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While musicians in the progressive rock / metal vein continue to evade widespread commercial success and public recognition, they represent the elite of the metal underground. Enter Arjen Anthony Lucassen, the Dutch mastermind behind the project known as Ayreon. As composer, lyricist, musician, producer, art director and visionary, Arjen is Ayreon. Not only has he gained the respect of his musical peers as the project has developed, but he has surrounded himself with them, and they, in turn, have helped him bring his visions to life. The credits on an Ayreon album are a virtual who's who of heavy metal and progressive rock. Additionally, Arjen was recently presented with the Classic Rock Society's Best All-Around Musician award. Clearly, this is a metalhead worthy of further investigation. Arjen was kind enough to honor our request and chat with us about his past, present, and future endeavors.

Metal Update: 'Ayreon' is kind of an interesting moniker, where'd you pick that up from?

Arjen Lucassen: The strange thing, or the rotten thing, about it is that it sounds like Aryan, like the Aryan race, you know, Hitler and stuff, and I never realized that until I released it in America. There was even a huge fan who had Ayreon on his license plate and they wrecked his car because they thought he was some kind of neo-Nazi. I never thought about it, you know, sounding like Aryan, and it's got these gothic letters, and people think, "wow, what kind of freak is this?" But, actually, I'll tell you the story. I made the first album in 95, and I had this story about this blind minstrel. In the story, he was an orphan, and he was found in the month of April, so I wanted to call him after his star sign, so I called him Arius. At least, that's how I thought it was pronounced, until I had an English singer who had to sing Arius, and he said "Hey, man, it's not Arius it's Aries," and I thought "oh, my God," his name was all over the place like (Arjen sings the part). So, I had to change it, and then I thought, well, my music on one side is very old-fashioned and on the other side it's also kind of like, modern, you know? So, I want something old-fashioned in the name, hence the "ay" and I want something modern in the name, hence the "on" at the end, like "electron," "magnetron." So, I came up with Ayreon and then, of course, a lot of people said that it was very similar to my name, because my name is pronounced "ar-yin," so Arjen and Ayreon are quite similar. That's really a coincidence, but no one believes that anyway, so I stopped denying it. That's the true story.

MU: When did you first start getting into music or playing instruments? How young were you?

AL: Getting into music, I was very young. It must have been in the 60's when I first heard the Beatles. That's what started it off, I think. Then, I was in a playback band because I was too lazy to learn to play a real instrument. This was the glitter period with Alice Cooper, and David Bowie, and Sweet and T-Rex, and stuff. So, I played that kind of music in a playback band until some older pupils at the schools came up to me and they said "Hey, listen to this," and they gave me 'Made In Japan' by Deep Purple. That's when I realized "woah, that's it, that's what I want." That's when I bought my first Stratocaster. That must have been in 74-75. I must have been about fourteen, fifteen. So, actually, I think it was Richie Blackmore who got me hooked on the guitar.

MU: You said a playback band. Do you mean like a cover band?

AL: No, playback really. We couldn't play we just dressed up, you know, with clothes of our mothers' and put on wigs and stuff. I have to say I was at twelve years at the time, so that's it, you know? I'm not still wearing wigs of my mother, and jewelry. I was a little kid.

MU: Was the guitar your first instrument?

AL: Yes.

MU: I know you play keyboards and so forth. Did that all come around at the same time?

AL: Well, even when I was in the band, I always wrote the music and I hate composing stuff in the rehearsal room with other guys. I always wanna do everything at home. So, I had to learn to play all the instruments to record stuff at my own place on a simple four-track recorder so I could bring this tape to the rehearsal room, and just play the tape. "This is the song. Let's rehearse it." I also try to understand and to play the other instruments, but, I have to tell you, I'm not really good at drums or keyboards. I just know how to play it, and the really difficult stuff I leave it up to other musicians. So, I have to say my guitar is really my first instrument, and the only instrument I can play well.

MU: Have you had formal training? Did you go to school for music at all?

AL: No, not at all. I taught myself. I never had one lesson. I cannot read music. I cannot write music. I just found it out for myself, and I'm glad I did because I think otherwise you play by the rules, and maybe you won't do certain stuff because it's too obvious. I just let my feelings guide me.

MU: Part of the reason I ask that, you know, most of your records, they're pretty grand and epic in their scope. When you write a record, there's Act I, Act II - it has a very formal, sort of classical feel to it. Have you studied classical music or anything like that at all?


AL: No, no, I didn't study any music. No, not at all.

MU: So, you would say most of what you've learned from music it comes from rock or pop music?

AL: Yes, it's crazy. I've never been really interested in classical music. It's too boring for me. I love the combination of classical and rock / metal, and I love all these bands who are influenced by classical music like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Yes, and that kind of stuff. But classical music itself, I never really listen to it.

MU: Have you listened to any other types of music like jazz, or anything outside of rock or metal?

AL: No, I don't like jazz. No, not really, well, I like pop music. I love the Beatles. I love progressive music and metal music. I've got quite a wide scope, but I don't listen to jazz, or to hip-hop, or to dance, or that kind of music.

MU: Was Bodine your first band?

AL: Right, yes, that was my first professional band, the first band I recorded albums with. That was in 1980, so I was twenty at the time. We recorded three albums with Bodine until, in 84, I joined Vengeance. I think we recorded about nine albums with Vengeance until 92.

MU: I know you spent a lot of time with Vengeance. I know you guys were pretty popular in Europe. Did you see any sort of attention in the States at that time?

