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Interviews   

Arjen Lucassen, a vehicle registered 01011001


Initially, I simply had some questions for Arjen Lucassen. But know that with this man, one doesn’t make an interview. With Arjen, one chats as you would in high school or at the end of a party. You know, the kind of discussion which, like a Hawaiian magic mushroom, a frustrated professor in politics or like a discussion during a date, sidetracks from a topic to another without you really realizing how it happened. Starting from Arjen’s last productions, namely Guilt Machine and Star One, we managed to discuss about the next Symphony X, about intergalactic laxative and about… the movie Jaws! We did our best to present this interview to you in its rawest form possible, so as to present you the man and to show you that discussing with him is easy, enjoyable and fluent.

Arjen Lucassen is ambitious without being egocentric! It’s with a disconcerting ease that he admits his faults and his musical redundancies and that he talks, nearly embarrassed, about his flaws. Showing a clear sense of self-mockery, he laughs about his inability to write albums without any keyboard nor any guest singer. On that matter, he officially declares that he is currently working on a solo album on which he will be the only vocalist!

An open interview full of anecdotes which, I’d bet my bottom dollar on it, will please every Arjen Lucassen’s fan at least as much as I was pleased doing it.

Near the end of the interview, while I was about to hang up, an obvious fact came to my mind. Arjen is a name really close from “Aryan”! That first name must be creating controversy. Arjen Lucassen then tells me about this Ayreon’s fan whose car, having a license plate barring the band’s name, was trashed by some guys convinced that the band had some acquaintance with the 3rd Reich’s ideology. This fan sent the license plate to Arjen as a souvenir. Being myself a vulture-journalist, I asked him if he still had it. A few seconds later, I got its picture in my email.

 » I’ve really tried. I was like ‘I’m going to make a guitar album! No keyboards!’.[…] And if you listen to the songs, in the beginning I succeed. But then… I love keyboards so much. After a while, it just creeps in (laughs)! It’s all that prog’ side of mine that always keeps coming back! So, I don’t think I’m able to do that… »

Radio Metal : You once said in an interview that “every album you do is a reaction to the album before”. So, in what aspect is this new Star One album a reaction the Guilt Machine album?

Arjen Lucassen : I think it is true in every aspect. Guilt Machine was more an atmospheric album and it had only one singer. Also, the songs were very longs, especially in their intros. Here, this Star One album is much more to the point. It is much heavier. The songs really kick in from the beginning. And there are four singers instead of one. Also lyrically, the Guilt Machine was very deep. The lyrics, based on depression and stuff like that, were very emotional, while on this Star One album, all the songs are based on movies, making the album lighter.

What motivated you to produce a follow-up of the first album almost 10 years after Space Metal?

I think it’s because of the Guilt Machine album which was so atmospheric. After it, I really felt like doing something heavy and guitar-oriented. I wanted to do something based on riffs and Star One is my main project for that. So I really felt that it was time for a new Star One. Also, I wasn’t 100% happy with the first album. I was happy with the songs and I still am, but I don’t think the sound was that great: the guitars and the drums sounded a bit weak. So I’ve always wanted to improve on that.

Does it mean that you were kind of bored of the atmospheric songs that you made in the Guilt Machine and that you needed to draw a more guitarist album?

Bored is not the word because I love the Guilt Machine album. I think it’s a fantastic album that didn’t get the attention it deserved. To be very honest, the album didn’t sell very well. In fact, it’s my least selling album if you take all my Ayreon and Star One albums together. And of course, that was a bit of a disappointment for me. So I think that this new album is definitely a reaction to that.

But why do you think that was a failure commercially speaking?

I think it could be due to a lot of factors. It could be due to the fact that there was no famous singer on it. Furthermore, there was just one singer and he was not from the prog’ or the metal world, you know. He came from the pop world, from the alternative world. I think that had something to do with it. It was also a smaller label that released it, Mascot Records, who hasn’t got the power that InsideOut, Century Media and EMI, who are releasing it now, have. Added to that, it was a dark and heavy album. Well, not heavy as in music, but lyrically yes. Indeed the lyrics were kind of hard to follow: there was no obvious and clear story like in Ayreon or like in Star One where songs are really based on movies. So I think the whole thing was a bit more challenging. But I have to say that the fans who do like the album think it is the best they ever heard. So, yes, I think the Guilt Machine is a love it or hate it album.

You said that was a failure because there was no famous singer. Did you take this failure personally, like “ok, apparently the Ayreon’s fans just listen to my albums because there are those famous singers and not because of my work”?

