Rock operas are nothing new but merging it within a concept album mindset that has interconnecting themes on each subsequent release over many years pushes the approach substantially whilst also challenging yet deeply rewarding the most dedicated listener. As such, Ayreon falls into that unique category as an ongoing, evolving musical project by the incredibly talented Dutch musician Arjen Lucassen who has taken the next chapter of his works back into the science fiction realm. For his latest epic release, The Source, he has yet again brought in a list of contributing vocalists and guitarists of high stature to make the saga even more grandiose than the storyline alone. We spoke to Arjen about the continuing growth and ambitious nature of the Ayreon project. Bring a packed lunch.
Your latest album, The Source, is a serious body of work. How did you get everybody together? It must have been a challenge to line up schedules for the various album contributors.
Oh yeah, it is a logistical nightmare, I can tell you that and it is the downside of doing an Ayreon album; arranging all of these singers because the thing is that you’re never a priority because they are all busy with their own bands and especially this time where I’ve managed to get together the biggest singers in the world. It sounds arrogant but it is true. Be it James LaBrie of Dream Theater or Russell Allen of Symphony X and Tran-Siberian Orchestra or Floor Jansen of Nightwish; they are all extremely busy so it is really hard to get them to sing on the album. But when it happens and when it works when they come to my studio, it is magic and worth all the trouble.
Is it the case that once you’ve put together your vision for an album you then have to think about the personalities of various singers that you want to bring in to play characters?
Well the work I work is that I always start with the music. Little ideas come to me and I record them on something because at that point I’ll have no idea what the project is going to be but then I start assembling these little ideas. When they are about fifty of them I put them into the computer and take out the best ones then start working on them and then slowly a project develops. I always want to do a solo album, that’s how it starts but then it never materialises because I tend to think about placing singers in so it turns into an Ayreon project. I then let the music inspire me to come up with a story and once I have that within the music, I’ll go to my wish list of singers and pick those that fit the concept and the music. Once they’re confirmed, I’ll divide them over the album equally. For this album, all the singers are on about nine or ten songs each. Anyway, then the final step is to start writing lyrics and coming up with characters. I will actually write the lyrics and the characters based on the chosen singer. It is a weird way or working but for me it is less limiting to work this way.
One might have thought that you’d had enough after the eighteen month preparation that went into the live performance of The Human Equation.
Ha ha, you know, after an Ayreon album I am always saying, ‘Never again’ and I know that Tobias Sammet of Avantasia feels the same way. Every time he finishes a project he is like, ‘Oh my God, I am empty, never again!’ But then at some point the itch starts and you think about doing another one having forgotten about all of the bad things and just remembering all of the good things. So I will never give up Ayreon, it is my favourite project and I can put so much of myself into it. It will always continue until I drop.
Do you have a similar thinking when you look at side projects such as Guilt Machine or Star One once they start to take on a life of their own as well?
Yeah but the thing is that I could never do two Ayreon projects in a row as that would kill me so that is not an option. So after each Ayreon album I like to do a smaller project and mostly a side project is just taking one music style out of Ayreon and then concentrating on that. Usually it is with fewer singers and with Guilt Machine it is with only one singer. But yeah I really need that just to recharge the batteries.
This latest Ayreon project pushes the workload given you’ll be doing a concert in September with maybe 16 vocalists and eight to 10 instrumentalists?
I think there are about ten instrumentalists. Basically, the Ayreon Universe thing that I am going to do is not connected to this new album. It is really going to be a best of Ayreon so we’re going to play a minimum of two songs from each Ayreon album. Of course, this is a huge undertaking because it takes two years to set something like this up, especially because you have to arrange all of the singers again. You have to take a few free days in their schedules so you have to get in really early with that. I will be working on this for the rest of the year. Rehearsals have started and we are also going to be doing a lot of extra stuff because we can. We sold out three shows in one day and that was truly amazing but what it means is that we can put more time and money into the whole thing.
You’ve also been able to work with some amazing vocalists such as Bruce Dickinson, the late Steve Lee [Gotthard] and various other notable musicians. Do you get to pick their brains about what they do when they come in and contribute?
Well, you only see each other for two or three days and usually when they come to my studio, I’ll pick them up in the morning and take them to the studio to start working immediately and I’ll then drive them to their hotel. The next day will be working in the studio all day and then the day after that, you’ll finish things in the morning so in the evening I’ll bring them to the airport. So there is not much time to socialize unless we’re having dinner where we can talk about stuff. Mostly it is working in the studio. You’re both eager to get into the studio and get the work done. Having said that, I remember when Bruce Dickinson came to my studio and he only had to do one song. So, we started talking about our favourite music and once that happens, the end is lost because we grew up in the same time period so have the same musical roots. We went up to my music room and played albums all through the night and that was very cool to do that.
I suspect you had a similar connection with Keith Emerson, John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett and maybe even just recently with say Tommy Karevik of Kamelot? Ranging between established and sadly some deceased artists to younger artists no doubt influenced by the former, could you have imagined bringing in these sorts of names when you started out?