AL: Yes, by the time we did the third album 'Take It or Leave It" Columbia wanted to release it. They specially came to Holland. We even made a new cover for America because they wanted a different sleeve, but nothing much happened. We sold a couple of thousand, I think, and that was it. So, nothing really happened. A few times we almost went to America, for instance, to play with Accept. We played a lot of tours with Accept, but we never went there.

MU: As far as Bodine and Vengeance are concerned, how much did they influence your current musical outlook?

AL: Well, I was an amateur at the time, and Bodine were amazing musicians. They were all ten years older than me and much better, so I learned a lot in Bodine. But, unfortunately, it was like a little bit between blues rock and heavy metal. They did not like melody. So, I did learn a lot there. I learned to play very steady, but I could not develop my sense of melody in Bodine. Then, in Vengeance, these guys were all young. They were all younger than me. It was a real young, wild, wild period. I could develop myself a bit more as a musician, but still I had to make concessions with other musicians, with record companies, with the audience, etc. It was still just a small part of me that I could show in Vengeance. Only when I made Ayreon could I really develop myself, and I didn't have to make concessions with anyone anymore. I could do exactly what I wanted, so that was great. But I really think I needed those years with both Bodine and Vengeance to get where I am now. I'm sure I had to go through that period, also the wild period, the whole touring, and the whole sex and rock 'n' roll and stuff. I really enjoyed that, I have to say. But now it's over, and I'm not sure if it just wasn't my kind of life or if I've had enough of it, I couldn't say. It's just I'm very happy the way I work now. I'm always alone. Ninety-nine percent of the time with Ayreon, I'm alone. I've got my peace now because I've had those wild years with the band.

MU: Now, Vengeance, didn't they release another record this last year?

AL: Well, a couple of years ago. When I left Vengeance in '92, the band was over, but the singer was really great. He was really crazy on stage. He was working in a supermarket, so I felt really bad. He came up to me and said, "Can't you write some songs for me?" I said, "Yeah, well, why sure, such a talent working in a supermarket, that's too bad." So, then I wrote a whole album for him, but I never knew it was going to be a Vengeance album. The material was too strange, too different, too modern for Vengeance, but then we released it anyway. It was a Vengeance album. It ws called 'Back From Flight 19' I wasn't very happy with that album. It could have been a lot better.

MU: Now, I haven't heard that record. Is the material on that record similar to what you're doing now?

AL: Yes, because I wrote eight songs, at the time, for this singer of Vengeance. Then the record company came up to me, and said, "I want to release it as an album." But I had only eight songs, so I needed three more. I stole three songs from myself, from the Ayreon album that was about to come. So, there are three songs on that album which otherwise would have been on the 'Electric Castle'. So, I think there are some similarities to Ayreon.

MU: Now, as far as you're concerned, are you then done with Vengeance or are you thinking about going back with that band at all? It was a one-shot deal?

AL: No way, no, no. No, I'm not happy that I did it because my heart wasn't into it a hundred percent. I'm not going to do anything anymore where my heart isn't in it a hundred percent. I'm never going to do anything with Vengeance again. It's in the past and I like to look at the future, and I like to be creative and do new stuff, so that was it. I mean, with Ayreon now, I'm about five times as successful as I was with Vengeance, so there's no point, anyway.

MU: Your records have pretty epic concepts behind them. A lot of them revolve around science fiction or some sort of fantasy topic. What draws you to that? Do you read those types of books or where do you go to get you inspired to come up with those topics?

AL: Well, the strange thing is that I've never read a book in my life. No one believes this, but I never have. I only read on the toilet, and then I read magazines - rock magazines. But, I have to say that when I was still a kid in the 60's and I first saw Star Trek, the old series on television, I was hooked. I saw that and whoa, that was what I wanted. Ever since, I saw every science fiction movie ever made. And I'm not talking about the cyborg stuff, but like the time travel stuff, the science fiction, and all these television series like X-Files and Babylon Five. Yes, I really like that, so I think a lot of my inspiration comes from watching movies and television series.

MU: I was reading through one of your press releases from InsideOut Music America, and they mention Stephen Hawking as influencing the last record. Did you read anything by Stephen Hawking?

AL: Well, not a whole book, but I read a lot of stuff and I watched a lot of documentaries with Stephen Hawking because I've always wanted to make an album that was situated entirely in space. Of course, it's very hard to make an album that's situated entirely in space because nothing is happening there, you know?

MU: (laughing) Not yet, anyway.

AL: Not yet, no. Well, there's a lot happening, of course, but over the span of fifteen billion years there was a lot happening. So, now, finally, I found a concept to make some kind of story just situated in space, but, of course, I didn't want to make any mistakes. So I watched a lot of Stephen Hawking. He had a series here of thirteen documentaries of half an hour, and I recorded that and watched it over and over and I made notes. I also bought a book with lots of pictures in it (chuckle), to help me read the book. I did a lot of research because I didn't want to look foolish. But, then, of course, in the end, I made some mistakes. I got some emails from astronomy students who said, "Well, you got this song "To The Quasar" and you're talkin' about a red shift, but if you go towards the quasar you won't have a red shift you'll have a blue shift, and when you go away..." (chuckle) Okay, man.

MU: It's always nice to have someone pointing those things out to you. (laughing)

AL: But I think in general it didn't look too stupid, my space stuff.

