Heart of Steel: Interviews

ARJEN ANTHONY LUCASSEN

Interviewed by Crashtest

 

Holland's own Arjen Anthony Lucassen has been in the business of making music for more than twenty years. From the early beginnings with metal band Vengeance, through the progressive project Ayreon, to the most recent metal project Star One, Lucassen has been involved in crafting excellent and engaging music. Lucassen, a multi-instrumental talent, originally formed Ayreon in 1994 and released the debut album, THE FINAL EXPERIMENT, the following year. ACTUAL FANTSAY followed in 1996, and the elaborate sci-fi concept album ELECTRIC CASTLE followed in 1998. ELECTRIC CASTLE spanned two discs and featured guest artists such as ex-Marillion singer Fish and the Gathering's Anneke van Giersbergen. Another double-disc effort followed in 2000 in the form of THE UNIVERSAL MIGRATOR, issued separately under the subtitles Part I: The Dream Sequencer and Part II: Flight of the Migrator. UNIVERSAL MIGRATOR featured even more guest appearances, most notably Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson and Russell Allen of Symphony X, plus current and former members of Gamma Ray, Primal Fear, Helloween, and Stratovarius. Ayreon albums are usually large-scale concept epics and sometimes rock operas, which require more than just a passive listener to be fully appreciated. In 2002, Lucassen released the excellent SPACE METAL album under the project name Star One. The interview which follows took place by phone on August 8, 2002.


First of all, I just want to say congratulations on the excellent SPACE METAL album. I know you've read the reviews at Metal Rules, [yep] so you know how we feel about it. I've got to tell you that SPACE METAL is definitely in the running for my top album of the year.

Well, that's great man!

 

So I wanted to know, what kind of reaction have you gotten from the music press and fans in other parts of the world?

Well, I haven't read any negative reviews yet. Of course, there are people who prefer Ayreon, because obviously this, for one, is much more direct and much heavier and not as varied as Ayreon is. Obviously there are a lot of Ayreon fans that prefer Ayreon, but I also have a lot of e-mails from some fans who prefer Star One, because it's more direct and straightforward.

 

Yeah. Obviously at a webzine with a name like Metal Rules, there are a lot of people here that like the heavier approach. Since I'm a fan of all kinds of music, including progressive, whether it's progressive metal or hard rock or whatever, I like [Ayreon and Star One] both a lot.

Yes, that's good.

 

When we first corresponded by e-mail you made reference to my review and the fact that I'd mentioned Boston and the song "Spaced Out" and you said it felt more like a Deep Purple vibe to you. Are there other bands that inspired the music on SPACE METAL?

Well obviously Deep Purple because of the Hammond organ stuff. [Right.] But also Ken Hensley, Laurens Hammond, the various Deep Purple spinoffs like Rainbow, Whitesnake. Mostly Rainbow, I guess. I love Rainbow. RAINBOW RISING is one of my favorite albums of all time.

 

I know that people sometimes, when they listen to music, they read their own feelings into it, but personally for me, I think one of the highlights of the album comes during "Starchild." Right at about the three minute mark you go into a little bit of a guitar solo with the keys going in the back and it made me think, "Wow, this kinda has a Pink Floyd feel to it."

Well, definitely Floyd is my biggest influence. Maybe not for this album, but definitely for Ayreon. Like you said, I'm sure that "Starchild" has it's Floyd influences.

 

I know that you also mentioned in your e-mail that the album cover was originally done for a Boston album. How did that come about?

Yeah, well I didn't know that. I was just browsing the internet to find a good cover to use for the album, because I didn't want to use the same artist that I use for Ayreon. I didn't want fantasy, I wanted science fiction. So I just punched in "science fiction" and "art" and I think I found about eighty artists. I looked at all their work and I came across this image by Vincent DiFate and I thought, "Wow, this is it." So I e-mailed him and it turns out that he's this really famous guy and he works for NASA. So I asked him if I could use this and he said that it hadn't been used before and so I could use it. Afterwards, he sent me a book with more images that he has published and in the book it says that the cover was originally planned for Boston. He didn't know why they didn't take it.

 

So this was something you actually sought out, you did the research on your own.

Yes.

