Ayreon needs no introduction to Prog lovers: over 22 years the band has proved album after album to be one of the most interesting and unique projects out there.
The Dutch Arjen Lucassen, the mastermind behind the Metal orchestra, has managed to involve a plethora of amazing musicians such as Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch, Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, Genesis’ Steve Hackett and countless others who sang and played on his songs.
Antihero Magazine recently spoke to Arjen during the handful of live shows known as AYREON UNIVERSE, in Tilburg, Netherlands.
ANTIHERO: Hi Arjen, how are you doing?
Arjen Lucassen: There are two answers to that question [laughs]. One, I’ll start with the good one: I’m extremely proud of…did you see the show yesterday?
ANTIHERO: No, I’ve just arrived in Tilburg, I’ll see it tonight.
Arjen Lucassen: I’m extremely proud of the musicians, of everyone, we worked on this for two years with a hundred people in the set-up, I’m extremely proud of everyone, everyone did an amazing job. It was a very good start for something with so few rehearsals, we only had one rehearsal with all the singers and a lot of shit can go wrong, because we had visuals, we had booms, we had like robots and whatever [laughs] and things DID go wrong but it didn’t matter, the mood was great, so that’s all good.
But for me, as a recluse, this was a big thing…I was very nervous, I’m very tired now, last night I had a panic attack, for me it’s [laughs] it’s a big thing so I don’t feel 100% physically, but mentally it’s like…I’m proud of myself for setting it up and I’m proud of the musicians for doing a hell of a job.
ANTIHERO: As you were saying, yesterday’s show came with a great anticipation, but also with some worries, how do you feel about it now that the very first one is in the past? Do you feel tonight it’s going to be better?
Arjen Lucassen: I think it’s going to be better. There were a lot of people who were insecure yet, because the show went well I’m sure they’ll feel better about themselves. There were a little bit of mistakes with starting songs but we now know where the problems are, I think it will better but you can never beat, of course, the excitement of the first show. People don’t know the setlist yet, everything is new and that’s a special feeling.
ANTIHERO: These three shows are the first time that Ayreon play live after more than 20 years since you started the band, why did it take you so long, and what prompted you to play now?
Arjen Lucassen: Only now because it’s my biggest nightmare [laughs] and it’s really something…it’s not my life, you know. My life is just being at home creating stuff, being a recluse, walking the doggie, shopping and jogging, hugging with my girlfriend [laughs], really, my life is so boring, you wouldn’t believe it, it’s really not Rock N’ Roll at all, but it’s what I like. So that’s it, it’s just not my thing, but we had “The Theater Equation” two years ago and that was really the catalyst to do this, because the emotions we saw in the audience, it was so amazing, people was so excited. The show was kind of a mess, the organization was a mess, I mean, the musicians were great and in the end it was all great, people loved it, but it was such a mess the way it was organized, so we were like, “Let’s do this right”. Let’s do it right and let’s not do a theatre thing because that’s not my world, I know nothing about theatre, let’s do a Rock show, let’s do a Best of Ayreon, and let’s keep it small…but we did not really succeed in keeping it small [laughs].
ANTIHERO: Over the years you had an incredible number of musicians playing on your albums, how did you choose who to have here, this weekend?
Arjen Lucassen: That was very difficult, of course, it was a toss between which songs do I want to play and which musicians do I get, like, “I want to play this song, so I need that singer” or “I got this singer so we’re going to play that song”, so it was a combination of those two. I just made a list of like 30 people and I approached them all, of course there’s people who’s not gonna be available, Tobi [Tobias Sammet from Edguy and Avantasia], James LaBrie [from Dream Theater] so, yeah, there are certain people who weren’t available. We wanted to work with five singers, then it was ten…we ended up with sixteen! [Laughs] And it’s just all people who were on my initial list.
ANTIHERO: I imagine coordinating all these different musicians for a show must be pretty complex, you were saying you rehearsed just once?