MU: Since your records tend to revolve around concepts, are there other key concept albums, like Queensryche's 'Operation: Mindcrime' or 'Quadrophrenia' by the Who - are any of those records influential upon you?

AL: Oh, absolutely, a lot. I think it started out with Jesus Christ Superstar in the 60's - Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice's theme, with Ian Gillan as Jesus. I loved that album. It was so great. Then you've got War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne with Phil Lynott and stuff. I loved that one. Then you've got all the progressive bands. You've got Rick Wakeman doing "Journey to the Center of the Earth." You've got Jethro Tull doing "Thick as a Brick" and stuff. Of course, you've got Rush, and I still think Neil Peart of Rush is my favorite lyric writer. I love the stuff he did on "2112", but also "Trees" and "Hemispheres" and stuff. Later on, of course, like you say, there's "Operation: Mindcrime". There's Savatage. I always like that stuff because the lyrics bring an extra dimension to the story. And when I listen to music, I turn off all the lights, and I lie down on the mattress between the boxes and I want to escape. What better way to escape than to get into a story? Close your eyes and see the film.

MU: Have you approached anyone, or has anyone ever approached you to take one of your records and turn it into either a movie or some sort of a musical? Has that ever entered the picture?

AL: Actually, yes. In the past I've been approached by a lot of people, but they had very commercial ideas. They wanted to change the lyrics, or they wanted to have horrible Dutch singers sing it, or make it very commercial. I didn't feel like that, I mean - I would've got a lot of money from it, but what use is money? I want to build up a cult, a fan base who will stay true to me 'til the end. I'm sure that would have been a way to lose that following. But, I'm happy to say a guy from the Czech Republic who lives in the USA is currently making a film of my third album, 'Into The Electric Castle.' I've read the screenplay, and all the contracts are signed. It's going to be a 3D animation film. It's going to be made entirely on the computer in the Czech republic because the people there -animators cost about one-tenth of what it would cost in Hollywood. Boris Vallejo, one of the biggest animators in the world, who I think did Ozzy Osbourne sleeves, Molly Hatchet, Manowar, etc. - he will draw the initial characters. I believe they're going to be busy with it for about two years. I heard that Warner Brothers is involved, but I'm not sure about that. So, that's great, but I have to say it's kind of vague. I don't tell a lot of people about this because, well, the contracts are signed and everything, but I don't hear anything. Of course, they don't have to keep me updated, I mean, they've got the script, everything. They can just work. Maybe it's that I want it so much that I can't believe it's gonna happen, you know, maybe that's it. I hope so.


MU: When you go to do one of these records, you have so many singers and musicians on the list there. How much difficulty do you run into trying to get all these people together? Do you get most of them in the studio, in the same place, one after the other, or do you have a lot of people sending you tapes from other areas or other countries, and piecing it together that way? How do the logistics work out?

AL: First of all, it's a horrible job. It's really a horrible job to get all these people. They're so extremely busy, and in the beginning they're not interested. You have to keep on calling them, and it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. I'm the one who's got to do it, because if I have a record company do this then that doesn't work. Then you get the contracts and all that shit. I mean, I have talk to these guys personally, and I have to feel that they really want to do it. There has to be a feeling in it, not just business stuff. To answer the second part of the question, all the singers I want to record myself, so I would never send a tape. Either I fly them into my own studio - I've got my own studio here - or I fly myself to their studio or to a studio of their choice. Of course, it's impossible to get them all in one place at the same time. Let's say, guys like Bruce Dickinson, I mean, it took me a year of calling him, and bothering him, and pestering him, to finally getting him in the studio. Really, it takes so much time to find a window of time where he is available. There's just one thing I didn't record myself - I sent a tape - that's Russell Allen of Symphony X. But this guy is so incredibly good, and I heard his albums, and I thought, "Well, I can trust him. I can send a tape to him. He can do it on his own." As far as musicians are concerned, I only hire musicians for the solos - keyboard solos or guitar solos. They're very personal, so I don't have to be present. I usually send them tapes, and they send them back to me. Of course, the drums I record in the studio here in Holland, and the rest of the instruments I play myself.

MU: When you collect everything together, what's the editing process like?

AL: I make a mix at home on two tracks. Most of the guys work on ADAT tapes. These are eight-track, digital tapes. I make a mix on two tracks. I send them an ADAT with eight tracks, with two tracks of playback. So, they get six tracks to put their solos on. I tell them exactly from this point until that point I want a solo. Usually, I tell them, "Listen, I want analog synthesizers, no digital stuff, or I want a real Hammond sound, not some kind of shit preset from some kind of a module." I do tell them these things, but for the rest they're very free. I send them always by FedEx, this tape. They've got all the time to do it, whether they take a month or two months. It doesn't matter. They send it back to me, and then usually their solo is on track three or track four, and then I put it on another ADAT tape. It's very easy, actually. It was a bit of a difficulty with the guys from Symphony X because they used a different system, so I had some problems there. But, I mean, problems can always be solved. And now I've got the latest of the latest state-of-the-art technology, ProTools. Now everything is possible. It's really amazing stuff.

MU: I'm a little unfamiliar with ProTools. I've heard a lot of bands use that. Is that a computer software thing?

AL: It's a computer. It's Apple computer. It's all hard disk recording, so you can fool around with it, reverse it, cut it, paste it, move it around. You can do anything with it. It's really amazing and really addictive. When you've got it you think, "Well, how can I have worked on tapes that I have to rewind and that get stuck, and that have to synchronize all the different tapes?" I can't believe I've worked any other way. I'm only working a couple of months on ProTools, but it's really addictive. On the other hand, it doesn't mean that you're going to make a better album, not at all.