 

I wanted to ask you about when you're in the early stages of planning your next Ayreon project or even the Star One project. In regards to getting together the guest musicians, especially with the singers, are these people that have contacted you because they want to make music with you, or are these people you contacted because you respect their work?

All of the above. Of course, in the beginning nobody knew me. In the beginning, most of the musicians I used were guys that I had already worked with. I knew them, they knew me, so that was easy. Then I started getting people who are kind of famous. Like Barry Hay of Golden Earring. I could get him. So with ELECRTIC CASTLE I tried to get Fish and I got him. On UNIVERSAL MIGRATOR I got Bruce Dickinson. But it's really hard to get them of course, because they have never heard of Ayreon. It was hard to convince them to listen to the music and to come over to my place or I go over to their place. Now I am in the luxurious position where singers and musicians are contacting me. So that's great.

 

That is. I was thinking about some of the musicians that have appeared on recent work. Russell Allen, definitely one of my favorite vocalists and from one of my favorite bands [Symphony X]. Ian Parry, Gary Hughes …

Actually, [Russell Allen] didn't know me. Michael Romeo, the guitar player from Symphony X, he liked my work very much. The webmaster from Symphony X told me this and I went "whoa". So I immediately sent some things over to Russell and he listened to it because he didn't know it. He finally listened to it and since that moment he has been on the phone and been like, "Hi, this is Russell and it's so amazing and it's so great and we should do something together." You know?

 

Right. A great voice. Are there any singers who you would like to work with in the future?

Yes, definitely. I usually make a list of my favorite singers, which is a list of about fifty singers. The problem with a lot of them is that they're dead. [Laughs] [Right, yeah. Laughing.] That makes it kind of hard. Guys like John Lennon. Then there are really big names like Paul McCartney or Robert Plant and I just can't get in touch with them, you know. Yeah, but there are a lot of singers that I would like to work with. Ronnie James Dio is my favorite singer of all time. I have actually met him and he was very interested and he listened to my CD and he knew my work, but I haven't convinced him yet.

Well, that is something to look forward to if that can ever work out.

Then there are guys like my teenage idol, Alice Cooper. I grew up a member of his fan club. So, I mean, the list is endless.

 

With the success of Star One, will there be another album and will it continue with the heavier, direct approach?

Yeah, I guess so. Originally, it wasn't planned that way. It was just a way of blowing off steam. I did a project called "Ambeon" and it was a softer project. It was a young singer and I was behind the computer for a year. I had to blow off some steam with some heavier songs. Originally this was going to be a Bruce Dickinson solo album, but a lot of things went wrong there. I talked about it on the internet. Bruce Dickinson's manager cancelled the whole thing off and it was kind of sad. But now the Star One album has become a big success and it has sold very well. It's my first album for InsideOut. They did a great job and I am very satisfied with the results. So, I will definitely do another Star One project, but first I will do the Ayreon. I'm looking forward to doing an album again which is very varied, with a lot of different styles on it. Something acoustic, folky, progressive, symphonic and electronic. Then I think that after the next Ayreon I am going to feel like doing a metal album again. I'm going to combine these two styles.

 

I'm kind of curious, speaking in the science fiction area, are you familiar with any of Orson Scott Card's work?

I'm sorry, who?

Orson Scott Card. He wrote "Ender's Game" and several books for that series. He has won several major awards. If you haven't, I recommend that you check it out.

The strange thing is, I've never read a book in my life. It's strange.

 

Well, he lives pretty close to me and I know that over the past several years it's been in the works to make the first book of the series into a film. So if you ever get the itch to sit down and read, this would be a good one. Excellent science fiction.

I'm sure that one day I will, but right now I wouldn't know when. [Laughs.]

 

Right. [Laughs] I can understand. You've got a lot going on with the tour and everything.

Usually I just read the music magazines. I love to keep up with what's happening.

Speaking of the tour, I know that it starts up in less than two months. It's gonna be in Holland, Germany and Belgium. I understand the first show has already sold out.

It sold out, which is great. The second show is almost sold out. I haven't toured in like, ten years.

 

I was gonna ask you how long it had been since you played live.

