Ayreon Mainman Arjen Lucassen On The New Star One Album, The Death Of Steve Lee, The Ayreon Universe, And More
Band Photo: Ayreon (?)
The progressive metal force from the north, Netherlands-based guitar-player and songwriter Arjen Lucassen, has just finished up the second album for his project, Star One, which is set for the release date of October 26th for the US and November 1st for Europe. Arjen's been a busy man in the eight years between "Space Metal" and "Victims of the Modern Age." He's written, recorded, and put out several albums with Ayreon, Guilt Machine, Ambeon, and Stream of Passion -- Each one of them a banquet of musical styles, involving a lot of instrumentalists, vocalists, and musical talent. The man behind the helm of these projects took some time out for an interview to discuss these things, as well as the tragic death of Gotthard's Steve Lee, who had been a guest vocalist on the latest Ayreon album, "01011001."
Frank (Progressivity_In_All): First, some miscellaneous questions. Seeing as how you were around for progressive metal’s history, and even made some of it yourself, what are some of the progressive bands that you liked?
Arjen: I grew up in the 70s. It would be Black Sabbath of course, the first metal band there was. Then there were the usual suspects like Deep Purple, and Rainbow – I think Rainbow Rising was the best rock album ever made. Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep. Later on in the 80s, bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and stuff like that. I guess that’s where my roots lie.
F: You worked with Jasper Steverlinck on a different project called “Guilt Machine”, last year. How was the whole experience?
Arjen: It was a very, very, personal album. It was quite different from what I usually do. Of course, Ayreon albums are rock operas with a zillion singers. I think the last album had like 17 singers, you know, so I really felt like doing something small - Not some big science fiction adventure out there in space, but inside a man’s head, and talk about emotions, especially. Both Lori (Linstruth, guitarist) and me, my girlfriend and I, were enduring through a heavy depression before we met each other. You know, when you’re in a depression, you don’t really want to talk about it – You don’t want to talk about it to anyone, actually, but once you get out of your depression, it’s time to exorcise your demons and talk about it. Also, to show people it’s possible to get out of a depression – that’s what the whole Guilt Machine record was about. So I did it with just one singer, and I didn’t want an obvious choice, not a singer from the prog or metal realm. I just heard his voice and I just loved it, you know, it reminded me a bit of Freddie Mercury and Muse, and those kind of guys.
F: How was it working with Lori Linstruth again on an album?
Arjen: We met on the Ayreon mailing list, and she posted a video there of her guitar playing, and I saw it and ever since then we’ve been in contact, because I was a big fan of her playing. Back then I was married, so it was just a friendly relationship. Then, of course, she joined Stream of Passion, which was great. Then I got divorced, and my manager quit working for me. Then I asked her if Lori wanted to become my manager, because I really liked her way of thinking – same roots, background, interests, stuff like that. She said “Yeah, I’d really like that”, so I told her well there’s one rule – you have to come and live with me. (laughs) So she said “yeah, we’ll try it out”, so she came here as my manager and now she’s my partner, and that works perfectly, I must say.
F: Chris Maitland is a new name for an Arjen project. What was it like for you to work with the former Porcupine Tree drummer on that record?
Arjen: I was always a big Porcupine Tree fan, long before they were famous. I already went to all their shows, you know. Of course, there’s not a lot to see at a Porcupine Tree show, apart from the beautiful backgrounds of course. I was always watching the drummer Chris Maitland. He was always having fun and really enjoying himself, so I’ve always been a big fan of this guy, and I’ve always wanted to work with him in the past. He almost played on one of the Ayreon albums, but back then, it didn’t work out. So this time I approached him and sent him the material, and he loved the material. He’s such an amazing drummer, and there’s so much emotion in his playing – So very different from the usual drummer that I work with, Ed Warby, who plays on my Ayreon and my Star One stuff. That’s a total power drummer, you know, like a machine. But this guy – very, very emotional drummer. Very technical as well.
F: Do you foresee working on more Guilt Machine records in the future?
Arjen: I’d love to, because as I told you, I’m very proud of it. But of course we have the fact that it didn’t sell so well, and I have so many projects going, so it’s a matter of priority. I know that a lot of people are waiting for a new Ayreon, so if I had the choice between one of those two, it’s of course more of a plan to do another Ayreon. So, I would love to do another one, but there are no plans or anything.
F: There have only been a few times where you worked without a lot of vocalists (Ambeon, Stream of Passion, Guilt Machine). Having created Stream of Passion and sent them off to the world as their own band, is there a plan to make a guest appearance on another record of theirs?