Arjen Lucassen: It’s amazing! Well, twice, Thursday evening we had a rehearsal where we played every song just once. Then yesterday, in the afternoon, we had dress rehearsal which means we played the whole set in one go, only a hundred people were there, people who bought the ticket for that. So, basically that’s just two rehearsals, the way I did it was I just sent the singers exactly what they had to do, then we also had a try-out show a couple of weeks ago…
ANTIHERO: The one on the 1st of September.
Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, that one.
ANTIHERO: You mentioned the choreography, it must be massive, how long did you work on that?
Arjen Lucassen: Well, there’s not really a choreography, because we simply told the singers, “Do what you like, know your lyrics but do what you like, there’s no rules”. But, yeah, there is the visuals, there is the robots, there is the pyros and shit…a lot of the credit there goes to Joost [van den Broek], the keyboard player, who arranged all of that [laughs].
ANTIHERO: As predictable, Ayreon Universe sold out very quickly and you even had to add a third show to the initial two you planned. Now that you’ve seen all that excitement, as well as the crowd reaction to the first show, do you think this is something that could be repeated in the future?
Arjen Lucassen: Right, yeah, yeah, well…if I survive. The thing is that I enjoyed working on it, I really enjoyed working on it, and seeing it come alive in my head, my girlfriend Lori made a whole visual storyboard where you could see what was happening and that was exciting. But then, yeah, the weeks before I was so nervous, almost sick to my stomach, that’s something I have to get through but…yeah, last night was so magic, and I think all three evenings will be magic so I think there’s going to be another meeting like, “Hey guys, what do you think…do it again?” [laughs]
ANTIHERO: What about a whole tour? Too much?
Arjen Lucassen: No. If I do it, it’s going to be close to my home, I think that makes the most sense because over the three days there are people from thirty…no, fifty, more than fifty nationalities, they all come here…
ANTIHERO: Are you planning to film and release one (or more) shows from Ayreon Universe?
Arjen Lucassen: Oh, absolutely, yes! We filmed yesterday, we’re gonna film this evening, it’s a professional team unlike “The Theater Equation” which was a total mess. So, yeah, definitely we’ll film it and we’ll release it as soon as possible, hopefully early next year.
ANTIHERO: Do you think you’re going to release both night or will you make a selection?
Arjen Lucassen: I don’t know about that yet…I think…I mean, there are mistakes, there are mistakes also that are hard to fix, I think, because I don’t want to fix to much afterwards.
ANTIHERO: Keeping the real live experience.
Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, live that’s cool, but if you have to see that over and over again, like someone starting the wrong song, that’s not cool. So, I think, if that’s possible, I don’t know if it’s possible to make a mix of the two…with Star One it was just it, but then we played seven times before that. I’m not sure about that.
ANTIHERO: Let’s talk about Ayreon in studio now; first of all, with all the different musicians who take part in your albums I guess it must be pretty difficult to record everything. How long does it take, usually, for an Ayreon’s album to be both written and recorded?
Arjen Lucassen: I’d say one and half year, or something. Yeah, the recording, I play most instruments myself, so that’s quite easy, Ed [Warby, the drummer] is really fast, it’s two days of recording, solos I send them to people and they do that on their own, so that’s not a big problem. It’s mostly the writing that takes time, because I’m such a perfectionist, I want everything to be perfect [laughs].
ANTIHERO: A few months ago you released “The Source”, your latest album. In it we saw the return of many singers who already sung for Ayreon previously so I was wondering, how do you choose who to play on your music? And do you always have already in mind who to sing what, or does it ever happen that you have a certain sound in mind but you struggle to find the right person to play that role?
Arjen Lucassen: No, not at all, I work the other way around: first I make the music, then I think who will fit the music, who will fit the story, and if I do a weird science fiction thing there are certain singers who are going to say, “No, I’m not going to do that”, you know, they want something serious. So, yeah, I choose the singers who I think fit the concept and the album, again, I have a list of 20-30, I approach them all and in the end ten of them say yes, or say, “Okay, let’s fit it in my schedule”, and then I fit them on the album, I look for the parts for the singers. So, I really write the lyrics and the melodies on the singers, not the other way around, it’s not, “I’ve got this melody, who can sing it?”, it’s, “Okay, I’ve got Tommy? Cool, then I can write a melody like that”.