I don’t think that’s the only reason. Like I said, it’s a combination of certain factors. But I think that had something to do with it. That’s what people like about my music, you know, the combination of singers and the interplay between the singers. But at the end of the day, I am behind these choices, so there’s no problem for me (laughs).

But did you think that people don’t really listen to your music and they just listen to the guests?

Nein, nein, nein! (NDLR: “no, no, no” in Dutch). But I definitely think it helps. If I had someone like Bruce Dickinson or James LaBrie on the album a lot of Iron Maiden’s fans and a lot of Dream Theatre’s fans would listen to the album. That’s the way it works. I have so many emails from Dream Theatre’s fans that say “well, we didn’t know your music, but we heard that James LaBrie was on the album so we took it to listen to it and then we loved it”. They loved it not because James LaBrie was on it, but because they loved the music. So, yes it helps promoting an album. But having said that, if they’re big James LaBrie’s fans and they listen to a metal album and they don’t like it, that’s possible too, you know (laughs)! But yes, promotion-wise, I think it is very good: I attract a lot of fans from other bands because they want to hear what their singer, their guitar player or their keyboard player does.

Apparently, you had planed from the very beginning to produce such a follow-up. Was it because you hesitated, or for fear to produce a bad second episode that you waited such a long time?

No. It just didn’t come up. With Start One, I did a live tour. We only played like 8 shows or something. I don’t know if you saw it, but we made a DVD from one of those shows. The recording was very simple and very amateur, but the result was like magic! That was so great and I was really afraid that I could not capture this same magic again if I was recording another show after that. But I was mainly talking about live show, not really about the album itself. I’ve always felt that I could make a better album than the first Star One’s album. But I’ve never planned ahead, really. When I’m still working on an album, I’ve no idea what I’m gone do after that. So I guess the time wasn’t there yet, until now.

Last year, when you started working on a new album, you had apparently not yet decided if it would be the new Star One. What helped you deciding?

Maybe, the reactions I got on the Guilt Machine. On many occasions, people told me like “I had to listen to it like three or four times before I liked it”. And basically that’s good because albums that you took you a few times to like are those that stay with you for a long time. But nowadays in these times of MySpace and Facebook, things are going really fast. People listen to an album one time and if they don’t like it they won’t give it a second chance. That’s a bit scary. So I really felt this time that I wanted to go straight to the point. Like Bam!, the song starts and Bam!, from the beginning, it’s clear what the song is about! You see, I always do the same thing in fact. I make an album listening only to what I really want to do, like Guilt Machine. And then after that I make an album in which I think about what the fans want to hear. And I think this Star One’s album is exactly what people have been waiting for.

But why do a lot of musicians fear to record a second episode of an album that is considered a masterpiece? Why thinking that messing up with a next album will cause to put the genius of the first one into questions?

(laughs).

I hear this kind of discourse very often. So much that I end up believing it is easier to produce the follow-ups of only bad albums (laughs)!

Well, there are so many examples in history… Look at Van Halen 1: for me it remains a magical album. Look at movies: you’ve got Jaws that was a great movie then you got Jaws 2 and it’s horrible and then Jaws 3 and it’s even worse (laughs)! I think it’s a scary thing to make an album after a successful one, even when the second one happens to be a good album: look at Pink Floyd who did The Dark Side of the Moon. How are you going to top that, you know? And nevertheless, they produced after that Wish You Were Here, which I think was an even better album! But still it didn’t get the attention that The Dark Side of the Moon received.

Yes, but that’s better than never doing a great album.

Absolutely! Of course I’m very proud of everything I did in the past. In fact, if I listen to my previous albums, it even gives me a bad feeling like “Oh damn! Can I ever do something like that again!” But it’s also a challenge to me. With the album Electric Castle of Ayreon, everyone said that was my main album, my highlight and I could never do an album as good as that again. And then luckily, people said it too about one my following albums, The Human Equation! For me, it’s not scary to do another album. For me, it’s a challenge like “Ok, you really think that’s my best album? I’ll show you that I can do even better!”

I actually don’t understand why some people think that the fact that the second album is worse does totally ruined the first album. If the first album is great, it will always be great even if the second album is bad…

I don’t think the second album can ruin the first one. Nevertheless, it’s true what they say: you are as good as your last album...


« Donovan was a hippy singer from the sixties and this album I have has this really funny song called Intergalactic Laxative. Donovan was wondering how astronauts shit and pee when they’re in space (laughs). How do they do it and what happens with all this shit and what happens with all this pee. »

“It All Ends Here” is the title of the last track. Does it mean it is the end of Star One? Or is it just the conclusion of this chapter?

