Arjen Lucassen, is best known for his successful Ayreon saga which combines musical styles from jazz to metal. The elusive genius behind the Ayreon project speaks to us about his first live shows, how he dreams of working with Robert Plant and Kate Bush and what the future has in store.
Photo Rik Bauters
PG: The Ayreon Universe project was the first official live performance of your music what made you decide to do a live show finally?
AL: It was The Theatre Equation, that was a theatre play of the Human Equation we did a couple of years earlier. I wasn't really involved with it, not 100 per cent. My former manager was looking for a challenge, and I suggested it, she set it up and I arranged the singers. That was two years ago, and it was a big success. I was backstage there, and I saw the reactions of the musicians who were enjoying themselves, and the people who were crying and laughing; there were lots of emotions going on. At that point I thought it would be such a shame if this were the last time that something happens with Ayreon live, despite the fact that I hate playing live – it scares the shit out of me. I knew we had to do something, so I went to Joost (van den Broek) and said “should we set up something ourselves?” and he said “yeah, but it will take two years to set that up. So let's start now.” We had to think about what to do, which album would be good for a theatre play and at some point, it morphed into the Best of Ayreon. We thought why not do a rock show at a rock venue and get some songs from each album and get a few of our singers. We planned to have four of five singers, and we ended up with eighteen because they all said yes!
PG: You’re used to doing studio work, how did it feel to have all the singers and musicians working together for the show?
AL: It wasn't daunting at all, it was like we say behind the scenes “one big happy family.” It sounds cheesy, but that's exactly how it was. The atmosphere was so great, and I specifically picked the singers because of that: I didn't want to work with egos and believe me there are egos. I wanted people who wanted to do it, not for the money or the fame but just because they like the music and because they wanted to be part of it. My brother sometimes tells me “what do you care if they don't like the music, you don't have to marry them.” But I always say no, because you can see it on stage if they are enjoying themselves and I'm sure that the audience feels that.
PG: What was the rehearsal like for the show?
AL: First we started setting it up and getting the right musicians and singers, instrumentalists, LED screens and pyros – all that stuff. We started rehearsing about half a year in advance. The great thing was that all the instrumentalists were from Holland so we could rehearse once a month. The scary thing was that we only had one rehearsal with the singers and that was the day before.
PG: You made an appearance at the show too, how did you get over your stage fright for the event?
AL: I didn't, I just had to do it, there was no way back. I had a special assistant to kick me on stage. I just had to do it. I was behind the stage, and I saw everyone doing so well, so I thought “I've got to do this.”
PG: Would you do it again?
AL: I think we will have to do it again. There were so many happy people, and it was so successful. I think we have to do it again.
PG: Were there any highlights of the concerts for you?
AL: Weirdly enough it was the quieter songs like When the Druids Turn To Stone and Valley of the Queens – just those three girls singing was a dream. I've seen it loads of times, but I still get goosebumps when I hear those voices. They all like the song, and you can see that which helps.
PG: Was it difficult for you to choose what songs to include?
AL: Not really because I had a concept in my mind of the bombastic songs like Into The Black Hole and the quiet, atmospheric songs. I wanted a lot of dynamics on stage, to go from very small to very big. I just went through each album and thought what would be best on stage, so it's not my favourite songs or even the fans' favourite songs, but what would go down well and what would fit this concept on stage?
PG: Damian Wilson says that you get the best out of all the performers and musicians you work with - is he right and how do you encourage them?
AL: That is one of my talents. That sounds arrogant, but I'm not arrogant, I know my limitations. I'm not a great performer, I'm not a great guitar player or a singer etc., but I do know how to get the best out of singers. I think it's just something I was born with. Ever since I was a kid, I've listened to singers and rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and War of the Worlds. I ask singers to work with me mainly because of the sound of their voice, not even for their technique – they don't have to be brilliant singers, it's just the voice. When these singers who I'm a fan of, are in my studio, singing my songs, they see me light up and this smile on my face, I think that gives them confidence. It I like the voice I can make it work.