Oh man, not at all. As a kid when I was watching Monsters of Rock, watching Iron Maiden live or when I bought Number of the Beast back then, if you’d told me, ‘Hey, one day he’ll come to your studio to sing your song’ I would have said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure, pull the other one’. It is the same with Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson who are my two favourite keyboard players of all time and I grew up listening to them, buying everything they did. I never expected them to be interested in my music, let alone to play on it.
Both Russell Allen of Symphony X and Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian are brilliant front men. How do you bring them into your project’s vision and to some extent, discipline?
It is a different for each singer but luckily both Russell and Hansi like my music and that helps when they already know my music and enjoy it. I remember that Russell really liked Into the Electric Castle and I think that a journalist played it to him or something. He didn’t know me but called me and introduced himself. So that is great when a singer knows me because I don’t have to convince them. Similarly with Hansi as he loves my music and told me that a lot of Blind Guardian fans would tell him that they also like Ayreon and that is how he learned of my music. But when I want a singer who doesn’t know me it is really hard to convince them, especially if they are not from the metal or prog realm because metal and prog are still dirty words for some musicians unfortunately.
Yeah true but I am guessing that Dream Theater, Epica, Nightwish are doing pretty well and they know who you are. They have evidently been very happy to get on board.
Yes, James mentioned being keen to be part of it in a Dream Theater fanzine so once a fan told me that I was immediately going to get in there to ask him. So that made life a lot easier. Simone Simons [Epica] was a kid when I started and she listened to my music as a fan. I even remember here coming to me and saying that she used to love my music and that she would play when she was a kid. It is the greatness thing to get respect from fellow musicians who are also quite amazing fellow musicians.
As these vocalists have also performed alongside some impressive guitarists, it makes sense that you’ve also been able to obtain players such as Paul Gilbert initially from Racer X and Guthrie Govan of the quite incredible Aristocrats band.
It is amazing and I don’t know if they knew me but I contacted them through our record company [Mascot Label Group / Music Theories Recordings] who knew them. Again, if you’d told me in the 80s that Paul Gilbert was going to be on my album I would not have believed it. I heard Guthrie on the Steven Wilson song ‘Drive Home’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is beyond good’ and I have never heard such a good guitar player. I really think he is the best guitar player around at this time. Luckily someone of the American side of the record company knew him and brought me into contact with him and fortunately the part that I sent him inspired him.
Does ‘Star of Sirrah’ have Paul Gilbert playing on it? Who plays the solo on ‘The Dream Dissolves’?
Yes, the first one is Paul. The second song has Marcel Coenen [Sun Caged]. That solo is truly amazing. Guthrie is on ‘Planet Y is Alive’! It starts out a lite bit more David Gilmour-ish and then of course he goes for it with all of this weird stuff.
‘Into the Ocean’ is a very Rainbow or Dio inspired track. Was that intentional?
[Laughs]. It is never intentional, it just happens. Rainbow Rising is my favourite album of all time. Even the working title was Silver which was of course based on ‘The Man on the Silver Mountain’. Rainbow is my favourite band of all time with the Holy Trinity of Ronnie James Dio [vocals], Ritchie Blackmore [guitar] and Cozy Powell [drums]. That was amazing.
Speaking of drumming, you’re regular drummer is Ed Warby from Gorefest. It is unusual for the extreme metal genre to meet up with progressive metal consistently.
I was the same when people suggested him to me, I was like, ‘He’s a death metal drummer’, so I contacted him and he said, ‘Well, in the death metal world they hate me because they always call me the proggy’. So I agreed to try it out and actually he has such a wide taste in music. He is an emotional guy and can cry when he hears Emmy Lou Harris. That is the stuff that he listens to so yeah, he has a very open mind.
Would you say that in context of your back catalogue, is this latest album the one your most proud of given the work that went into it? How do you see it in regards to all your work thus far?
Not particularly which is not a clever thing to say when doing promo for a new album. What I mean is that I’m not more proud that other albums. I am proud of all of my Ayreon albums but I am not proud of all of the albums I did. I did some pretty crappy stuff in the eighties and early nineties when I was completely lost. But I am 100% behind all of my Ayreon albums so to say I am more behind this one to other ones would be wrong. I will only release an Ayreon album if I am 100% happy. I have my own studio and am my own boss. I license my music to the record company so I only send it out to them when I am perfectly happy with it. I always try to make a different album with Ayreon projects as opposed to better ones. So when my previous album was more of a prog album with members of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, this album is more of my rock album. It goes more back to the seventies, like you said with stuff like Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep.
Finally, I remember your old band Vengeance, believe it or not. Were you aware at the time of a Christian thrash metal band from the States with the same name?
I know, yeah. They had to call themselves Vengeance Rising at some point because there were some legal problems. Yeah, I remember that. It was very different stuff, absolutely.
Check out the new Ayreon track below: