I don’t let it take control. That’s what happens in my story, technology takes control & I’m very aware that it doesn’t happen to me.
A lot has become easier & faster but I’m not sure if it’s become better.
If I listen to a lot of the old shit now like Sgt Pepper, which was recorded on 8 tracks, it amazes me what they accomplished back then. It’s the same with stuff like Rainbow Rising, Stargazer, if that had been done by sending files over the internet it wouldn’t have had that result. So I really try to find a balance & that it still sounds organic. That’s very important to me.
You record all the guide tracks yourself, what set up have you got for that?
It all starts very simple. Believe it or not it starts on a cassette player, which is where I record my little ideas & from there I put them into the computer & I slowly build from there. I keep changing things which is the way that I work. I never stick to anything. It slowly develops itself in my studio where I add sounds & change sounds. At some point I ask guide singers to sing the guide vocal for the real singers. That works great. They come to my studio & I work with them. This time I had guide singers who were really good & they raised the bar for the real singers (laughs).
I always tell the singers to listen to the guide vocal just once but please don’t copy them & make them your own. I ask these singers as I’m a fan of their voices & their styles. It’s very important to me that people put their own input into it wht they do.
You gave them free rein?
Yeah. Some of the singers want to write their own lyrics. I worked with Devin Townsend & he was like ‘Hey man, I don’t sing anyone elses lyrics’, so I was like ‘sure, here’s a copy of the story, come up with your own stuff.’
So I’ve had singers that want to write their own lyrics. I’ve had singers who want to write their own melody & I wrote the lyrics. It’s all open. It’s all about the result. If it gets a better result then go or it.
What did you do for the artwork this time round?
I usually use Jef Bertel, a Belgian painter but I feel he’s more of a fantasy artist & this album is more science fiction. So I Googled sci-fi art on Google images & looked at loads & loads of artists until I came across a French artist by the name of Yann Souetre. He had this really dark & detailed art with all these machines. Then I saw this image with a woman under water with all these tubes attached & that image really inspired me to come up with this whole story.
Usually I’ll write the whole story & then look for artwork, but this time it was the other way around.
Have you thought about adapting your Ayreon albums for film?
Absolutely. Although I know nothing about film as I’m not a film maker & I have no idea how to get into that world.
I figure that there’s so many screenwriters & I’d have to get in line (laughs) & making a movie, especially a sci-fi movie, a sc-fi movie of £10,000,000 is peanuts. Who’s going to invest in that, who’s going to produce that. But of course, I’m open for that. If anyone wants to approach me for this then I’d totally endorse it.
I know you’re planning on performing this year & filming for a potential DVD.
Ayreon is not really a live project. I toured the world from the 70’s through to the 90’s in various bands & playing live just isn’t my thing. It’s not my speciality & I don’t like it very much. So I started the Ayreon project 20 years ago so I wouldn’t have to play live anymore.
Ayreon has only been performed once as a theater play as The Theater Equation which was a production of the Human Equation album. It wasn’t arranged by me, in fact it was my 1st time in a theater. But people loved it so much & were so emotional so for the 1st time in 22 years I have decided to put Ayreon on stage. September this year will be the 1st ever Ayreon show & it will be recorded for DVD. There will be 3 shows in a row & it will be a best of Ayreon.
So you won’t be taking this on the road so to speak?
In all honesty it would be impossible to tour with it as it would be huge. It’s got 16 singers, 10 man band, lots of props on stage, effects etc. It’s taken 2 years to set this up. So touring with this is totally out of the question. But the whole world is coming here (laughs). It’s been amazing, we put this out on Facebook & within 2 hours of presales, the 1st 2 shows had sold out which is 6,000 people. We added a 3rd show which has also sold out, so we now have 9,000 people in total coming to see these shows. I really didn’t expect that. It’s been really amazing.
The 1st 2 shows will be filmed which are the Friday & Saturday. It’s really a professional team. There will be a Blu-Ray, DVD with behind the scenes. There will be around 30 cameras so it’s all covered.
That’s a heck of an undertaking.
Yeah, 30 cameras but not 30 cameramen (laughs) just a lot of go-pros & I think it’s be like 25 cameramen.
With The Theater Equation we had this big team, I think it was 15 people & a lot of cameras & it was a mess. It really wasn’t good. It could’ve been so much better, so we’re taking no risks this time.
Did you have much input with the release of The Theater Equation?
No, unfortunately not. I would’ve arranged things entirely different. I’m a total perfectionist a really annoying perfectionist (laughs). This time, I’m responsible so this time it has to be perfect.
You left Inside Out after being with them for many years. What made you decide to leap to Mascot Records?
Actually, Mascot were the 1st ones to be interested in Ayreon back in 1993. They, well back then it was just one guy & his label was way to small & couldn’t invest. He loved it & wanted to release it but he sadly didn’t have the funds. Back then he helped me get a deal & since then I did my Guilt Machine album was released by Mascot & they did a great job with that. My contract with Inside Out & Ayreon was finished so Mascot contacted me & asked if I was going to sign with them & I was like NO I’m going to stay with Inside Out as I was perfectly happy there. Mascot invited me over to their offices & it’s a beautiful office, with lots of people working there & everyone was nice. They totally (laughs) enticed me there. It was still a hard decision it took me half a year to decide what I am going to do. Am I going to stay loyal to the label that made me what I am or am I going to try something new?
At some point I decided I wanted a new start & I’ve made the right choice so far as they’re doing a great job. I’m really happy with the way things are going.
