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, the visuals of Ayreon Universe live, working with John de Lancie, rock operas, concept albums, Vin Diesel, Star Trek TNG, upcoming new music, and much more.
Can you tell me more about the artwork on the big screen? It added so much to the atmosphere.
That was another big difference with the Ayreon Universe. With Ayreon Universe, it was very busy; the visuals on the LED screen were overwhelming. It was almost like video clips on there and I didn’t want that with these Electric Castle shows. I wanted something like a backdrop that was moving. So at some point I found someone in Chile, a great guy named Dave, and he animates album covers. He makes album covers come alive; he loves doing that. I sent him a lot of paintings that Jeff Bertels did, and he was making all these little funny creatures in the paintings and making them hop around. Or he put some rain and thunder in, with clouds going by. So it was basically a backdrop that was moving, and it was more relaxed, I would say, than Ayreon Universe.
Speaking of the ambiance, the fantastic John de Lancie not only narrated your show, he also made significant changes to the lyrics. How was it to have someone that awesome not just participate in the project, but to actually want to put his own spin on your work?
It’s still very surreal that it happened. We tried to get the original narrator, Peter Daltrey, for the Ayreon Universe show, but he was like “No, I have kids, this is not really my thing.” So I had to think of someone else to do it, and I knew I wanted a big name, a big actor would be so cool. So then I was thinking about this character Forever, which is like an omnipotent creature who experiments with mankind. And then I thought “oh my god, an omnipotent, godlike, arrogant bastard who is toying with mankind, that’s Q!” So I tried to find out his details, and finally I got through to his manager, and his manager was like “no no, I don’t think he will do that.” But nevertheless, she showed it to John. And John’s wife Marnie, she was also in Star Trek, she really helped a lot. Together they were googling me, and they were like “hey man, I like what this guy is doing.” So John told his manager “hey, this is my rock opera! I’m 70 now, and I should go for this.” So he emailed me, “let’s Skype.”
And that was scary for me, talking to one of my heroes. Because that’s what he was, you know? I loved the Q episodes, The Next Generation, I’ve got the VHS still! I’ve watched them millions of times, so to suddenly be talking to that guy… And like you said, especially when he said “okay, I want to write my own narration,” and I had to really explain the story to him and what happened in the songs. He was like “what’s my intent? I really have to know.” I think for half a year we were skyping and he was sending ideas over asking whether I liked this thing, should it have more humour, less humour, and we just cooperated perfectly. Really, he worked on it for half a year, together with his wife. And he was so excited! He so loved to do it. He’s still mailing me now, “how are the reactions? When are we going to do it again?” What a great guy. It’s so great to meet your heroes and to find out that they are actually awesome people as well. You know, I’ve had the opposite too, where I met my heroes and it was a massive disappointment. But it’s so great when it’s not.
He did such an amazing job. I have some questions about the greater story of the Ayreon universe. One of the recurring themes in your work is the risk of over-reliance on technology, which comes to the forefront in songs like Computer Reign, Computer Eyes, and most of The Source as an album. Is that an active concern of yours?
Well, I grew up in a time before computers, and I found it such a great time, I have great memories. Of course, things are easier now, and faster, and cheaper, but are they better? I really doubt that. And there’s kind of a contradiction there, because I love science, I am very much a science guy. I watch a lot of science documentaries and I am very much in favour of them. But yeah, people relying too much on technology… I wouldn’t say it’s a fear of mine, but I wouldn’t want to be part of it. I mean, if you’d see my phone you’d laugh, it’s a 10-year-old Nokia, and that’s it. People keep yelling at me to get an iPhone, but I have resisted. So far.
I think there’s nothing wrong with separating the technologies.
True! In my studio, I wanted the newest of the newest. In fact, I just ordered it, I am going to get a whole new studio full of stuff. So I really am very contradictory in that way. Like now, with Coronavirus, we really have to rely on science and it’s really going to help us. But on the other hand, all the stupid conspiracy theories going around on social media. Oh my god, I don’t even want to know about it.
Agreed. But a new studio; I have been informed that the gearheads and techies in your audience would be really keen on some more tech and gear oriented videos. Would you be willing to do something like a studio tour once you have it all set up?
