So here I am, idling away the last few minutes before ringing Ayreon guiding light Arjen Lucassen to talk about the man’s epic new project The Source, listening to the recently-released Stephen Pearcy album when they phone rings, caller ID withheld. This is not good news; I can’t be battling with sub-continental computer scammers when I should be speaking to one of the all-time greats of progressive metal, that much is clear, but curiosity gets the better of me so I take the call.
“Hi, it’s Arjen. I’m sorry I’m five minutes early. I hope that’s OK”.
Well, for a start, I thought I was ringing you but of course it’s OK!. I start gathering all the gubbins I need to conduct the interview, in the process letting slip what I’m listening to. “I was a big Ratt fan when I was young! Out of the Cellar was one of my favourite albums!”
That’s good. We’ve already broken the ice and the interview hasn’t even started. But let’s put that state of affairs right now. So, for any of our readers who maybe not so familiar with you and your body of work as Ayreon, where would you say this new record, The Source, fits in? “Story-wise it’s a prequel to all my previous Ayreon albums; And music-wise it’s the eighth Ayreon album. Musically I would say it’s a bit heavier, a bit more guitar-orientated than other Ayreon albums and once again I think it features a stellar cast of singers and musicians!”
The PR company who facilitated this interview said you were very keen that people speaking to you today were fully up to speed with the synopsis of the story behind the album, the lyrics and such; But listeners coming to the album who might not have access to that information can still enjoy the album, can’t they? “Well… it is a story, you know? For me, it’s still about the music, the music is the most important thing. But I think the story adds a different dimension to the whole thing. As far as doing the promotion, it’s great for me that people have heard the album , have all the information, know which singer is which character. It’s just that dimension I loved as a kid when I listened to albums like Jesus Christ, Superstar – really, I could watch that movie with my eyes closed. Later on (Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of) War of the Worlds, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Queensrÿche with Operation: Mindcrime… I always loved that kind of stuff – the really adventurous, visual stuff”.
You’ve completely answered another question I was going to ask you then – “sorry!”
No worries- we’ll take that one as done. But I was definitely interested to know what albums form the seventies and eighties kickstarted your interest in this style of music. “Definitely Jesus Christ, Superstar started things off. I was nine or ten years old in 1970 and really that’s still the high line for me. I would never reach that quality”.
That’s amazing. Was that the Original Cast Version with Ian Gillan? “Definitely with Ian Gillan. Although I loved the movie version as well. Ted Neeley did a great job”.
As you say there’s a great mix of styles on this record. It is a lot heavier. When I’m listening to something like Into the Ocean, which as a Dio and Rainbow fan I like very much- “Sorry for interrupting – I knew you were going to say that! The working title of that song was Silver, obviously because of Man on the Silver Mountain! But go on.”
Thank you. It is heavier as we said, but it also feels a lot looser to me than perhaps Ayreon has sounded in the past. Not in a sort of ‘jammy’ kind of way, but almost more of an organic sound than you might expect to find on an Ayreon album? “True, true. The last Ayreon album (2013’s The Theory of Everything) was my ‘prog’ album. It had members of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer… it was keyboard-heavy with Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson and Jordan Rudess: And it was a complicated album – many, many different parts, no structure in the songs, it wasn’t an easy album for the fans I’m afraid. And that resulted in sales not being too great. So this album I wanted to be more guitar-orientated. Just get out that guitar, come up with some riffs… that song you mentioned – Into the Ocean – is very much a riff song. So yes, this time around I wanted some shorter, catchy, to the point… more structured songs”.
I’m interested that you mention the complications in putting something like that last album together, because I wanted to ask you what was the worst thing about the whole process of putting an Ayreon album together. What do you least look forward to when starting out on a new Ayreon project? “It’s definitely the logistics. It’s arranging the singers. Having to bother them. Because the thing is, all of them, even if they love to do it, it isn’t their priority. Their own band is their priority. Or their family, or whatever project they are working on. So it’s definitely the bothering of the singers. You’re asking for the photo of them for the artwork, and they are on tour, and then you have to remind them a couple of weeks later: ‘Sorry, sorry, can you send this, or can you come over then, or can I arrange this flight? Where do you fly from? Can you let me know? Oh man, that’s the part I really do not like about Ayreon”.
