In his new solo album, Lost In The New Real, Arjen Lucassen tells the story of Mr. L, who, after spending several centuries in a coma, needs psychological help to adapt to and understand the changes society has gone through during his sleep. On his own admission, Arjen Lucassen identifies himself a bit to this character and considers himself a stranger in this reality. The man doesn’t go out much, watch the news or spend money; he doesn’t even like touring or reading! Arjen confesses to having sometimes been caught up in reality, with over-produced albums like 01011001 – hence his desire, with this solo album, to be more “transparent”, just like on his album The Electric Castle. A truly nostalgic and intimate album.

More specifically, the reality of the music industry, without scaring him, leads him to think that it will soon become impossible to make a living with music. In concrete terms, Arjen details his own financial situation, still more than decent, but which prevents him from planning as ambitious a new Ayreon album as the previous ones.

Let’s take stock with this long conversation with a man as humble and pleasant as ever.

« I’ve worked with Bruce Dickinson, Jorn Lande, Russell Allen… They’re the best singers, and I could not sing like them. They’re so amazing, and that kind of humbles you, when you work with these great singers. […] This time, I wrote the songs especially for my voice. »

Radio Metal : How are you doing?

Arjen Lucassen : I’m fine, thank you very much! We have nice weather here, finally, so I’ve been jogging today!

How long?

Actually, pretty long. One and a half hour, or something. I was listening to a lot of music.

What kind of music?

Oh, very different stuff. I was listening to those compilation CDs that come with magazines. I think I was listening to the CD that came with Classic Rock, stuff like that. Trying to keep myself updated! I like running, I feel better afterwards. I like to discover new music, and new talents that I could work with. Yeah, I’m multifunctional!

You’ve always said that it was really painful for you to hear yourself singing. Is this precisely why you made that solo album? Can we say that this album was some kind of self-esteem cure?

(laughs) I don’t think I’ve ever said it was painful to listen to myself!

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but you’ve said you don’t really like your voice…

You know, I’ve worked with the best singers in the world, let’s face it. It sounds arrogant, but I’ve worked with Bruce Dickinson, Jorn Lande, Russell Allen… They’re the best singers, and I could not sing like them. They’re so amazing, and that kind of humbles you, when you work with these great singers. I remember being in the studio and having to tell them what melody to sing; they’d hear my little voice, and then they’d sing it with their big voices, and I was like: “Oh, my god!” (laughs) That makes you insecure and humble, when you work with talents like that. But no, I kind of like the sound of my own voice. I’m just not a great technical singer or anything.

« I really hate touring! (laughs) […] You’re playing the same songs. You’re just an actor on stage, you don’t feel it anymore. It’s not creative at all […] It’s a lot of socializing with people that I don’t like. »

Do you think you will tour for this album ?

No, I really hate touring! (laughs) I haven’t done it for twenty years now. I did two little tours in the last twenty years, but I basically started the whole Ayreon project so I didn’t have to tour anymore. Before that, I’ve been touring for fifteen years, from 1980 to 1995. It’s just not my life anymore. I’d rather work on new music. I see myself much more as a producer and as a composer than as a performing artist.

What do you hate so much about touring? Is it the shows themselves, the routine?

Definitely the routine, yeah. I did it for fifteen years, and night after night, you’re playing the same songs. You’re just an actor on stage, you don’t feel it anymore. It’s not creative at all, it’s a lot of travelling, a lot of waiting and not sleeping. It’s a lot of socializing with people that I don’t like. There’s nothing about it that I do like. What I do like is the hour on stage, when you see the happy faces of the fans. That’s a great feeling. But it takes up so much time and so much energy… It’s really not for me.

Last time we spoke, it was two years ago for the release of the Star One album. You were talking about this solo album and you said that you would try to have no guest and that it would be hard to resist. I guess you’ve failed!

Yeah, I’ve been trying that for ten years, I think! The last Ayreon was going to be a solo album, the last Guilt Machine album was going to be a solo album. Then, like you said, I got this little piece of music, and I thought: “Oh, Devin Townsend would be cool on this part!”, or “Hey, it would be cool if Mikael Akerfeldt would sing this!” And before you know it, I’ve invited all these other singers. But this time, from the beginning, I was like: “No, I’m not going to invite other singers, I’m going to do everything myself”. It was hard again, but this time, I wrote the songs especially for my voice. They were really made for my voice, so it was a bit easier.

