[For English readers, please scroll down to find the English version of this interview]
"Chaque projet que je fais possède une part d'Ayreon en lui"
"Every project I do is a part of Ayreon, as a focus"
A few month before the release of The Source, the new Ayreon album, La Grosse Radio met its leader, Arjen Lucassen. Together, we talked about the integration of this record into the whole saga he created back in 1995. He also precised the role of each vocalist and recalled some memories about John Wetton and Keith Emerson, who passed away recently, and who worked on The Theory of Everything. Arjen told us his composition secrets and evoked the futur shows he will give under the name Ayreon Universe.
Hello Arjen and thank you for allowing us to do this interview.
Of course !
Last time you composed an Ayreon album, it was (apparently, because with you we are never sure of anything) not a part of the whole sci-fi concept you developped with the previous one. Did you miss those aliens and this concept ?
Yes ! Before this record, I did The Gentle Storm. It was like a love story, which is not my kind of thing of course ! (laught) I think the Gentle Storm was a very feminine album. It had Anneke Van Giersbergen on vocals, it was a love story between two people who were separated, and it has some elements about Dutch History... I love it, but this Ayreon record is a reaction to that album : "No more love story!". I wanted a very « masculine » story, that's why this album is a little bit heavier, it has more singers, and it's back to the good old Sci-Fi !
Why did you choose to do a prequel to the Forever story ? You could choose to write a totally different story, like you did with The Theory of Everything.
Right ! It's based on the arwork. This time I turned it around. Usually I first finish the music, before writing the story and the lyrics. And then I start looking for artwork. This time I chose Sci-fi art on Google images, and during two or three weeks I was exploring some artwork. Then I came across your countryman Yann Souetre. I loved what he did about all those industrial stuff. I was asking myself "how can I build a story around that ?". Then I saw the image of the front cover, the woman under the water. It did'nt have this form yet, it was just an image about the woman without those tubes attached.
It reminds me the Matrix Story !
Yeah ! I asked Yann about that and he said he was not inspired by The Matrix. But yes, of course ! He sent me about five different versions of that image, with people with tubes. It's a well known and used concept in Science-fiction. But anyway, when I saw the image I thought "what if the human being had to learn to live under water ? I never showed the Forever race, and what they look like. Wouldn't it be cool if the Forever were once human, and if we basically descent from another human race, somewhere else in the galaxy ?". That's what the Source refers, it's about the Source of Mankind ! So, yes, somehow that image connected me to the whole story.
For this story you choose to work again with singers that appeared on previous Ayreon album, like Floor Jansen, Simone Simons, Hansi Kürsch or even Tommy Karevik. I assume it's not a problem for you to have the same singer playing different roles in the whole saga ?
That's true ! If I would do that, I would really limit myself. I should say "ok on this part it has to be only Floor!". Actually, Floor still fits because she played a Forever on 01011001. That could be the same part. For who, would it be wrong ?
Simone, maybe, because she played a human being on 01011001.
Yes, but the Human are the descendants of the Alphans...it could still be ok ! (laught).
You though of everything !
No, not at all, but I should say that I though of everything ! (laught)
And maybe Tommy who played on The Theory of Everything ? But maybe one day we could relate it to the whole concept...
Yeah maybe ! One day I'll connect it ! And it's the good thing about time travel and this whole universe because it's easy to connect things. Hansi is also a Forever, so that would fit as well ! I didn't really consciously think about that. But if I'll think about it, I'm sure I could explain it ! (laught)
About the new singers, on this record you choose Tommy Rodgers. He's know for his ability to sing with his clean voice and for his death metal voice, with Between the Buried and Me. But on the Source, he only uses his clean voice (except on "Everybody Dies!"). Can you explain us that choice ?
