At its core, with all the adornments stripped away, beats a heart of brilliant compositions, rich in emotional melodies and lush textures...
Crippling stage fright and social reclusiveness are not usually among the traits one expects to find in someone who mounts lavish, large-scale musical theater productions of which he is author, composer and performer. And yet, there he is: impossibly tall Dutchman Arjen Lucassen, leaping about the stage in costume, singing his songs about amazing flights and pink beatles and purple zeppelins to thousands of people in sellout crowds. Hamming it up with a water bong, surrounded by vocalists dressed as knights, barbarians and deathly ghouls who act out his musical creations. Strapping on a guitar and cranking out the heavy riffs to one of his songs, while world-famous actors, legendary musicians and a besotted audience fervently sing every syllable by heart, as though born to do so. Sound far-fetched? Every word of it is true.
Lucassen, of course, is the mastermind behind the colossal Ayreon saga – a labyrinth of complex, stirring musical tales that swirl in and out of the broader story he’s been crafting since the first entry (the ironically titled The Final Experiment) was unveiled a quarter century ago. Occasional side explorations of different names, themes and approaches have never tempered his enthusiasm for his foremost project, and each new volume that appears under the Ayreon banner seems more expansive than the last. Nothing is done small or carelessly in this fantastical, pomp-infused world, and both Lucassen and his throng of admirers revel unabashedly in its excess. Often decidedly over the top and simultaneously tongue-in-cheek, it is also powerful and gripping, symphonic and triumphant, haunting and serene, fun and light-hearted. Lucassen does not take the storyline too seriously, nor does he expect his fans to – but the music, well, that’s another thing entirely. At its core, with all the adornments stripped away, beats a heart of brilliant compositions, rich in emotional melodies and lush textures.
The most recent of these live productions is a complete performance of the third – and possibly most beloved – volume in the chronicles of Ayreon, 1998’s towering double album Into The Electric Castle. Many of the original cast of the time-traveling rock opera reprise their characters, and the show is enhanced by the narration of new addition John De Lancie. Famous for his roles in Star Trek and Breaking Bad, the theatrical actor chews the scenery with delicious extravagance and takes it upon himself to shape the plot of the original story into a more cohesive totality. Paired with a looser second set of tracks from Lucassen’s unrelated albums, the production was a monumental success, and a filmed version of the show was released this past March in numerous formats (including a mega-deluxe wooden boxed set edition with marbled vinyl for the true die-hard Ayreonaut to salivate over). Included in the blu-ray and DVD editions is a delightful behind the scenes documentary and a lengthy interview with Lucassen and his trusty musical partner Joost van den Broek (a more deserving ‘without whom’ you’d be hard-pressed to find).
This massive live set coupled with the surprise recent announcement of Transitus, the tenth Ayreon platter due this year, has fans abuzz with chatter. And as hints about style, content and even guests on the new album begin to trickle down (Tom Baker, TV’s Doctor Who, dons the narrator cap this time), it was time to have a bit of a chinwag with the mad scientist behind it all. As always, Lucassen proved a friendly, down to earth music lover with an infectious, genuine passion for what he does, and an eagerness to bring us up to speed on past and present goings-on:
VT: So, how’s life in quarantine?
AL: Well, as you may have guessed, nothing changed here! (Laughing) I’ve had 30 years of practice as a recluse, so I’m doing fine… no really! I’m always either in my office or in my studio, walking the doggie every day and shopping once a week – business as usual.
VT: The last time we spoke, you were about to release The Source. How did you find the response to that album?
AL: As always, every album I do is a reaction to the album before, so I always want to do something different. And The Source was pretty heavy, I think if you compare it to my other Ayreon albums, I think it’s the most… let’s say ‘power metal’ kind of album. Also if you look at the guest list, you can see all these guys – Russell Allen, James La Brie… so I wanted to do a reaction to that, less heavy this time. I wanted to do something really cinematic with Transitus, like a movie. Along the way I also got the idea to do a comic book. So I think the whole thing is a bit more ‘musical’ than ‘rock opera’, I’d say.
VT: Man, I’m surprised, I wasn’t sure you were going to divulge anything about the new album just yet!
AL: I can’t say too much about it, true! You know, of course now we’re hyping the shit out of it (Laughing) and the pre-sales start at the end of June. So we’re building it up slowly, all the guessing games with the singers now… it’s a lot of work, but it’s always very cool to do.