It’s funny, because I was afraid that people would say that. I even considered it as an album title in fact, but then the director of the company said “no, no, people will think that it’s the last album!” (laughs). So no, it doesn’t mean that. The song is based on the movie Blade Runner. I don’t know if you saw it but it’s about these robots, or “replicants” as they are called, who only have a 4 year lifespan. They can live for 4 years and then they just die, they just fade away. This song is about that: the 4 years are over and they’re just going to die. And if you remember Rutger Hauer was sitting on the roof with the white birds flying away… So, definitely not, this is not the end of Star One. In fact, I love doing Star One stuff because it’s so much more straightforward than the Ayreon’s stuff. While Ayreon is complicated with its big story and all these themes, Star One is basically plugging in my guitar and playing those heavy riffs! I then call my four friends, Damian, Floor, Dan and Russel for singing and that’s it, you know! So I love doing it.

On this last album, but also on the last two Ayreon, it became clear that you appreciate the heavy sound of guitar. Did you consider creating a more traditional project (bass, guitar, drums) which would be more « guitar-oriented »?

In fact, I’ve tried to do just that on Star One but I’ve failed (laughs). I’ve really tried. I was like “I’m going to make a guitar album! No keyboards!” like AC/DC… Van Halen… Judas Priest… Iron Maiden, like, like… Ramstein you know! A guitar album! And if you listen to the songs, in the beginning I succeed. But then… I love keyboards so much. After a while, it just creeps in (laughs)! It’s all that prog’ side of mine that always keeps coming back! So, I don’t think I’m able to do that… but I think I came pretty close on this Star One album (laughs)!

Victims Of The Modern Age features the same set of singers compared to the first album. Didn’t you want to see what it we would be like with four other singers?

Yes, definitely and I’ve been thinking about that, I’ve even been considering certain singers and…

Oh! Give use some names!

Well… will I give names? (laughs) I was thinking “who is as good as Russel Allen?” The only one I can think of is Jørn Lande, but I’ve already worked with him. And then you’re thinking like “Ok! Floor, how am I going to replace Floor?” She is the most powerful singer in the world! I really, really cannot think of a female power singer who is as good as Floor.

Irene Jansen, her sister?

Yes, her sister, but she was part of Star One too, you know. And I think Floor would kill me if I was working with Irene (laughs)! That’s for sure! And then you have Dan Swanö, with his big low voice. You have Peter Steele but he is not with us anymore. He would have been the only guy who I think could do something like Dan does. And Damian is really impossible to replace. Who has a voice like that? It’s so unique. So, yes, I’ve been considering it and I’ve even been talking to Mikael Åkerfeldt who was interested to sing on this album. But then Garry Wehrkamp, who played the guitar solo on this album, told me “well, I think that Ayreon is your project where you’re working with a lot of different singers. Why don’t you keep the same line-up for Star One? Keep that as a band and keep Ayreon for the revolving cast of singers”. And I think that was a great idea.

There is a sound consistency between Victim of the Modern Age and Space Metal, especially in terms of keyboard sounds. Did you try to maintain continuity between the two albums?

I didn’t really try, but it’s unavoidable. I have all these old analogues keyboards and they are quite limited in terms of sounds. It’s not like these modern keyboards where you have five thousands sounds in one module, you know. Old keyboards have their specific sounds and that’s the reason I like them. They are so personal. In fact, I’ve tried to make it a different album but I will always have my sound, even if I use a completely different guitar like I did this time. The first Star One album was all recorded with some sort of virtual, digital guitar amps. But this time I used real guitars amps. So it’s a completely different setup, but it will still have my sound and my playing. I think whatever I would do, even if I make like a disco album (laughs), it will still have my sound. It’s unavoidable.

In the past, you did some shows under the Star One moniker. Is this something we can expect again in the future?

It’s a possibility. It will be difficult to get all the singers together though. Floor has a new band, ReVamp, and she’s touring a lot. Russel’s album with Symphony X is almost finished and will be out soon. So they are all really busy. Also, Ed has his own band as a drummer while Shadow Gallery (NDLR: Garry Wehrkamp’s band) is currently touring. It would be very hard to get them together. We made again a little documentary for the special edition and we asked all the singers if they would be there if I ever tour again, and they all said “yes of course!” So, it’s going to be hard to do, and I have no plans at the moment, but it’s definitely an option. And I think that secretly, I want to see how this album is received and what the reactions are. Because putting these people together would be hard, as would be rehearsing a couple of months, and it would also be expensive. It would take me half-year to set it up, so I have to be sure that it would make sense to do it.

