Ayreon, the musical project masterminded by Dutch musician Arjen Anthony Lucassen has amassed a rabid fan-base and lots of accolades attention since the arrival of the debut album “Actual Fantasy”. Arjen has crafted an entire fantasy universe in which we can be immersed for hours, with multiple stories and connections between albums, achieving a sci-fi story that’s in most cases better than anything Hollywood has to offer.
On top of that, Lucassen always manages to get different artists and vocalists for each release, relying on the talents of the hottest names in the current rock & metal scene to join his next adventure. The upcoming album “Transitus” will be out next September 25th, and it is built around an entirely new story, not connected to the Ayreon universe although as always it does have some subtle links. The sci-fi theme makes way for a gothic ghost story set (partly) in the 19th century with elements of horror and the supernatural, narrated by one of the most iconic and recognizable voices in sci-fi history, most known from his eight-year stint as Doctor Who, Tom Baker. As with any Ayreon album, it is an explosive and expansive affair and features Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) as Daniel and Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber) as Abby. The all-star cast also features Simone Simons (Epica), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman, Johanne James (Threshold), Noa Gruman (Scardust), Marcela Bovio (MaYan), Caroline Westendorp (The Charm the Fury), Paul Manzi (Arena), Michael Mills (Toehider) and Amanda Somerville (Avantasia, Trilium) amongst many others.
With the excitement rising as the release date approaches, contributor Alejandro Melgar took the opportunity to catch up with Arjen, via a phone interview. Read the transcript of the interview below, and remember that for more interviews and other daily content, make sure to follow Sonic Perspectives on Facebook, Flipboard and Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified about new contents we publish on a daily basis.
Let’s start talking about ‘Transitus’, your brand new album that is about to be released. In your initial statements you mentioned that when you started composing the material, it was acquiring a dark tone and different from what you had done so far. Did you originally think about releasing it under another name?
Yeah. Well, originally it was planned as a movie, so it wasn’t going to be an Ayreon album at all. It was one of my dreams to one day make a movie, so this whole album was written with the whole movie in mind. Of course, then the whole Corona thing stared, which makes it impossible to make a movie, you know. Firstly, it’s very hard to get funding for a movie these days, and secondly, you can’t shoot a movie, you can’t be with too many people together at the same time.
So how did it ended up being a part of Ayreon’s history?
Well, it’s not a part of the Ayreon’s story, it’s totally a separate story. The record company said, “it definitely sounds like an Ayreon album”. It has all this fantasy things going, the concept, the different musicians, so they said “we can definitely release this as an Ayreon album”. That’s what progressive is all about, you know? Not to repeat myself.
The album follows an independent story and not connected with the Ayreon universe, but the fans know that this will not be entirely like that, there will always be some small connection. Listening to it I found some “easter eggs” (the Electric Castle painting, and some Human Equation bits), but beyond that, I didn’t find a direct connection like on other albums. Is there something that I am missing?
Yeah of course! If you look at the comic books, there are a lot of paintings on the walls, and there’s definitely Ayreon references, there’s the “Electric Castle”, there’s also “The Theory of Everything”, and if you look at the ending when they enter “The Great Beyond”, it’s the cover from “The Human Equation”. I’m sure fans will have their conspiracy theories as always (laughs).
(Laughs) Of course, yeah! But there’s something else related in the story or it’s just something to tease the fans?
A little bit of both. There’s also the idea of the ending in “The Great Beyond” being inside of the mind of the main character in “The Human Equation”.
For Ayreon, you always manage to get a “dream team” with some of the best vocalists of the moment. There are some who have already appeared several times (Tommy Karevik, Mike Mills, Marcela Bovio, etc) but “new faces” always appear. What would the selection process be like in your mind to get certain people? Do you compose with them in mind?
Actually, it’s very different for each album. Usually, I first write the music, then I let the music inspire me to come up with a story, then when I have the music and the story, then I think of the singers who may fit with the music. Then I contact the singers, let’s say I have 10 singers so I define them over the album, and then I base the lyrics and the melodies of the singers on the singers themselves. I know it’s complicated (laughs). For example, if you take “Into the Electric Castle”, it wasn’t like I have written the story and there was a highlander in the story so I needed someone Scottish, it was the other way around, Fish said he will be on the album so I wrote the Scottish highlander into the story, so basically that’s how it works. For “Transitus” it was very different. Because it was gonna be a movie (and maybe it IS gonna be a movie!), I specially picked the singers so that they also could act in the movie. So I wanted the singers to be charismatic, I wanted them to fit the personalities of the characters, so It was a little bit different this time.
Yeah! I don’t know if you’re gonna make some more videos but I even saw the singers dressed in character in some of the promos.
Yeah yeah, about a year ago we make a trailer for the movie and everyone was in character, so we have the Angel of Death with the wings, and the Furies all dressed in red, Tommy all dressed in white, so yeah we made a video clip that should be released on September 25th, and also we shot some other video clips and lyric videos. Some of them are already released, like ‘Get Out!’ with Dee Snider and ‘Hopelessly Slipping Away’, and soon we will release another lyric video, and then after that, there’s the last lyric video, and finally we have this “big” video.
Excellent! And hopefully we can see that movie some day come to life!
I hope so! First, we have to get rid of the COVID, you know. The thing is, a movie costs millions. A big-budget movie will cost like 200 million, if you make a smaller movie, it’s still will cost 10 million, so we have to get funding. And right now, money is going elsewhere, it’s not going to movies, so right now it’s hard to get funding. But yeah, I haven’t given up, and I’m still having meetings with people, so I hope one day we’ll have it.
You even managed to get sci-fi legend Tom Baker, how did that initial contact come about and how did the process of working with him turn out?
Well, I never put my money on one horse, so to speak. When I choose singers or narrators for a part, I contact about 5 people for that specific role, you always have a small chance that big names are available. For this narrator part, I contacted about 10 Hollywood actors but they were all very busy, and also it’s extremely expensive. One of these “big names”, you have to think six figures, really!
Can you reveal some of those names, or shall remain as a secret?
Yeah, for instance, I contacted Gillian Anderson (X-Files), Whoopi Goldberg, and others. Then I found Tom Baker through an agency, negotiations went really well, we decided on a price and then we contacted him. To bring him in he had to like the story, and Tom Baker absolutely loved it! He was like “Wow, this is like it’s written for me!” So I flew to England to record him, and it was one of the best days of my life. He was such a nice guy, he was really into the story and put a lot of time in it, put his own personality in it, so it couldn’t be better.
Yeah, you can tell that he was really into the story and the album, it really elevates the music. It brings like the perfect intro for each song.
I know! The funny thing is, the album originally didn’t have narration. I think about a year ago when it was almost finished, I played it to some people and they said: “something is missing”, it’s hard to get into the story, especially the first song that’s like 10 minutes and you go through all these different moods, you know. So I thought “It needs narration, it needs a narrator”. A man who’s telling the story to his kids, that was the feeling I wanted to achieve.
Another detail that I found on the album is that many of the characters have parallels with characters from other albums. I found Daniel’s story particularly similar to that of the man in Human Equation, with the mother deceased and the father an abusive figure. Do you have these parallels in mind?
There are always parallels in my stories, yeah. The fathers in my stories are not such nice people, which is weird because I had a very nice father myself, but somehow in my stories, the fathers are usually totally evil. But really, I had a fine upbringing and a fine youth, and my parents were fine, so it’s nothing personal.
It is known that originally Ayreon was going to be purely a studio experience, but lately they have been successful with live productions and a kind of tradition has already been generated. The idea is to keep these experiences live every one or two years with different concepts?
Yeah, we’d love to have these live experiences continuing to grow. We have another in mind but we’ll have to wait until all this crisis is over!
You have even participated more in the last show “Electric Castle Live and Other Tales”. Do you feel more comfortable on stage? Or do you still prefer to stay in the studio?
I feel terrible on stage (laughs). I do it because I have to do it. Especially if this is the Electric Castle and there’s the “hippie” character and I put someone else on it, that would not be cool. So I really had to do it, but I’m just not very good at it. I’m not a very good singer or performer.
But you were awesome, you were very fun to see! You played your parts fine, so no problem there (laughs)
(Laughs) Thank you, thank you. I’m kind of proud of myself that I did it, cause it’s hard, you know? You have always these great singers around you and there I am with my middle voice (laughs). I definitely prefer creating stuff, composing, producing, that’s where my heart lies.
