Ayreon: the theorem reassessed

Constantly reassessing oneself is essential, both in order to test our own limits but also to be able to move forward and allow renewal. It doesn’t mean that we always manage to do so, but at least, at the end of the journey, we always gain some maturity and self-comprehension. This is why the new Ayreon album took so long to be released after 01011001, which was judged too complicated and loaded according to its own creator.

Arjen Lucassen needed to take a step back in order to be able to look back, do things differently and see where this would lead him when it was time for him to get back in the game. The result is Theory of Everything: more legible, with “only” seven singers – which means ten fewer than the previous album – but for the first time composed of four songs, each longer than twenty minutes. A format that immediately reminds of the ambitious albums that progressive rock bands dared to offer in the 70’s.

However, this doesn’t stop the composer from remaining within a sort of continuity regarding his career. Indeed, instead of considering his last solo album as an outsider, he regards it as an essential milestone in many aspects which lead towards this new Ayreon opus, and doesn’t put aside the possibility of turning to science fiction again for the next episode. Arjen Lucassen is an impenitent sci-fi fanatic that somehow doesn’t fail to criticise the sequels of some major genre masterpieces in the following interview.

« I still luckily have loads of loyal fans around, and fans who still want to have the real thing […] but I think for newer and younger bands the situation is becoming pretty hard. »

Radio Metal: I was thinking about you yesterday because I watched a series on the Internet called “Firefly”. Have you seen it?

Arjen Lucassen: Of course ! It’s my favorite sci-fi series ever!

Okay, because I’ve just discovered it, I started to watch it and thought to myself that you would enjoy this space opera with a westernish vibe…

Oh man, it’s great and they canceled it! It was the last season.

Yes, but I think they made a movie about it…

Yes, but the movie is not good. It’s “Serenity”. It’s a disappointment because the TV series is really funny but the movie is a bit more action oriented, a bit more serious and stuff like that… Actually, I wrote a song about it on the last Ayreon album! It’s the song called “Earth That Was”.

During the recording of the new album, you suffered from an elbow injury. What happened and how are you doing?

It all started, believe it or not, with a heel injury. I got a heel spur because I used to jog way too much: at a certain point I was jogging 10 or 15km every other day, so I developed an heel spur, which is like an inflammation under your foot. I couldn’t walk anymore, it was terrible. But I still wanted to exercise so I started lifting weights, just to be able to do something, and then of course I exaggerated that too [laughs]. That’s how I got an inflammation also on my elbow. And yeah, something shitty happened there, I think one of the nerves went over a bone… It’s shitty, and it’s still not good, but it doesn’t hurt that much anymore. It still needs to be operated because it’s not going to heal on itself. But yeah, it really hurt when I was playing guitar and stuff like that, but I had to finish the album…

Last time we spoke, you told us that considering the state of the music industry, the new Ayreon album could not be as big as the previous ones. This album features less guests and, actually, less really big names, there are only seven singers. Is it the consequence of this situation?

No, because I still had a lot of people there, maybe not singers but of course instrumentalists: I’ve got Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess, I’ve got members of Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, and that’s not expensive if you can imagine. The reason I have less singers is definitely not a financial reason. I feel that on the Ayreon last album 01011001, there were just too many singers. I had 17 singers and I couldn’t fully explore their talents, there wasn’t enough space because: I had 17 singers to fill over two albums! I even had to put singers on instrumental parts. I wanted this album to be way more transparent, to show off the singers more and to create some more room. So no, it’s not a financial reason.

Do you think this will make people focus less on the guests, on who’s singing what, and more on the music itself as a whole?

I really don’t care what people focus on. No, I don’t mind. If they enjoy the singers then it’s great, if they enjoy the instrumental parts that’s great too. I just want them to be able to focus on something [laughs], and I think on 01011001 there was too much to focus on. There were 17 singers, there were lots of layers, and maybe a bit too much happening there. Also the story was really complex. So yeah, this time I wanted less singers, I wanted the music to be more transparent, and the story to be simpler and easier to follow.

Why aren’t you singing on that album?

I did my solo album before this, so I just figured that people would be pretty tired of my voice by now [laughs]. And these singers are so great, I really needed very emotional voices on this album. As I was getting them, I was like: “No, I don’t belong in this list and I’m not worthy” [laughs]. So really, the main reason is that I just did my solo album.

I remember the last interview we did together a year ago. You were pretty pessimistic about the future of the music industry. You were saying that it would not be possible to make a living of music. Are you still that pessimistic?

I still luckily have loads of loyal fans around, and fans who still want to have the real thing, who still want to have the albums, the vinyl, the package… I’m lucky, but I think for newer and younger bands the situation is becoming pretty hard, at least it’s getting really hard to earn a living in music. All the younger bands they still have their day-time job even if they’re successful. It’s getting harder for younger bands, but luckily I built up a loyal fan base over the years and I think that people have my earlier albums, so they want their collection complete. For me, it’s still okay.