Arjen: Basically, I set the whole band up as a band for Marcela (Bovio) and I was never planning to be in the band – that wasn’t my idea from the beginning. And then I got part of the band and did the tour because they asked me to. But it was always agreed that at some point I would leave, obviously, because I was going to work on another album – which takes me about two years to work on that, you know. I really don’t want to pull any strings there, it’s really their thing. So, of course, if they ask me “Can you do a little thing on an album” of course I would do it. It’s a good thing they’re doing everything on their own strength now.
F: Do you think you’ll work with Astrid Van der Veen on another Ambeon album at some point?
Arjen: I would love to. I would LOVE to, because she was the biggest talent I ever worked with. I remember her, this little 14-year young singer coming into my studio – the first time she was ever in a studio. She stood behind the mic and sang those songs just in one take. It was just scary. This girl’s just a genius – she came up with the lyrics and melodies on the spot. She was scary to work with. Such a lovely girl and such a great talent. Unfortunately, she has not been doing well after that. I’m in contact with her again. She sent me a couple of emails. She says she’s doing a lot better and she’s trying to get a job, but she’s not involved in any music stuff right now, so unfortunately… I would love to do another album, but she’s not up to it.
F: On the last Ayreon record, you had Steve Lee of Gotthard as a guest vocalist. Do you have any words to say about Steve?
Arjen: Well, we go back a long way because he was going to sing in my band back in the ‘80s. Back in ‘89, he spent a couple days in my house and we had been working on songs. Eventually, it never turned out, but he was a big fan of my band back then. He was still a drummer, actually, and he sang one of the songs and I was like “ohhh what a singer,” you know? So, unfortunately it never worked out back then. So we’ve been in contact ever since the 80s and finally, on the last Ayreon, we had a chance to come together, and so he came to my studio.
He was such a gentleman, and such a really great guy, such a positive guy. I remember his manager told me “Steve’s only allowed to sing 4 songs on the album.” Steve came here, and I remember we started, like 9 in the morning, and the voice was already there. Within two hours, we finished those four songs, so Steve was like “Hey, have you got any more?” “Yeah, but your manager,” “Oh, fuck the manager! Let’s do more stuff.” So we did eight songs, and we had such a great time. He was such a great talent, so when I heard this it was like “no, no, no…” It took me weeks to actually believe that it had happened because he had an accident before that, and we had been in contact, you know. “Hey, how are you?” And then he emailed me back, “Oh, no, you know, I’ve got a guardian angel looking over me.” But unfortunately, she was not there this time. That really hurt.
F: Since you’ve used big names on your albums like Bruce Dickinson, Mikael Akerfeldt, and James Labrie, was there any attempt to get Ronnie James Dio as a guest vocalist before his death?
Arjen: I can’t forget Dio! He’s my biggest hero – he was the best in the world. I tried to get him loads of times. I met him once, which is funny, you know, because I’m like twice as tall as him. But I gave him my Ayreon stuff and he said he knew about the band and the project. He wrote down his personal email address, and ever since then I’ve been mailing to that address. Unfortunately, it never materialized, because that would’ve been a dream come true.
F: You would have had to take a picture if it did – The smallest man and the tallest man in metal.
Arjen: Yes! That would have been funny!
F: Out of the vocalists on the previous record, who was the easiest to work with?
Arjen: I was collecting images of old singers I’ve worked with on MySpace, and it was over 100! That’s a hard question. I never had any problems with any of the singers. Some of them are really fast recording, but some are a bit slower maybe. Also, that’s even more fun when you really have to work for it and find ways to find great melodies or harmonies or weird effects and stuff like that. I enjoyed working with every one of them, whether they’re famous or completely unknown. I don’t think I could answer that. Of course there are bigger talents like Russel Allen -- he’s scary to work with, the way he can sing. No, I definitely could not choose.
F: What’s the funniest time in the studio that you can recall?
Arjen: There are a lot of jokers. On the special edition of the last Ayreon, there are bloopers. On the last Ayreon album, Bob Catley is a big joker, Daniel Gildenlow is a big joker, and Tom Englund is a big joker. (laughs) On Star One, you have Russell who’s joking all the time. Damian Wilson, who’s this typical English guy who makes me laugh all the time, you know like “Cheerio, cup o tea”, stuff like that. (laughs)
F: The Ayreon universe is getting pretty huge in its story. Do you see more of the Ayreon universe for future albums?
Arjen: No, not at all. I think the Timeline compilation, called “The Memory Remains”, really made an ending of that story. I think it was just getting too complicated. I needed the help of the fans to expand my own story! (laughs) Really, I’d ask them “Hey guys, can you remember this guy on Mars?” You know, it was getting really complicated and I did not want to alienate people from this story. I think it’s kind of arrogant to assume that everyone has all your albums and so they understand every detail of the story. The last Ayreon album was like a combination of all the Ayreon albums together, and if you missed out on one or two of the albums, you’d miss out on the story. So if I do another Ayreon, I want to come up with something new, like I did with The Human Equation.
