Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Interview: Arjen Lucassen of AYREON

Photo: Lori Linstruth

THE SOURCE is an exciting new chapter in the Ayreon saga, with contributions from renowned vocalists like James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Simone Simons (Epica), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Tobias Sammet (Edguy, Avantasia), and Russell Allen (Symphony X). The Source will be released on April 28 through Ayreon’s new label Mascot Label Group/Music Theories Recordings.

Antihero Magazine’s Anya Svirskaya had the opportunity to speak to Arjen Lucassen about this latest progression in the ‘Forever/Planet Y’ saga, and the Dutch songwriter and multi-instrumentalist gave us a glimpse into the creative process behind the new album.

Ayreon
Preorder “The Source” Here!

Anya: Congratulations on your new album, The Source. It’s not out yet, but the pre-sales are skyrocketing.

Arjen Lucassen: I know, yeah, it’s amazing. I was in Germany doing a radio interview and they said, “you’re number one on Amazon” or whatever. I was like, “what?” Yeah, it’s cool.

Anya: I was listening to the album again earlier today, and I have to say, I feel like it’s one of your strongest records and different from the last album. I feel that it’s also a culmination of your previous records. The Source has so many meanings – life, water, and Ayreon, for example.

Arjen Lucassen: Absolutely, yeah, yeah. I see this album as a new start, I don’t know why. I signed with a new record company and my previous album, The Theory Of Everything, didn’t do so well. I was like, “I want a new start.” The Source, the title just feels right, like you said, the source is water, the source of life is water. This is also about the source of mankind, where did we come from. I also see a little bit as a source of Ayreon. Yeah, it’s quite different from my previous Ayreon album which was more of a prog album. This is more of a rock album. Yeah, it’s definitely got a little bit of all the albums in it, I agree.

Anya: It is heavier than your previous album. You spoke in previous interviews how you have this freedom to go in any direction that you wanted to. What was your song writing process this time around?

Arjen Lucassen: Well, when I start I never know what it’s going to be, really, I have no idea. Also, if I would already decide when I start, I would limit myself. I just let little ideas come in, it’s usually a little melody or a few chords or a riff or whatever. I just let it all come and then slowly the project evolves somehow. At some point, I’m like okay this feels like a Star One or it feels like a solo album. This time it felt like Ayreon, maybe because of the many different styles, the Celtic stuff, the folky stuff, the proggy stuff, the rock, it had all the ingredients of an Ayreon album. Yeah, then I let the music inspire me to come up with a story and then the next step is to find the singers and the musicians who fit the concept.

Anya: The Source has so many parallels to our lives. The songs follow each other in a cohesive manner like a good story should. I was listening to the music and reading the lyrics and the singers that were singing those lyrics fit the songs perfectly.

Arjen Lucassen: I really wanted very distinctive voices this time. This is a new start, new record label. I wanted the best singers in the world. They all did a truly, truly amazing job. This may even be my best cast so far. Of course, unfortunately this time they couldn’t all come over. Usually I have all the singers in my studio. If you work with the best in the world you know you got to accept that they’re really busy with their own bands. I gave them specific details, like this is what’s happening in the story, this is your motivation. I sent them guide vocals by some great singers who really raised the bar for them. Yeah, it turned out great in the end.

Anya: Your work is very detailed. Was there any room for improvisations and for the singers to kind of be guided by their own fantasies when they’re singing the songs?

Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, always. I sent them guide vocals but I always tell them, please, please you know don’t try to copy the singer. Even better just listen to it once so you have a vague idea of where to go and what to do. Please change it if you want to change lyrics, that’s fine too, change melodies, add melodies, add harmonies. I really believe, I ask these singers because I’m a huge fan of them. I even hope, you know, that they will add something from themselves in it.

Anya: How long did this album take to record? Were there any songs that you have written that weren’t used for this record?

Arjen Lucassen: Well, the way I work is, I assemble all these little ideas I have. Usually they are 50 ideas, and everything that I don’t like or let’s say everything that I really like, I choose and the rest I delete. I do nothing with that. I basically only work on the songs that I will eventually use. I think the whole process from when I start to compose to the very end when it’s ready is like about a year. That’s like 365 days a year you know, so I have no holidays, no weekends. I’m totally focused on the album for that year.

Arjen Lucassen
Photo: Lori Linstruth

Anya: Do you write the music first or do you write the story? 

Arjen Lucassen: Always the music first.

Anya: Why is that?

Arjen Lucassen: If I start with story I limit myself. I have to find music that fits the story. I still think that the music is more important than the story. I would rather have the story fit the music than the other way around.

Anya: That makes sense. As far as the music that’s been released so far, there’s been a second lyric video that came out for “Everybody Dies.” How come that was the song that was chosen?