On the album, there’s a death metal voice I can’t really recognize. Who is it?

It’s the backing singer. He can do everything. He did all the really high voices, and he did the growly voice there. He’s actually a fan, he’s been e-mailing me for five years. Each time he sent me his music, and at some point, he sang an Ayreon song, I think it was “Newborn Race”, and he put it on YouTube. I heard it, and it was perfect. All these voices… It was just brilliant. So I contacted him and asked him: “How did you do that? Did you use studio tricks, or whatever?” And he said: “No, I only have a little recorder, that’s it”. So I invited him to my house and jammed a little bit with him. This guy is amazing, he can do everything. And I needed that, cause I can’t do all the high voices and stuff.

What’s his name?

His name is Wilmer Waarbroek.

« I love the transparency of Electric Castle. It’s such a honest album. […] I really like the last Ayreon album, 01011001, but I think I overdid everything a little bit. It’s too much. There’s like 17 singers, which is a lot! (laughs) […] For the next Ayreon album, I will try to keep it around 10 or 12 singers. »

In one of the first interviews where you mentioned that solo album, a few years ago, you said that this album would be reminiscent of the character of the hippie in the album Into The Electric Castle – which is actually exactly the case. What is so special for you about that particular Ayreon album, that you wanted to recreate here?

I think I love the transparency of Electric Castle. It’s such a honest album. There’s no samples: all the keyboards, violins, flutes and cellos are real. I didn’t double the guitars twenty times. There were no computers in those days, so you had to do everything for real. That’s what I like about that album: it’s a very honest and transparent album. I always try to get back to that, but it’s hard, what with all the technologies you have nowadays. It’s hard to go back to that old feeling, where we were just recording on tapes. So yeah, I think it’s true when people say it reminds them of the songs that I sang in Ayreon. That’s a good comparison.

Can we assume that the next Ayreon album, if there is a next album Ayreon album, will be in the same artistic vein?

I think so, yeah. If I do another Ayreon album (which I will, I will definitely do another Ayreon album; I don’t know when, it will depend on my inspiration), I hope to go back to that transparency. I really like the last Ayreon album, 01, but I think I overdid everything a little bit. It’s too much. There’s like 17 singers, which is a lot! (laughs)

This is why people like Ayreon: they see it as a big theater with all these well-known singers…

That’s true, but I think 17 was a little bit too much. I wasn’t able to completely explore their talents. I had so many singers, there just wasn’t enough room. And I think that was a shame. If you listen to Human Equation, there a only 12 singers – well, “only”… (laughs) It was easier to give them more space. So for the next Ayreon album, I will try to keep it around 10 or 12 singers.

« I’ve never read a book in my life, I’m ashamed to say! (laughs) »

Roger Haure is doing some narration on this album, which is a reference to the Blade Runner movie, but also to the book of Philip K. Dick. The title of the album also refers to the themes this author develop in his books. What is your relationship to his work?

I’m not a reader. I’ve never read a book in my life, I’m ashamed to say! (laughs)

Not a single book? Not one?

No. I just don’t have the patience and concentration. I can’t do it. My mother tried to make me read books, but I always hated it! I read comic books, I could do that, but I couldn’t read a book. Most of my inspiration comes from movies or TV series. A lot of this story was definitely based on Blade Runner, where the question also is: “what’s real and what is not?”

« I feel a little bit like an alien in this world. I don’t really feel I’m part of it. That’s why I don’t read books, or watch the news, or go out. « 

The album is called Lost In The New Real. Do you feel like a stranger in the real world? Is that why you called your album that way? Are you, in a way, the Mr. L of the album?

A little bit, yes. Of course, this album takes place in the future, a couple hundred years from now. That’s the “new real”. But yeah, I feel a little bit like an alien in this world. I don’t really feel I’m part of it. That’s why I don’t read books, or watch the news, or go out. It’s been like that all my life. This album is basically about the fact that I saw this world before computers, like we just said, about Electric Castle and the way it was recorded. It’s amazing how much the world has changed in the last 20 years, since the computers. What I wanted to say with this album was, if the world has changed so much in 20 years, how much could it change in a couple hundred years? I think it will be really scary and drastic. I think drastic measures will be taken in the future.

There is a cover of “Veteran Of The Psychic War”, from Blue Oyster Cult. Originally, the lyrics of this song were written by Michael Moorcock. Did you try to invite him on this album?