PG: Are there any musicians or singers you want to work with?
AL: The list is endless. Of course singers I grew up listening to my heroes: Robert Plant, Ian Gillan, David Gilmore, Kate Bush, to work with those people would be like 'woah'. But it's hard; they probably don't know my music, they grew up in a different time and listen to jazz, soul, blues or whatever, and my music is probably too weird for them.
PG: You like the contrast in your music and lyrics - like 'Everybody Dies' is quite an upbeat song - what interests you having contrast in your music or do you have a perverse sense of humour?
AL: It is a perverse sense of humour, the lyrics of that song are horrible “Everybody dies” but then everybody is on stage having fun and laughing. I like everything tongue in cheek, and there's a lot of cheesy stuff in my music. If you sing about aliens, Barbarians and hippies, it's all escapism really, and that's what I told everyone: you can act on stage, but please have fun. Like the Narrator of the show has all these serious lyrics about the end of the world, but I said to him “just joke around, don't stick to the original text,” and he did. There's a thin line you have to walk; it should not become a parody, that's why we didn't go all the way with the costume – it might go too far.
PG: There are lots of strands in the Ayreon Universe, did you plan it that way?
AL: All the stories are connected, I didn't plan it that way it was just separate stories initially. Then I made the second album which wasn't connected to the first, but then the third album was connected to the first album. Suddenly this whole Ayreon saga started happening. It just formed itself as I was going.
PG: Your albums deal with the concept of human dependence on technology. Do you think that Skynet will take over?
AL: That's a very interesting idea, but I don't think so. In most of my stories they do, but I think it would take a long time because the brain is the most complicated thing in the universe. I grew up in a time before computers, so I saw how fast the change was, that's probably why I keep going back to it. But I'm not criticising it; I'm not a doom thinker, I don't think it's bad. I used to love going to the record store and hearing an album and then I'd wash all the cars in the street so I could buy the album and I'd take it home and play it, and every track was sacred – that's gone. Maybe kids today are just as happy as I was, they just go to Spotify and listen to all the songs. It's a good thing and a bad thing. I like the modern technology to make music because I can do everything on my own; I'm totally antisocial so that works.
PG: You don't sound antisocial.
AL: Well, I call myself a social recluse.
PG: You are a big lover of sci-fi would you like to go into space?
AL: No, I just want to be home, be in my studio and create new stuff and in the evening watch a TV series. No, I would not be happy in space.
PG: Do you have a favourite science fiction film or show?
AL: Star Trek, that's where it all started for me and sparked my interest in the whole sci-fi thing.
PG: You’ve suffered from depression before did music help you overcome that?
AL: Absolutely. I was in a vicious circle, I wanted to create music, but I couldn't because I was depressed. At some point it does come back, you have that one little idea, that one little spark and you get back in the studio and ideas started to come. Music was definitely my saviour.
PG: You’re a keen runner, do you find you get a lot of ideas when you are running?
AL: That gives you what no drug can give you. I feel inspired, it helps me a lot to create. If only my knees wouldn't give out, it would be fine!
PG: What advice would you give to any budding composers out there?
AL: Just do your own thing. It sounds like a cliché, but I've been in bands for 15 years. I was touring the world and doing what I thought the band wanted, doing what I thought people wanted and doing what the record company wanted. At some point when I was 35, I did the Ayreon project, and I thought that everyone would hate it because I've got such weird taste in music and I'm doing progressive rock in the 90s – in the days of grunge. Low and behold it became a much bigger success than all of the bands I had been with. So, don't do something because it's popular or because it's a trend; do what you want to do, because that's what you're best at.
PG: What are you working on next?
AL: I'm always working on stuff, but it keeps changing. I've no idea what it will turn into. It's also the 20th anniversary of my album Into the Electric Castle, which is also my favourite album, so I'd like to do something special with that: a remix or a 5.1 mix, a reissue, that's the next job. After that, I want to so something completely different.