Ghost Cult scribe Lorraine Lysen caught up with the great Arjen Lucassen of Ayreon for a wide-ranging interview a few months ago. They chatted about The Electric Castle Live project, his entire career, upcoming new music, and much more.
First of all, four sold-out shows with fans from 65 different countries; that seems really strange right now, but it must have been surreal even back then.
It is so surreal because I make such strange music. I mean, when I started the Ayreon project, the first album was called the final experiment, and it was a way of saying “okay, I’ve tried everything now. I’ve tried music that the record company wanted, I tried to play the music that the people wanted, that the band members wanted, and now I’m going to do my own thing and everyone is gonna hate it. I like prog, I like metal, I like classical, I like electronic music, I like atmospheric music, I like folk: I am going to throw it all in one melting pot.” And doing a rock-opera in the nineties, you know, in the days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, it was crazy. So really I never expected anyone to like what I did. But to my surprise they did.
I basically started the Ayreon project so I didn’t have to play live anymore, because I played live in the 70s, 80s, 90s, for about fifteen years, and I was just tired of it. I really didn’t want to play live, it was not my thing. I see myself much more as a producer and composer than a performer. So yeah, I set up the Ayreon thing so I wouldn’t have to play live anymore. I thought “let’s do rock operas, let’s invite some famous singers, and that will be it for the promotion, I’ll never have to do it live.”
That didn’t quite work out as expected.
That didn’t work out, no. Well actually, someone did a theatre production of my album The Human Equation, and I was sort of involved in that, not organising , but I helped with the music and I helped with getting the musicians and stuff. And that was such a success, the people loved it – I mean, it was a disaster, it was not well organised – but I could see that people liked it, the musicians liked it, so I was like, “Damn, I’ve got to do this live at least once, so many people are waiting for it, and after 20 years it’s about time.” Then I did the Ayreon Universe thing in 2017, and I really, really did not expect to fill that venue. I was standing in the middle of that venue and it’s huge! I told the guys of the venue “I’m not going to fill this, really I am not going to fill this. I have many fans all over the world but they’re not going to come all the way from Australia or Russia or America for this show.” They said, “You’ll fill it, you’ll fill it twice.” And then we started the pre-sale and the two shows were gone within an hour and we decided to add a third show, which also sold out on the same day.
Like you said, It’s very surreal, and because of that success, we were bold enough to go for four shows for The Electric Castle. And again, they sold out within a day or something. We have to put a limit on them because we don’t want people buying them all up and selling them on for more money. So basically, we started promoting this weeks’ and months in advance, making it very clear to people that there are twelve thousand tickets, you’ll have time to buy them on that first days, but of course, everyone calls and orders the moment it opens. I think most people who really wanted to be there got their tickets.
I think so, or at least everyone I saw there and spoke to were massive fans, they were just so incredibly excited, they were loving the experience. Even just standing in line, they were just so happy to be there, to connect with all these different people from around the world.
We thought, if people really come from 64 countries, travelling from far away, they might go to two or more shows, so let’s do something special, let’s make it a whole Ayreon weekend. So we arranged all this stuff to entertain people, so they would have a great time in Holland. As you may have noticed, in the restaurants we had Ayreon burgers, in the bars specially brewed Ayreon beers. And of course, we had the cinema, where Joost and me were being silly quizmasters. We had the Ayreon camping, which was sold out. And of course the exhibition of the Ayreon paintings. So yeah, I think it was great, the municipality of Tilburg really helped us.
Yes! I feel like this time it actually sort of rivaled Roadburn in the atmosphere and how the entire city was involved.
True! We were actually talking all the time about Roadburn, how did it go there, how did they do this. They did say this was kind of a different crowd from Roadburn. It was really fun, people were worried about all these rockers coming in, and then said they’d never had such polite people coming in. They were waiting in line patiently, “You go first,” “no, you go first.”
Twelve thousand marshmallows, basically.
Arjen laughs Yeah, totally wimpy! No, the atmosphere was amazing. Just fantastic. And like you said, people enjoyed standing in line. And of course that crazy Damian came along. I know I have never seen more pictures of Damian than in those weeks.
That really helps the atmosphere, when the fans can see that the musicians are also super passionate about the project, not just about singing their bit.
That’s what is so important to me! That’s why when I choose the musicians I think about that. I would never ask someone who, I feel, doesn’t belong to the – this sounds corny – family. Maybe this guy is amazing, he’s great, he’s the best singer in the world, but if he doesn’t fit in, or if I get the feeling that he’s just doing this for the money or the fame or whatever, then I cancel it. And it happens, you know. It happened during the Ayreon Universe, where I decided that it just didn’t feel right. So it’s very important for me that they fit in with the family. Because you feel that on stage, and I’m sure that comes across when people are having fun backstage and laughing with each other onstage.
When I interviewed you two years ago I joked that you should do a progressive musical, and with the cameradie, the audience interactions, and the outfits on top, it actually felt like that. It felt very complete and wholesome.