Basically, I discovered him from his first solo album, Pulse, released under the name of Tomas Giles. I love that album, and the album after that. Basically that's how I discovered him, and then I went into Between the Buried and Me. I didn’t use more growl because it worked out that way and somehow it didn’t really fit in this album. I like growl as an effect, it’s very cool and powerful, and if you don’t use it often it stands out. And I like his clean voice, he did such a great job ! He prepared so well… he did it on his own, in the United States, he put all this layers on his voice (as you heard)… he really put a lot of himself and he’s such a great guy, so dedicated ! I love that guy, I didn’t expect that. I didn’t even expect him to know my music when I asked him on twitter !
Well, you’re a star in the progressive world…
I don’t know… but of course there was this album of Between the Buried and Me where it was kind of similar to the Human Equation, with the guy in the coma (Coma Ecliptic). But I have no idea if it was an inspiration for him. But then again, Tommy Karevik (Seventh Wonders) has the same idea with the album Mercy Falls, and he swore to me that he really didn’t do that on purpose and I believe him ! (laught).
"Everybody Dies" reminded me a Devin Townsend song. Did you think about asking him to sing again on your record ?
I did ask him, but I never got an answer. But, together with Michael Mills (Toehider), he’s my hero. To me, Devin is someone who changed music in the last ten ou twenty years. He’s so original… but he is like me, a control freak ego-maniac who does his own things. And I was surprised that he did The Human Equation, because it’s really not his thing and maybe he will never do it again. But you are right, « Everybody Dies » is definitely influenced by Devin Townsend.
And did you write the song thinking of him as the singer ?
No, I don’t think deliberately about it when I write a song. I write it, and when it is finished, I realise it may has been inspired by some things inconsciously.
On "Deathcry of a Race", there is a part with an oriental melody and Zaher Zorgati's voice. How this idea came to you ?
Well, he was a last minute addition, the last singer I recorded. Basically, he was going to play a big part on the album… I heard Myrath and I loved their songs, there are such strong melodies. I talk to him and wanted to give him a big part, but each time it was « Ah, I can’t come, I have to record this or this in Paris » and it didn’t work out. But I still wanted him to record at least one little thing. So we had to search on this album where I could put him and there was this instrumental part, so I said : « Well, you know, I got this little part, it’s just twenty second, can you do something oriental, and take something from the Bible ? It’s about a funeral and it has to be like a elegy. Do whatever you want ! ». And just after he came back from shows he recorded it in Paris, gave me ten different options and luckily I could put him on.
The first song you choose to reveal is the opening track. You said in the video that it was more guitar oriented. So, there are heavy guitar, Floor Jansen and Russel Allen. Did you think at any time that it could be a Star One record ?
Well,every project I do is a part of Ayreon, as a focus. For Star One, I take the metal out of Ayreon. For Gentle Storm, I take the folk and classical part out of Ayreon. That’s the way it works ! Guilt Machine is more the Pink Floyd side of Ayreon. So, of course, it could have turn out to be a Star One record but it would have limited me, because Star One doesn’t have violins, flutes or cellos. And I kept coming out with these sounds and the oriental and celtic stuff, and that doesn’t fit in Star One.
So it’s difficult for you to focus on only one aspect when you compose ?
Yes, because when I do an Ayreon album, things just keep coming and coming and everything is possible. If I do a side project, I have to limit myself, otherwise it would turn into Ayreon. It’s actually harder to do. But for Star One, I do it differently. I just plug in the guitar and I got riffs. And then I base the songs on riffs. I did it on « The Day the Word breaks down » for the new album, which could indeed have been a Star One song.
On The Source, there are once again many acoustic instruments : Ben Mathot plays violin, Maaike Peterse plays cello, and Jeroen Goossens plays wind instruments. This wish to have organic sounds, is it a reference to the Forever and their lack of emotions ?
Yes, very much. It is always about human motions, even if my story are Science Fiction. I am more a Star Trek kind of guy than a Star Wars kind of guy, even if I do enjoy Star Wars just as much. But what I do is never Good and Bad. I focus on human emotion, like the old Star Trek series. And I like organic sounds, even if I think that synthesizer can be as organic as a flute when you use the old analogic synthesizer or a real Hammond organ. On theses instruments you dial buttons, it’s not just some plug-in you just preset. I would never do that, it doesn’t feel right. Of course, I use digital medium to record because it’s way easier, but I try to sounds as organic as possible.