Yeah, it's been ten years. It was with the last band I had, which was Vengeance. It was like, ten years ago, I think. Yes. So, it's a real big step for me. I never wanted to do it and I couldn't do it with Ayreon, with all the different layers in the music. I'd have to be onstage with like, fifteen people or something. The Star One album screams out to be played live, you know. It can be played live. It can be done. So, I think the record company talked me into it with the, "So, when are you going to do your tour with Star One?" You know? [Laughs.] So, I thought, "Why not?" I started calling up some of the guys and they were all saying, "Yeah, great." Everyone I contacted about it was very enthusiastic about it. So it's gonna take place finally!

 

Speaking for the fans in this part of the world, we're all pretty jealous of the fans in that area who are going to get to see this.

Yeah, I know. [Laughs.] I get a lot of e-mails from people who want me to come to the US. This tour and these shows are going to be extremely expensive. To fly all these things all over the world and then they all have to learn these songs.

 

On my way to work this morning, as I was thinking about what we'd talk about, I thought, "Is there any way this could ever be possible?" The thing that came to mind was the ProgPower USA festival. They also do it in Europe and I know Symphony X has done it and I thought, "Boy, wouldn't that be a dream?"

But still, it would be expensive. Maybe it can be done. With so many fans in the US and with so many people asking me and also venues, festivals … "When are you coming over?" I think I first want to see how this tour goes. I'm going to invest a lot of money in the shows. I'm building a big stage, with a spaceship and a Stargate. Some projections. Let's first see how this goes. A lot depends on these shows. If it's a big success, a lot of people show up. Then I know more and I know if it's possible.

 

Great. I've got both sets of hands with the fingers crossed, hoping that it works out for you so that we can see you over here. [Both laugh.] So, of the shows that you are playing, how much of that will be dedicated to playing Star One and are there any particular songs that are just screaming out, that just have to be played?

Songs of Star One, you mean?

Yeah.

Yeah, well, the opening songs like "Set Your Controls" and "High Moon" are great songs to play live. I think all of the songs need to be played live though, but obviously I'm going to do a lot of Ayreon stuff also. I think it will be 1/3 Star One stuff and 2/3 Ayreon stuff, but focusing on more of the heavier material of Ayreon. In a way, it will be Star One covering Ayreon. That way it makes it possible, because I can't be doing these Ayreon songs with all these different instruments. Like the violin, cellos. Many instruments that I can't do live, so I'm gonna have to cover the songs and then change them, for a Star One setting. Bass, drums, guitars, keyboards. You know?

OK, so when you say "Star One covering Ayreon", you literally mean like a totally different band adapting the songs to their own style.

Yes, the Ayreon songs will sound different than they do on the albums. The Star One album can be done live, but the Ayreon ones can't be done like they are on the albums. We're gonna have to make different arrangements and stuff.

 

I was surfing your website yesterday and the most recent news update is that you are working on a support band for the tour. Are there any updates on that front?

Oh no, no. We decided not to do that. It was going to be Vanden Plas, because they made a great album and they are also on InsideOut, but it turned out that there is just not enough room for them on the stage. I have seven musicians in the band right now. I need a lot of space onstage and we're gonna build this dιcor. Like I said, Stargate and this spaceship thing. So there will be no space for a support band. Also, we need a lot of tracks on the mixer, on the mixing board. So we decided not to do a support act.

 

Yeah, well you've got plenty of your own material, between Ayreon and Star One.

Yeah, we will play just a bit longer.

 

Speaking about singers and musicians, who all is going to make it for the tour?

Well, it's gonna be, on drums, Ed Warby, who played on Star One and the last Ayreon album. He's amazing. He's a machine. It's a good feeling to have him behind me. On bass guitar, it's gonna be a guy who is in his fifties now and he also played on the first Ayreon album, Peter Vink. Also, on keyboards, that was a big problem because I couldn't find anyone, but I found this nineteen year old guy, in a band called Sun Caged. He's an amazing talent, Joost van den Broek. So it's great. The band is from all these generations. The keyboard player is nineteen, the drummer in his thirties, me in my forties and the bass player in his fifties.

 

Russell Allen will be there, is there anyone else on the Star One album that will be there?

Yeah, Damian Wilson. Luckily, because he is very important to Ayreon and Star One. Unfortunately, Dan Swano, who sang on the Star One album, he can't because he is working in this music shop and he already took two months off to record his new album. A long-time friend of mine, called Robert Soeterboek, he has a very low voice and he also sang on most of my albums. He'll do the parts that Dan Swano did. Also, Floor Jansen, the lead singer for the gothic rock band After Forever, who also did the backing vocals on the Star One album. We were looking for a second singer, to sing backing vocals with her and it turns out that her sister has an amazing voice.