« …the last Ayreon album was going to be a solo album.But then you know, I hear all these great singers and I think ‘this singer should sing this part! ‘.[…] So each time I plan it and each time I fail. But now I think I really have to do it. I’m 50 now you know. I see around me that singers are losing their voices or losing something in their voice at some point. So I think I should do it now. »

You just mentioned Russel Allen from Symphony X and the fact that their new album is quite ready. Do you have some information about that? Because it’s hard to find some information about Symphony X…

It was very hard to get Russel to my studio because he was in the middle of recording the vocals for Symphony X. On top of that, he was also getting his second child. So, he was hard to get in. But luckily he could take a week off to come to me and record. They hoped to be ready this year and I’ve asked Russel if that was going to be the case. He said that no, no, no, it’s not ready yet (laughs). It’s always that way with Symphony X. Their music and their albums are so complex that they have to do this and they have to do that… So my guess is it won’t be released this year, but maybe early next year.

In the limited edition of Space Metal, there was a hidden track called Intergalactic Laxative. What was this all about?

It was kind of a joke. It did it at the very last minute. I wanted to put a cover on the album, but I wanted something both funny and that had something to do with space. And then I remembered this old Donovan album I had. Donovan was a hippy singer from the sixties and this album I have has this really funny song called Intergalactic Laxative. Donovan was wondering how astronauts shit and pee when they’re in space (laughs). How do they do it and what happens with all this shit and what happens with all this pee. And it’s so funny. Everyone is thinking how these astronauts, Big Heroes you know, who land on the Moon and who fly in space, but Donovan, he was only thinking “where do they shit?” (laughs). It’s a very funny song. So, as a joke, I just took my acoustic guitar and I sang that song. I secretly put it as a secret track and you really have to fast forward to get to it. I don’t even think that the record company knew about it (laughs). They would have said like “no, don’t do that! You’re crazy!” So yeah, it was kind of a joke.

Apparently you have a lot of funny material in your bag. I remember on the bonus DVD on the last Ayreon’s album, there was a version of the song of Simone Simons when she changed the lyrics and she said “Dear penis, give my butt a sign!” (instead of « Dear PX, give me but a sign »)

(Laughs). Indeed yes… Naughty girl… Naughty girl… There was also I think all the bloopers which was really funny and unfortunately we didn’t have any video material of that, just audio.

And the fake interview with Daniel Gildenlow !

And Tom Englund of Evergrey, he is really joking all the time. And Bob Catley too you know. It was really funny.

So, back to the interview. Talking about Ayreon, you recently agreed with some critics accusing you of always reusing the same sonorities. Is it something that you realized when you read the critics or did you realize it by yourself?

I knew that the last Ayreon wasn’t something new or unique, but it was meant to be the end of the big story of Planet Y and of the Forever Race and how they seeded our Earth. It was the end of the whole story arc which began on the first Ayreon album and which became more and more complicated. Because of that, this album had to have facets of all the old albums and it had to have a little bit of the same sound. I agree when people say that it wasn’t something new and it was all beginning to get a bit complicated. You really have to know of the old Ayreon albums to understand that album. In fact, I was a little afraid to alienate people who are not Ayreon’s fans and who don’t know the whole previous stories. I was a little afraid that they could wonder why they should like this album.

So that was just not the good time to completely change your style.

No, definitely not. It would not have been the moment, no. But going back to what we said earlier in this interview, I could nevertheless never completely change my style. I could try. Try to do something different like what I did on Guilt Machine or like what I did on this Star One album. But it would always have my sound. What I would definitely try with my next Ayreon is to come up with a new storyline, maybe a bit more personal, maybe like what I did on The Human Equation, which was like an escape from the whole science-fiction Ayreon story. But sound-wise, it’s gone be hard to change, you know: I like a certain guitar sound, I like certain keyboard sounds, I like certain singers. And I can’t change that. I can’t suddenly play with a Dire Straits guitar sound (laughs). I think whatever I do, it would be my sound. But maybe I can do something different by focusing on certain aspects of Ayreon like I do with Star One. I mean, Star One doesn’t sound that different from Ayreon, but, as I call it, it’s like the heavier side of Ayreon.

Is it the reason why you want to wait before to get the Ayreon project restarted? Do you want to take time to try out new ideas?

Yes, definitely. I’m in no rush to do the next Ayreon. I don’t even think the next one will be another Ayreon. I think what I would like to do now, and that’s again bring us back to the first question you had today in this interview, like “do you think that a lot of my success is based on the fact that I have famous guest singers”, I would love to do a solo album with no guest at all. Just me. And that would be a big challenge for me to prove that “Yeah man, I can do it on my own too!” So yes, I need that challenge. So I think I will do a solo album with just me and try to make it interesting. And how you try to make it interesting? by coming up with new stuff and new sound. So yes, I need those challenges.