MU: At least the technology, you'd say, has really helped you with getting things together? Is it pretty indispensable?

AL: Well, you think it's quicker, but I don't think it's true. I don't know, you get more precise, and you see everything on a screen now. Then you see, "Oh, there's just some dirt there," so I clean it up. I don't know if it's faster. I mean, it could be faster, but I think you're going to work in a different way, and in the end it's going to take you just as much time.

MU: Because of all the musicians and singers involved, do you run into creative conflicts? Is everybody cooperative? Does everybody get along, or do you have people saying "I don't like this part" or "I want to change this." Does that happen too much?

AL: You know, I ask these musicians because I'm a fan of them. I never ask someone because he's a big name or whatever. I want to let them be as free as possible. I send them a tape with my guide vocals, and I say "Listen to these, my guide vocals, but please, please do it your way. If you can do it better than that, or you have a different melody, or you don't like the lyrics, or..." I mean, I'm Dutch, you know? I'm not English or American, so I'm sure if I have an American singer and he has better ideas for the lyrics, please tell me so. It's the result that counts. In fact, every singer is completely different from the other one. There are singers, you just have to let them go, like Russell Allen, or like Damian Wilson or like Bruce Dickinson. Just tell them, "Hey, these are the lyrics, this is my melody, forget it, do it your own way and just go for it." Then, there's other singers - you have to tell them exactly this melody, I want a second voice there. Through the years I've become very good in working together with musicians, knowing what they want, and either telling them exactly what to do or letting them be completely free. Because of that, I've never had problems. I mean, I'm sure that if I would've told Bruce, "Hey, I want it this way." He would have said, "Hey, fuck you." He would've left, you know? I was that way in the beginning, and my first album I was that way. "Hey, this is the melody, I want it to sound that way." But, then, the results are not as good as when you would've let the singer do it his way. No, there are no problems there, and it's one of the best things there is working with all these different musicians, working with guys you've never worked with before. You haven't even talked to them before. They come to your place, you don't know each other, you've never sung the song before, it's very spontaneous and it's great because they all want to show off, you know? I ask them, so they think "Ah, shit man, this guy asked me, so I have to show him" That's a great feeling.

MU: The logistics involved here would be just tremendous, but have you thought of trying to do any of this stuff on tour?

AL: In the first place, it's going to be impossible to get all these musicians together. Like I told you, Bruce Dickinson took me a year to get in. Fish took me half a year to get into the studio, etc. To get all the original musicians would be a hundred percent impossible, because they've all got their own projects, their own band commitments, etc. I would have to do it with other musicians, and I think I'm too much of a perfectionist to do that. Then lots of people say, "Well, why don't you do it just once?" But the rehearsals and all the things you have to arrange for this one gig would take you half a year, so you'd be crazy to do it just once. It would be far too expensive and too time consuming. So, no, I don't really feel like doing it live, because it will be too much hassle and too much arranging. I'd rather be creative and work on a new album. I just don't feel like it.

MU: As far as your fan base and the type of reactions you get from different forms of media, are you finding that most of them are from the metal crowd? Is that the bulk of your audience, or are you getting more of a crossover from progressive people or mainstream rock fans?

AL: Well, of course, I've got a metal background. I've been in metal bands for fifteen years, so that's my base. Ayreon also has a gothic / progressive rock side. Actually, these last two albums I thought, "Well, why not change these two styles, why not separate these two styles?" The two sides I've got in me - I love the soft prog rock like Floyd, but I also love the metal side like Dream Theater, Queensryche, Rainbow. So why not make two albums? Why not make a prog rock album and a prog metal album? Then, of course, in the back of my head I was like, "Hey, now I will find out where my audience is." Is it the prog rock or is it the prog metal fans? In the beginning, I thought, "Well, it's going to be the prog metal fans. I'm sure that the second album 'Flight of the Migrator' will sell more." There are more metal fans around, and they are very fanatical. They know everything that's being released. And, of course, big names like the singers of Iron Maiden, Rhapsody, Stratovarius, Symphony X, etc., they help a lot. But, I have to say now, about a year later, that the difference is very, very small. Indeed, the heavy album sold more than the soft album, but the difference is maybe only five, ten thousand albums. It's really a very small difference, and I never thought it would be. On the other hand, I think ninety percent of the interviews I do are with metal magazines, or metal ezines, because the prog scene is very hard to reach. When you go to a Floyd gig, it's sold out three times in a row, complete arenas, hundreds of thousands of people, but how do you reach these people? They don't read magazines. They know Floyd, but they don't know any of the new prog bands. So, it's hard to reach that audience.


MU: When you go to write a record, do you usually start out with some sort of concept, then develop lyrics and music and then go seeking people to do it? Or do you get a list of people you'd like to work with in your head first and say, "If I get so-and-so to do this maybe I should write this type of part?" What's the creative process, what do you start with and what do you work towards?