 

So it will be a pretty full stage.

Yes, we will also have a flute player.

 

Well, that was about it for the questions that I had, but I have some questions that some of the readers at Metal Rules had wanted me to ask you. So if I might.

Of course.

Somebody had asked about the significance of the twisted metal symbol on the SPACE METAL album. After they asked me about that, I kinda looked at it and I turned it around and looked at it again and thought that it looks like it says "Star One".

Right, it does. It was very ingenious. It was done by the guy who does the layout.

Did you go to him with an idea, or …

No, actually, it's Mattias Noren. He did a lot of artwork for Arena and Wolverine and stuff. He did the logos and stuff on the front cover. And I was thinking exactly the same thing. I was like, "what's this weird thing doing here all the time … what is this and what does it have to do with my album?" [Laughs.] And then, exactly the same as you, I looked at it closely and I said, "Whoa, it says 'Star One'!" It's very ingenious.

 

Yes, it is. One fan mentioned that he has met you at a festival in the past and he mentioned that you sometimes play guitar with an old Dutch coin. [I do. I still do.] Is that something you do when you're trying to achieve a certain sound or feel?

Yes. I still think that sound is more important than being fast or something. At first, I had this huge plastic pick and it played very easy. I started going smaller and smaller to get this heavier sound and most of the time I didn't have a pick with me. So I just used this Dutch coin, this five cents coin. And it sounded like, really heavy, like heavy metal. And I thought, it's harder to play with a coin because you can't play the solos really fast, but I think the sound is more important, so I just kept on playing with this coin. The only problem now, is that we went to the Euro and the Euro is horrible to play with. [Both laugh.] I had to collect a lot of these old five cent coins.

Yeah, I think the person who had asked that mentioned that he had sent you several of them. [Yeah, yeah.] In fact, I think he said he sent you, like four hundred. [There were a lot of them.] That's a high number!

Yes!

 

Somebody else wanted to ask about the hidden track, "Intergalactic Laxative", that is on the bonus disc. I know you had mentioned that song to me in your e-mail, but who is that singing and tell me about that song.

Well, um, I love the 60s and I really like the music they made in the 60s. Of course, the Beatles, but also the Kinks and the Monkees. And also Donovan. I also bought a lot of Donovan albums, and he was this real hippie and, on one of his album, called COSMIC WHEELS, with sort of this space concept, he had this song called "Intergalactic Laxative." And I always played this song and it always made me laugh. I would play it for people and laugh and say, "This is Donovan!" I love those lyrics. And also, on this concept album, InsideOut asked if we could make this a double album. Did I have any bonus tracks? I did have a couple of these tracks, but not enough. So I thought, well maybe I can add something. I only had a day before I had to send it to InsideOut, so I thought maybe I could do something funny. Suddenly, this Donovan song came up and I thought, "Ah, what the hell." So I put on my microphone and got my acoustic guitar and did it in like five minutes. [Wow. Laughs.] Just very quickly. And InsideOut was like, "Wow, this is really weird." [Both laugh.]

 

Well, I think it's hilarious and if you did that in five minutes …

Well, I said, "This is so funny, we have to do it." And so they said, "OK, we'll just put it on as a hidden track." I've had so many comments on it. Even more comments than on the regular tracks. It's funny and I'm really glad I did it. I can't do something like that with Ayreon because Ayreon is over the top. Huge. I can't do something funny like that. I think it fits here.

 

I think in my review [of SPACE METAL], I mentioned that "Spaced Out" and "Inseparable Enemies" were strong enough to be on the first edition, the regular album. Was that something that was just because of limitations, like, how much you wanted to put on the regular release?

No, somehow I felt like the songs didn't belong with the other songs. I don't know why. They were a bit too straightforward, or a bit too simple. That song, "Inseparable Enemies", I still don't like it. I remember we were recording vocals with Russell [Allen] and we just didn't like it. We couldn't come up with something better. So at this point we were like, let's just record it and maybe we won't use it. And "Spaced Out", I don't know. It's an old song. I wrote it ten years ago, so I don't know, maybe I didn't have the right feeling with that song. So the idea of the bonus disc came and I said, "Why not, I can throw them on the bonus disc."

 

Well, I'm glad you did because I really like them and I've recommended to anyone who has asked me, to get the limited edition if you can find it.

Well, it's definitely worth it, with "Hawkwind Medley". Yeah, definitely.

 

Just a couple other questions here that people wanted me to ask. Somebody mentioned that there might be a screenplay for THE FINAL EXPERIMENT. I don't know if that's true, but there's been maybe a screenplay written for a possible film?

Yeah, an American girl named Lori. She wrote a screenplay, but it never turned out, unfortunately. Then there is, here in Holland, in the women's prison, they made a stage play of it. [OK. Laughs.] And it's really funny, you know. Of course, the audience can't walk away because they are prisoners, you know. [Both laugh.] So that's a good thing. But then, all the actors are women too, so you got women with a beard. But, it's great. Very well done.

 

So you actually went and watched the performance?

No, but I read about it in the paper and I said, "What's this?" As it turns out, they were afraid to ask me to use it and stuff. Then I saw the video. They video taped the whole thing and it was really [laughs] really great. [Both laugh.] And then there was this guy who was gonna do an animation movie for ELECTRIC CASTLE, my third Ayreon album. [Right.] And he did everything. We had the contacts, he paid the advance and everything was arranged. Then, unfortunately, at the last moment everything was cancelled. But, I still think that my music is not commercial, you know. And it would cost a lot of money to make it into a movie, or screenplay or whatever. So, I think you can do that when you've got a couple of hits on it. Like WAR OF THE WORLDS had the hits, and THE WALL had the hits, and TOMMY had the hits. I think my music is too cult for this, maybe that's why it never turned out.

 

OK. Well, just one other question that a friend of mine was dying to ask you. Are there any albums that have been released this year that have really stood out to you, that have made up a lot of your listening experience?

Um, this is going to be so hard.

I know on your website you had mentioned the new Vanden Plas album?

Yes, that was a really good album. The problem is, I've got my roots in the 70s and the 60s, you know. That's still the kind of music I listen to. Nowadays, it's really hard for me to listen to music as a fan. I listen to music as a musician and I hate that, you know. So I like the new Vanden Plas, but I wouldn't play it so much like I used to play Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, that kind of stuff. So, there's a lot of stuff I like now, as a musician. Even stuff like, Rammstein. The production is so amazing, you know, such an amazing production. There are a lot of InsideOut bands that are really great. Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, Dream Theater, of course. I like all these bands as a musician, but as a fan, it's hard. I buy like, Robert Plant, and enjoy it as a fan.

 

Yeah, that's one I haven't picked up yet. The new Robert Plant.

It's not that great, actually.

That's what I've heard. I thought, maybe I'd find somebody who would let me borrow it to check it out first, but …

Yeah, and it's really not that great. The same with the last Rush, you know. I bought it almost immediately, without listening to it, and then I was disappointed. And that's too bad.

 

Well, let me ask your opinion on a progressive band. When I mentioned that SPACE METAL was up there for my album of the year, and I don't know if you are very familiar with them, but it's the band Pain of Salvation.

Yeah, well that's amazing.

Their new album, it's absolutely incredible. It's like, I'm fighting inside my head here thinking, "OK, which one is it?" Because when it's time to come out with my list of the best of 2002, [Laughs.] which one is it gonna be?

Yeah, they're very good. I saw them live. Also, I've got all their albums here. They have a great singer. I also saw him doing keyboards and guitars for the Transatlantic tour. Yeah, an amazing musician.

 

Well, Arjen, I sincerely thank you for your time. I know there will be a lot of people excited to be reading the interview. Is there anything else you wanted to mention or announce before we wrap things up here?

No, I think we pretty much covered everything.

 

OK, super. I wish you the best of luck and I really hope this tour really generates a lot of interest and results in you going out on the road more.

Yeah, I'm kinda nervous, I have to say. There are a lot of things to arrange and a lot of things that can go wrong, but we'll see what happens.

 

Well, good luck and take care.

Thanks. Goodbye.

 

 

Links of interest:
Offical website: http://www.ayreon.com/
JP's review of SPACE METAL  /  CrashTest's review of SPACE METAL

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