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17th October 2013
METAL DISCOVERY: You’re quoted in all the press blurb as saying your “ultimate goal is to make timeless music that stays interesting over repeated listens.” What kind of relationship do you have with your own music once an album’s complete? Does it hold your own interest with repeated listens or are you too close to it by that point to have that kind of connection with your own music?
ARJEN: The thing is, when I’m almost finished with the album, I hear it over and over. You keep changing little things and mixing the whole thing. At that point, I’m like, “oh my god, this is so incredibly good.” Then, indeed, I’m thinking I’m a genius and people are gonna tell me I’m a genius, and people are gonna love me, and this is the best they’ve ever heard. Really, that’s how I feel when I’m almost ready. Then I’m ready, I send it to the record company and then comes the wait. You have to wait three months because they have to press the CDs, print the artwork, they have to send it to journalists who need it two months before. So you have to wait for three months and that’s terrible. Then I have to play it to someone after a month and I think, oh my god, this is not good and this is not good… how on earth could I have ever thought this is good? Then you hear the first reactions of people who hear it for the first time and, like you said at the beginning, you have to hear it two or three times to let it sink in. People hear it one time and they’re like, “yeah, yeah, I don’t know, sorry, I can’t tell you what I think of it.”… which feeds my insecurity!
(Arjen Lucassen on working with his childhood heroes, Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson)
"...it’s really a dream come true because I really dreamt about that a couple of times, to be able to work with these guys."
Arjen Lucassen - promo shot
Photograph copyright © 2013 Lori Linstruth
Interview by Mark Holmes
ARJEN: So, at the point of release, I’m incredibly insecure and too afraid to listen to it. We finally got the CDs today… I’m really scared to listen to it right now. Now, I would absolutely hate it; I would never listen to it.
MD: So you’ll give it a bit of time and then…
ARJEN: Yeah, in about a year I can be objective about it.
MD: Wow!
MD: There are significantly less vocalists on this one than the last Ayreon album, which had quite a few, but there’s still seven guest voices on there. Was each contributor your first choice for each of the characters?
ARJEN: Erm… hard to say because I start with a list of a hundred singers, I guess. Of course, the really big names are in there like Dave Gilmour, Robert Plant, or Ian Gillan… the really big names who I grew up listening to. Of course, to be able to work with people like that is the ultimate dream come true so I always try those people first. Then I try a couple of people who are not part of the prog and metal scene but it’s impossible to get them. I think prog and metal are still dirty words for many and they don’t know my music, of course, and they probably Google me and see this weird, tall guy with long hair and they think, “oh my god!”
ARJEN: So, yeah, people outside prog… like, I tried Jeff Lynne, for instance, of ELO; I tried Midge Ure of Ultravox… because they have really different voices and you just don’t get through. But all the people I eventually got were among those hundred so you could say they were my first choices.
MD: Of course, yeah, you’ve ended up with some great singers on there. And they’re effectively playing roles within the story so do you see yourself as kind of acting like a director in terms of how they should portray the characters through their singing or do you allow them total creative freedom to express themselves exactly how they want to?
ARJEN: A combination. I definitely feel like a director. That’s also why I fly them in. I would never tell a singer, “here it is, here are my guide vocals, just do whatever you want.” I did that in the past and it only worked out twice - with Devin Townsend who made it so crazy that I couldn’t have done it like that; and Russell Allen in the US who sang it so amazingly. But, other than that, I often got it back and it’s just not good. And the horrible thing is you have to call a singer and say, “sorry, I’m not gonna use it.” So it’s very, very important for me they come over to my studio. I always fly them over or I go to them. In the case of John Wetton, I went to him in the UK.
And, yeah, it’s like a director. They stand beside me in the studio and we work on it. I tell them, “this is what’s happening in the song; it’s a very emotional part so do it like this.” And if it doesn’t work out, I always tell them, “sing it your way if you have a better idea – even for a melody; even for lyrics – please do it.” So, yeah, they’re very open to do whatever they want as long as the result gets better. And I’ve had to learn that because when I started with Ayreon, I had those melodies in my mind and so it was sort of, “do this, this is the melody, stick to that.” But then you work with people like Fish, and you work with people like Bruce Dickinson and, you know, they just go for it, and then I’m thinking, oh my god, this is so much better than what I had! You know, I ask singers because I’m a fan of them.
MD: Apart from the well-known singers, you got a couple of relatively unknown guest vocalists too - Michael Mills from Toehider, an Australian band, and Sara Squadrani from Ancient Bards, an Italian band. How did you discover each of these singers?
