Interview by Mark Lacey
‘The whole glam rock thing of the early seventies with the Sweet, T Rex, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Slade and stuff like that, had so much impact on me. That’s when I decided to be a musician’.
For over forty years, Arjen Lucassen has gained an enviable international reputation for his dynamic progressive musical endeavours. His main band for most of his career, Ayreon, has seen him experiment with every style of music imaginable, and in the process entertaining and challenging his many fans throughout that journey. For his latest project, Supersonic Revolution, Arjen revisits his formative years, and takes a nostalgic trip down memory lane to celebrate the sounds and colourful innovators of the seventies that inspired him to become a musician in the first place.
MGM: What makes a musical project an Arjen Lucassen project? And what defines your sound, do you think?
Arjen: Usually it’s huge concepts. With my main project, Ayreon, it’s basically rock operas with guests from all over the world, preferably famous guests. I get to work with my heroes like Bruce Dickinson and Steve Vai and it’s amazing. It’s dreams coming true. I grew up in the seventies, so the seventies are definitely my formative years. That’s where my roots lie. So, I guess you’ll hear a lot of that back in my music, especially instrumentation like the old Hammond and the old analogue synths and real guitars with real amps and stuff. But I do like to think that I’m not stuck in the past. I like to work with young people who teach me a lot and who bring a new sound, a new feel to the music I grew up with.
MGM: Supersonic Revolution is a new project for you. So, where do you think this project fits against the wider repertoire of music that you’ve done?
Arjen: Ayreon has loads and loads of styles. It has folk, it has metal, it has prog, it had classical music, electronic music, pop music, even jazz. But every now and then, I do side projects which just focus on one of these styles. I have a project called ‘Star One’ that basically focuses on the on the metal side. Then I have ‘Guilt Machine’ which is more atmospheric, and a project called ‘Ambeon’, which is more electronic etc. And I guess this album is more focused on the classic rock side.
MGM: I understand the roots of this project started with being asked to provide a cover version for a German magazine, right? How did it go from there to becoming so much bigger? And how did you go about finding the other musicians to work with on this project?
Arjen: I’ve worked with hundreds of people, but for this project I wanted to just work with Dutch guys, especially because the cover had to be ready within a week. I went to WhatsApp and I was like, okay, who are the best musicians who can do this within a few days? I contacted four of them and they all said, ‘Great man, we don’t have time, but we’ll make time for you’. I’m a perfectionist. Even if Steve Vai sends me something, I’m like, ‘Maybe this could be different’. So, I was like, can we do this within a week? And they sent it to me and it was just brilliant. They’re intelligent musicians. I didn’t have to tell them anything, I didn’t have to change anything. I got all their parts in and within a few days, the song was ready. It was just fun. We have this WhatsApp group and we have this Dutch humour of insulting each other.
It was such fun. We thought it would be a shame if that was it, so let’s do a whole album. At first, we thought should we do cover versions. And I was like, no I don’t want to be a cover band; let’s write our own songs. Let’s write one song and see what happens. And that turned into recording a whole album.
MGM: There’s actually four cover versions on this album. Was that intentional? Or were you just giving yourself options to choose from for the magazine?
Arjen: It’s a very simple answer. We had eleven songs and of course we do vinyl. The fans love vinyl. It was too much for one vinyl album and it was a bit sad for two vinyl albums, so I just needed more songs and we didn’t have them. We just picked three covers from the seventies that we all like and that we think we can do a better version of, or at least a very different version.
MGM: This project might have started as a one-off session, that turned into something fun. But did it feel like a band from the beginning?
Arjen: Not at all. It was just, let’s record this one song. We didn’t even have a name. I’m a big Star Trek fan, so that cover version was actually released as Arjen Lucassen Federation. The sad thing is, the abbreviation of that is ALF. And if you look at it as Alien Life Form, that’s cool, but everybody just sees the funny hand puppet.
Stupidly enough, we put it on Facebook on the 1st April. So, I realised we cannot do that. We’re having a lot of fun, but we take it very seriously. So eventually, I took a few words from the lyric ‘Golden Age of Music’, which I thought fit well. It’s kind of arrogant, but I like that.
MGM: Now you mention that song, ‘The Golden Age of Music’; that song felt quite autobiographical in a way. Especially the lyrical reference to “Living out your dreams”.
Arjen: Totally, yeah. That part was about The Sweet. They had so much impact on me; the whole glam rock thing of the early seventies with the Sweet, T Rex, David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Slade and stuff like that. That’s when I decided to be a musician. It’s very autobiographical, but the whole album is a trip down memory lane and it’s based on all those things that made an impact on me when I was in my teens.