VT: Is Transitus a continuation of the main Ayreon storyline, or a separate story?
AL: No, it’s really a separate story. Of course, as always there are sneaky links here and there, where you’re like “Hey, I know what that’s about!” But no, like The Theory Of Everything, and basically The Human Equation too, it’s a departure from the whole Forever/Planet Y saga. The Source was basically the end of the story, so in line with doing something different this time, I came up with a completely different story.
VT: The comic book is a nice touch, something a little different.
AL: It was cool to work on! At first, I was like, shit, I have to write a script, I have to tell the guy: ‘I wanna see this in the panel, and six panels on this page and seven on this page, and he has to say this and he has to think that, and here you should see him from behind…’ – it was scary for me in the beginning. But once I started and I sent it to Felix, the artist in Chile, and he started making it a reality, it was like: Oh my god, it’s possible, it works! We worked on it for almost a year, about a page a week and there are 25 pages. It was a lot of work but it was very fun to do.
VT: The other projects you accomplished since we last spoke were of course Ayreon Universe and Electric Castle Live. These (and The Theater Equation before them) were pretty successful, large-scale productions… do you see any more of these in the future, if things get back to normal?
AL: I think so, yeah. It would be a shame not to do it. It’s not really my passion, as you know, especially because of my stage fright! The two weeks before are like torture for me – I can’t sleep, I’m sick, it’s awful. But again, working on it together with Joost is cool. Building it up and thinking “Yeah, we gotta do this and we gotta play that song, and this singer’s gonna do that!” We work on it for at least a year, I think the first show we worked on for two years. So yeah, putting it all together is fun, and once it’s happening and we’ve had a successful night, it’s fun too. So I think we definitely – if things get back to normal – should do it again. And Joost is the man, he makes everything happen. I have no worries because I have Joost. He’s so secure and doesn’t worry about anything, he just makes everything come true. It’s weird, he just… does it! (Laughing) He’s really the only reason why I do Ayreon live. You mentioned The Theater Equation, which I did not organize, it was organized by my former manager, but we put Joost in charge of the music and he did that so well, he proved to me that it can be done… because I always thought it would be impossible.
VT: He seems like such a cool guy from the interviews on the Electric Castle Live blu-ray.
AL: He’s scarily perfect (Laughing). He can do everything, he’s nice, he’s not arrogant, so easy to get along with and he likes everything, and he sees the good in everyone. He’s really one of those guys you only meet once in a lifetime, I think.
VT: That documentary is so in-depth, and the other guy who came across as such a cool guy was John De Lancie, who played “Q” on Star Trek. He really got into the whole theme of the show.
AL: He totally got into it! We’d been Skyping for at least a year. He wanted to know everything: “What’s my motivation? Should I do this? What’s happening in this song? Do you think Forever would do this, or can I do it like that? Are the audience also Forevers, or are they spectators?” He wanted to know everything. He went on a journey around the world in his boat for half a year, and there he wrote all the lyrics together with his wife, who was actually an actress in a Star Trek episode as well. What a guy… and we’re still mailing! He’s still interested and wants to know everything. He really became a friend, and I did not expect that. I expected him to be a nice guy, but I didn’t know that we would become so close.
VT: Into The Electric Castle contains some of your most well known songs, but were any of the more obscure ones difficult for you or the band to re-learn?
AL: This band is so good. I don’t think anything was difficult… I mean, a song like The Decision Tree is very tricky with really weird time signatures, but really no one had problems with it. Ed (Warby) is a machine, you just program him and he plays it, so he has no problems at all! All of the musicians – the guitar player, the bass player are amazing, and of course Joost can do everything. No, we didn’t have problems with specific songs.
VT: Some of them, like Tower Of Hope and The Mirror Maze sounded great, really fresh too.
AL: Well, we tried to give them sort of a new look, you know. Fans that were coming were Electric Castle fans, so we didn’t want to change them too much, but here and there we made slight changes, like in the backing vocals. We didn’t just want to copy the originals, and we can’t anyway, they’re different musicians – apart from Ed, that is.
VT: You’ve said that some of the songs chosen for the second set of that show from your various other projects were not always your first choices. Like Shores Of India, for example…
AL: Well, they are not my favourite songs, let’s put it that way. I was more thinking about what people will want to hear, and what will go down live. I really like the chorus of Shores Of India, but I think The Storm might be more of a favourite song for me. Same goes with Stream Of Passion. Out In The Real World is definitely not my favourite song from the album. It would probably be a ballad, a really dark song. But that doesn’t work well as an encore, you want more of the uplifting songs, you want the audience to be a part of the whole show, and sing along. From my solo album, Pink Beatles of course is a funny song, and we can do the shit with the balloons (laughing), but it’s definitely not my favourite song from that album, I would have picked another song, but I think it went down live pretty well.
VT: I love the Gentle Storm album, so there’s no song I wouldn’t have liked to hear. The thing that strikes me is how damn near perfect Anneke van Giersbergen is. Even live, she doesn’t seem capable of making a mistake.
AL: I think I can safely say that she is the best singer I’ve ever worked with. Like you say, she does not make mistakes. She can’t sing out of tune, it’s… kind of scary! (Laughing)
VT: Ashes from the Ambeon album was another unexpected choice, but a nice surprise, and Simone Simons did a lovely job of that one.
AL: It’s a difficult song, and you would think Cold Metal was the obvious choice, but we already did that with Stream Of Passion and I didn’t want to repeat that. So I discussed it with Simone, and her first choice was… oh, I don’t remember anymore, but it was a very quiet song. I think it was the first song on the album (Estranged – ed.), and we thought no, that’s not going to work. And I thought Ashes would be cool, to give it a sort of like a Rammstein feel. If you look at the DVD, you can see it. Everything is in red, just one colour, and you can see the guitar players on the towers, they are like statues with sunglasses on. It was very different from the other songs, that’s what I liked about it.
VT: Damian Wilson singing Twisted Coil was just incredible.
AL: I knew it would work! As always, Damian was like “Ahhh, I’m not sure…” and I said “Damian, trust me, you can put everything you have in there and people will love it!” He was the same with And The Druids Turn To Stone. Maybe it was the Spinal Tap thing, you know with Stonehenge, that held him back a little bit! (Laughing) And the same with this song, he wasn’t sure. Of course, it’s a very difficult song to sing, it’s a lot of very complicated lyrics, but as always he pulled it off.
VT: Robby Valentine’s guest solo spot with the white piano was a very striking image, and a jaw-dropping performance.
AL: Yeah, we wondered who of the original instrumentalists we could include, and we thought to just have Robby play a little bit of piano in a song would have been a shame. And we thought maybe he could do an intro, but if he played on Joost’s keys then Joost can’t play, so Joost came up with the idea: Why don’t we just rent a big, white piano and he could totally have a solo spot? Robby, of course, was like “I’m not sure if I’m brave enough to do that!” (Laughing) But he came to the rehearsal and played it there, and we were all totally full of goosebumps. But he’s so hard on himself. Every time he was like “That sucked! It was awful! Sorry Arjen, for fucking it up!” But everyone else was like “Oh my god, did you hear that?”
I think I can safely say Anneke is the best singer I’ve ever worked with…
VT: It was cool how Fish came back out at the end of both sets, too. It’s interesting to watch him on stage, but not necessarily as the ‘star’. I’m so used to seeing him as the only singer up there, commanding the audience all on his own.
AL: I think he was still the star! (Laughing)
VT: Well, maybe in some ways. But there were a lot of people on stage.
AL: That’s true, that’s true… but still, I think he was probably the biggest name of everyone there. I mean, he had worldwide hits, I think he’s the only one who could say that.
VT: What an incredible ending that was, with everyone on stage together. John De Lancie next to Fish, next to Thijs Van Leer – and all singing your song, that’s amazing. You must have been so proud!
AL: Yeah! Oh my god, oh my god… it’s very unreal. It’s all very unreal that these guys are willing to do that for me. Still something I just can’t fathom, really.
VT: I’d like to talk about some older stuff too. The Theory Of Everything was a difficult album to digest when it was first released, but over time it grew to be not only my favourite of your albums, but one of my favourite albums by anyone. How do you look back on that one, seven years later?
AL: I love it, I totally love it. It’s definitely a difficult album, it’s basically four twenty minute-long songs divided up into 42 pieces – because of course, the whole meaning of life thing from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (laughing)! But it’s difficult, it’s not a catchy, singalong album. I think 01 is a lot more catchy – or The Human Equation, where you think of songs like Loser or Love. The thing with The Theory Of Everything is that it doesn’t have a standout track, and that could be a positive or a negative thing. For me it is a positive thing, because it means the whole album is good.
VT: I’m from the old school, I like listening to full albums anyway.