AL: I start simply sitting before the television with my guitar on my lap writing chords or just playing. If I came up with beautiful chords, it got to be on 'The Dream Sequencer' album. When I came up with the really heavy metal riffs on the guitar, it came on the 'Flight of the Migrator' album. I always start with the music. I start with guitar riffs or chords. Then, I go to the studio. Then, I work on these songs. I put keyboards on it, put drum computer on it, play the bass on it, and build the whole song up until I've got enough songs for an album. Then, I listen to the material I've done and I think, "Well, what does it remind me of? What does it inspire me to write?" I start thinking about a concept. Then, when I've got a basic idea for a concept, I'm going to look for the singers. I can't just write lyrics and music if I don't know who the singers are. When I write a song, I have to know who sings it. Like on the third album, I had the whole story in my head, all the music finished, and then I started looking for the characters. I didn't have a Highlander in my story, and I was looking for a Scot. It was the other way around, I had Fish, so I wrote the Highlander story. So, I do write the parts on the singers, in the end.

MU: Among the singers you've worked with, do you have any favorites. Are there any ones that kind of stand out in your mind?

AL: Oh, yes, of course, but, of course, I won't mention that. I've done that once, and then I get phone calls, "So, you didn't like me, eh?" A few weeks ago I had a radio interview, and they asked me "which singers?" and I mentioned a few. It happened that one of the other singers was also on the line as a surprise. He was in the program, and I didn't mention him, so that was very painful. Of course, I'm extremely proud of having Bruce on my album - so proud of that. I listen to him. I grew up with him in the Eighties, and I already liked him in Samson. There is this guy - this voice you've been listening to all these years - singing my own song and doing an amazing job. I'm extremely proud of that.

MU: From the Ayreon records, do you have a particular favorite?

AL: It's still hard to say. The weird thing is each time I think, "This is my favorite album," I play another album and I think, "No, this is my favorite album - I'll never make an album like that again." Then I put on the other one and I think, "Ah, the second album 'Actual Fantasy' - ah, it wasn't good," then I put it on I think, "Ah, shit, now it's a lot better than anything I've done." That's so hard to say. It's like choosing one of your own children. It's so hard to say. I know that my third album 'Into The Electric Castle' is the favorite among the fans.

MU: I don't have the record. I have heard a few tracks off that - "Isis and Osiris". I really like that track. That's a good song.

AL: I think that's one of the best songs I ever made. I really like that song. It's got everything in it.

MU: Well, I like The Gathering, too, so having Anneke in that song was really cool, too.

AL: Unfortunately, her band won't let me use her again.

MU: Uh-oh

AL: Too bad, really too bad. I love her. And her voice.

MU: Definitely. Is there anyone you can name - any people you have not worked with, that you'd like to in the near future?

AL: Oh, yes, yes, the list is endless. I think Ronnie James Dio is still my favorite singer of all time. I saw him with Deep Purple and an orchestra doing "Love Is All" and whoa! He's amazing. He must be sixty now, and his voice is just as big and great. Yeah, I'd love to work with him. Ever since I was a kid I was an Alice Cooper fan. It would be amazing to work with him, I mean, I'd be not worthy. I'm sure I'd be so nervous I couldn't speak anymore, working with him.

MU: When you've approached people in the past, when you come to them and say "I want to do this rock opera project and I want to have you do this part," do they look at you funny? It's great what you're doing, but it's not common. It's something a lot of those people have not done before. Do you get a pretty favorable response? Are people pretty eager to do that type of thing?

AL: It's very hard to reach them. You can't reach them directly. You never speak to them directly - to the really big names. A lot of people, I never hear anything from them again, so I never know if they heard it and didn't like it or not. They just didn't respond. Usually, when I finally get to speak to them, they're already interested. I've never spoken to anyone who said "Well, I've listened to it, hey man, I'm not interested." No, I've never had that. But, I've had a lot of people not answering me. I never know if they heard it, you know, so, I can't say.

MU: Didn't you recently release a record called 'Strange Hobby?' I take it that's a collection of songs from the 60's and 70's you wanted to re-record. What inspired you to do that record?

AL: I think it's from 97. I just did the first Ayreon album, and then I did the second one. Each time after an album is finished, there's a horrible period without any ideas, and I really fall into a black hole. I feel miserable. Then, I decided to do something. I thought, "Well, if I haven't got any ideas or I'm not creative, why not do a cover album?" I really love the 60's. Floyd, Beatles, the Who, etc - all these bands. So, I thought, "Well, why not do heavy cover versions of these 60's songs and make people listen to those songs who don't know them?" Of course, Ayreon is very perfectionist work, and I really like to jump around while recording, and I did on the 'Strange Hobby' album. I really had a lot of fun recording it, and I did it all on my own. I played all the instruments myself.

MU: When you get a list of people you want to work with, are there any particular qualities that you look for in either a singer or musician, in terms of their style or ability?

AL: No, not at all. I have to like their voice, if I'm talking about singers, that's it. They don't have to be great singers. They don't have to have vibrato. They don't have to belong to the metal scene or the prog scene or whatever. I just have to like their voice. It has to touch me inside, that's all I need. I mean, a few singers like Johan Edlund of Tiamat, he's not a great singer, I mean, he would be the first person to say that. He can't sing, but he's just got this voice and it does something to me. I've approached many different people. I've approached Paul McCartney. Of course, I couldn't get him. I got an answer from his record company saying, "Nice try, but he gets a hundred CDs a day, so forget it." I mean, if I could get Paul Simon on my album, I'd do it, for instance, because his voice does something for me. That'd be great, Alice Cooper and Paul Simon on one album. Of course, musicians have to be great. Yeah, I think musicians have to be very good at their instrument, and if I ask a guitar player to do a solo he has to be better than me. Otherwise, I do it myself. That's why I had Michael Romeo, who's amazing, of Symphony X and Gary Wehrkamp of Shadow Gallery, who did one of the best solos of I've ever heard in my life. My God, what a solo. Amazing, amazing. And I'm emailing with this guy now for two years and he's so funny, I mean, our emails, we're planning on turning it into a book, it's so funny. I thought, "Well, this guy's very funny and he's nice. He's a good friend, but he's probably not a great player. Then he sends me the tape with his solo, and I thought, "Oh, my God, this is so good."