But in the same time, you choose to make references to the 01011001 record with that industrial rythme at the end of « March of the Machines »…
Yes, I liked ending this album with the beginning of the « Age of Shadows »… it’s a direct link, but I don’t want to give away the ending for people who haven’t listened to it yet (laught).
So with that prequel and with the whole forever story, do you think the saga is definitly over ?
Well… (laught) There could not be a prequel anymore because this one is The Source. And I closed the link now between The Source and 01011001. I could slowly explain how they lost their emotions but it would be boring… or I could explore what happened in 2084 on Earth for instance. But it would be very dark and political and wouldn’t be Science Fiction anymore. So I have no idea, I really never think about the future !
John Wetton and Keith Emerson who played on the Theory of Everything passed away recently. Can you recall us a memory of them ?
Well, I unfortunately only met Keith Emerson once. Together with Rick Wakeman, he is my absolute favorite keyboard player of all times. When I had the chance to work with him, via someone else, I asked him to have this sound that he used in « Lucky Man », this huge modular Moog square sound. And he did such a great job ! I must say he already had troubles playing. I have images of little movies of him where he was trying to play and his hands didn’t want to, and he seemed unhappy. When I met him at the Prog Awards, he didn’t seem like happy and I thanked him about the work he did and asked him what he thought about it, and he said : « It’s great and very ambitious ! » And I said : « Well, I wonder where I got that from! ». But I only met him briefly and talk with him a few minutes.
For John Wetton, I came to England and recorded him there. I didn’t get to know him so well, because it was just a long day during which he recorded his part. But even if we didn’t develop a personal bond, he was very important, and what he did in « Rendez-vous 6:02 » in UK is amazing. It’s was great to meet him and work with him.
A question about the guest musicians on the record : how do you pick them and is it different from picking guest vocalists ?
Guest musicians are somehow easier to pick, I don’t know why. They usually do it for free and it’s very fun. Singers are more difficult (laught), maybe because of the ego, but it’s alright ! If I had a band, I would want a singer with an ego, otherwise there is no charisma !
For the musicians, like Mark Kelly for exemple, of Marillion, a fan said to me : « Did you know he was a big Guilt Machine fan ? ». So I googled him and I saw that when he was asked his favorite top 5, his number one was Guilt Machine !!! So I approached him, and said « Hi, I’m Arjen », and he answered : « Huh ? I don’t know you ! » (laught). So I said « Yes, but you know Guilt Machine ! » and Mark said : « Oh my god, yes, that’s my favorite album !!! », « Well, that’s me ! » (laught). That’s how we came in contact, and I found out that we had the same age and the same background in music. I connected with him, so when I ask him to play, he respond immediately, no matter how busy he is with Marillion, because he loves to do it.
But they are many singers on the album, like Hansi and Tobias, Michael Erikson or Nils K. Rue, etc… who love to do it and respond straight away. It’s different in every case.
Next september there will be a Ayreon show in Tilburg, called Ayreon Universe and this time you will participate to it. Did you accept it because of the sucess of The Theater Equation ?
Yes, especially because I saw all the happy faces of the fans. I was behind the stage, looking into the audience, and we made so many people so happy… that was really the catalyst for doing it. Like « Ok, let’s do this, but even better ! Let’s do the best of Ayreon, make it like a huge show ! Let’s get eight or ten singers ! ». Eventually, it’s sixteen ! (laught).
Will it be released on CD/DVD ?
Yes, definitely ! We got to film two shows during the three days.
Well, thank you so much Arjen for this interview ! What are your next plans now ?
For now, I’ll be working on « Ayreon Universe » because there is a lot to arrange, get the whole stage together, rehearse, get the musicians in place, all the contrats, and the lights, the visuals ! I’ll be working on that for sure all year. And then I’ll have to make the DVD… but in the meantime I’ll be thinking about the next projet ! (laught).
Interview made in Paris, the 22th of February, 2017
Thanks to Roger Wessier and Céline for the translation.