AL: Yeah, you really have to listen to that whole thing in one go. I don’t think I could ever make an album like that again. It was very complicated to make, and I made it as I went along, which I usually don’t do. I usually go into the studio with everything prepared… I must have been very inspired. And I was surprised that the album didn’t do so well. I mean, it did great, but it didn’t do as well as The Human Equation did, or 01 did. But maybe I could have expected that. I see it as: if The Source is my metal album, The Theory Of Everything is my prog album.
VT: I think some of the best albums are the ones I wasn’t instantly in love with.
AL: It’s true! I remember hearing Houses Of The Holy by Led Zeppelin and I was so disappointed. It wasn’t heavy enough, it was too soft, and Robert Plant sounded squeaky and stuff like that. And those were the vinyl days, you know, you bought it for 20 guilders, so you’d better listen to it! (Laughing) And now, it’s one of my favourite albums ever, so… yeah, it happens.
VT: And the guests on The Theory Of Everything too, I mean my god…
AL: Well, as it was my prog album, I wanted members of the four big prog bands, which are ELP, Genesis, King Crimson and Yes. And I got them! (Laughing) Steve Hackett, Rick Wakeman, John Wetton and Keith Emerson.
I don’t think I could ever make an album like The Theory Of Everything again…
VT: Have you ever thought about Don Airey?
AL: YEAH! He’s amazing! I love him in Deep Purple, he’s doing such a great job. I just heard the new single off the new album and I love it. He’s got such a strong keyboard part in that. If you listen to it, it’s almost a classical composition! So yeah, I’d definitely want to work with him.
VT: I also don’t think people realize – even if they are Nightwish fans – what a great singer Marco Hietala really is. He does an amazing job on The Theory Of Everything. And Tarot was such a great, underrated band too.
AL: Oh, he’s fantastic, and so easy to work with, such a great guy with a totally unique voice. You can see on the DVD of the album, the time lapse of us working together, you can see how much fun we had. And Tarot is where I discovered his lead vocals, basically.
VT: Last night I went back and listened to The Final Experiment for the first time in years, and I realized how good a lot of that album still sounds today, a quarter of a century later. I think people have forgotten a lot of that album.
AL: Well, it’s a bit of a clumsy album of course. It was the first rock opera I did, and I didn’t know many people yet who I could ask to be guest vocalists. It’s clumsy in a way with the character of Ayreon, the character of Merlin… each song is a different singer! (Laughing) So yeah, I didn’t quite know how to set it up in those days. But it’s got a couple of songs that I’m really proud of, definitely. Charm Of The Seer, Merlin’s Will, Sail Away To Avalon…
VT: I really like Eyes Of Time.
AL: Well, that was a problem song for me. I think I tried out five singers for that, and nothing worked out. I won’t mention the names, but five people sang it, and it just was not good. And I was thinking, you’ve got the (sings riff) part, it was totally my take on Kashmir, very Zeppelin. I tried to get Robert Plant, but couldn’t. In those days, Kingdom Come was the ultimate Led Zeppelin clone, but I loved them, I thought they were such a great band. And I sent the song to Lenny Wolf, who loved it immediately and he came to the studio. Eventually it all turned out well with that song, yeah.
VT: One thing I always like to do when I interview musicians is to throw five song titles at them and have them say anything that springs to mind about them.
VT: I promise I’m not trying to stump anyone, but it always seems to happen, even though it is their own music…
AL: Hang on, if you are going to mention The Theory Of Everything songs, there are 42 titles – I have no idea what they are!
VT: No, these are just five songs I like a lot but I don’t hear mentioned very often.
AL: Okay, okay, right.
VT: First song: Season Of Denial (from Guilt Machine – On This Perfect Day)
AL: There you go already! (Laughing) There are six songs on that album, and I… aaahhh, there’s no harmonies, there are no choruses in the songs, there’s nothing to hold onto!
VT: It’s such a great song though.
AL: …It’s the song that starts with the slide guitar, right? Yeah, it’s very Floydy, I love the feel of that song. It’s very atmospheric, and Jasper was the perfect guy to sing on that whole album. Yeah, that would definitely be one of my favourite atmospheric songs on that album.
VT: Second song: The Space Hotel.