MU: Are the Ayreon records linked together thematically?

AL: Well, since the last album they are. I never thought they would be, because the first album was a story in itself, the second album didn't have a continuing story, and the third album was a different story in another dimension. But now with these last two releases, it's connecting all the stories all of a sudden, and I really like it. I didn't plan it that way. It just worked out that way. Suddenly, all the stories are connected, and maybe I'll do more of that in the future. I'll make it whole - like Ayreon's dimension or something, you know?

MU: So, originally you didn't plan to link them, but when you did the 'Universal Migrator' discs, was it at that point that you went back to the other records and decided to link those together?

AL: Well, I made a link to the first album, because in the first album I say that in 2084 the Earth will be destroyed, and that was the beginning for this story. So, I did make a conscious link to the first album. But, then, while I started writing, I put links to the other albums, too. I got a link to the 'Actual Fantasy' album, to the song "Planet Earth". And I got a link to the 'Electric Castle' because on the planet Andromeda that they visit, they find the alien of 'Electric Castle' - the alien called Forever. So, the other links just happened when I was writing the material.

MU: For the next record, do you plan on also continuing along a similar line or making a link? Or do you plan on starting over fresh and doing something completely different?

AL: I wouldn't know. I know that Ayreon concepts are always fantasy, and I'm sure I will continue that. I will never do something else. I don't know yet if it will be a continuation of all the stories, but I think so. I would like it. I would like it.

MU: As far as your project's popularity, have you seen a steady increase in popularity and sales over time?

AL: Well, the first album did above expectations. I never expected that one to sell, because I finally made an album that I like without doing concessions to anyone. I really thought, "Well, this is going to be the last album I ever make, but at least it's going to be a good one." But, to my surprise, it did really well. Then, with the second album, I was a bit too arrogant, I think, and I thought, "Well, I can do it on my own, too, you know, without guest musicians and without a huge story." Then, the second album didn't do as good as the first one. It wasn't a flop, but it didn't do so good. So, then with the third album I thought, "Wow, now I have to do something extremely big" - not to let that line go down because that would be the end of Ayreon. So, I really thought I'd put everything in it now, all the money, all the time, and all the effort. I made 'Electric Castle' which was a double album for the price of just one album. Luckily, that was an enormous success. It sold twice as much as the first album, and so about three times as much as the second album. Now, of course, I've released two albums at the same time. If you count them together, they did better than 'Electric Castle' and if you count them separately, they each did just a little bit less than 'Electric Castle.' I'd say there's definitely an increase in sales.

MU: I know you seek out other people to play on those records, but do you have people coming to you first?

AL: Oh, yes, yeah. Luckily, that's starting to happen now. I'm starting to make a name for myself. Some people on the last album approached me like, for instance, Ralf Scheepers of Primal Fear. The singer of Helloween, Andy Deris, he approached me. There were a few musicians who approached me like Gary Wehrkamp. I think Michael Romeo did so. Yes, that's great, and there's also a lot of people that approached me but, unfortunately, I'm not interested in them. I mean, that's possible too, you know? Most of the time, I think it's a really great compliment when they contact me, and it's starting to happen more and more. I get a lot of CDs and a lot of tapes from unknown people who want to be on Ayreon. I think I must receive a couple of them every week. I always listen to all of them, and sometimes there's really, really enormous surprises. Like a couple of weeks ago, I got an mp3 via email of a fourteen-year-old girl from Holland, and I thought, "Wow, okay, here we go again, ha, ha," and I played it and I started crying and sweating. I thought, "Oh, my God, this is incredible." So, that's great. With this girl, I immediately decided to make an album with her, which will be released next year. It won't be an Ayreon album. I called it Ambeon, which is a cross between ambient and Ayreon.

MU: That leads into my next question. Is that record totally original stuff? I was kind of under the impression from reading the material on the website that you were taking older material and reworking it. Is that wrong?

AL: In principle, the idea was born when I got the ProTools set a half year ago. I thought, "Well, how am I going to learn this? I don't feel like reading manuals and I've got no ideas for new songs, so how am I going to learn it?" Then I rented a guy who knows a lot about it, and I said, "Well, why don't we just put all the old Ayreon stuff from the ADAT tapes onto the ProTools and just mess around with it?" That way, I was really learning the ProTools system. But, when I was busy with it these songs were starting to sound completely different. They turned into new songs, and I thought, "Whoa, this is something amazing I'm doing." What if we put completely different vocals on it, maybe a female singer who makes her own melody lines, and the songs will be unrecognizable? Then I found this fourteen-year-old girl who never heard of Ayreon before in her life, because her mp3 was sent to me by someone who recorded her. So, she made her own lyrics and her own melody lines, and you won't recognize the songs anymore. It's really amazing. I think this week we're going to put an mp3 of an Ambeon song on the website, and I'm sure that no one is going to recognize that it came from the Bruce Dickinson song. So, in a way, it's a new album.

