Interview with Arjen Lucassen Part I – “I always allow myself to be led by circumstances. So if something happens; I adapt. That´s how I work”
Arjen Anthony Lucassen´s Ayreon has been an institution in the world of metal and prog for 25 years, all the way back to his debut album “The Final Experiment” from 1995. Having a reputation of not only being a virtuoso multiinstrumentalist but also a very kind and likeable guy. As this intrepid reporter can attest, his reputation is well earned. In the first part of this three part interview, Stargazed Magazine is proud to give you the answers to pressing questions about dogs, musicals, unorthodox instruments, Doctor Who, ghosts and Charles Dickens.
– Hello Marty! All is good, all is fine!
I´d like to start things off by asking pretty much the most important question of them all; how in the universe is the real ruler of the Electric Castle, how is your dog, Hoshi?
– (Laughs) She´s doing great, earlier she was a bit sad because her mom had to go shopping and she´s always sad to be on her own so she´s following me around everywhere now. But now she´s happy.
Wonderful to hear! You know the short clip on Youtube where you´ve just gotten her and are outside and playing in the grass is one of the most watched videos in our household ever?!
– That´s on Youtube? (Laughs) I didn´t know!
Yeah, she´s totally commandeering the two meter tall dutchman.
– Is this the one where she looks like a little sheep?
That´s the one. She is so cute! Thing is, my wife and I have a chinese crested powder puff as well so we know and love this particular breed and they are awesome!
– They´re so cute and so smart, that´s the best thing about them. So lovely.
Aaaah, ok, now we can get down to business. Let´s talk about “Transitus” for a minute.
“Transitus” is the latest of a string of universally praised concept albums. The previous ones were all tying together in some fashion (except “Actual Fantasy” and “The Theory of Everything), all the way to your first one; “The Final Experiment”. Did you have a masterplan thought out in advanced or are you making it up as you go?
-Hahahaha, no! No way! It always seems like people think that I´m this total genius but that´s totally random. My first album was called “The Final Experiment” and that was basically because I was sure it would be my last and final experiment (laughs). So that´s really why it is called that. I had no idea that Ayreon would take off so no… I always have a plan but I never stick to it. Like take “Transitus” for example, it was gonna be a movie, you know. It wasn´t going to be an Ayreon album and suddenly it is. The same with “01…, it started out as a soloalbum and then I said “let´s just have another singer” and I ended up with 17 singers (laughs) and it turned into an Ayreon album!
-I mean, while I´m writing I connect things but things are never planned out, I always allow myself to be led by circumstances. So if something happens; I adapt. That´s the way I work.
Is that the reason why “Transitus” in particular has this organic flow? It doesn´t feel constructed, the themes that are recurring do so naturally.
– Oh, that´s so good to hear!
And it is a corker of an album so you needn´t worry.
-But I do worry! I hope people will like it. If you take “The Source”, its a prog metal album, this cold and heavy thing with several metal musicians. And this album is softer and more melodic, it is very different. It´s scary not knowing how people are gonna react. If they expect a big progalbum with lots of instrumental parts and lots of complicated s**t, this is not the album they´re looking for. This is more of a rock musical.
The first time I heard it I had three or four instant reactions to it.
First off: movie score. This would translate so good on the silver screen. I heard like John Carphenter stuff, John Williams, The Omen and musicals like “Chess”.
– Yeah, totally right! (laughs)
Authors note: at this point Arjen starts to play a piano with very special sound. And the song he´s playing, to my great excitement? The main theme of slasher classic “Halloween”.
– There you go! (Laughs)
I admit it. At this particular moment in time, the author squees like a teenager at an boyband concert.
– That was a little toy piano that I bought especially for this album so its on there. So I had the Halloween theme and went like “how can I change it?” and started experimenting.
Arjen now plays one of the recurring themes from “Transitus”.
– So it took that and also “The Omen” that you mentioned, that huge choral part, you know “Satani…” so the big choral song (Fatum Horrificum) is based on that.
As you said, this is more of a rock infused musical and once again your singers just hit it out of the park. Take Tommy Kärevik (Seventh Wonder) from my native Sweden for instance, he´s one of the greatest singers around today.
– He is and I… on “The Source” he impressed me the most of all the singers. He couldn´t come over as he was a bit sick so he had to do it in his own studio. Usually when that happens, when I get the results, I´m not happy. I´m such a perfectionist, I want the singers in my studio and once they´re here I can make it work but with Tommy, he sent me his stuff and I was in tears for every line he did. And he´s such a nice guy and such a good friend. We know each other so well now, he knows what I like and want from him and it always works out with him.
He seems to be such a humble, likeable guy as well.
– He really is. He is a bit insecure, no, insecure isn´t the word, he is a perfectionist just like me.
I have a question about that. Are you a tough producer, how far do you push you´re participants?
– Well, they don´t notitice that I push them. I support them. They come here and often if they have worked with me before they´re like “can I really do this and what do you expect of me?” but the moment I hear that voice that I like, I see all these possibilities, you know? I know what I want and that helps. That makes the performers more secure and when they find that thing that I like, they relax and we´re high fiving, hahaha! If that happens in the first hour then you´re set, you know? Then it just gets better and better. I´m always so happy when I see the Behind The Scenes segments where Lori interviews the singers and they´re going “I´ve never worked this fast before” and “I didn´t know if I could do it”, that´s the biggest compliment, I think.
The Behind The Scenes segments are wonderful. Great bonusmaterial!