« To be honest, I have no idea if this is a start for a whole new story for future Ayreon albums as well, and I think it could very well turn into science fiction if I do another one like this. »

Last year, you told me: “I received my last Spotify statement, and it was like 4€ for a year.” Did you receive your Spotify statement for this year? Is it a little better?

I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard that the prices are getting a little bit better because I don’t know if I told you at the time, but I got 0,00029€ per stream, which means you need like 5 millions streams to earn a minimum living…

… So that way you will be able to buy yourself a sandwich maybe!

That’s it, yeah. But I think it’s because Century Media originally said: “You’re not gonna put our music on Spotify because you guys don’t pay enough”, so by now it’s a little bit better I believe. But I haven’t seen any statement yet, so I don’t know. I hope so!

The Theory Of Everything comes out five years after the previous Ayreon album. Did you feel the need to get revitalized with this project?

Yeah, very much so! As I explained earlier, I think there was a little bit too much happening on the previous album. The story was getting very complex, and already back then I said: “If I do another Ayreon, it will really have to be different.” I hope I did succeed in that. I think of course the music is still very recognizable. Ayreon is Ayreon and there’s a certain sound that won’t change. But there’s a completely new story, there’s singers I’ve never worked with before, and also I had a completely new way of working in the studio this time, which is how I ended up with four long tracks of more than 20 minutes and I never had that before either. So yeah, I think there are plenty of new things this time.

Apparently The Theory Of Everything is the start of a completely new storyline for Ayreon, set in a realistic world and not science fiction anymore. What can you tell us about it?

Because I wanted to do something completely different for this Ayreon, I decided that it would be a big challenge to do something that doesn’t have anything to do with science fiction and fantasy, which is hard for me. Automatically, when I think about some stuff, it’s science fiction, so it was a big challenge for me to write a story that wasn’t sci-fi. To be honest, I have no idea if this is a start for a whole new story for future Ayreon albums as well, and I think it could very well turn into science fiction if I do another one like this.

Nonetheless, could there be a link hidden with the previous albums, with the Dream Sequencer and everything, or did you want to completely break away from that? The sounds at the very end of the last song are quite enigmatic and make us think that there could be a link… That reminds me of the end of The Human Equation, an album that, at first, appeared to be very realistic and that ended up with a twist that linked it with the other albums…

Yeah, and a lot of people hated me for that! They were like: “Finally a serious story!” They followed the story of this poor man who is in a coma, he was escaping out of this coma, there was this very emotional moment and then suddenly, he can hear this Dream Sequencer voice, and people are like: “Oh, I almost had tears in my eyes and you ruined it with some stupid ending!” [laughs] This time, like you said, that’s a very enigmatic, cryptic ending, but it’s not connected to the story before.

Both discs on this album are made of many small tracks that go one after the other into four big songs. This is the first time you do this, at least to this extent. What pushed you into this approach?

Normally, with all the previous Ayreon albums, I worked in a completely different way. I get my guitar, get all these little ideas, record them, and then after half a year I have fifty little ideas and then I put them on a computer, check out the best ones and put them in the right order. But this time it was very different: I had just one idea, which is the theme of the album [he hums], that’s all I had. I thought: “Well, let’s just go into the studio, see what happens, and let it comes naturally.” So I just started recording and started writing at the same time. One idea flowed into the other and flowed into the other and before I knew it, I had this song that was 23 minutes long! I was like: “Oh my God! I’ve got one song of 23 minutes, that’s weird!” And then I started the next song and the same thing happened! Automatically, the ideas kept coming and I had two ideas of more than 20 minutes. When I was ready and had 4 ideas of more than 20 minutes, I played it to people and said “I’ve got 4 songs that are longer than 20 minutes!” Some of these people said: “Well, that’s pretty heavy you know, that’s a lot of information, maybe you should subdivide it into separated tracks”, so that was something I did at the very last moment. I think it makes it a little bit easier for people to get into it, and also it makes it easier if you want to skip to your favorite part: you just get there and you don’t have to fast forward through a song of 23 minutes. So yeah, the whole 42 tracks was a last minute decision.

Was there a desire to get closer to the spirit of the progressive rock albums of the 70’s, like Yes or Genesis who could make a full album with just one or two songs?

Oh yeah of course, there’s Tales From Topographic Oceans from Yes, it’s also 4 long LP sides. This is the same, if you buy the LP you get 4 long tracks. I love the 70s’ prog. It was so adventurous, I love that feeling and I’m definitely inspired by that. But it was nevertheless very important for me to sound very much like now, so it’s a combination of the two.

« I automatically go against the grain. If I listen to the radio and hear these stupid choruses going on and on, these stupid lyrics, I’m like: ‘Oh my God, this has nothing to do with music.' »

Because of that, this album must be a very hard one to sell on iTunes or other download stores where people usually buy one song or two… Is there a militant side to the album format you’ve chosen, to go against the modern trends in music business and protest against the modern way of music consumption?