(laughs) It would have been cool! I would know a way in, because I work with Dave Brock, of Hawkwind, and he knows him personally, because obviously, Michael Moorcock did a lot of stuff for Hawkwind as well. That would be cool. I love Hawkwind and old space stuff. That would definitely be cool, but I didn’t think about it this time.

Are there other references to sci-fi movies in the album, aside from Blade Runner?

No. Well, maybe unconsciously, of course, because I watch so much sci-fi stuff. I’m sure there would be other references to sci-fi movies, but not deliberately, I don’t think so. Not like in Star One, where the songs are really based on sci-fi movies, like I told you in my last interview. Basically, this time, I got the inspiration by watching a lot of Discovery Channel, science documentaries, stuff like that. What the future might look like.

It looks like you’re a geeky artist. Do you agree with that?

Oh, I’m a complete nerd! (laughs) I’m a self-confessed nerd and I like it!

« The music you hear in your teens, from 10 to 20 – that music has the biggest impact on you. […] This is kind of a nostalgic trip for me. »

It really looks like this album is dedicated to your early influences, including the music and the movies. Can we say that this album is telling the story of what made you become an artist?

Yeah, I think so. The music you hear in your teens, from 10 to 20 – that music has the biggest impact on you. Since this is a solo album, I really wanted to go back to my influences. And clearly, a song like “Pink Beatles In A Purple Zeppelin” is about that. Those are the bands that inspired me and influenced me the most in my life. Of course, I’m not trying to copy them, but I’m not trying to hide the fact that I’m amazingly inspired and influenced by these bands. So this is kind of a nostalgic trip for me.

« If this continues, I think music will become a hobby. You’ll have a day job, and you will make music in the week-ends and during the holidays. »

You recently declared: “It’s become harder to invest in Ayreon. As you can imagine, it’s very expensive to hire all the singers and fly them over here. If my CDs don’t sell anymore, I won’t have money anymore, so that’s a little bit of a problem that I foresee with the next Ayreon album”. Do you think that the evolution of the music business is killing all those projects like Ayreon that are not made for touring, since bands have to tour to make money nowadays?

Yeah, definitely. And there’s nothing we can do about it. Of course we can send the e-police, but that’s pretty drastic! (laughs) That’s where I picture a sort of 1984, George-Orwell-style society that’s completely controlled by the police, and people are not allowed to download and shit like that. I have no idea what they’re gonna do about it, but something will have to be done. My only income is from people buying CDs or downloading my stuff legally. Then again, I can understand people who download music illegally. I do the same. You have that opportunity to get a new album within two minutes and check it out. So yeah, I understand people who do that, and I’m not blaming them. I’m blaming the very possibility to steal any music you want. It is a fact that, if people stop buying my CDs, how am I going to invest in another Ayreon? You can imagine flying 17 singers over, that’s already 10,000 dollars. Then each of them has to be paid, especially the famous singers. Of course you work on something like that for a year, and I only earn something like one euro per album. You can imagine how many albums I have to sell to pay that back. I have to sell at least 50,000 albums if I want to earn back the money that I put into it. So yeah, it’s kind of a scary prospect: if people stop buying CDs or downloading my stuff legally, where am I going to get my money? Aside from the fact that I don’t play live, playing that stuff live is really hard. Again, you have to invite everybody, fly them all over, rehearse with them… And they’ve all got their own bands. So that’s expensive as well. It’s a difficult situation.

Actually, the argument of the people who are downloading music is that they wanna discover new artists and will support them by going to their shows. But the problem is that the artists have to tour more, so there are a lot more shows and people can’t obviously go to all of these shows. How do you think we could escape from this vicious circle?

That’s it, that’s it. It’s true, and shows are getting more expensive. There are so many bands playing that it’s impossible to play anymore. If this continues, I think music will become a hobby. You’ll have a day job, and you will make music in the week-ends and during the holidays. It will have to go back to that. The only people really earning money now are the dinosaurs, the big bands that can sell out stadiums and stuff like that. I’m thinking about The Wall, people are still going there. But for young new bands, it’s going to become really hard. And I have no solution other than the e-police! (laughs)

« I received my last Spotify statement, and it was like 4€ for a year. »

Are you saying it will soon no longer be possible to be a musician and make a living with music?