– That´s so good to hear. Lori makes them and she´s just as much of an insecure perfectionist as I am so she´s always afraid that she doesn´t have enough material and what she has isn´t good enough. She works on them for months and when they´re done, it´s 50 minutes long that flow very well. She has such an eye for it, she´s amazing.
Now I have to change the subject slightly as I can not wait to talk about it. As I´m a huge Doctor Who-fan, the news that Tom Baker was going to be the narrator made me giddy with exitement.
You actually went to him in England and recorded?
– Yes! Again that is so important for me to be where the performers are and if only to actually getting to meet him. Like you and millon others, I grew up with him during my teens which are the formative years. Star Trek was my first love but the Doctor Who was my second and basically just Tom Bakers Doctor Who. The guys that came after were fine, the guys before him were fine and the new Doctor Whos are good but Tom Baker was the reason why I liked it.
He played himself!
-Yeah, exactly! That´s what he always says, that he just played himself but now I know this myself; that´s the Doctor, you know?! (Laughs) He has the humour, he´s always joking but at the same time he´s very intelligent.
He thinks on his feet, yeah.
– Oh yes, so clever. He knows everything about everything, he´s very well read. And he totally immersed himself into the story and it was so nice to meet him. He´s such a nice guy and it was everything I hoped it would be.
Ah, that warms my heart to hear! And so I just gotta ask; what is your favourite Doctor Who Story?
– Oh, I have got so many. I have all the dvds line up here. Wait, let me go check.
Arjen walks a couple of paces and stops.
– “Horror of Fang Rock” is amazing!
Terrence Dicks wrote that, a bonafide classic.
– Yeah it´s really good. Ah, let´s see; I´m terrible with names, “The Leisure Hive”?
Arjen reads the blurb on the back of the dvd.
-Yes, that one I really like.
That´s from Tom´s last season, season 18. Good stuff.
If you ask me, you could put pretty much any of his stories on and just watch it for Tom.
-That´s it, exactly!
Now, back to “Transitus”. While the Ayreon saga is science fiction at its finest, “Transitus” instead opts for Gothic horror of the late 1800’s. What were your inspirations for this album?
– Well, I think you mentioned the usual suspects, movie soundtracks like The Omen, Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter but as for music it was (Jeff Wayne´s) “War of The Worlds”, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Tubular Bells” (Mike Oldfield). As for movies I just watched them all! Everything, all the rock musicals, all the classics, even “The Sound of Music” which was very good actually. Also “LaLa Land”, a new one that proves that it is still popular as a genre.
Arjen stops for a moment to gather his thoughts.
-Storywise it was… I love ghost stories and ghost movies. I don´t like splatter movies, that´s not my thing. You know people killing each other and lots of blood and gore, that´s not for me. I like the things that you don´t see like in The Omen and films like Jaws. Basically the shark broke down during filming and so you don´t see it for most of the movie which also made it great.
Poor Bruce! ‘Authors footnote: Steven Spielberg dubbed the constantly failing mechanical shark Bruce after his ferocius lawyer.
– Yeah, hahaha! But as for ghost movies I always say Scrooge, I always loved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, that´s maybe my favourite story ever.
Indeed. There´s a reason for it being a classic and pretty much every tv-series that makes a christmas special use some elements from it.
– There will always be “Humbug”! Hahahaha!
Another movie that I thought of while listening that I hadn´t seen in years was The Others.
– Absolutely! I love The Others! The twist of the movie (SPOILERS!!!) that it all turns around and the ghost were the real people. It´s fantastic! The locations are amazing. If “Trastitus” becomes a movie, that´s the film I´d show everybody and say: this is what I want it to look like.
Another influence of course was Psycho but it is just a combination of a lot of my favourite movies really.
So how did “Transitus” start off, did you start by writing the story first or..?
– Yes, usually I just start with the music, collecting bits and pieces of ideas and the music inspire me to come up with a story, then I find the singers, then I write the lyrics. That´s usually how it goes.
This time I wanted to do a ghost story and I wanted it set in the past, in the Victorian era. So I wanted to have a gothic, romantic ghost story set in that time and place.
And so that´s how it started and I also felt that I wanted my singers to be actors in my movie so I picked singers not only by their look but by their chemistry and charisma. “Can they act” was a criteria. I started off with just Tommy and Simone, you know, very talented, great singers and they look great. I felt that I wanted these two to be my leads. So that´s how it started.
So then you fleshed out the story a bit and… did you pick the singers to just fit the charachters or did you fit the characters to fit the singers?
– I always have a wish list but that list is like 50 to 100 singers, you know, it´s silly, hahahaha! Then I go through the list and look for singers that fit the story and that I think fit the music. Ususally, when I have the singer, I adapt the character to the singer. A good example is on “Inside The Electric Castle”, I didn´t have a Scottish character so I wrote one, a highlander to fit Fish. This time it´s more open, you know? I wanted an evil stepmother, who should I get? Going through the list…of course, Amanda (Sommerville) would be fantastic in the role!
She truly shines on this album!
– She´s a great actress too. All the singers that came to my studio; we did a screen test, we had a green screen and did a couple of scenes. When this turns into a movie I have audition tapes to show the producers.
That concludes part 1 of our chinwag with the sincerely terrific dutch fellow. Watch this space for more Ayreon goodness in the following weeks as we unveil even more secrets from The Electric Castle in parts 2 and 3 of the interview. Cheers for now!