ANTIHERO: How do you work with musicians? For instance, in “The Source” you had Guthrie Govan and Paul Gilbert play two solos, do you provide them a guideline or do you give them freedom?
Arjen Lucassen: Complete, 100% freedom. Absolutely, totally, especially with these masters, you know [laughs]. You don’t tell them anything, you don’t even tell them what the chords are, it’s like, “Here’s the part, do you like it? Okay, go”.
ANTIHERO: You’ve worked with a plethora of amazing musicians, from the aforementioned Guthrie Govan to old legends such as Keith Emerson and Steve Hackett; if you had to choose the 3, or 5, musicians you are the proudest of having had on your albums who would they be?
Arjen Lucassen: The problem with answering that question is that there are so many that I wouldn’t mention, then one of these guys reads your magazine and says, “You didn’t mention me!” [laughs].
ANTIHERO: And then they won’t work with you again.
Arjen Lucassen: [Laughs] Yeah, like, “You didn’t mention me, so fuck you man!” [Laughs]. Yeah, you’re wearing a Hawkwind shirt, that experience with Dave [Brock, leader of Hawkwind]… I was such a Hawkwind fan as a kid, you know, with “Space Ritual” that was like escape for me, escape to a different world listening to that album, and to be able to go to Dave and spend a couple of days at his estate, together we went shopping and talking together, of course blowing together [laughs] and listening to music together, that was so magical. We didn’t even record [laughs] we went there to record, we didn’t have time and he felt a bit sick and he said, “Oh, I’ll do it later”. That was a very special experience for me, it’s so great when you meet your heroes and they live up to your expectations… because I did work with people where in the end I’m like, “Yeah, he did a great job but…”, maybe they’re not the kind of person I was hoping they’d be.
ANTIHERO: Talking about the future, is there any particular musician who you’d like very much to work with?
Arjen Lucassen: I always decide that after I’ve written the music, when I’ve got the music I think like, “Okay, who fits this music?”. I have a wish list but it’s 200 people [laughs] and they’re slowly dying too, so…of course Dio was on top there and then…okay, one choice less, but yeah, mostly it’s guys who I’ve grown up listening to like Dio, like Robert Plant, like David Gilmour, Ritchie Blackmore, you know, they’re my heroes.
ANTIHERO: Is there anyone who you already asked and decline, but that you still hope to get to involve in the future?
Arjen Lucassen: If they decline I never try again, I want people to be excited about it, if I have to push them…it’s not my thing. I did that in the past, I pushed them, offered them a lot of money and then they did it, but afterward I don’t have that feeling with it, you know.
ANTIHERO: It feels forced.
Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, yeah, it’s all about, you know, that’s forever that feeling, I can’t explain… My brother always says, “Yeah, but you don’t have to marry them!”, but yeah, that’s not the way it works.
ANTIHERO: In recent years, with the crisis of the record industry and the rise of streaming services, most bands rely mostly on the income that comes from playing live. As you don’t do that I was wondering you ever struggled to keep your projects going?
Arjen Lucassen: Not at all, I’m in a luxurious position having the best fans in the world, it sounds cheesy…it’s something I could say in my speech… They buy my shit man, they buy my shit, and I make beautiful packages, I give them something extra and they know that, I always spoil them. So, if I release something they don’t even listen to it, the pre-order it, and it’s expansive packages, which means that more money goes to me [laughs]. It sounds hard, that’s not the reason why I make them, the reason I make them is because when I was a kid, “Space Ritual”, I don’t know if you have the album with the booklet that you unfold…
ANTIHERO: Yeah, you unfold it into a poster.
Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, into a poster, that was so special for me, reading everything they say… “Space is Deep” …I’ve always wanted that, you know, and there are still people who want that, luckily, my last album hit the charts, what was it, thirteen countries, first here in the Netherlands. Of course, I do everything on my own, so all the proceeds go to me [laughs], I don’t have to share it with anyone so I’m okay with it.