Because there’s no music involved in that part is there? “No! it’s just bothering. I don’t even mind arranging their flights, or stuff like that – it’s just having to annoy them all the time. I know it myself. Sometimes I do guest appearances and you get these people asking ‘can you just send a film of yourself playing the solo?’ No! I don’t have time for that! So I know myself how annoying that can be. So I’d say the logistics of the thing is what I dislike most. The writing, the recording, the mixing is all a piece of cake and I adore it. The other side of it, no”.
You mentioned that you’s assembled a stellar cast for The Source, which it is; Indeed the casts always tend to be stellar on Ayreon albums. But is there anyone left that you haven’t worked with that you’d like to get involved on an Ayreon record? “Oh yes, the list is endless, but unfortunately most of them are dying! Fast! I would have had Dio, that was always a dream of mine. Basically, all those people that I grew up listening to in my formative years, from fifteen to twenty or whatever, huge names like Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Dave Gilmour, Geddy Lee – all names that would be a dream come true to work with. But you know, they don’t know me, and their roots are in different music. If I sent them my weird, bombastic stuff they’d probably be like”erm…no!”.
I’m interested to talk a little about those formative years if I may. When you were in a band like Vengeance, which was pretty much a straight-up eighties hard rock band, did you ever think that your musical life would lead its way down a path to Ayreon? Did you think ‘that’s where I’ll end up’? “I think secretly it’s always been my dream. But you’re in this band, you have fun on stage, you do this rock n’roll shit, you know. You’re quite successful with it so you just continue with it… But in my mind I was always dreaming of doing something like I’m doing with Ayreon now. Something epic, more adventurous. But also within that band you know the compromise – the drummer likes AC/DC, the singer likes Saxon, the bass player liked Judas Priest – so you write songs that you think they will like because they have to play them. And then the record company says ‘Iron Maiden is popular at the moment. You should do something like that! So you’re trying to please band members, the record company, the people that buy the records. And at some point I just went like ‘forget it man, I’m going to do something that I like! And I’ll call it The Final Experiment, because it probably will be my final experiment… That was the first Ayreon album (released in 1995). I’m gonna throw all the music I like – prog, hard rock, folk, classical, electronic music, classic rock – into a big bowl and people are gonna hate it. But yes, to my surprise – to everyone’s surprise – it started selling. Slowly, but surely”.
You thought people were going to hate it, but now the world and his wife are putting out progressive metal operas. We get at least one a month sent to Sentinel Daily for review. You’re seen as the progenitor of an entire subgenre of metal. Are you proud to have proved that there is a big market for this epic, bombastic music? “I’m surprised and proud at the same time! It’s amazing for me that these people are there, they are so loyal – they aren’t here today gone tomorrow! I will never reach the mainstream. I tried for fifteen years and I’m not going to try anymore. Mainstream people will never understand my music; It’s not my world. I have such a loyal bunch of followers who know the complicated story of my albums – they know it better than me. When I put the first video from The Source up on YouTube and saw all the comments – people guessing the story, coming up with way better stuff than I could come up with!”
You’re actually going to perform The Source live, aren’t you? “Yes, for the first time in twenty two years of Ayreon there are going to be some live shows. The catalyst for this was The Theatre Equation, which was a theatre play of my album The Human Equation which was done two years ago. It was a big success, four sold out shows, and it was great for me to see my music come alive there. People like James LaBrie, who has no acting experience, were totally convincing on stage, doing my music. I was onstage, looking into the audience and seeing all the emotions on their faces, smiling, crying… when I saw that I thought we really have to, if only once, do an Ayreon show live. I knew it would be a big thing, that it would take two years to set up, so after a year we put something up on Facebook, hoping to sell out maybe one show. Within two hours we’d sold out two shows – six thousand people – so we thought maybe we could put on a third show, which would mean nine thousand tickets… and that sold out within a day. I really did not expect that. So, like your previous question – proud? Yes!”.