MGM: What was the music scene like in Holland in the seventies?
Arjen: It was good. Funnily enough, it was a lot of prog stuff like Focus, Supersister, and Alquin. I was in a band myself in the seventies, which was total crap. Some people just found a demo of it and put it on YouTube. I was like, oh my God! I’d just played two years of guitar and it was pretty bad. It even ended up on the compilation album. I was fine with it …. sins of the past.
MGM: One of the great touring bands of the seventies was, of course, Deep Purple. You can feel their influence with the Hammond on this album, and you’ve also covered one of Roger Glover’s songs, ‘Love is all’. How did Deep Purple influence you at the time?
Arjen: Well, the glam rock of the early seventies was the reason I wanted to get into music, but I didn’t want to learn how to play an instrument. I was in what we call a ‘play back’ band in Holland where Alice Cooper was playing, and we were miming to the song. We were pretty successful. We played at a lot of schools but I didn’t want to learn to how to play guitar. I was twelve at the time and we played at a school. One of the older pupils came to me and he said ‘Sure, all this glam rock is fun, but here is real music’. And he gave me ‘Made in Japan’ by Deep Purple. I heard that and that was a game changer. That was like, okay, I’m going to buy a Fender; an imitation of an imitation, because I couldn’t afford it. That’s what I want to do; to play guitar. And, Blackmore was the reason I started playing guitar.
MGM: The title of this album is ‘The Golden Age of Music’ but what did you want this album to say; musically and lyrically?
Arjen: I suppose my other projects are big stories; rock operas or big science fiction stories about the end of the world. And with this one, I just wanted to have fun. I didn’t want to bother with all these guest musicians and these complicated stories. I just wanted to celebrate my youth. But I didn’t want it to sound like the seventies because that’s been done. I can’t make another ‘Kashmir’, or ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or another ‘Stargazer’. That was just magic in those days. So, it’s about the seventies, and it’s played on instruments that were around in the seventies. There’s a lot of Hammond and real stuff; no samples, no digital amps. I had all these young people in the band. The guitar player is half my age, so he has totally different influences. I like that combination of old and new.
When I hear our guitarist, it’s like Oh, my God. It’s scary. He has these long notes that really scream, so there’s a lot of emotion in it. There’s a lot of the guitar players who are just shredding or just fast, but there’s so much in it there.
MGM: From hearing the music and seeing the band together in your press photos, it looks like you’re having a great time with these musicians, and have real camaraderie. Was this album written and recorded together in the studio? So much music seems to be done via the internet these days.
Arjen: No, it was not together, because working on that cover version, which had to be done within a week, we couldn’t arrange a studio. It was too late. So, everyone recorded it at their home. But it just worked. We wanted it to sound as if it was recorded in a room, like the live album ‘Made in Japan’ by Deep Purple. We wanted to capture that spirit, but it was not recorded together. Of course, in the late seventies and early eighties we did that; you didn’t have the option to record one by one. We recorded albums in one or in two days, playing all the songs together. But I’ve become such a perfectionist I wouldn’t want to work that way anymore. Maybe someday for fun.
MGM: The world has become such a much smaller place, hasn’t it? Now you can call on musicians from anywhere in the world to create music, and in some cases the musicians might never actually perform the songs together.
Arjen: I always want the singers at my studio. No matter where they come from, even Bruce Dickinson, I fly them all to my studio and I want to have them next to me. I don’t want to have them stand in some booth somewhere. I want personal contact. If something doesn’t work out, you grab a guitar. Try this. Yeah, that’s cool. I love to work that way.
MGM: Talking about the songs on the album, the second track ‘Glamattack’ is a really fun song, with incredible musicianship. And the video is so full of colour and really vivacious. That would be interesting to see how that could translate to a live stage.
Arjen: The first verse is about T Rex, second verse is about the Sweet, the third verse is about Alice Cooper and then the last verse is about David Bowie. It’s nothing deep. What did I want to say with these lyrics? Nothing. There’s no message, nothing. I mean, if you go to my Ayreon stuff there’s all these layers and all these messages about the end of the world and where we’re going wrong and stuff like that. But this time it is what it is. It’s about what made an impact on me in the seventies.
MGM: One of the other great things about this album is the mixture of upbeat, really fun, dynamic music, but then you’ve got other songs like ‘Odyssey’, which has a more complex landscape feel, and it’s quite otherworldly.
Arjen: That’s about Apollo 13, and the failed moon landing. So, otherworldly is good. I think that’s the song that’s closest to my main project, Ayreon, and it’s the most proggy. If you write a song about a spaceship that hardly makes it home, you can’t make it fun.