ARJEN: I read a lot of magazines; I subscribe to a lot of magazines and I always write down the bands that I read about in magazines that might interest me, so I’ve got lists of hundreds of bands. Then I go to YouTube and I check them out. There was this band called Toehider and they compared it to the old Queen, and ‘Queen 2’ is my favourite album of all-time, probably, so I was like, “okay!”. Toehider was as good as that; it was like, “really, whoa, this guy is good.” Then, in the sidebar in YouTube, you have all these recommendations and there was this guy on an upside down bouzouki playing ‘Thick as a Brick’ by Jethro Tull, perfectly, and I checked out this guy and he also did ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on an acoustic guitar, the whole song in one take… that was genius, you know; that, I can simply say, “okay, this guy’s a genius, I wanna work with him.”
I put a message there and he knew my music, and it turned out this was the guy from Toehider. He’s an Australian guy and I invited him for the album, and he immediately said, “of course, I’ll come.” He came over from Australia and he came here, and I was… you know, I’ve worked with some pretty big names and I’ve never been nervous but he came here and I was really nervous! “Oh my god, I’m gonna get this genius here and he’s gonna find out that I’m some kind of a moron! And, also, this guy was completely crazy in all the YouTube stuff I saw so, what can I expect here? But, no, he was a very polite guy and the genius that I thought he was. I think, yeah, this guy… it’s great to give him a chance; this guy should be really well-known.
MD: Yeah, it’s gonna get him a lot more exposure on your album.
ARJEN: I hope so.
MD: And Sarah Squadrani?
ARJEN: Right, yes, I was looking for a girl character, kind of like a sweet, innocent voice and I checked out… I think a fan sent me a mail with about 30 or 40 links in it of female fronted bands, and I just didn’t hear what I wanted to hear; it was all this operatic stuff. And, finally, I got to her and I thought, oh, wait, I think this singer’s really good. So I contacted her on Facebook and asked her if she had any other recordings of herself. She sent me a link of her doing a Christina Aguilera song, I think, which was amazing, so I sent her an instrumental track of Ayreon and asked her, “can you sing on it so I can hear how your voice sounds on my music?” And, within five minutes, she sung it on her mobile phone; she sent it to me and I got goose bumps all over. I said, “come over”, and she was like, “yeah, but I’m completely unknown, why would you want to work with me?” I said, “because you deserve it.” She came here and she was really, really talented, and a very sweet girl. Another girl that really deserves a chance.
MD: Also on the album, you’ve got some legendary prog musicians as well, of course, including two very iconic keyboard players, Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. So how did each of them become involved?
ARJEN: Well, they’re my favourite keyboard players of all-time. You know, as a kid, when I was 10/11, I bought all the Emerson, Lake & Palmer, all the Yes albums, all of Rick Wakeman’s solo albums. I’ve been trying to get them for fifteen years… since I started Ayreon, I guess. But, luckily now, it’s getting easier. People are starting to know Ayreon. The last Ayreon album charted in seventeen countries. That makes it easier for me to contact these people. Rick Wakeman, I already met. I got an award from Classic Rock Society five years ago. I got the award for Best Overall Musician and he gave it to me. And then, the next morning in the hotel, we started talking and he knew Ayreon, and he even bought my stuff! [laughs] That’s actually how he got to work with Damien Wilson who was in his band for a while. But, somehow, I’ve never got him to play a solo on an album. I approached him again and I sent him three tracks and thought, well, I hope at least he’s gonna like one of ‘em. I sent him a piano part, I sent him a rock part, and I sent him a prog part, and I said, “well, here it is, I hope you like one of these parts, let me know.” And a couple of weeks later, he did all three of them, and he sent them back to me and, of course, it was brilliant; it was perfect. That’s one dream come true.
Keith Emerson… the keyboard player of Sound of Contact was going to record Keith Emerson for a sampler CD so he said, “well, should I ask him?”; I said, “yeah, of course.” He actually played him a track from my last solo album, a track called ‘Lost in the New Real’ and Keith Emerson literally said, “whoa, this guy is amazing!” [laughs] To hear that from my absolute hero… Obviously, I asked him to play a solo on his modular Moog, you know, the real ‘Lucky Man’ huge, huge sound, and he did. And it’s really a dream come true because I really dreamt about that a couple of times, to be able to work with these guys.
MD: Yeah, and to get such nice compliments from them too, you know, it’s not just a job for them but something they’re really into. That’s phenomenal.
ARJEN: It’s the best you can get, you know, to get recognition from fellow musicians, especially big names like that.