F: Has the idea of a Sci Fi TV series based in the Ayreon universe crossed your mind?
Arjen: That would be a dream come true, that would be fantastic.
F: Victims of the Modern Age is the name of the new Star One album. How long was the studio process for the album?
Arjen: I think all in all I worked on this album for about a year. I always work on an album for about a year. I started when the Guilt Machine album was finished. The thing is, it always takes about 3-4 months before an album is released. So in those days, I’m already starting to write the next project. So, I think I worked on this for a year, and that’s writing, recording, and mixing.
F: Would you say the album has the theme of “Victims of the Modern Age” throughout the songs?
Arjen: Well, as on the first Star One album, all the songs are based on movies again. On the first album they were all based on movies set in space, with the title “Space Metal.” This time, because the music is a bit darker and a bit heavier, I wanted to have a different concept. The music’s a bit more down to earth, so I wanted the stories to be more down to earth. I decided to base it on dystopian post-apocalyptic movies like The Matrix and A Clockwork Orange and stuff like that. The title is a quote from A Clockwork Orange, and I really like it because it fits all the stories of all the movies that it’s based on.
F: Do the lyrics on Victims tie in at all to the lyrics on Space Metal?
Arjen: No. The songs on Space Metal were all based on movies in space like Alien, 2001, and stuff like that. These were all movies set here on earth.
F: Most of the cast from Space Metal is back – Russell Allen, Damian Wilson, Dan Swano, Floor Jansen, etc. Was it easy to get the cast back and arrange studio time?
Arjen: The reason I started the whole Star One thing back in 2002 was because all these people are fans of my music. They already liked my music before they knew me and before we were together. That really helps, you know, they’ve become friends through the years. Of course, we did this tour throughout 2003 so we still know each other. It was very easy to get these people because they’ve become friends of mine, contrary to Ayreon, doing an Ayreon album, because that’s hell, logistically. Getting all these people together, convincing them to come and flying them over, you know. With Star One, luckily, it was a lot easier.
F: Were most of the parts worked out ahead of time or were you still working on the songs in the studio when the singers arrived?
Arjen: No, when the singers come here, everything is ready. They all get guide vocals, which I sing myself, so they get the recording with my voice and the lyrics. I tell them, “You know, this is just my vocals, and I can’t sing like you do. Please change it and sing it your own way.” Working in the studio with these singers is always very spontaneous. I tell them “Don’t listen to the guide vocals too much” because then you get very spontaneous results.
F: Were they all flown in to the studio for Star One?
Arjen: Definitely, that’s so important for me. That’s when the chemistry is there, when they’re standing next to me in the studio and they get these ideas, and I grab a guitar and go “Oh, try this!” or, “Try a harmony there!” A good example is the ending of the song “Victims of the Modern Age,” which is based on A Clockwork Orange. I wanted Russell to do an ad-lib with me and my suggestion to him was to just use words from the verses and repeat, and it just didn’t work. It sounded cheesy. There are scenes in the movie where the main character is raping a woman while he’s singing “Singing In the Rain”, so we were like, “Why don’t you just sing ‘Singing In the Rain’ at the end, you know?” And he did that and he changed the melody. Those are magic moments that only happen when a guy is actually there standing next to me.
F: You both play the music and record/mix it at your studio. Do you record while you write or do you separate the processes?
Arjen: Well, nowadays, with computers, it’s all one big thing, really. The basic ideas, I just record in my cassette player. For Star One, it’s mostly guitars. For Ayreon, it’s mostly melodies or chord changes or sequences. I just record on a cassette player, and I’ve got twenty or thirty ideas, and then I go into the studio and start recording them for real. Then, I program the drum computer, and play all the keyboards, so when you hear the demos, it’s already a finished song.
F: How much freedom do you give the guest vocalists on their melodies and harmonies? In the past, Devin Townsend did his own lyrics and everything. Was that an exception?
Arjen: A lot of freedom, and I had to learn that, because in the beginning, I was an enormous control freak. That’s one of my things. I remember on the first Ayreon albums, I always told the singers, “Hey, this is the melody and stick to it. If you do something different, I would hate it.” But then you start working with Bruce Dickinson and guys like that, and they stand there in front of the mic and just go for it. I found out that this is much better than what I had in mind at first. I really believe in letting a singer just go for it. It’s different for every singer. Some singers you have to guide. You have to tell them exactly what to do. Other singers, you have to give total freedom.