Arjen Lucassen: Different song, it’s a very busy song and there’s some pretty heavy shit happening in that song. I think starting with that song would not have been good. People would have thought, “is this what the new Ayreon sounds like?” Also, I didn’t want, “The Day That The World Breaks Down” …I didn’t want something similar. I wanted something, I wanted like contrasts, something riskier, that’s why I chose “Everybody Dies” as the second clip.

Anya: It’s very emotional. It’s visual. It’s melodic at times.

Arjen Lucassen: Thank you. Yeah, it’s still melodic. It’s pretty heavy and pretty intense but it’s for me it’s always about melody. That’s the most important thing for me.

The next clip will be for the song “The Source Will Flow.” I think it’s good, that’s a very quiet atmospheric song. That will be a good contrast to “Everybody Dies,” which is heavy and pretty busy. The clip “The Source Will Flow” will be made by fans. We asked fans, “do you want to make video for us?” We got like 200 people who wanted to do it. We chose five of them. Any week now they’ll be sending us what they did and we’ll choose one of them as the official video. I really hope there’s something good there.

Anya: I think that’s awesome that you’re so active on social media. You interact with fans so much and you’re willing to kind of give this artistic freedom to your fans.

Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, you know without them I’d be nowhere. No, I mean if I’d be alone in this world, I don’t think I would make albums or write music or stuff like that. I don’t play live anymore, so Facebook and email is a great way for me to stay in contact with the fans. I know I’m not one of those musicians who are like, “I don’t care what the fans think or what fans say,” because I do, you know. I want them to be happy with what I do.

Anya: I’m a little partial to “Cut Down To Life,” mainly for the fact that you have Simone Simons and Floor Jansen singing on that song.

Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, well yeah, they’re two amazing singers, you know, I’ve got the two best female singers, I think, on the album. They’re so different from each other, which is cool. Simone is more, maybe more emotional, maybe more a bit darker in what she does. Floor is like the power singer. I love that contrast.

Anya: You worked with Joost van den Broek on this record and he was in After Forever with Floor Jansen. 

Arjen Lucassen: Right well Joost plays piano on this album as well, and he’s one of my best friends. He’s a great musician and a great guy.

Anya: Ayreon has always been about science fiction. What’s your favorite science fiction movie or book?

Arjen Lucassen: Well, we have to go back to the old days, I’m afraid. (laughs) I’m an old bastard – it’s the first movies like ‘2001 Space Odyssey,’ I really enjoyed that one. Blade Runner was great, I loved that one. Alien was very cool, StarGate, many, many I could mention, like hundreds to you.

Anya: Do you remember the first album that you bought and are you still influenced by that particular band?

Arjen Lucassen: Well I grew up in the 60s, so I listened to a lot of Beatles. Back then I was still too young to buy albums. I think the first albums I bought were during the glam rock period. That was times with Alice Cooper and David Bowie and T. Rex and Sweet, you know. Those were the first albums I bought. I think I’m kind of over the whole glam rock thing. When I think back of my favorite album is those days, must be like Rainbow Rising with songs like “Stargazer.” That really shaped me in my formative years.

Anya: There’s a little bit of Rainbow influence on this album.

Arjen Lucassen: Into The Ocean.” I think that’s totally Rainbow. It was totally based on “Man on the Silver Mountain” from Rainbow. Even the working title of that song was “Silver.” That’s a very, very Deep Purple, Rainbow kind of song.

Arjen Lucassen
Photo: Lori Linstruth

Anya: You mentioned that you no longer play live but there are three shows scheduled for September, and they sold out pretty quickly. After the record is released, I am assuming that pre-production will begin for those performances. Will there be a DVD release?

Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, definitely, you know we’re going to film the first two shows, the Friday and the Saturday show. We have like an awesome team who will film it. They also did all the Epica stuff and there’s going to be 30 cameras. It’s going to be Blu-ray, DVD, behind the scenes, the whole thing, especially, of course, for all those who couldn’t come to see. Yeah, definitely, that will all be perfect, I hope.

Anya: I’m sure it’s going to go well. Will it be kind of like a ‘best of’ set?

Arjen Lucassen: Yes, it’s not going to be limited to The Source. It’s not going to be a theater play like we had a theater play of an Ayreon album a couple of years ago. It’s really going to be ‘best of’ so I’m going to play at least two songs off each album. We will also do one or two Star One songs just because they just, they’re great songs to play live.

Anya: So, working with so many musicians not only for this record but on your previous albums, is there anyone that you would love to work with? And let’s also make it a little interesting, someone dead or alive? 

Arjen Lucassen: Yeah Dio, he’s always been on the list, talking about Rainbow. I spoke to him once and he was interested. He knew my music. He gave me his email address but somehow it never materialized. I’m really sad about that. Going back even more, I told you I grew up listening to the Beatles, so yeah someone like John Lennon would have been amazing.

