Music

Arjen Anthony Lucassen Explores His 'Ayreon Universe' with Us

Jordan Blum
Photo: Rik Bauters (Mascot Label Group)

Dutch progressive rock/metal master Arjen Anthony Lucassen offers great humor and humility in reflecting on his Ayreon Universe career celebration.

For the past 25 years or so, Arjen Anthony Lucassen has been a leading force in modern progressive music. While he's released wonderful material under many guises (such as Star One and Guilt Machine), it's his Ayreon projects that best demonstrate his brilliance at constructing epic narratives filled with exceptional songwriting and instrumentation (which are brought to life by his esteemed guest vocalists and musicians).

On March 30th, Music Theories will release Ayreon Universe, a lengthy best of concert celebration of the Ayreon catalog. Filmed in the Netherlands in September 2017, it features many of Lucassen's top past performers—including Ed Warby, Floor Jansen, Anneke van Giersbergen, Mike MIlls, and Marcela Bovio—and serves as a must own retrospective on his legacy. Of course, putting together such an extravagant event was quite an undertaking, which Lucassen is more than happy to discuss.

Let's talk about the recently released video for "Everybody Dies" from the upcoming Ayreon Universe concert film. What led to that being the chosen teaser for the release?

It was a very hard decision to make because there were 28 songs to choose from. I thought, let's do that one! No, that one! Well, it's only got one singer, so maybe not, you know? The first thing was to find a clip with multiple singers; I also wanted one that was over-the-top, with lots of pyros and chaos and flames and CO2. Something that was crazy. "Everybody Dies" is also one of my favorite songs, but I can understand if people see it and think that the whole set is like that. It's not at all, of course, so maybe it gives the wrong impression, but I really wanted it. It has a lot of edits and it's the fastest and busiest song of all.

It's a great choice. It'll wake you up and it's hypnotic.

Oh, yeah. Definitely. It's a daring way to start, but Ayreon is over-the-top, so why not?

Exactly. Backtracking a bit, how would you compare putting this show together with putting together The Theater Equation back in 2015?

There are huge differences. I mean, I wasn't involved in The Theater Equation that much. It was my idea, though. I was in the car with my former manager and she mentioned that she wanted a challenge. I said, "Well, you have a theater background. Why don't you set-up The Human Equation as a play?" She was into that, so I helped her a bit with it. I chose the singers and some other things, but I wasn't involved in the organization. That was unfortunate, too, because it was a big mess.

Oh?

A lot of things went wrong. It could've been so much better. Honestly, it was saved by the amazing singers and musicians. Like, people came there two weeks in advance and didn't know what to do. They didn't even have a screenplay, and the whole light show had to be done the day before. No, actually, it had to be done on the day itself! We started at six in the morning and it was just an amazing mess.

I had no idea.

Well, you don't see it because the players did such a great job. So, Ayreon Universe was a lot smoother. We worked on it for two years and I was involved with everything. I was the boss and our arranger, Joost van den Broek, made it come alive. He had way more experience than me because I hadn't played live in ten or twenty years. I had the ideas and picked the singers and the songs, but he handled all of the technical stuff. He pushed me a little bit, too. For example, I wanted to use a little screen but he said, "No, no. It's the first Ayreon celebration so we need a huge screen and a lot of spectacle!" So it all went well and everyone was great.

It sounds like it.

Totally. If you watch the behind the scenes footage on the release, you'll see how much fun we all had. Over one hundred people were involved and all of the singers and instrumentalists were interviewed. I guess it's kind of annoying because everyone was saying, "We're all one big family" [laughs]. That's the way it was, though. It was so cool.

I've seen the documentaries for your last few albums and your contributors always speak so highly of the experience. There's usually footage of you picking them up from airports and bonding with them.

Right, right. It's important for me to have good charisma and interactions with people I work with. Otherwise, you don't get anywhere. That's part of the process when I pick people as well. If I don't like how someone comes across or sense that they're only doing it for the money—which has happened a few times—I just cancel it.

That makes sense, and that comradery comes through in the performances they give.

I think so, too. For Ayreon Universe, I told everyone that they're basically bringing stories to life, but I definitely don't want them to take it too seriously. There was no screenplay and we just told them when certain theatrics would go off, so they were free to do what they wanted. I wanted them to have fun. If two people are arguing on stage, like with "Intergalactic Space Crusaders", I wanted them to act it out but also add a bit of a tongue-in-cheek nature to it.

Photo: Cristel Brouwer (Mascot Label Group)

What made you choose the Poppodium 013 in the Netherlands as the venue?

It was a reaction to The Theater Equation. We wanted to use another theater at first, but then we decided that we'd be repeating things if we did that, so we wanted to go in a different direction and do a best of Ayreon rock show. We chose the 013 because it's where I started back in the early '80s. Oh, wow, that's going back thirty-five years. It was at a different location then, though, and it only seated about 1,500 people. Since then, they moved it and made it bigger, so now it fits 3,000 people. It just felt right; it's big but it still feels cozy. It's got a nice balcony so everyone can see and it's just very intimate. The only thing I was afraid of was nothing filling it.

