Interview: Arjen Lucassen – Ayreon

Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen’s legendary Prog project Ayreon will release the epic new album ‘Transitus’ on September 25th via Music Theories Recordings/Mascot Label Group.

As with any Ayreon album, it is an explosive and expansive affair and features the instantly recognisable Tom Baker as the narrator, along with the two main characters; Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) as Daniel and Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber) as Abby. The all-star cast also features Simone Simons (Epica), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman, Johanne James (Threshold), Noa Gruman (Scardust), Marcela Bovio (MaYan), Caroline Westendorp (The Charm the Fury), Paul Manzi (Arena), Michael Mills (Toehider) and Amanda Somerville (Avantasia) amongst many others.

Arjen was on hand to talk to us about all things ‘Transitus’ related, why he thinks both Tommy and Cammie have long careers ahead of them, as well as a mutual fanboy moment regarding Alice Cooper. Read on dear Ayreonauts, read on…

How are you keeping Arjen?

All is good here, I’m such a recluse that I’ve been in lockdown for thirty years now, so I’ve had plenty of practice!

So no real difference to your lifestyle then?!

Not at all! I go out once a week to shop, and I’m a bit more careful when I do, but that’s it. So, not much change.

Excellent! Now, onto the new album ’Transitus’, how soon after completing ‘The Source’ in 2017 did you begin work on ‘Transitus’?

I hate relaxing, people always say…”Oh, you should take a break, go on a holiday…”, but I haven’t been on a holiday for 25 years! I don’t want to relax, I want to get back in the studio and create because for me, creating is relaxing. So, when I finish a project I want to go straight into the next one. But that’s not always possible because you don’t always have the inspiration, and the more that you want the inspiration, the less it will come. I call it my “black hole period”, it might be a few months where I’m just trying and trying, but hating everything that I do, then finally I get that one song that I like and the self-confidence comes back.

So, I would say a couple of months after finishing ‘The Source’ I started thinking about the next project, about what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do something different and realise one of my dreams, which was making a movie, a rock-opera movie. I had no idea if I would succeed, if I would get funding, I just wanted to try. So ever since 2017 I’ve been working on this, but of course, in between, I did all the live shows, which takes up a lot of time. I also did the live DVD’s, the editing, and the mixing, so although the timespan is three years, I worked on ‘Transitus’ for two of them.

Such an immersive project, with so many performers, is not going to happen overnight…

Especially not for me! I’ve worked with so many geniuses, like Devin Townsend, or Neal Morse, so many of them. But I am not a genius, I really have to work with it. I start with a scrappy idea, then keep changing it over and over, and that takes a lot of time. I don’t mind that though, I enjoy doing it, so I don’t mind that it doesn’t come easy. I like that I have to work for it!

The original idea for ‘Transitus’, the story of Daniel and Abby, where did that come from? Was it a lightbulb moment?

(Laughs) I never have lightbulb moments! It’s baby steps, at first it’s like; okay I want to make a movie, well you are not going to make a sci-fi movie for under $50,000,000, maybe even $100,000,000. So let’s not do sci-fi, what else do I like? Well, I like supernatural stuff, I was always a fan of horror movies, ghost stories, etc, so let’s do a ghost story, and of course, the Victorian age was very cool for that, you had the whole Jack The Ripper-feel, and that’s what I started with. A ghost story, I watched a lot of ghost stories, not just for inspiration, but to make sure I wasn’t copying any.

I wanted the singers on the album to also sing in the movie, so I went with big singers that look the part, that had charisma and chemistry, so I started with Tommy Karevik from Kamelot of course, and Simone from Epica. So what would the story be? Okay, Tommy is a rich man’s son, and Simone is a poor servant girl, they start a relationship which is of course frowned upon in the 19th century, and that’s basically how the story started.

On the subject of the movie, is that something that you are hoping will eventually happen?

Oh yes! Of course, at some point, the coronavirus started and I realised that it would be very hard to get the movie started. Firstly, it would be hard to get the funding, secondly, it would be hard to shoot it, then I realised; okay, let’s first release this as an album, and then work on the movie plans because I’m not going to wait around for years until it is possible. I liked it too much to put it on the shelf and just leave it there, and that’s when I got together with the record company and decided to release it as an Ayreon album.

Now, on my list of questions for today, I’ve simply just written: TOM BAKER!!!! When you released the album trailer and Tom Baker appeared, it was genuinely a spitting-my-tea-over-the computer-screen moment! He must have the most expressive voice ever?!

(Laughs) Oh yes! My whole fascination with sci-fi started with Star Trek, but then I saw Doctor Who and I loved it so much. I was a teen, in my formative years, and I mainly loved it because of Tom Baker. He had it all, he was intelligent, he had the humour, he was sarcastic, it was just a joy to watch him. No matter how bad the effects were, or the scenery, or even the story, it didn’t matter because he was so cool. I would be glued to the screen watching him, I bought the Betamax, then the VHS, then the DVDs and then the blu-rays. So when I was thinking of someone for The Storyteller, I really wanted a mature voice, telling a story to a kid, a bit tongue-in-cheek, and Tom is good at that of course. It was an amazing moment when we were able to get him, we tailor-made the narration to his style, his voice, and as soon as he started in the studio the tears rolled down my face, it was like a childhood dream come true.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a couple of my heroes; on my solo album I had the pleasure of working with Rutger Hauer, who was like the biggest star in Holland, he had done Blade Runner obviously. And then for the live shows, I was able to work with another of my heroes; Q from Star Trek Next Generation – John de Lancie. It’s become an addiction! It’s so cool to work with these guys, and especially when you find out that they are cool guys. It would be awful if you discovered that one of your heroes wasn’t cool! I mean, you must have had that at some point interviewing someone? When you are interviewing one of your heroes and you think: “oh my god this is a disappointment!”

Touch wood I haven’t yet! So far that hasn’t happened! Myself, when I was growing up, it was Alice Cooper. I ate and breathed Alice Cooper 24-7, and I have met him, but not in an interview scenario, it was a meet and greet, and he was a total gentleman. There aren’t many people out there with a bad word to say about Alice, I have friends that have served him in shops when he was shopping with his wife before a gig, and he always stops to chat and sign whatever anyone puts in front of him. He is a true gent.

Wow! Well, I think that we are brothers because Alice Cooper is my all-time hero! We’ve just released the video for ‘Talk Of The Town’ and just look at the t-shirt I’m wearing when I’m playing the guitar solo…it’s, Alice Cooper!

He is my total hero, I discovered him with ‘Love It To Death’ way back in the beginning, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ of course. I’ve had the chance to meet him a couple of times and I was afraid to, I was so afraid that he would have had a bad day that day. And also, it’s like what do I say?…” oh I’m your biggest fan!”…(laughs)

If you ever get the chance again then take it, you will not be disappointed because he is truly a gentleman personified.

I could totally imagine that! I will do it next time for sure! But I want to work with him, I tried for a long time, and one time I was pretty close, I knew his personal assistant at the time; Brian Nelson…

Renfield…

Renfield, yes, but sadly he died so it didn’t work out. But I’m not giving up hope.

So it would be fair to say that if you had a wish-list for performers that you want to work with, Alice would be top?

Yes, he’s the number one, and I wanted him for ‘Transitus’, so I went for second best and I got Dee Snider!

Dee is amazing in the role as ‘Father’, he is still in incredible shape…

Oh, man! His voice! Most people lose it at 50 but his voice is so strong and so charismatic, I was so proud to have him on the album and he did an amazing job.

He certainly did, now, when you are writing such a complex project, do you write with a particular performer in mind? Or is it a case of waiting until the song is written and then come up with someone perfect for the role?

It’s a bit of both, I wanted Tommy Karevik so I wrote a character that fits him. But then I heard Cammie Gilbert with Oceans Of Slumber and she was amazing, so I totally changed the story because Simone was originally going to be the servant girl. But when I heard Cammie I thought; no, I want her to play the part. It made the story much more of a taboo subject, the rich mans son having a relationship with a black servant girl, I explained this to Cammie and she loved the idea, I think it’s an important subject, especially today.

I’m always adapting, especially to the singers I get, for instance, the Father, I made a list; and of course, Alice Cooper was on there, with Rob Halford, Jack Black, and Dee Snider. I wanted one of those four! But sometimes it’s hard to get through to these guys, and also some of the prices you might have to pay could be in six figures, and that’s pretty steep.

Tommy and Cammie are incredible in the lead roles; Tommy for instance, when he decides to hang up his “metal” credentials, he has a broadway and movie career ahead of him…

He could do that so well, he could anything, he’s got the looks, he’s got the voice, he has it all, and that’s why he was my first choice as Daniel.

And then there is Cammie, after the recent Oceans Of Slumber album, which is spellbinding, and now with her role as Abby in ‘Transitus’, she is a star on the ascendancy. It surely can’t be too far off before she is considered as one of Metal’s brightest hopes?

It will happen, and I hope that I contributed to that by asking her to do ‘Transitus’. I know that a lot of magazines here in Holland have talked about her contribution, and I like that, I like that she is getting more attention. But with or without ‘Transitus’ she’ll make it, she’s got it all.

Oceans Of Slumber are an incredible band and watching them onstage, you can’t help but get swept up in the emotion in Cammie’s voice. In all honesty, the world stops turning when you are watching Cammie…

I agree, and of course, I experienced that here in my studio with her standing next to me. All that emotion, all that power, and that voice. And she’s such a lovely girl. Such a warm person.

Agreed, now, you mentioned your studio, when you listened back to ‘Transitus’ for the first time, what moment gave you the biggest goosebumps?

Ahhhhh that’s so hard to say! It’s like asking a parent which one is their favourite kid! All the singers performed so amazingly, had that not been the case then I wouldn’t have used them, and that happens some times. People send in their vocals and they just aren’t good enough. So, it was goosebumps all the time, like I said earlier; especially with Tom Baker, when I got the vocals from Dee Snider, but then there was the moment that I got the recordings back from the choir. I wanted a choir like The Omen movie had. I wasn’t there as it was recorded in Israel, so when I got that back, that gave me goosebumps. But there are too many moments; getting a solo from Joe Satriani, for free, because he loves the songs, that gave me goosebumps now that I’m talking about it!

It must be quite a humbling feeling when an artist like Joe Satriani does something like that for you, purely because he loves the track so much?

To get recognition from fellow musicians is the best thing that you can get, especially when it’s a big star like Joe. It was like; “What? He’s listened to my music?”, I mean that’s already a compliment, but for him to like it so much that he went to a studio straight away and recorded a solo for it, that’s really the best thing.

It must also be humbling when you announced the pre-orders for ‘Transitus’ and the stunning deluxe earbook version sells out pretty much straight away? Especially since times are very uncertain right now and income is not guaranteed…

I know! We totally did not expect that because it sold twice as much as my previous album ‘The Source’, it also wasn’t limited so there was no immediate rush for it, we got plenty for the next few years, and then it was gone! There are still some copies left for the retailers, like Amazon or the record shops, so people can still get it. I’ve been signing albums for weeks now, and I don’t mind that at all. Each album I sign, I’m thinking; “Oh my god, someone bought this, and they want my autograph!”, that is humbling, that’s a good word for it.

It would seem like myself that you are a great lover of the physical product, the care, and attention that goes into your product proves that…

Oh man when I bought ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ and it had the pictures that you could cut out, and the dollar bill, or ‘Schools Out’ with the panties wrapped around the sleeve! It was so important to me, I used to buy albums just because of the way that it looked, purely on the sleeve, and then sometimes the album turned out to be a disappointment! If it was something that Roger Dean or Hipgnosis did, I just had to have it. So, yeah, it was important to me growing up, so logically I want the same thing now, with my albums. I want to spoil people…

“Spoil people”, that’s a great way of putting it!

Yes, and if you keep spoiling people then you have something like the earbook pre-sale for ‘Transitus’, selling out before people have heard any of it because they haven’t been disappointed so far. I’m lucky because they were already buying my shit before Spotify and downloads were around, and they want their collections complete. I understand when bands can’t invest too much in the package, like the artwork, etc because people will go to Spotify and stream it. But I will keep doing it, I know people that buy it just to look at, and never even open it. They’ll go to Spotify to stream it and keep their copy sealed! And that’s amazing…

Talking about the Ayreon community, it’s really loyal, and you also seem to enjoy communicating with them on your socials, that must give you some good vibes?

Absolutely, I don’t tour, as I told you at the beginning, I’m such a recluse so I don’t have any contact with the fans. On tour, you talk to them and see their reactions while you are playing, but I don’t see that so for me the socials are a great way to keep in touch with them. Sometimes it is negative, but I hope to learn from that. It’s a couple of hours a day which sometimes surprises people, but for me, that doesn’t matter at all. I can discuss stuff with them, get some ideas, get feedback; it’s something that I enjoy taking take time over.

It’s obvious to anyone that follows you how much you enjoy it. Going back to the physical product, we have to talk about the ‘Transitus’ comic book; how did the idea for this come about?

Well of course…The Last Temptation!

Yes! The Alice Cooper comic book series from Neil Gaiman, I have them, I carefully read them then sealed them up!

They made me realise that it was possible! I’ve been a comic book fan all my life. As a kid I was such a nerd, other kids would be playing outside and I was in my room with the curtains closed listening to Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and reading comics. So when I was planning ‘Transitus’ and I found out how much it would cost to do a movie and how hard it would be, I thought we had to do something special, so let’s do a comic book. I googled the entire world to find the best illustrator that I could find and I found Felix Vega in Chile. We worked on it for about a year, we worked on each page for about two weeks, he would send me sketches and I would send him instructions. Luckily he enjoyed the music, and that was very important for me, that there was again some chemistry, and you could inspire each other.

You briefly touched on performing live earlier, how much did it take out of you when you made an appearance onstage during the ‘Ayreon Universe’ and ‘Electric Castle’ live shows and made your thank-you speech towards the end?

During the actual moment, it’s okay, but it’s the weeks before, and even the months before. It’s the not sleeping, the insecurity, I’m not a performer, I’m a producer/composer, that’s what I do. Performing is just not my thing and the speech for ‘Ayreon Universe’; oh my god! I was walking the dog for weeks and practicing my speech when I was walking. It was terrible. But once I stood there on stage, I had told people two or three minutes at the most, and then when I stood there and seen all the smiling faces in the crowd and everyone was so positive, I think I stood there for twenty minutes! My biggest fear is talking in public and there I was for twenty minutes just flapping away! I have to say that once I’m on stage I’m fine, but the time leading up to it, not so much. It’s nerve-wracking. It would be scarier for myself to be in a room with ten people and talk to them individually but this was like one big warm, happy face. All I saw was one big smile.

It’s scary to think that might be the last time that you do that for some time given the uncertain nature of live events?

It’s become a tradition, we did it in 2015 with ‘Theater Equation’, then we did it in 2017 with ‘Ayreon Universe’, and 2019 with ‘Electric Castle’, so 2021 would have been the next one. We were already planning it, but the thing is, even if bands are allowed to play next September, we have to know one year in advance. It takes us a year to set it up, plus we have to sell tickets in advance because we invest a lot of money in the show. Basically we will have to decide by the end of this year whether we do it or not, and I fear the worst. For ‘Electric Castle’ we had 12,000 fans from over 60 countries and that’s not going to happen now.

You also have to factor in that with so many performers involved, they will be busy with their own backlog of tours, I mean, Epica had to postpone their own tour to 2021, so that would rule out Simone.

Yes, tours keep on getting moved back, and that’s really sad.

Ending on a lighter note, your bio on your website describes you as “A notorious trouble-maker in class”…care to elaborate?!

(Laughs) Really! On my website?!

Yes, your website!

I’ll have to check that! (Laughs) I was a trouble-maker at school you mean?

Yes, not just a trouble-maker, but “A notorious trouble-maker”!

(Laughs) Oh my god! I have to think back now! My brother was perfect you know, he went to University when he was 17, and he was always good at school. I didn’t give a shit about school, I just cared about music and girls. I was kicked out of a couple of schools, but just for not doing anything, I wasn’t aggressive or anything, I was just uninterested. Fooling around in class! (Laughs)

I ended up in a horrible school that had bars on the window and you couldn’t look out, but that was the only school that would accept me in the middle of the year. But I got my diploma there so I managed to fake my way through it! My mother hoped that I would go onto University and shit but I went straight into a professional band when I was 19-20, and that was Bodine. I made my first album with them in 1980 or ‘81? And that was my introduction to the music world, and then it was like 15 crazy years of touring and the whole sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll thing. That’s out of my system now so that’s cool! Now I’m like a boring old fart!

 

‘Transitus’ from notorious trouble-maker Arjen Lucassen is available September 25th, pre-order here: https://smarturl.it/ayreon-MLG

Interview – Dave

All Arjen images – Lori Linstruth

 

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