Yes, definitely. That’s 100% what I’m saying. It’s already the case. In Holland, there are maybe five to ten bands who can make a living out of music. That’s it. You can’t live from music anymore, it’s impossible. Especially in five years, if nothing is done about illegal downloading and file sharing and stuff like that. You’re not going to earn money with music anymore. It’s sad, cause I get a lot of questions every day from fans, musicians who e-mail me and say: “Hey man, I’ve got to make a choice. I have two kids and a wife, and I was offered this job as an accountant, but I want to do music. What should I do?” (laughs) And I always say: “Hey man, get the job and do your music as a hobby! Because you’re not gonna support your kids and wife with music. It’s only gonna cost you money”.

Don’t you think it’s possible to have a main project, where you compose, tour and don’t make money, and a second project, where you make covers, play in bars and make a living?

You just said it: it’s so hard to play live now. I know from my old band days how much you make in an evening – maybe a hundred dollars or something. You’re not going to make more than that. You have the band, the sound man, the lights man… If you make a hundred dollars, how are you gonna live from that? And copyrights are not being paid anymore, since people are downloading illegally. Stuff like Spotify is a joke, cause you get 0.00002€ per stream. I received my last Spotify statement, and it was like 4€ for a year. Really! It’s like that.

Are you saying even you have trouble making a living out of music, and you’ll have to get an everyday job?

Well, I’m lucky, because I was making music before computers and before illegal downloading. I started Ayreon in 1995, and until illegal downloading really started, in 2002 or 2003, I had seven really, really good years. I was still selling 100,000 albums and making a lot of money. So I made a lot of money in those days, and luckily I don’t spend any money! I don’t go on holidays, I’m not interested in clothes or beautiful cars, or going out, or whatever. I don’t spend money, I put it all in the bank, and it’s still there. So I don’t really have to worry. Having said that, if I don’t make any new money, in ten years, it’s gonna be hard.

What do you think you will do if you have to make a choice and find a job?

(laughs) I can’t do anything! Really, I have no idea! Everyone tells me I could produce other bands. But even there, people are not gonna pay you. I notice it now, people are asking: “Hey, can you play on my album?” And it’s like: “Sure, yeah, this is what it’s gonna cost”. And they reply: “Oh, no, for free, of course!” But it’s my job, I’m a musician, I can’t do stuff for free! People don’t get that, they think music is all fun. Yeah, what would I do? I have no idea!

Since you will be trying to make a new Ayreon album, how do you think you’ll do it? Will you invite less singers, maybe, in order to reduce the costs?

Yeah, definitely. And I hope the singers will understand that I can’t offer them the money I offered ten years ago. There are musicians who are paid a lot of money, the big names, like Fish, Bruce Dickinson or James Labrie. They are well-known singers, so they cost a lot of money. But even those musicians know how hard it is to survive in music, and they know I can’t pay the same kind of money. I’ve no idea yet how people are gonna react. It sounds arrogant, but it’s good for unknown singers to be on Ayreon, because it will give them a lot of exposure. So obviously, I don’t have to pay them. They do it for free, they’re offering themselves, because it’s good for them. But yeah, I won’t be able to invite 15 famous singers anymore. That’s gonna be out of the question. Also, I’m not going to get the same advance I always got from record companies. It’s clear, they told me: “Times have changed. The CD business is hard, record companies and shops are disappearing, we can’t pay the same advance”. And of course I understand that. So yeah, I have to think about the next Ayreon and limit it to a couple of big names, with maybe some new talents. I have to think about that.

Isn’t it a bit frustrating, having all those artistic ideas and not being able to fulfill all of them because you won’t be able to invite some singers?

It’s always been that way. Every time there were singers who couldn’t make it. For every album I make, I invite about 50 singers, and 30 of them I can’t get for various reasons. Sometimes I can’t get through to them; for the big names, it’s really hard to get to speak to them personally. People can also be plainly too busy, or they don’t like prog. I have that a lot. They find the music interesting, they like it, and when I tell them it’s a prog concept album, they say: “OK, goodbye!” (laughs) It’s very hard to get people outside the prog and outside the metal realm. They immediately say: “Oh, no, that’s not for me”. It’s a shame.

Do you already have some musical or lyrical ideas, or maybe some names, for the next episode of Ayreon?