Like you said – Devin Townsend simply told me “Hey man, I don’t sing other people’s melodies or other people’s lyrics. If you want me on the album, I have to do it all.” I was like “Okay, well this guy’s a genius.” (laughs) And I’m a BIG fan of Devin Townsend, so I was like “Sure, these are the parts. This is your part on the album – You are the emotion “Rage,” and this and this is happening in the story.” And the funny thing is, when I got it in the end, it had nothing to do with what I asked him. I didn’t get his lyrics at all! (laughs) At first I thought, “What is this crap? What is he saying?” (laughs) “Motion personified alpha, what the fuck?” (laughs) And then I started listening to it and I got 48 tracks of his vocals and it was a complete mess. I was like, “Oh my god, what did I do?” I always say I wanted people to stand next to me in the studio, but then I started mixing it and I thought, “Oh my god, this is pure genius at work. This is so much better than I could’ve ever done.” So in the end, it also works that way. It’s different for every singer.
F: What’s your favorite piece of equipment on the album, since you’ve played all the guitars and keyboards?
Arjen: Well, obviously this album is very guitar-based; Much more than Ayreon. I spent weeks and weeks on getting a great guitar sound, so this time I’m really proud of the new guitar sound that I have. I think it both has a 70s feel but also like a really modern feel like Rammstein and the more downtuned stuff. I like to think that I’ve found the perfect balance between that.
I will always be a big fan of the old analog keys. As always, I will always put the Hammond in there, ever since Uriah Heep and Emerson Lake and Palmer. So the Hammond is very prominent on this album. But also the Minimoog, I rediscovered for this album. There’s a lot of Minimoog. I doubled it -- eight tracks to make it sound huge. Having said that, I also like the bass. There’s a big bass sound with a lot of bottom end, but also a lot of top. It sounds quite aggressive, so it’d be hard to choose.
F: When the Hammond was coming in on the transfer between “Down the Rabbit Hole” into “Digital Rain” it sounds just wild!
Arjen: I had fun doing that. It sounds like “quaaaiiahhh wuaaaihh”, with my arms and my legs... (laughs)
F: Did Joost Van Den Broek (guest solos) or Ed Warby help with the production at all?
Arjen: No, this egomaniac works alone! (laughs) Nobody’s allowed in the studio! (laughs) Having said that, of course Ed is very important to the whole process. He gets programmed drums from me, but he always adds his own stuff. All his fills are his own, of course. He has a lot of ideas and this guy’s a genius as well. He has a photographic memory. He just listens to a song once and he knows what to do. We feel each other perfectly. He knows what I want to hear and I know what he likes to drum, so that works out perfectly. Basically, Joost only played the keyboard solos on this album because I really can’t play solos. Joost actually did the first Star One tour – he was only 19 at the time. He’s become way better than back then and a huge talent. Also a very nice guy.
F: He looks a lot different from the Star One DVD, too. (laughs)
Arjen: It’s funny, everyone was like “Hey, I like this girl on keyboards!” Everyone thought he was a girl on the first Star One album, and so maybe that’s why he changed his hair style! (laughs)
F: Any plans for a Star One tour for Victims like you did with Space Metal?
Arjen: No plans, but it is an option. To get these people all together in the same place at the same time for the rehearsal and the tour is very challenging because they all have their own projects. To fly them all over the world - USA, England, Sweden - will be very expensive. So it would be a big undertaking to get all these people together. So, it is an option, but no definite plans yet.
F: Were there any fun studio tricks, like using four microphones on a kick drum on Victims?
Arjen: The kick drum has three mics, actually -- One for the sub, one for the kick in the bass drum, and one in the distance for a John Bonham feel. And for the guitars, I spent a lot more time recording the sound of the guitars. On the last 5-6 albums, I always used a little Line6 all-digital preamp, which is just plug-in and that’s it. But this time, I had a very complicated guitar sound, which is a combination of many amps and many speakers, as well as many mics in front of the speakers. Basically, nothing is easy for me recording-wise. I spend days on it to get it perfectly, because it’s like a cook preparing a meal. Everything has to be perfect, and one ingredient can spoil it.
F: This is your 23rd release, counting singles and EPs.
Arjen: Oh, really? (laughs)
F: Do you have a favorite song out of all the projects?
Arjen: I would have to listen to all of it and then probably I would tell you something different every time. It’s very complicated. Of course, when I was doing the Timeline complication, that was hell. That was very difficult, because it was a combination of what do I like myself, what will the fans like, what fits the story, so it depends on a few things. My favorite album, maybe, would be “Into The Electric Castle.” It was such an honest transparent album. Everything just fell into place on that album.
F: Any last thing you’d like to say to Ayreonauts and Metalunderground.com readers?
Arjen: I just hope they’re going to like this new Star One album. It’s a lot heavier than the Ayreon stuff. It’s more straight-forward, and it’s definitely a reaction to the Guilt Machine album. So – Be prepared!
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