MGM: Ayreon are about to play a handful of live shows in Tilburg performing your seventh studio album ‘01011001’ which is binary for Y. Historically, you’ve not really been a live band, although these annual shows are starting to gain momentum. What can fans expect from these dates?
Arjen: It’s funny because I’d been touring for 15 years through the seventies and eighties. And at some point, I was sick and tired of it. It’s not what I want to do, I want to be creative. So, I created the Ayreon project and I swore that it would never play live, ever. So, the first 20 years, indeed, we didn’t play live, but then someone made a theatre production of one of the Ayreon albums, which was sold out within five minutes. We were like, oh my God, let’s do a live show. So, in 2017 we did the first Ayreon ‘Best of’ live show, which was sold out. So now we’re trying to make it a bi-annual event. Every two years we play live and this time we sold 15,000 tickets within five minutes. It was crazy.
MGM: If you’re not someone that enjoys the live performance, and prefer the producing and creating, how do you get yourself into the right mental space to be able to perform on the live stage?
Arjen: I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have the keyboard player, who is the brain behind all this. I come with the ideas. I have the vision, and he makes it come true. For myself; the first few shows I tried to play, but it’s just not in my system anymore. Basically, I have a small part in these shows; just singing a couple of songs.
MGM: Performing on a stage can leave you feeling quite exposed, especially if it’s something you don’t naturally enjoy. That must be quite daunting too.
Arjen: It’s terrible. It’s awful. I had the same in the seventies when I started. But then you get the routine. Once I had it, I wasn’t nervous anymore and I played really well, but the fun was gone. The danger of stage fright has its allure. But now with Ayreon, it’s still five months away, and I’m already dreading the moment that I come on stage, because it’s not something I’m good at. I’m good at composing and producing and getting the right people together. But I’m not a good singer at all. I just fake it. I just come on stage and people like that I’m there and they kind of accept the fact that I can’t really sing. I just hire all the great singers and they do the dirty work for me.
MGM: You’ve got an array of really interesting musicians and vocalists that are performing with you on that Ayreon show including Timo, Joost and Jaycee who are part of the Supersonic Revolution project. What can sort of fans expect to see from that show when you take it live?
Arjen: Last time we did the ‘Into the Electric Castle’ album, this time we do the ‘01011001’ album. We’ll play that whole album in its entirety and then we do three encores, which are still surprises. They’re from other projects, not Ayreon.
MGM: Given your thoughts about performing, it doesn’t sound like putting Supersonic Revolution on a live stage is something that will interest you.
Arjen: No. It is possible, let’s put it that way. I mean, we can all play it, we’re all from Holland, everyone wants to do it. Obviously, this year it’s no option because we have the live shows and it’s going to be huge with lasers and lights and surround sound. So, we’re going to be working on that all year. Then we’re going to release a DVD of it, which we also did with the previous shows. I’ll be working on that. So, after that I’ll be busy for a year with this and then we’ll see what happens. If this album is successful and people like it, we could do a small tour.
MGM: Do you think there’s an opportunity to get together with this group of musicians to play another album? Having done the seventies, maybe you could cover another era of music?
Arjen: I’ve been thinking about that! I already did a sixties album called ‘Strange Hobby’, which is taken from a Pink Floyd lyric, so the next one would have to be eighties, but I’m not a big fan of the eighties. But I’m sure there’s enough stuff to find there. But, we’d all love to do another one, but I’m not going to do another album about the seventies.
MGM: Going back to Ayreon, apart from these live shows in September, so do you have any plans to write or record any more music? It’s been three years since your last studio album ‘Transitus’.
Arjen: I always plan, but I never stick to the plan. Right now, I’m doing two other projects. I’m actually writing, recording and producing an album for other artists; a male artist and a female artist. I’ll be working on that. I’ll be working on the live DVD. But definitely there will be another Ayreon album at some point.
MGM: Just before we go; you’ve now been working in the music industry for the best part of 45-50 years. You’re a hugely creative mind, so what is it that continues to inspire you and keep you mentally stimulated enough to keep writing and producing?
Arjen: I’m still smiling and still standing. It’s very simple. It’s the love for music. I don’t want to be stuck in the past. I’m always looking for new music. Every night at 10pm, I turn on YouTube and I check out all the new stuff. I heard everything before. I don’t like all the aggressive stuff, I don’t like all the auto-tune stuff, so it’s hard to find good stuff. And mostly at the end of watching stuff for an hour, I’m like, that was cool, but I would do it like this. And then I grab the guitar and try to create the music that I would like to hear myself, but I can’t find. That’s what keeps me going.