First, I need the music. When I have the music, I know what kind of voices I need. That’s basically the way I work: if I had the voice first and tried to write something for that voice, it would limit me. So I work the other way round: I first get my ideas, then I know what kind of style it will be, what kind of voice I need – this high, powerful here, this low, beautiful voice there. So I’ll first think about the music, and I hope the music will inspire me to come up with a story and lyrics. I think I want to do something a bit different this time. I definitely don’t want to go back to the old Ayreon story. It’s been enough. I don’t want to alienate people from my story: if you don’t know my old albums, you won’t get the story, and I think that’s a shame. So it might be cool to do something completely different. Maybe like what I did on Human Equation, which was a very serious story. No sci-fi, no fantasy, maybe something serious. I need a challenge with each new album I do. For my solo album, it was: “Can I keep the whole album interesting with just my voice?” For the next Ayreon, maybe the challenge will be to come up with a new concept and a more serious story. Musically, it’s gonna be hard to do something original. Like I say in “Pink Beatles”, every song’s been sung before! I don’t think I’m gonna try to be original. Forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to is a shame, so I’m just gonna let the ideas come, and if it sounds like typical Ayreon, well, that’s just fine by me! I’m really not going to worry about that. Because people are gonna say that anyway! (laughs) Even with the solo album, I read so many reviews that say: “It’s a great album, but he might as well have been Ayreon”. And I’m like: “Really?!” (laughs) I really think it’s different, but people are gonna say it’s the same anyway. So I’m not gonna worry about the music. But lyrically, I might wanna come up with something fresh.

« People don’t really know Floyd, they only know them from “Money”, which I don’t like either. I think they had another hit – was it “Take It Back”? What a shitty song! (laughs) »

I know that, although you absolutely hate the song “Another Brick In The Wall”, you’re a big fan of the album The Wall…

(laughs) How do you know that?! Did I tell you the last time?

Actually, this is the third time we talk, and the first time, you told me you really hate that song. But you’re still a big fan of The Wall and its concept. Have you heard what Roger Waters is intending to do with the show this year? He wants to do a show with a giant, 200-meter-long wall. What do you think about that?

I think it’s cool! Music should be exciting, and playing live should be exciting. I’ve always liked that as a kid. If I go to a show, I want to see a show, a big production. That’s why I like Pink Floyd, or Alice Cooper, or Rammstein. They give big shows. You go to their shows so you can see big performances. I like that, it’s very cool. I remember the first show I ever saw, I think it was in ’71 or ’72. It was Blue Öyster Cult, and they had all these lasers they were shooting in the audience. They made this roof of smoke and lasers. As a kid I was standing there, thinking: “Ooooh, this is so cool!” (laughs) So yeah, I love stuff like that.

Since you like to hear and tell stories, aren’t you upset that only the shorter Pink Floyd songs are broadcast on the radio – hits like “Money” or “Another Brick In The Wall”?

Yeah, that’s very annoying. People don’t really know Floyd, they only know them from “Money”, which I don’t like either. I think they had another hit – was it “Take It Back”? What a shitty song! (laughs) It’s a shame that people know these bands from their hits. Like Queen, you know. Everybody’s talking about “I Want To Break Free” or “Radio Gaga”, and they completely discard the first three or four Queen albums, like Queen II, or A Night At The Opera. Yeah, that’s a shame.

A friend of mine recently listened to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”, and he told me that, after listening to that song, he could no longer move his hands! What do you think about that?

It’s true. I remember a friend was at my place, and we were talking about Floyd, and he said: “I’ve never really listened to ‘Echoes’”. So we went to my room, turned all the lights off, put some candles on, and I said: “Lie down”. He took his shoes off, and we were lying down in the middle of the room, like hippies with candles! (laughs) We listened to “Echoes” from beginning to end, without talking, just lying out, and we were like: “My God, we really don’t need drugs!” (laughs)

I think that’s a cool way to end an interview! Do you have one last thing to say?

When people ask me that, I always say the same thing…

“Don’t do drugs and listen to Pink Floyd”?

(laughs) Don’t buy my albums, listen to Floyd! No, that’s not it. This is a very eclectic album, with many different styles. I think, if you have an open mind, you’re gonna enjoy this album. Just don’t expect this huge, bombastic metal opera. I just hope this album will get the chance it deserves. I’m proud of it. There you go!

Interview conducted by phone on May, 30th, 2012.
Transcription : Saff’

Arjen Lucassen’s website : www.arjenlucassen.com
Album : Lost In The New Real, out.

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