MU: I notice on your records you have musicians play instruments like cello, and violin, and so forth. Have you ever worked with a full orchestra before?

AL: No. I would like to, but I'm sure it's going to be very expensive. The guy from the record company - he also wants it really badly, so he's doing a lot of research now. He's already been to Sascha Paeth, who's produced Rhapsody, because they use the real orchestra. So, he's already working on it, and he's really planning on sending it through. I'm sure that one day I will do something like that.

MU: When you first started this project, I read somewhere you had a demo tape and you'd shopped it around to several record companies and gotten rejected dozens of times. Finally, you got picked up by Transmission Records. Did they give a reason why they were attracted to your music?

AL: All the other record companies laughed at me. They said the music is great, but you're crazy, man, doing a rock opera in the 90's. You're even more crazy doing a progressive rock opera, which is like cursing, like swearing. Then this guy at Transmission - he had never released a new album before. His speciality was reissues of psychedelic 60's stuff, so he never did a new release. He called me up and said, "Listen, I was somewhere at a record company, and they played me your music and I love it and I want to release it." I said, "Yeah, what did you do before?" He said, "Nothing, you're my first new release." I thought, "Well, hey, forget it, man." But, I didn't have any choice. No one wanted to have it. So, I went to his place and he said, "I heard it and it's me. It's a hundred percent me from beginning to end. This is so great, I have to release it, and I don't care if no one likes it. I believe in this." And the fact that Barry Hay of the Golden Earring, which is the biggest band here in Holland, was on it must definitely have helped. Then he released it, and, as they say, the rest is history. He was right. Now he's got a very big office and a beautiful new car. He's a millionaire, so it must have worked.

MU: I guess it helped him out, so I guess he's happy.

AL: Oh, yes, he's very happy. Yes, I can do whatever I want.

MU: Then, with your current deal - are you happy with the financial support and the advertising? Are they taking good care of you?

AL: Well, of course, it isn't like Sony or Warner. They're not going to put millions into promotion, but he's doing a great job. I know that my music is not for millions of people. It's still cult music. It's still for a select audience, and that's exactly the way I want it. I don't want to travel around the world and be on television and stuff. I like it this way. Of course, I have many offers here in Holland or in Europe from big companies like Sony, but I'm really not interested. And this guy, he believed in me in the first place, and he still believes in me. What more do you want?

MU: Is this the president of the company you're talking about?

AL: Yes. Well, the company is just two persons. It's him and another guy, so it's really very small.

MU: Correct me if I'm wrong, the 'Universal Migrator' discs, are those the first Ayreon records that have been released in the United States?

AL: Yes, that's right. Up to that point no one was interested.

MU: Was it just because of the style of music that was keeping you from getting your records released domestically here?

AL: I think so, yeah. Also, albums are a lot cheaper in the US, so it's very hard for a European company if they send albums over. They won't get a lot of money for it. Of course, they are afraid of imports because they'll get them back cheaper in the stores. So, there's a lot of problems. At one point I said, "Listen, I don't care how much money. I don't care. I want to release in the US, because I get a lot of fan mail from the US, and a lot of people asking for my stuff. I don't want to make money. I want to sell albums and I want to build a future. I'm sure that even if it's not a big market, there's people who will like it. People who - by word-of-mouth, it will spread and it will sell. I'm sure of that." Now luckily, Jim Pitulski at InsideOut listened to it. Maybe also because of the fact I had Neal Morse of Spock's Beard, his best friend, on it. So, he got to listen to it, and he really loved it. Now he's releasing it, and it's doing extremely well. I'm very proud of what he's doing. In fact, I'm selling more in the US than in Japan, which is amazing. I think prog in general - be it prog metal or prog rock - I think it's growing in the US. I think there is an audience. It's just not cool yet to like this kind of music, but I'm sure the audience can be found, and I'm sure it will grow. I've got a good feeling about it.

MU: You produce all your records yourself, is that correct?

AL: Yes, well, I record everything in my own studio, so logically, I produce it myself, but I don't always mix it myself.

MU: Have you produced other bands in the past or are you interested in doing that in the future?

AL: I get a lot of offers to produce bands. I've been approached by Helloween - by loads of bands - but, no, I'm not interested in doing that. I can only produce my own music. I'm too much of a loner for that. I would make everything sound like Ayreon. I would tell them, "Hey, I only want analog synthesizers, I want these kind of drums, and I just want these guitars used." How do you say - I don't know the proverb in English - but, "A chain is as strong as its weakest link?" If there's guitar in there that doesn't sound right, then that's it for me. I won't continue. So, I'd be a bad producer. I'd be a horrible tyrant. They'd kill me after a week.

MU: When you get a germ of an idea, does everything flesh out pretty easily for you? When you get on a creative slant, do you find yourself getting stuck often?

AL: No, it's getting easier and easier. 'Universal Migrator' went really, really fast. I did about one or two lyrics a day, and I wrote them all after each other. I blasted them out. The good thing is that it's a concept album and it's a story. Though I'm really excited what's going to happen next. I don't even know yet. If you've got a whole story, it's so easy. You just write your story, and you go to the next song, "Yeah, what if this happens now?" If I would have to make up ten different songs with ten different stories, that would be hard. I had that on 'Actual Fantasy.' I had eight different stories, and that really took a long time. That took two weeks per song, or something. But now, some people think it's really hard to make such a concept album, but it's very easy.