Really?

Yeah. I'd played there with Star One before and only got 2,000 people. As you know, we ended up filling it three times, luckily.

That's very deserved but still quite an accomplishment.

Thank you. Never in my mind did I expect to be able to do that. 013 really encouraged me to go beyond one night and expect to sell out three. The first two sold out within hours and then we quickly had to decide to include a third one. We also put in the contract with the musicians that there might be a third performance.

It's better to have too many people wanting to see it than too few.

Unquestionably. We could've easily done more. Maybe next time.

I'm sure. Speaking of "Everybody Dies" again, you described it as "a total bitch of a track to play." What other tracks were really hard to pull off, and which were your favorites to play during those shows?

Let me check the list. Um, "The Theory of Everything" is pretty difficult to play, and "Collision" because it's got fast guitar and double bass. Strangely enough, my favorite songs are the quieter ones, such as "And the Druids Turned to Stone" because Damian [Wilson, Threshold vocalist] did such a great job. That was the absolute highlight for me. Also, tracks like "Comatose" and "Waking Dreams", with Jonas Renkse [Katatonia vocalist]. When you have a soft, atmospheric song, there's so much space so it's easier to mix. With the busier songs, there's so much happening and it can be overwhelming. I generally like the moodier songs, but it's the dynamics between the fast and slow songs that truly make it work. I made sure to arrange the set list to be balanced like that. I like the extremes of it.

You just mentioned "Waking Dreams", which made me realize that this year marks the tenth anniversary of 01011001.

Wow, you're right. That's hard to believe! It still seems like a new album to me.

For me, too, since that was the first album of yours that I heard and got into. It takes me back to my college days. It's still one of the best.

I agree, although I think the one before it, The Human Equation [2004], is the main fan favorite. Well, that one and Into the Electric Castle [1998]. They're also the best-selling ones. But after those, 0101101 is up there.

In general, your work seems to go against the stereotypes of progressive rock and metal in that it's more than just technical flashiness with little effort for songwriting. You find a strong balance between the two.

Thanks, Jordan. I think that's because I didn't grow up with prog metal; I grew up with prog and with metal. I listened to Deep Purpose and Led Zeppelin, but also ELP, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis. Those are two totally different styles but I enjoy it all. I don't know if people before me already did that—well, maybe a band like Queensrÿche combined the two. I think that's where the extremes in my music come from. My tastes are still very polarized. One minute, I'm listening to Pink Floyd and the next, I'm listening to Rammstein. I like them both equally.

That shows in your output. Were there any songs that you wanted to include in Ayreon Universe but couldn't?

Of course, of course. "Liquid Eternity" was one, and "The Garden of Emotions". Even "Sail Away to Avalon" from the first album [ The Final Experiment, 1995]. Part of the reason we couldn't do them was because we couldn't get certain singers. I wanted to do "Isis and Osiris" but we couldn't get Fish [ex-Marillion] or Sharon den Adel [Within Temptation].

That was probably for the best since you wanted each song to make their studio version as closely as possible.

Right. Well, on the one hand, yes, but I also kind of liked the idea of having a different singer. I encouraged them to sing things their own way. A good example is "Into the Black Hole". Bruce Dickenson from Iron Maiden sang it originally, so Tommy [Karevik, Kamelot] said, "I have to do that?! I don't want to try to match him" [laughs]. I said, "No, don't try to do it like him. Do it totally differently. Do it your own sort of bluesy way." It was really important that people felt comfortable doing it their way.

That makes it more interesting, too.

It almost makes it like a new song.

Did you have to alter any arrangements to fit more tracks into the performance?

All of them, I think. I had to cut them all down because I wanted to fit in as many as I could. A song like "Into the Black Hole" went from around nine minutes to six minutes, and "Druids" went from six minutes to four minutes. A lot of them are edited; I think only a few have their original lengths, like "Valley of the Queens". Even "Dawn of a Million Souls" went down a bit.

How did you decide the sequence for the tracks? I imagine that you used the same one for all three nights, right?

Yes, I did. Everything was programmed in the computer, you know? The explosions and the intros and the lights.

Ah, that makes sense.

Yeah, and I wanted to constantly move between an epic song and a shorter, quieter song. We opened with an acoustic song called "Dreamtime" and then went to the heaviness of "Abbey of Synn", for instance, or from "River of Time" to "The Blackboard". It was a perpetual shift between big and small but in a way that never became tiring. That was tricky to do.

You also included a couple Star One tracks, which I thought was interesting.

I just felt compelled to include them. "Intergalactic Space Crusaders" was the highlight when we did the Star One show because you have two actors on stage who are basically kicking each other's asses [laughs]. It's such a simple song, too. It's not one of my favorites but it's works so well live and gets stuck in your head. Then "The Eye of Ra" has the strong chorus at the end and you can get everyone on stage to sing it. It's a great way to end.