AL: (Surprised) Cool! Well, basically it’s a bonus track. I had about twenty songs, and I had a meeting with the fans because I wanted ten songs on the real album and ten songs on the bonus album. So I had them pick by giving each of the songs little stars, so they would choose which songs came on the real album. And Space Hotel wasn’t among them – but it was one of my favourite songs! I love that song, the lyrics are cool and it’s a very upbeat song.
VT: I love it too, it’s so catchy.
AL: Yeah! I love the chorus. I’m never really good at choruses, because I don’t really like them. You know, my songs are Kashmir or Stargazer. But I think on The Space Hotel, I finally managed to write a good chorus.
VT: It’s got some Beatles in it. think a lot of times your love of The Beatles and their influence comes through, even if you don’t realize it.
AL: Oh yeah, it’s my way of singing, I mean John Lennon is my absolute #1. It just fits my voice, that Beatles kind of stuff.
VT: Okay, next up is Human See, Human Do.
AL: Okay! (Laughing) I laugh because of course it’s about Planet Of The Apes, and it opens with a quote from the movie: “Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty ape!” – and I couldn’t use the original with Charlton Heston because they would have sued me. So I asked Russell (Allen) if he could say those words, and he was like “Nah, I’m not gonna do that, no way!” And I said “Just for fun, could you say it once?” And he said it once, and then he could not stop. I mean, he was with me for three days, and for three days we had to listen to that quote. But yeah, I think every Star One album should have a fast song on it, and the fast song on the first album was Set Your Controls, and Human See, Human Do is the fast song on the second album. I love the guitar riff, I have a video on YouTube where I explain how I get my guitar sound, and I play that riff.
VT: It’s quite frantic.
AL: It is, yeah! I think the whole album is the heaviest thing I’ve ever done.
The First Man On Earth is a song I’m definitely going to do live at some point…
VT: Number four: The First Man On Earth.
AL: That’s maybe my favourite song off The Dream Sequencer. Again, it’s very Beatles. I still remember asking Neal Morse. I was making two albums at the same time, a proggy album and a metal album. And I asked him: “Well, Neal, what album do you want to be on? The heavy album, or do you want to sing a Beatles kind of song on the prog album?” (Laughing) And he didn’t have to think about that, because he’s a huge Beatles fan. So I went to L.A. and I recorded him there, and you could see that he loved the song, he wanted to write lyrics for it and he had a lot of ideas. He’s got such a great voice, you know. He can’t sing high or powerful or anything, but I love the sound of his voice and he’s such an amazing musician. I think that song is my ultimate Beatles song, with the mellotrons and the melodies, stuff like that. It’s one of my favourites, too. It’s a song I’m definitely going to do live at some point. I actually wanted to do it on Night Of The Prog, we were thinking of what we were going to do for an encore, and I didn’t want to do Eye Of Ra or Songs Of The Ocean again, and I thought… wouldn’t it be great to do First Man On Earth? Because it’s got that end melody, you know (sings “Hold on, to that moment in time…”) and I thought that would be great if everybody comes on stage and sings that.
VT: Lastly… The Wrong Side Of The Street.
AL: Oh! You are the one who bought the album! (Laughing) That was totally my take on Pink Floyd, it’s very much The Wall, you know, the intro, you know that riff… oh, what’s the song called, “So ya, thought ya, might like to go to the show…”
VT: In The Flesh.
AL: Right, yeah! Anyway, I wanted to write a riff like that. That’s how The Wrong Side Of The Street came, I like that riff. I remember I had big problems in the studio singing that song. It starts with “Your mother always told you…”, and “Your mother” was out of tune every time. And the engineer who recorded me went crazy! “Your mother…” – “No! Again!” (Laughing) So that’s the only thing that sticks to mind. But I think it’s one of the cool songs on that album. That album has a lot of dodgy songs, like Country Girl and Midnight Train…
VT: It’s got some good ones, though!
AL: It’s got Days Of The Knights which I really like, and Crescendo, and Wrong Side Of The Street. Yeah, that’s one of the good songs on that album.
VT: Well, you’ve come a long way since then, and I can’t wait to hear Transitus, the tidbits you’ve been teasing us with are very exciting! You know, they always say the best is yet to come…
AL: Funny, I was just messaging with Adje (van den Burg) from Whitesnake. He’s 66, and I’m 60, and we were talking about the 80s, and he said “Do you have the feeling too, that we’ve only just started?” Yeah, definitely the best is yet to come. I agree with that.
Electric Castle Live (And Other Tales) is available here (Transitus pre-sales begin at the end of June).