Well it was all very spontaneous, I think that’s the secret here. Firstly, I told them all “hey man, you really don’t need to dress up like your character.” That would be too much, that would be cheesy! I told them “just wear a little thing so we can see you’re the Roman or the Barbarian, just a little tiny thing.” And then of course, weeks before I kept getting all these photos from the singers “hey, look at my Roman outfit!” And then Damian, hiring a whole medieval knight’s costume at a museum, and with a sword. I was like “are you sure, Damian? Really, you don’t have to do that.” So then I thought “oh my god I am the hippy, I will need to find a hippy outfit.”
So that did not come from your personal collection?
Noooooo. No no.
I thought the rainbow leggings might be a bit too much for daily wear.
Looking back, they were even too much for the show, I think. Oh my god. When I see it back on the DVD I can hardly watch it. It was funny, but I completely changed my image now. I grew a beard, I can’t keep looking like that weird hippy. I think it was also one of the reviews I read. “Arjen was so brave, he took the most stupid role of hippy himself.”
He was trying to give me a compliment, I think, that even if I played a stupid hippy I did a great job. But it hurt.
I don’t think it’s a stupid role. It’s a very emotional role, one that I think a lot of people connect with in some way.
Well yeah, of course, he’s the fun factor, the joker of the pack here and there, but you also see his other side. In songs like “Mirror Maze” we find out why he is the way he is, “his father lied, his mother cried” and stuff like that. So yeah, I like that. I like being a serious one moment and having humour the next. That’s very important to me, not to take it all too seriously, but it shouldn’t be shallow.
In your experience, what was the biggest difference between Ayreon Universe and this show?
It was a huge difference. And that was the first thing that Joost and I said. We knew from the beginning that it was going to be very different, and that was what we wanted. Ayreon Universe was really bombastic, really over the top, with explosions and dry ice and singers coming on stage with a big intro. So we decided not to do that this time, but to make it more intimate. It’s more of a prog show than a metal show. And it’s more difficult, you know; you can impress people with the bombs and explosions and playing all these huge, heavy songs, but it’s much more difficult to keep them entertained with very dynamic music. The album of Electric Castle is very dynamic. I once listened to it with a stopwatch just for fun, to see how much the drums are in it, and only 50% of the album has drums! So there’s a lot of atmospheric and intro and acoustic on it. We avoided that in the Ayreon Universe, where we wanted to give Wham, Boom, Next, but this time it was more intimate, and I think that was the biggest difference.
Were any of the songs particularly challenging for a live performance?
I thought they would be, but they were not! Even with the smallest ballad, people were quiet. Especially with “Valley of the Queens,” which is of course a fan favourite, people will be quiet, and the moment Anneke gets on stage it’s clear people should pay attention. But even the piano intro by Robbie Valentine; it’s scary sitting there and playing piano in the silence, but the audience listened and were patient. So no, I don’t think there were any difficult songs. You know, they are such great musicians and such great singers and performers that it just all worked.
Were there any aspects of the production itself that were more difficult or easier than expected?
The thing is, Joost and I start two years in advance because we don’t want it to be good, we want it to be brilliant, to be perfect. So we always tell each other that we want to be ready a year in advance. If it’s ready that early, you may encounter difficulties but you can solve them. That’s the whole plan: Just put a lot of time into it, prepare really well, and if you do that there will be no difficulties; everything has been worked out, and everything has been planned. Joost and I were on the phone almost an hour every day, talking about these things, and that helps a lot. In the end, you have all these technical people, and we had a lot of meetings with the whole crew, who can make it work. So no, I don’t think there were any difficulties there.
Great! Do you prefer singing on stage or playing guitar on stage?
Ha, good question. I don’t think I’m good at either of them. And that’s not humility, I do think I make great albums and I’m a great producer. And I make the best rock operas! It’s not humility, I’m just not good at either playing guitar or singing. The thing with playing guitar is, it has to be in your system. And if, like me, you don’t play for ten years – at least, I don’t play when I record, I don’t rehearse, ever – you really have to rehearse every day for an hour. Or at least, I do; maybe the Yngwie Malmsteen’s of this world don’t have to, but I have to. And then you have to have the routine of playing live, and I don’t have that. So when I’m on stage the guitar is just like this weird wooden thing around me. I rehearse the songs and when I play them at home it’s perfect, but once I’m on stage it’s not in my system and it’s just crap, it’s awful.
Same, I feel like I can play songs, but not guitar. With singing, at least I know where my voice will go, but when playing guitar I have no clue where my fingers are.
Well I love singing, I know I’m not good at it, but I had the feeling I could get away with it. It was scary because it was really the first time in my life that I was on stage as a singer. Of course, I used to sing little bits when I was playing guitar, but to be on stage as a singer, you have no quitar, you’re just naked, you’re there. That was quite scary. I had no idea what I was going to do. And when I watch the DVD now, all I do is I stick out my arm all the time, that’s my thing. It totally annoys me now! I shouldn’t tell you, because you’ll start looking for it. But all the time when I’m talking about space, up goes that arm again. And I had no idea I was doing it! But I think I’ll go for singing.
Part II coming tomorrow!
WORDS BY LORRAINE LYSEN