They both fit well within the sequence. As we've spoken about before, you suffer from stage fright, which is why you very rarely perform live. I wonder how that affected you with these shows.

I've dealt with it since the '70s, and it was still awful. Back then, I would feel sick and my fingers wouldn't move; then, in the 80s, I started playing a lot. I toured the world for almost fifteen years—from 1980 to 1992 or so—and I got used to it. The weird thing is that when I lost my nerves, I didn't enjoy it anymore. I think I needed that fear to give my all on stage. I felt like a robot playing the same stuff every night and making the same jokes and pretending that I wasn't getting tired of it. Prior to Ayreon Universe, I hadn't played in many years—well, aside from some small things here and there—so I was incredibly nervous. I was worried a year before the day.

Wow.

Yeah, and then it got worse in the weeks before it. I felt sick on stage. It's definitely not my specialty or something I think I'm good at. People will say that I'm humble, but that's not it! I'm a good songwriter and producer, but not a good performer. The other guitarists I had for the shows, Marcel Coenen and Ferry Duijsens, are so much better than me; it comes so easily for them. I don't even come close to that, and that's really not being humble. It's just knowing my own limitations. If I were really good at it, I'd want to show people. I'm sure a guy like Yngwie Malmsteen loves being up there and showing people what he can do. I don't have that feeling at all.

I guess it's good that you have your audience fooled, then, since we all love when you're on stage.

Well, once I'm on stage, the nerves go. I still play like shit, though [laughs], but the nerves go away and I see all of the happy faces in the crowd and it makes it worth it. Plus, I'm such a bloody perfectionist. If I make one mistake, I already feel like I played horribly. That first show, on Friday the 15th, I played such simple songs and had no trouble at rehearsals. I recorded all of the shows and listened back to that one and my guitar playing was awful. But again, seeing everyone so happy made it great.

That's what it's all about in the end. You mentioned a bit about the behind the scenes footage in the package. It's about 90 minutes, right? What else can people expect to see?

Yeah, it's about that long. The main show is about two-and-a-half hours, and then there's the rehearsal footage and dressing room footage. We really had to work to cut it all down. There's also the tryout material, which took place about two weeks before the show and had a couple of different singers. It was in a smaller venue that fit about 700 people, with some understudies. There's a compilation of that, which lasts about twenty minutes.

I can't wait to see it all.

It's pretty cool. Oh, and then the guy who did the artwork said that I should add some funny comments for each photo in the booklet. I was only going to try a few, but then once you get started, you get into it and it comes easily. So there's little anecdotes here and there about what I think of the singers and how I found them, etc. There's a lot to see and hear.

It's a must-have for fans.

It sounds arrogant to say, but I think that's true this time. I'm so proud of it. Everything about it is so great.

That's awesome. I know I've asked you this before—let alone many other people—but it remains relevant: of all the singers you've yet to work with whom you think you could get, who would you choose?

I once made a list about that with 200 or so singers. Unfortunately, a lot of them are dying lately. First are my old heroes, like Robert Plant and David Gilmour and Ian Gillan. That'd be dreams coming true. There's so many new singers, too. People often send me ideas for vocalists, and there are so many choices.

I see a lot of people speculating about Steven Wilson.

Oh, totally. I'd love that because I'm a big fan of almost everything he does, including the early days of Porcupine Tree. I used to go see him in small venues. We've emailed a lot over the years, and even faxed each other a few times. He sent me his no-man things since that was really hard to get in Holland. I'd sent him my records, too. Actually, I found a lot of those emails recently, as I was getting ready to move. I asked him to perform on Into the Electric Castle and he was very honest in saying, "I love it. Of this style, it's the best I've heard. The production is perfect, but it's too old school prog. That's just not my thing."

At least he was honest.

Absolutely, and he's fine having his opinion. I'd never ask him again, though. I only ever try once with a singer; if they decline, I leave it. Maybe that's because I don't want to hear "no" again. I don't think my music is what he goes for. Sometimes I see lists of what he listens to and I check it out and it's very weird that I wouldn't listen to, so to each their own.

I know that he's vehemently against bands like Dream Theater.

That's true. One day, I was recording with their singer, James Labrie, before one of Steven's shows. He put us on the guest list and then afterward, we waited about an hour to meet him. He just left, though. That wasn't very nice, and I don't think he really wanted to meet James.

That's a shame. So, aside from moving and promoting Ayreon Universe, what's the rest of 2018 look like for you?

It's going to be the 20th anniversary of Into the Electric Castle, so I want to do something with that. It was recorded on old tapes, so I have to check if I can transfer it into the computer and maybe do a 5.1 mix. Also, there were only a few thousand vinyl releases of it, and I see them going for hundreds of euros, which is just silly. It's certainly time to release it on vinyl, too. I just hope that I can get close to the old mix if I put together this anniversary package. I'm always working on new music, too, but that keeps changing. I could tell you what my plan is now, but it'd be a moot point because I'll change my mind in a few weeks.

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