Arjen Lucassen interview
By Steph Perry
August 10, 2008
Arjen Lucassen’s latest album is an Ayreon project called 01011001, which is the final installment in the epic that spans seven albums. This album showcases both atmospheric progressive styles and heavier dark tones and themes, and ties together the storyline from all the past Ayreon albums. The album charted on Billboard’s Indie list. And contrary to the rumors, Arjen is not feuding with Tobias Sammet. In fact the two released an EP together. Arjen and Tobias agreed, “wouldn’t it be so cool to record something together to stifle all the journalists saying there’s a war going on between us.” Arjen spoke to me by telephone from his garden at home in Holland, where I could hear birds singing in the background.
With the album title being a code, do you have an easy nickname to refer to it?
Well, just 01 will do.
What were some of the highlights and challenges of working with so many musicians for this project?
Well the funny thing was, when I asked the singers I couldn’t get anyone. I was panicking. I was waiting and no one reacted. And I was like, oh my God everyone hates me and everyone has forgotten about me! so I started approaching more singers. And still I didn’t hear anything, you know, for about a month! So in total I approached 17 singers. And then in the space of one week they all said yes! And I had planned on maybe 9 singers so I didn’t have the heart to say I have no space for you! My music has many different moods and many different atmospheres, and basically I need a singer to convey all those different emotions. So for me, it’s very easy for me to work with many singers. It’s much harder for me to work with fewer singers.
Is it true that the lyrics and the story get shaped around the singers that are performing with you?
Yes sort of. I always start off with the instrumental music. Then I let the instrumental music inspire me to come up with lyrics and a story. But before I write the lyrics, I need to know who the singers will be and I adapt the lyrics and of course the melody lines to the singer.
How happy are you with the fan response to this album?
I was a bit afraid this time because I went through a heavy depression for the first time in my life. After the previous album I got divorced and was suddenly on my own, and in a new house, and with no inspiration. So this album was conceived in a very dark period in my life. So I could not be objective about it. I was like oh my God are they gonna like it? And to my surprise, I don’t know if it’s my best selling album but for the first time in my life I entered the charts in 13 countries. I was like, what is happening? I was so insecure about this album, because it was such a dark period. And they often say, when you have the blues you have inspiration, but that doesn’t work for me. I have to feel good to have inspiration. As a result most of these songs were written and recorded in the studio, while previous times I often entered the studio with the album all finished. This time I worked quite different. So I was very curious to know what the reactions would be. The only negative thing I’ve heard, is that it might be a bit too much like my previous albums. And I have to say I didn’t try to reinvent the wheel with this one. I didn’t try to be completely different. I think I will with the next album but I didn’t feel the time was right with this album. I can live with the criticism that its like a combination of all my previous albums in one. And I also think it’s the end of the story, I think the circle’s complete now. So the whole story that started with the first album and ended with this the 7th album. I should be able to come up with something new next time.
Please tell me about your experience performing with your guest musicians at the Stairway to Heaven venue in the Netherlands this past January.
I’m not much of a live person anymore. I used to love it when I was like 18, you know, and I toured the world for 15 years. It’s an exhausting life. Tour buses, not sleeping, not eating well, alot of alcohol, etc [laughs]. You know it was fun when I was young but at a certain point I was like I want to be creative, I want to be in studio and create things and not play night after night, you know and play the same old songs over and over. It was kind of numbing for me. Basically I started this Ayreon project because I was tired of the whole live playing thing. I thought let’s do something that’s impossible to do live [laughs]. But of course, a couple of years ago I did tour under the name Star One which was a big success and I have to say it’s great to see the fans. You see those people, from young people to older people, from prog heads to metal heads, folkies, anything, and you see them all singing along to the songs. And I have to say, for me that’s really great and I miss that. I still have contact with fans through the internet, myspace and stuff, but this is different. So I think, with this album, I should show my face at least the one time [laughs]. Basically it’s other people pressuring me a little bit, you have to do this! Because I’m a real recluse and I love to be alone, and it’s really not my thing. But then you do it, and see all the fans. And it’s your most loyal fans and you’re joking around and the atmosphere is perfect. And all the guest musicians were there. Even Hansi Kursch from Blind Guardian came all the way from Germany. And I have to say it’s a very emotional experience.
Can you tell me more about this show, did you have to act as orchestra leader or did everyone do their own thing?
It was an acoustic show. We didn’t rehearse or anything. I just sent them all their parts. And we just did a quick sound check in the beginning, and that was it.
Well it would’ve been amazing if we didn’t make any mistakes [laughs]. I tell you there were plenty of mistakes [laughs again]. I was planning to maybe release it because we filmed it but then it was like, there was many mistakes. And I think you should only do that if you’re well rehearsed. So I didn’t release it officially but just put it on the internet, so a couple of the songs are there on the internet for people to see.
I wanted to talk about one song from 01 and focus on the lyrics. In the song Connect the Dots, one lyric is, “we are dying for tomorrow we are living for today”. That really hit me. What was that all about, I mean that song and those lyrics?
Well basically it’s kind of like a strange song among all those other songs. I’m talking about this weird planet. And I’m talking about this water planet where these people live and become dependent on technology. And then all of sudden you hear the sound of a car. And suddenly you have this song which is depicted here on earth. Which is very strange but you know for me it’s a way of saying what happened on that planet, all the dependence on technology, it’s happening here. We haven’t gotten to the stage where we’re completely dependent on machines keeping us alive like The Matrix. But still I think we’ve become very dependent on technology. I don’t say it’s necessary a bad thing as long as you have technology working for you. But I see around me for a lot of people, they’re working for the technology. And I also hear it in the music. If you listen back to the 70’s and all the great stuff that happened then, and then you’ve got the 80’s where they got computers and drum machines. You know I didn’t like it. Luckily we’re going back to basics a bit more lately. So the song Connect The Dots, it’s a quote, I never told anyone this, it’s a quote I took from the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth. Where he says, we all know we’re doing stuff wrong, we all know we’re polluting, etc. but we don’t connect the dots. We don’t want to know. And basically this song Connect The Dots is about this guy, who’s a good guy, he’s not a bad guy at all. But without realizing it he’s doing everything wrong. He’s downloading stuff, he’s smoking, he’s taking pills, he’s driving the car to work when he could take the bike. So basically that’s what the song is about.
When I interviewed you back in 2001, you said “my body needs metal but my head needs rock.” Is that still true?
[Laughs] Yes. It’s funny when I listen to music it’s always quiet music. It’s Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree, that kind of stuff. But when I actually make music or when I play live, I want to make noise [laughs]…I don’t really listen to metal any more. I used to as a kid of course like Sabbath and Deep Purple and Zeppelin and all these bands. But lately I ease back between the speakers at night and it’s mostly quiet music. So it’s still true.
With the new EP that came out, what inspired you to record an Alice Cooper song?
Let me first say that Alice Cooper is my idol. It all started out with Alice Cooper. As a little kid I heard Elected on the radio and was like OH! what’s happening here! I became this huge Cooper fan. I just loved the guy. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, and that’s the great thing I love about him. He’s not too serious and I think his lyrics are great. He’s a very under-rated lyric writer, I think. Of course he’s not the best singer in the world but still very convincing.
Any new projects in the works? Or are you laying back and enjoying life?
Enjoying life is not laying back for me [laughs]. I have to be creative. I have to be in my studio, and I have to be creative. If I’m not creative, I get very nervous. So I’m back in studio and it’s going extremely well. I’m over my depression luckily. I’ve already recorded enough material for an album. I don’t want it to be an Ayreon project. We were talking about challenges at the beginning of the interview, well the challenge for me this time is to do the album with just the one singer. I’m working on the instrumental music, in another couple months I’ll be ready. I’ve got a list of singers I would like to work with. I couldn’t mention yet of course because none of them are confirmed yet. There’s one singer I really want to work with but it’s hard to get him. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. I think it will be released next year.
Is it atmospheric or heavy?
Well it’s music for my mind not my body [laughs]!