Maybe. I sort of really hate doing videos like that, although I know it doesn’t look that way because I’m always joking and laughing on them. But that’s basically because I hate it. All those jokes are for hiding behind. Also, in the studio, I have no idea what I’m doing. People explain how it works and what I have to do, and that’s it. If anything breaks down, I have no idea what to do about it. I don’t even know any of the names. People ask me which version of ProTools I have, and I have no idea, I really don’t. I know what I have to do, but that’s it. I have no idea if it would be useful to people to do this. But other people have also told me that they’d be interested, so I may just do it, explain to people how I make my drum sounds or my guitar sounds. I did it once. There was a record magazine who asked me to explain my guitar sound back in the Star One days. If you search youtube or google for ‘Arjen Lucassen guitar sound’ you should be able to find it. But yeah, maybe it’s something I should do.
Alright, we’ll take a maybe. Going back to the story questions, how did the overarching storyline of Ayreon come together? Did you just make it up as you went along or did you sit down to write out the lore of the Forever?
No, it really developed organically. Like I said, the first album was called Final Experiment because I really thought it would be my final experiment, and I had no idea that this would continue. So at that point, I just had that story, that was all I had, and my second album was totally different. Then I made Electric Castle, and it sort of had some similarities to the first album; there was an overarching thing. And suddenly all my albums started to come together. The story started developing itself. It wasn’t planned. I never plan; or rather, I do plan but I never stick to the plan. Really, when I start a project with a plan, I might find out I can’t sing it so I need singers. And then I think it will be an Ayreon, but if it doesn’t feel like an Ayreon, it might become a Star One. So I consciously keep changing my mind.
The same goes with a story. When I start a story I have no idea yet how it will end. Often the music guides me in some way. I still remember for instance that with the Human Equation I had no idea in the beginning about how it would end. And that makes it kind of exciting for me as well, to wonder “what’s going to happen in the next song?” I have no idea!
So the story develops organically along with the music.
True, and I really had to learn that. Because in the beginning, I wanted everything planned, even the melody lines for the singers. “That’s the melody line, that’s the way I wrote it, and you have to stick to it.” Same with lyrics: “Don’t change the lyrics, these are my lyrics!” And I really had to learn to let go of that. But I did, by working with total heroes, like Bruce Dickinson, or Fish; you know, those people who did their own thing and changed everything as they went along. I realised that their way was usually way better than what I had.
And you can’t tell your heroes not to change things, can you?
That’s exactly it, you know. The first time I almost wanted to say “Hey, stick to the melody!” but you don’t dare. And then later on, when you listen at home, you realise that it’s so much better.
Could you explain to me exactly how and why the Forever interfered in human evolution?
It’s quite simple really: Because of technology they have lost their emotions, they can’t feel emotions anymore. They are emotionally comatose. Things just happen, but there’s no more danger, no more positives, no more negatives. They remember from the old days that they used to have emotions, but they really can’t feel them anymore. They can explain what emotions are, but can’t feel them. So they want to create a race with emotions so that they can experience the emotions through them. That’s basically the story of the electric castle. I always start with science and then turn it into fiction, so the comet that destroyed the dinosaurs on earth 65 million years ago, that comet had DNA of the Forever, which led to the human race. The whole idea behind it is that they are trying to experience emotions again.
Alright! So now that we’ve had Earthlings, Martians, Forever, Alphans, and Emotions, where do you go from here, or is the storyline complete?
Well, before I did the source, my last Ayreon album, I did 01011001 which itself was kind of a conclusion. It wasn’t a total conclusion, so I wrote one more song called “The Memory Remains,” which was on the Timeline compilation album, sung by Jasper Stevelink. And basically that was the end of the story. And I told everyone “The circle is complete, and that’s it. I’m going to do something new now.” And again, I didn’t keep my promise. Because as I was working on The Source album, it felt so much like an Ayreon album. Basically, it was so much Ayreon that if another band had released it I could have sued them and won. So much Ayreon. And then I found the artwork by this French guy which just looked amazing, and it all fit together so well that I decided it should just be part of the whole Ayreon / Forever mythology. But where should it go? That’s always difficult, the time travel. So you go forwards or backwards, how does it work? So then I thought “maybe I can explain where the Forever came from, so let’s go back in time, all the way to the beginning.” How did the forever race get to where they are now? Why did they lose their emotions? What happened exactly? And so the Source album became a prequel.