But is it something that is already scheduled?

Yes. I think I really feel now that I should do a solo album. But I’ve been saying that for 10 years now… I mean the last Ayreon album was going to be a solo album. But then you know, I hear all these great singers and I think “this singer should sing this part! That singer should sing that part!” And before I know it I start another Ayreon! Then I did Guilt Machine and it was planned to be a solo album too. But then I heard this great Belgian singer who is really better than me and I thought “no, let’s do an album with him!” So each time I plan it and each time I fail. But now I think I really have to do it. I’m 50 now you know. I see around me that singers are losing their voices or losing something in their voice at some point. So I think I should do it now.

Will you really be the only one singing?

Yes. Maybe some female backing vocals, it’s something I’m not sure about yet. But yes, it would be just me.

Will you resist the temptation to include a guest?

It would be dangerous if I start adding one… (laughs).

(Note : about Tobias Sammet) » I hate the fucker (laughs)! That was horrible! […] But then again, he hated me just as much when I got Bruce Dickinson. So, I think we are even now (laughs)!« 

I imagine you won’t give up with Ayreon until you get Alice Cooper as a guest. Doesn’t it disturb you that Tobias Sammet has managed to get in touch with him almost immediately while you have been trying for years?

Of course it disturbs me (laughs)! I hate the fucker (laughs)! No, seriously, when I heard that, it was like the worst news that someone could give me (laughs). It was like “are you saying this just hurt me!” It’s true. And I was like “No, no, that’s the worst thing anyone can say to me!” (laughs). That was horrible! But then again, he hated me just as much when I got Bruce Dickinson. So, I think we are even now (laughs)!

You recently declared that Guilt Machine is your favourite side project. Do you consider producing a second album?

I would love to, because indeed I do like it a lot. But, you know, one of the incentives for me to do music is of course because people want to hear it, because people are really looking forward to it. I did notice that with Star One where people were waiting for a new album for 10 years. They’re really like “Yes! Finally you’re doing a new Star One and that’s great!” And that’s a great inspiration for me. As I said, the Guilt Machine album didn’t sell so well and there are not so many people waiting for a second album. That makes it a little bit harder to do it. But it’s all a matter of priorities. If after the solo album, if I know that there’s like five hundred thousand people waiting for an Ayreon album and there’s only ten thousand people waiting for a Guilt Machine album, then it’s of course very attractive to do an Ayreon album.

What about Ambeon?

I don’t think there will ever be another Ambeon, simply because Astrid at the moment is not even into music anymore. I actually asked her. She’s been going through some very bad period unfortunately, where she was in a hospital, stuff like that. It wasn’t good with her but now she is back in the real world and not into music at the moment. So, she is not interested to do it and I think to do Ambeon with someone else would be wrong.

That’s too bad, because she had a great voice…

She is fantastic! She was fourteen you know when I recruited her! That was scary! The biggest talent I ever had in my studio! So yes, it’s a shame…

We’ll finish this interview with a last question. It’s the stupid question of the interview: do you remember exactly how to spell the title of the last Ayreon album with the right order of 0s and 1s?

“0-1-0-1-1-0-0-1”, there you go (laughs).

That’s great! (laughs)

It’s actually quite easy (laughs). It has a certain system into it. I remember the record company telling me like “Hey Man, we’re not gone learn that! You can call it that! But we’re not going to learn it!” (laughs).

Thank you very much.

You’re welcome.

By the way, do you know the problem with your first name ? it means someone who is a nazi…

Oh yeah! As in Aryan race!

Did you have some problems with your first name actually, about that?

Actually, some people in America had problems. There was one guy who had put “Ayreon” on his car number plate. People were really thinking that he meant “Aryan”, like in “Aryan Race”, and they trashed his car. (laughs) And the guy actually sent me his license plates. They are hanging on my wall now. Yes, there were people thinking that, but that’s the last thing I wanted people to believe of course.

Do you have a picture of the license plate?

Yes :

Ok, thank you very much. Bye, bye. Thank you for the interview!

You’re welcome. “Bonjour” (Note : « Hello » in french).

Interview conducted in september, 2010, by phone.
Transcription by Thomas

Myspace ARJEN LUCASSEN : www.myspace.com/aeronauts
Myspace GUILT MACHINE : www.myspace.com/guiltmachine
Myspace AMBEON : www.myspace.com/ambeon



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