Well, I don’t really think that way. When I’m in studio creating songs, it’s all very natural. It’s really the music that drives me and not a marketing idea behind it. It’s not like: “Oh I’m going against this” or “I’m going against that”. It’s really the music that drives me… When I start, I have no idea where I will end up. When I started, I had no idea that I was going to end up with 4 long tracks. It’s not something to go against the grain. I think that goes automatically: I automatically go against the grain. If I listen to the radio and hear these stupid choruses going on and on, these stupid lyrics, I’m like: “Oh my God, this has nothing to do with music.” It’s not even close to what I listen to, and to the music that I want to make. I want music you can really get into, that’s adventurous, and that you have to listen to 3 or 4 times before you hear everything and really become part of the story. That’s the way I grew up listening to music. That’s what I wanted from music.

This album features some very Irish sounding melodies, where does this come from? Are you a Thin Lizzy fan?

I am a huge Thin Lizzy fan, oh yeah [laughs], definitely this comes from Thin Lizzy. And not just Thin Lizzy, but also Jethro Tull which is also very folky. I think these two bands were very inspiring for me. But yeah, Thin Lizzy, like Black Rose [he imitates the guitar], I love that stuff. It’s great. Not just Thin Lizzy and Jethro Tull, also folk bands like Fairport Convention, or solo artists like Donovan or Bob Dylan, stuff like that. I love folky stuff.

Do you think your solo album had an impact on the way The Theory Of Everything turned out? Because your solo album was somehow dedicated to your early influences and this is also quite the case here…

Yeah, too. I think yeah, definitely, especially the track “Lost In The New Real” of my solo album which is a 10 minutes track. I think that track was the blueprint for this album, because I worked the same way there. I had all these small ideas, and there were no choruses, no repetitive things, there were just only small parts that made up a ten minutes song. And I love that song so much, I put that 10 minutes song on the Internet and everybody loved it, they watched the whole thing and this is everybody’s favorite song! That song was very inspiring for this Ayreon album, definitely, you heard that very well.

Is there going to be more solo albums in the future? If yes: will it be in the same vein or do you have new things to try?

I never plan ahead. Like I said, I go into the studio and then see where my inspiration leads me, and at some point it’s forming something, but I never plan it. If I plan, it never works out. If I plan a solo album, it may end up a Star One or a Guilt Machine album…

« I want music you can really get into, that’s adventurous, and that you have to listen to 3 or 4 times before you hear everything and really become part of the story. « 

You know what? I remember you once said that you wanted to do a solo album where you would be the only singer and that was a complete failure: you did 01011001 and had 17 singers!

I know [laughs]. But I learned through the years that it’s a good thing. It’s good not to persist and to be like: “I wanna do this and I’m not gonna change it”. It’s much better if you constantly change your mind, because the result will be much better then. That’s what I’ve learned, so that’s why I don’t plan anymore. But yeah, I’d love to do a solo album, especially because I’m very proud of the album and to everyone’s surprise, it sold really well. It’s a surprise because it’s not a metal album nor a prog album, it’s very eclectic, there’s many many different styles on it, and still people liked it! I was amazed by that.

Last time we spoke, we came to the conclusion that you are a complete nerd who loves science fiction and space operas. What we don’t know is if you enjoy video games. Do you?

No, not at all. I wouldn’t know when to do that because I’m always busy. If I’m not creating in the studio, I’m behind the computer on Facebook or answering fan mails and messages, so I’ve no idea when I would play video games.

What do you think of the announcement about a new Star Wars trilogy?

Well, I’m not particularly excited after the last trilogy I have to say. I loved the first one and The Empire Strikes Back, and after that I didn’t like it at all. Same with all the new Star Trek thing, I don’t like it at all… What I liked the most about Star Trek was the humor, and I watched the new one where it’s all action, special effects and shit like that… That’s not my thing.

I know that Blade Runner is one of your favorite movies. Have you heard that there will be a Blade Runner 2 this year?

Yeah definitely, I’ve heard about it, and again, I’m not expecting a lot from it [laughs]. I’ve never liked part 2, remakes, etc. I doubt that they can capture the same magic they did back then. It’ll probably be a huge movie with huge effects and a lot of money put into it, but that’s not going to make it a good movie, for me… What made it a good movie was Harrison Ford and of course Rutger Hauer, these great scenes with these two on the roof, not the effects or whatever. If they can capture the same magic, great acting, great scripts, great dialogues… It might be interesting, but somehow I doubt it.

Do you have one last thing to say? I remember for the last interview we did together you came up with a very cool catch phrase for this question which was “Don’t buy my albums and listen to Pink Floyd”, I hope you will do a better one this time!

Really? Did I say that? [laughs]

Yeah, I remember it!

Oh, that was really stupid [laughs]. Okay, this time I would say: Pink Floyd doesn’t exist anymore, so now it’s time to buy my albums! I hope that’s a better one! [laughs]

Interview conducted by phone on September, 23rd 2013 by Metal’O Phil.
Transcription: Chloé.
Introduction: Spacemanimal

Arjen Lucassen’s official website: www.arjenlucassen.com

Album The Theory Of Everything, out since October, 28th 2013 via Inside Out Music.

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