All About The Rock have been really lucky to work with Mascot for a few years now & we’ve seen them grow exponentially. Even as a kid growing up, they were always going to be a label to watch.
They’re such nice people. They have so many ideas, they listen to me & it feels really good.
On this new album you have incredible musicians like Paul Gilbert, Guthrie Goven, Marcel Coenen & Mark Kelly to name a few. How did you pick these people?
My previous album The Theory of Everything was pretty much a prog album & relied heavily on keyboards. It had Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson & Jordan Rudess on it. This time around I wanted more of a guitar orientated album as a reaction to that. So this time I wanted the best guitar players in the world. So I thought like 80’s & it would be great to have Paul Gilbert who was the total guitar hero back then. I was then thinking about who the best guitar player is right now & I heard a Steven Wilson song called Drive Home & when I heard that solo I thought ‘this is the man’ & I found out it was Guthrie Goven, who really is the best in the world right now. So I got them both & they’ve both played amazing solos on this record & it’s totally dreams coming true.
I totally agree, that solo on Drive Home just gives goosebumps & the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. It’s also a great track by Steve Wilson also?
It’s the combination of technique, melody & feeling. You don’t often get that. You get a lot of guys who are incredibly flash but it’s yawn, yawn
All technique & no soul
Right, but Guthrie just understands it all. You can hear it through what he plays which doesn’t happen often to me.
So while we’re on the subject of guitars etc. What’s the set up you use?
It’s really the old way. It’s a Marshall amp with Celestian speakers with 3 mics in front of it & it still gives me the best sound. I use a 7 string Ibanez RG series & for my solos I always use a Fender Strat as I think it has the most personality, especially after the 1st time I heard Ritchie Blackmore back in the 70’s along with Gilmour & of course Hendrix. That’s basically it, just really simple.
I tried all the new digital stuff & so far I haven’t heard anything that is as good as my old set up.
What about effects?
It’s just distortion from the amp. But if I want that Rammstein kind of attack then I’ll use a Sansamp Preamp PSA1. Apart from that I have a modified Marshall amp which works perfectly for me.
The most important thing in the end is the mics you use & where you place them. That’s always the puzzle. Every time I record I spend hours on that.
If you put the mics too much in the middle it’ll be too sharp, if you take them too fart out of the middle you wont have enough top. It’s finding exactly the right place. To get the lows I have a Peluso mic placed above the Shure 57 & the Bia & it’s the Peluso mic that gives me the power. The combination of the 3 mics is really the most important part of the sound. If you change the guitar there will be a bit of a difference or if I change the amp there will be a bit of difference, but where I put the mics & especially the speaker are so important in the sound.
When I first heard Rammstein I had to find out what they were using. As soon as I found out it was a Sanasamp, I just had to get one (laughs)
Are you still buying magazines with cover mounted CDs to keep discovering new bands & artists?
Absolutely. Everyday I listen to new stuff. I jog for an hour everyday & I always listen to new music when I do that.
I subscribe to a lot of magazines & when something is like album of the month I will always check it out. I don’t always like it (laughs) but every so often thee’s something really cool that comes through.
I really try not to be stuck listening to 60’s & 70’s rock. I do try to keep updated on what’s happening.
What’s caught your attention lately?
Mastadon, they sound like a monster band which has great songs & melodies. I discover lots all the time.
With the release of The Source looming & you’ve now lived with the album for some time. Is there a track that you think stands out the most?
It’s actually hard to be objective right now. I have picked all the tracks on this album to be lyric videos. The main 2 being Everybody Dies & The Day The World Breaks Down as they’re a couple of my favorite songs from the album. I really can’t be objective right now, I’m sure in a year or so I’ll probably mention another song. But it’s hard to say right now.
What’s next for Ayreon?
There’s going to be a lot of concentration over the live shit, a lot of rehearsing. So until September I’ll be working on that. Once that’s done, the footage will have to be edited, the sound mixed, the 5.1 surround produced, which should keep me busy for another 3 or 4 months.
The next year is pretty full with all things in the Ayreon universe.
You touched on rehearsal, How often do you personally practice?
Actually I don’t (laughs). Honestly I don’t. I don’t touch the guitar for months some time even half a year. It’s weird. Even now, I haven’t touched it in months.
When I do grab it, I grab it to compose. I stopped practicing when I heard Yngwie Malmsteen. That was it. I was like ‘oh kay, some-one can play like that, I’m going to stop practicing as there’s no way I’ll be able to do half the shit that he does’ (laughs)
I only grab it when I’m inspired which is why months will go passed before I touch it again. Especially after working on an album for a year, the well is dry now. I don’t plan ahead.
Seeing as you don’t practice, what do you do in your spare time?
Jogging during the day & then the evenings is watching movies & TV Series. I love doing that that’s one of my favorite things.
& what is it you’re watching at the moment?
Walking Dead series 7. I think I have 3 episodes to go & it’s getting pretty creepy again. It’s quite a violent season this one (laughs)
This will probably be a bit controversial (laughs) but it’s not a series I’ve managed to get into to.
The cool thing is, it’s not about zombies really, it’s really about people, how they act when there’s no more law, no more rules. I like that. It’s kind of dystopian. I’m enjoying it. It’s still about people, not special effects.
I’ll qive it another go. I shall let you get back to the Walking Dead, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. I wish you all the success with the album & we’ll have to catch up after the DVD release for a catch up & compare notes.
Cool man. Look forward to it.