As far as singers who are still alive, basically the singers I listened to in my formative years, my real heroes. That’s a dream come true if you can work with these guys. I’ve already worked with Bruce Dickinson on an Ayreon song which was amazing. I think that voice that you listen to sing your own songs, that’s the biggest compliment there is. Yeah, then I talk about singers like Robert Plant or Paul McCartney or Kate Bush, Geddy Lee, the really big names.

Anya: Have you tried to reach out to them?

Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, of course, I try every time but it’s impossible. They’re shielded off really well and they don’t know who I am. Basically, I hardly ever get through. Sometimes I get through like I got an answer from Brian May who almost did it but, unfortunately, he got sick this year. It didn’t work out. Yeah, I keep trying, you know, every time.

Anya: How is your health these days? I know that you had a few issues years ago.

Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, you get older, I’m approaching 60 now. Yeah, the little old age ailments they’re cropping up now. It’s crappy you know, it’s your mind that doesn’t get older at all but your body does. It doesn’t do what you want anymore. I live a very healthy life and I jog every day. I do my exercises. It’s just, I’m really tall. I don’t know in your metrics, we have the metric system so I’m over two meters.

Anya: My background is Russian so I am familiar with the European metric system.

Arjen Lucassen: If you’re that tall you’re going to have problems with your back and with your knees and crap like that. You know, I’ve got nothing serious so I’m not going to complain, but thanks for asking.

Anya: What have you learned, what kind of lessons have you learned in your long career up until this point?

Arjen Lucassen: Basically, to do what you like. it sounds so easy, you know, but the first 20 years when I was in music ever since I was 18 in 1978, I’ve been trying to do what I thought the mainstream, the audience, wanted. Judas Priest got popular trying to do that, then Iron Maiden got popular trying to do that, Ellis and James got popular trying, you know, I’ve always tried to please everyone. At some point, I did the first Ayreon album and I thought no one’s going to like this because it’s a combination of all these weird styles. That’s when I started having success, you know, because the album is called The Final Experiment which I really thought, “this is my final experiment, this is going to be it.” It became a big success. Then I realized that if you do the kind of music that you really like yourself that’s simply what you’re best at. You have the highest chance of being successful with that.

Anya: That’s very admirable. Stick to what you know and do not compromise.

Arjen Lucassen: That’s it and all my years in bands, you know, when I was in bands I had to compromise. I had to compromise with band members who preferred to listen to AC/DC and you’re trying to please them too. Then you have the record company saying, “yeah, but we want a single,” you know, the old cliché and, “we want to put you on the radio because that will broaden your appeal” and then you try do singles, you do a whole album of singles and then the fans don’t like you anymore because they think you’re a sellout. Whatever you do is wrong, you know.

Anya: I don’t want to take up too much time, I’m sure you have other interviews that you’re working on. What is your message to your fans?

Arjen Lucassen: Yeah, that’s always a hard question. I always say the same stupid thing, buy my album. No, it’s like, I really hope you’ll enjoy this album and as I’ve said before in this interview, I really like to know what fans think of my music. You can reach me on Facebook like we mentioned before too, you can email me. Let me know what you think, even if you hate it, tell me why. I’ll learn from it, never too old to learn.

Arjen Lucassen
Photo: Lori Linstruth

Anya: I just have to say that it was a privilege to speak with you. I discovered Star One and The Human Equation through a friend of mine. I was into power metal during that point in time and always looking for new music, and I’ve been a fan of your music ever since.

Arjen Lucassen: Thank you, that’s great to hear.

Anya: I mentioned earlier I am Russian, but I’d like to end this by saying something in Dutch. Not sure if this is right though but: “Arjen wens u het allerbeste voor nieuwe album!” (I wish you all the best for the new album).

Arjen Lucassen: It was really good.

Anya: Thank you.

Arjen Lucassen: (In Russian) “Spasibo” (Thank you).

Anya: (In Russian) “pozhalusta” (Please).

Arjen Lucassen: I speak a little bit of Russian, not much. “Privet” (Russian – “Hi”) And what is it, I lost the words now. And of course, “do svidaniya (Bye)” And how do you say word for beautiful, “horoshoya.”

Anya: (laughs) Thank you, so much.

Arjen Lucassen: You’re very welcome.

Pre-order The Source here!

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facebook.com/ArjenLucassenOfficial

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About Anya Svirskaya

I was born and raised in Donetsk, Ukraine and immigrated to NYC when I was eight years old. My passion for photography stems from my love of heavy metal and hard rock as well as my concert experiences. I was exposed to this music at an early age and it has been a big part of my life into adulthood. It is very rewarding and exciting to capture the small moments that musicians have on stage and get caught up in all the action in the mosh pit and take photos from that vantage point. When I am not behind my camera, I can be found teaching preschool. My love of music and photography allows me to create and plan meaningful activities for my students. I was very young when I discovered my passion and my goal is to help do the same for my students.

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