Right now I think the story really is complete, it would be very complex to go back to that story again. So the last three years I have been working on a new project, which really is something totally different. It took this long firstly because it’s a huge project, and it involves more than music. Secondly, of course, I have all these live shows going on, and the release of the DVD, stuff like that I had to work on. But basically, the project is ready, and I can’t wait to release it, but with the ITEC DVD just released, and the virus thing going on, I don’t know if this is a good year for it. But yeah, it’s something very different again.
Interesting, that’s something for us to look forward to!
Yes I can’t wait to share it with you all! It’s terrible to wait. I am trying to convince the record company to release it this year, but I fully understand if they say it just can’t be done.
Well, fingers crossed and I’m sure everyone will be happy to see it whenever it arrives.
I hope so because it is really quite different. And that’s what I wanted now. Because, as I said, the Source album was so Ayreon I now felt like doing something so different, it might not even be Ayreon. I wanted to take a bit more of a risk this time.
Awesome! So are you going to keep up the live shows? I got a sense from the DVD that you and Joost are already considering where to go next.
Of course! Of course, we’re thinking about it. Maybe even more than thinking about it. But like I told you before, I keep changing my mind. So I have learned not to say things too early. But yes, we have specific ideas of where we would like to go, and we’re trying to find out if everything is possible. It’s such a success, there are so many happy people, we’ve got to do it again.
Do you have any bucket-list projects or musicians or other artists you would like to work with? I imagine that working with John de Lancie was a massive highlight, but is there anything else that just makes you think “maybe one day”?
Well, one of the dreams is of course a movie. But for a science-fiction movie, if your budget is 10 million euros they laugh at you. Movies nowadays cost like a hundred or two hundred million, especially these big sci-fi things. People often ask me why I don’t make a movie, to which I generally reply “sure, can you give me 50 million to go make the movie?” Crowdfunding can only get you so far, and funding in general can only get you so far. We’re only a small country. And of course, you have to find the right directors and producers and stuff like that, it’s so complicated. I have looked into it, of course. The dream would be if one of these big-time directors would say “hey, I love your album, I love Electric Castle, let’s do it. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be the Barbarian.” I would so be up for that.
It would be a total dream-come-true. Because my music is so visual, it’s very cinematic, it’s practically screaming for a release like that. But I also have to be realistic, my music is not commercial. And if you look at all the rock operas that have been made into movies, like The Who’s Tommy, they had big hits like “Pinball Wizard.” The Wall had a hit with “Another Brick in the Wall.” Jesus Christ Superstar had hits. The War of the Worlds had a big hit. But it’s commercial music, it’s for a mainstream audience. My music isn’t, so I have to keep that in mind. It’s going to be very hard, with my music, to reach a big audience.
I guess you’d need someone like Vin Diesel, who is also delightfully nerdy. I think The Chronicles of Riddick series has a similar feel to some of your work.
True! I actually made a song about that for Star One, but I didn’t use it. I think it was called something like “Don’t go out after Dark,” it was based on Pitch Black. I can’t even remember the lyrics now, somehow I didn’t use it. It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about it in ages. It was for the last Star One album, Victims of the Modern Age, so that’s more than ten years ago. But you’re right, you have to find that one influential nerd to make a project like this happen.
Speaking of nerds, the Trekkies of course will very much want to know if you’ve been watching Picard.
I always wait till a season has finished. I don’t want to wait for the next episode, I am terrible at that. When a season is finished I’ll watch the whole thing at two episodes per evening.
I believe the last episode has now aired, so you’re in luck.
Oh great, I can start!
And finally, do you have any suggestions for those who are struggling with social isolation, since you’re quite good at it?
Buy my shit? Laughs. Hey man, the new DVD has six hours of stuff, three hours of concert and three hours behind the scenes. That will kill some time for you.
No really, I think people should work on their creative side now. It may be a good thing for some people that they are forced to do this. I believe a lot of creative stuff will come out of this in the end. It’s a great way to spend your time. Time really flies when you’re being creative.
WORDS BY LORRAINE LYSEN