This is kind of a “nerdy” question but I’d really like to ask you this… “The Human Equation” is considered by many to be Ayreon’s best work. It was also the album chosen to start the live experiences. What do you feel about that album? Do you have a Top 3 or Top 5 of Ayreon albums?
It’s very hard to be objective about my own material. It’s really, really hard. I’m also influenced by the sound of albums. And I think, in “The Human Equation”, the sound isn’t so good, but I think the compositions are great. And I think that in “Electric Castle” is exactly the other way around: I don’t think the composition is as great as in “The Human Equation”, but I think the sound is a lot better. I’m a big perfectionist, if I listened to old stuff, I find a lot that could have been better. So it’s really hard to be objective for me. Coincidentally yesterday, I was revisiting my old Star One albums, and I noticed how good the second album is, “Victims of the Modern Age” (2010). The sound is amazing, it’s pretty heavy and it’s pretty dark. It was less popular than the first album, that one was more happier and catchier, you know?
And the Star One albums are one of your heaviest works, there are more oriented to Metal.
I think so, yeah, that was one of my heaviest works. I kind of forgot about that album, ‘cause it didn’t sell so well. But I think my favorite would be my solo album, “Lost in the New Real” (2012). It’s the most personal, it’s a very adventurous album, I think I’m most proud of that one.
I think that’s a really fun album, I haven’t listened to it in a while, so maybe I’ll give it another spin.
Thank you! It’s fun, you know? There’s kind of these silly songs but I think it what makes it fun.
Yeah! And since you brought that up, are there any plans to do another Star One album?
Well, that’s actually why I was listening to the albums, because I’m thinking about doing another Star One. I hate to repeat myself, so maybe after listening to these songs I don’t make the same songs again. I would love to do another Star One album, I think it’s about time, there were many Ayreon albums in a row now, and I don’t feel like doing another solo album yet, so I think it’s about time for a Star One album.
Yeah, that’s excellent to hear! The last one was 10 years ago if I remember correctly.
Excellent, we’ll be waiting! So this is one of the last questions, you were always a very open person with your fans, responding to all comments on social networks and even personal messages. Does this task take a long time? Do you feel that part of the connection between the fan and the artist is important?
Oh yeah! And it’s not a sacrifice at all, I really enjoy it. Other people (well, not at the moment), they tour the world and they meet the fans, they know exactly what they’re thinking when they play live, they see the reactions. And I don’t see that, so Facebook and stuff like that it’s a great way for me to stay in contact with the fans, and yeah, it can take a couple of hours per day to answer all the messages, but I really think all these people, they took the time to write to me and I think I should really answer. And again, it’s not a sacrifice. I enjoy it. A lot of fans have an opinion or a question, it’s great for me to know what’s going on in the minds of people that support my work. Since I don’t play live and I don’t have a band, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a job. So I’ve got plenty of time.
That’s a great way of thinking and I thank you for being like that with us the fans. Not many artists do that, so thank you!
I think they can’t do it, they’re too busy. With a band you have to rehearse, you have to tour. Maybe in these days of Corona they can, maybe (laughs).
OK! So, wrapping up, you already answered some of your future plans, but what can you tell me about the rest of the year, or maybe next year about future projects or new goals?
Right now, the record company asked me to write a Christmas Song (laughs). At first, I was like “no way, no way!”, and then I started thinking about it and thought “what the hell! Let’s do something totally different” It is fun, it’s a very positive song, it has sleigh bells and everything. It was very fun to do.
And like I said, I’d like to do another Star One album. We just did the “Electric Castle” reissue, and I would also love to do the same with the “Universal Migrator” albums and make a beautiful package for that one, so those are the things that are in the agenda.
OK Arjen! That’s it, that’s all my questions. Sorry about the first part with all the connection troubles!
No problem, this way it’s more fun, you know? Maybe this is the better option.
Yeah of course, I’ll keep that in mind for the future. And now I have your Whatsapp number, so I can send you memes and stuff like that (laughs)
(Laughs) Yeah yeah, you can do whatever you want! (laughs)
Great Arjen! It was an honor talking to you. Hope we can do it sometime in the future!
I’m glad it worked out man, talk to you next time!