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17th October 2013
2013 has seen widely respected, prolific, Dutch multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer and all-round nice guy Arjen Lucassen resurrecting his longstanding prog-rock opera vehicle, Ayreon, for album number eight. And with 'The Theory of Everything', the first release under said moniker for five years, although remaining instantly recognisable as Ayreon in its sonically progressive aesthetic, there have been some notable changes. Most significantly, Arjen's opted to reinvent the fictional universe within which narratives for the previous few albums have resided - so gone is the fantastical sci-fi adventure in favour of real world drama on a lengthy two disc work that explores the fine line between genius and madness. It still retains Ayreon's polyvocal essence with an array of singers deployed to vocalise each character within the story that unfolds although there are just seven singers this time around rather than the seventeen that contributed to '01011001'. Instrumentally, the album also features some rather legendary players. With prog luminaries such as Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson featuring amongst other distinguished personnel, attracting such talent is undoubtedly a sign of the utmost respect Arjen's peers and heroes have for the man, such is his ability to consistently make album after album of exhilaratingly progressive music. Ahead of the album's release, the multi-talented Dutchman spoke to Metal Discovery about his exciting new Ayreon opus during a rather pleasant 40 minute phone conversation...
METAL DISCOVERY: Firstly, I have to say, congratulations on the new album; it’s pretty spectacular stuff. It’s taken about three or four listens to fully digest because there’s quite a lot going on.
ARJEN: Oh yeah, a lot, yes! [laughs]
(Arjen Lucassen on his modest self-perception)
"I’m definitely not a genius. I’m just a music lover trying to create the music that I would like to hear myself."
Arjen Lucassen - promo shot
Photograph copyright © 2013 Lori Linstruth
Interview by Mark Holmes
MD: You’ve abandoned the sci-fi/fantasy stuff this time in favour of what’s been described as “a real world drama”, so what prompted the decision to reinvent the Ayreon aesthetic?
ARJEN: Basically, when I did the last Ayreon, ’01…’, I said if I do another Ayreon, I wanna do a lot of things differently. By then, I had a sci-fi story that spanned seven or eight albums; the story was getting very complicated and I really felt I had to do a lot of new things. One of them was to come up with a whole new story. The second was to come up with all singers that I’ve never worked with before. And thirdly, I wanted a different way of working in the studio. Luckily, I succeeded in all three and I thought, if I want to make it really different… because sound-wise it will be recognisable as Ayreon; it’s a typical Ayreon sound so I’m not going to change that. If it sounds different to Ayreon then I’ll just give it another name. So, yeah, I thought it might be cool not to do something science fiction.
MD: I’ve read, as well, that you wanted to keep it more simple, concept-wise, this time but, although the concept’s quite simplified on the surface, obviously, like you say, the music’s identifiable as Ayreon so that’s got as much depth and complexity as usual, and the lyrics are very philosophical as well so there’s a lot of depth in those. So did the initial simplicity become more and more complex throughout the creative process?
ARJEN: It’s always like that. There are a lot of layers, also, in the lyrics but I wrote the story together with my partner, Lori, and we really want people to be able to follow it. It was very important for us so we didn’t use difficult words in the lyrics; we put little explanations between the songs in the booklet. Yeah, we want people to really follow the story then, of course, at the end, it gets very cryptic! [laughs] That’s when you’re like, “okay, what’s happened here?” I like that, you know, where the end is open to interpretation.
MD: It was quite unusual to see all the lyrics and between song explanations on the press sheet that came with the promo…
ARJEN: I fought for that. It was very important for me that reviewers get the lyrics and the whole story so I wrote it all out and said: “Really, please, add this to the press kit because it’s so important. It’s more than music.”
MD: Indeed. The central theme, I gather, is about the fine line between genius and madness. Is that something you can personally relate to through your creativity?
ARJEN: Well, I wouldn’t call myself genius, definitely not! [laughs]
MD: I think some people would!
ARJEN: Yeah, but I’ve worked with so many geniuses in my career that I know that I am not! Really, these guys just do it; they’re born with it. I definitely wasn’t born with it; I really have to fight for it and I really have to work for it. And I’m glad I do because I really enjoy it. I enjoy working for it but I’m definitely not a genius. I’m mad, though, definitely!
MD: That’s a very humble opinion.
ARJEN: No, no, it’s got nothing to do with humble because I think what I do, I do very well. I’m not humble! [laughs] But I’m definitely not a genius. I’m just a music lover trying to create the music that I would like to hear myself.
MD: I’ve heard the word genius bandied around a lot when people talk about your work so, you know, it’s subjective isn’t it. Some people would deem your music the work of a genius.
ARJEN: Well, I don’t agree!
MD: The album’s been divided into 42 tracks across two discs which is obviously a ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ reference with 42 being the answer to the universe, and that fits in with the album’s title, ‘The Theory of Everything’, of course. Are you a Douglas Adams fan?
ARJEN: I am, yeah, absolutely. But dividing the songs into 42 parts was actually a last minute decision. I worked completely different, this time, in the studio. Usually, I gather all my ideas, like 50 ideas, and then I go into the studio, then I choose the good ones. This time, I went into the studio with just one idea and took it from there. I started recording that one idea which led into the other, which led into the other… before I knew it, it was like, oh my god, I think I’ve got a 23 minute track here! [laughs] What am I gonna do?! And I thought, well yeah, every prog album has an epic so I’ve written the epic and now I’m gonna start writing the shorter songs. And I started the second song and the same thing happened – this idea led into the other, led into the other, and I just kept recording and kept working. Then I was like, okay, now I’ve got two 20+ minute songs! And it went on from there. Then I got three and I called the record company… “What do you think?” They said: “Come on, go for it – ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’, do the four long epics!”
When I was ready with the four epics, I played them to people I call the ‘Circle of Trust’ which is my brother, school friends, my ex-wife and all these people and some of them said, “yeah, it’s quite a mountain to climb because of these four long songs; people might be scared off by that.” They said, “maybe you can subdivide them.” So I thought, why not, if it makes it easier for the people to just skip to their favourite part or whatever. It doesn’t change anything in the music… why not. So then I started thinking, I started dividing them and I came to 39 or something, and then I suddenly thought, that’s very close to 42!
ARJEN: So I just kept on dividing… it was too good a thing not to do that!
MD: Brilliant! It just plays havoc with the iPod a bit when it’s on random and you get just a minute and a half of the album come on!
ARJEN: I know, I know, yeah. I told the record company, “please don’t do this with iTunes; please let it be four long tracks because if people start shuffling that, it’s gonna be a complete mess.”
MD: On the second disc for ‘The Human Equation’, you had a load of little intro tracks…
ARJEN: Yeah, the reason for that was that each song was a day so song one was ‘Day One’ and the last song on CD1 was ‘Day Eleven’ which was song eleven. So, of course, I wanted the first song on CD2 to be song twelve but that’s not possible because it’s the first song – ‘Day Twelve’ was going to be song one but I wanted ‘Day Twelve’ to be track twelve. So I put eleven little parts at the start. And I remember the mastering company saying, “it’s crazy, it’s crazy, nobody’s ever done that before!”
MD: It’s progressive and you’re a progressive musician so, you know…
ARJEN: Absolutely. When I did a progressive rock opera in the nineties, which were the days of grunge and Nirvana, and Pearl Jam… everyone laughed at me, like that’s not done. I offered it to thirty record companies and they all turned me down. The funny thing is, they all said, “we love it, we love it, we want a copy at home but we’re not gonna sign you”! So everyone said I was crazy back then so you were right with the madness part!
MD: Apart from the narrative within the lyrics that tells the story, listening to just the music on the new album, it sounds like a story’s being told through the music too. When you actually compose, do you visualise particular images to help feed the compositions? The music feels like it has that kind of storytelling quality.
ARJEN: It’s the other way around, actually. I start with the music and I let the music inspire me to come up with the story. So I just listen to the music and what do I see here? Then I think about the story, then comes the point when I choose the singers. I choose the singers that fit the story and that fit the music. Then I start writing the story. Often, I write the characters on the singers and the very last step is the lyrics.
MD: There must be some very subconscious thing going on in your head then, when you’re composing, because it does sound like there’s a story being told through the music.
ARJEN: Somehow, it always falls into place at the end. I’ve no idea how that happens! Really, because when I start, I hear all these little parts and then I have the story, and how on earth am I gonna put all these little parts, all these singers on these tracks and make it fit, and make the story believable?… you know, all the motivations have to be right. Each time, I think, oh, it’s not gonna work but, somehow, it always falls into place.
MD: That’s because you are a genius, you see!
ARJEN: [laughs]
MD: A mad genius!
ARJEN: You’re not giving up, are you?!