MU: What kind of stuff are you listening to now? I know you probably don't have a lot of free time, but is there anything out right now that you're really into?

AL: Well, I have as much free time as I want because I'm alone and I don't have any pressure from the record company. It's just that I don't take it. I'm a workaholic. Well, I won't even call it work. I'd say something like a hobbyaholic or something. But, I really love to keep updated about the whole music scene. So, I go to a record shop every week, and they know me there. They know what I like. I come there, and they have this stack of twenty CDs. I listen to them and I always buy a couple. Yes, I listen to a lot of music, and I try to listen to music each day, each evening. Like I told you, turn off the lights and lie down between my speakers. In fact, this evening I'm going to listen to the new Geddy Lee. I'm really looking forward to that. I'm a big fan. So, yes, I listen to a lot of music.

MU: Are you into black metal at all? Do you listen to any of that stuff?

AL: Listen to it? Yes, but to listen to a whole album, it's too much. I love parts of it. That's why I used black/death metal singers on my albums. I love it as an effect. On the first album, I had Jan-Chris de Koeijer of Gorefest grunting a song where Ayreon was in the forest, and he was blooded and he was being beaten. That's great as an effect. On the 'Electric Castle' I used the guy from Orphanage, because Death had a part in the story, so that was very effective, too. But not a whole album. I need melodies and I need good vocals.

MU: You know, in America, we have these bands like Korn and the Deftones, I guess what they've called "new metal" - kind of a synthesis of hip-hop / rap and metal. Are you into any of that stuff?

AL: I really hate it. I really, really hate it. I'm not into it at all. No, not at all. I hate all the aggression and I hate the rapping. I went to a festival with only these bands, like Slipknot, and I stood there. . . They get on stage, "Hey, fuckers, now we got all these fucking songs here. . ." I was with a guy of the record company. He said, "Well, just one more 'fuck' and I'm out of here." Before I finished my sentence he'd already done about three or four "fuckings." No, no, I've got nothing with that kind of music. Sorry, no, nothing.

MU: Now, you're also set to release another record called 'Ayreonauts Only'. Is that just some sort of outtakes of some of your other records that you did not release yet? Is that right?

AL: Yeah, well, it's songs where other people are singing guide vocals for other people. Like it opens with "Into The Black Hole" which Bruce eventually sung, but the guide vocals were sung for him by Lana Lane and by Damian Wilson. They were done so strong. At the time I was recording the guide vocals, I also told the guys, "Listen, do a great job, because if it's good, I'm sure I'll release it one day - be it a b-side or something." But, I didn't have enough songs, so I looked into my archives and I came up with a lot of interesting demos I had. I came up with a few songs that I already recorded ten years ago, like the song "Chaos" on 'Flight of the Migrator.' That was, in fact, an old Vengeance song, no, yes, no, no, after Vengeance. And I had a demo of that lying around, so I think it's really interesting for people to hear how it sounded then. I also recorded a few new versions. That's old songs but with new singers, but I re-recorded the whole song. Like, I recorded "Beyond The Last Horizon" from 'Actual Fantasy' and I recorded this fourteen-year-old girl I told you about. I recorded "Temple of the Cat" with her. So it's gonna be eleven songs on the album. I think that the complete track listing is on my website since a couple of days. I think it's going to be very cheap. It's going to be ten dollars, or something. I think it's going to be a very interesting release for the fans.

MU: All of your records are so involved. Do you ever get the desire to sit down with a couple of guys and bang out simple AC/DC type tunes, or something like that?

AL: Well, if I would play live I'd love to do that kind of music, not the Ayreon stuff. I mean, if I would have to do the Ayreon stuff, I would have to concentrate and stand there and I would not have fun. If I want to play live, I'd want to do AC/DC kind of stuff, which we did with Vengeance. It was very AC/DC like. But, so far, I haven't had the urge. Maybe because I've done it for fifteen years and I'm having a great time doing this. But maybe one day. I'm already thinking about, before I do the next Ayreon album, making a real metal album - a very simple, straightforward metal album, without all the ornaments I do with Ayreon. In fact, Bruce Dickinson has approached me to maybe do an album, a half a year ago. Haven't heard from him since, but it's an option. So, I think I'll definitely do a straightforward metal album before I go to the next Ayreon.

MU: Are you able to make a living from what you're doing right now?

AL: Oh, yes, absolutely, because I sell loads of albums now all over the world. I compose, write lyrics, and do everything myself, so that's great. All the money goes to me. Of course, I've got my own studio now, so I don't have to rent a studio at a thousand dollars a day. I can do everything at home, which is great. The only thing that really costs me money is all the guest musicians, and all the flying around the world. And I mix in another studio, so that costs me money.

MU: Do you get assistance from your record label or is this all your own money?

AL: It's all my own money, because I license it to him. So, my CDs are my own. I am the owner of the CDs, and I license it to him, and I license it to Japan, et. They're not involved in the costs. I pay for the whole finished product, including the sleeve.

MU: With your current project, is this something you feel like you can stick with for another say ten, fifteen years?

AL: Oh, yeah, absolutely, because the great thing about it is even if I'm too old to play myself, I can still charter real young musicians. Now, this girl of fourteen, man, I'm three times as old. It's horrible, but it's true. Yeah, I can't believe it, man. When I'm recording with her, I feel just as old. Then I think, "Oh shit, man, I'm 'mister' for her." It's really weird. Yeah, that's a good thing about this project. I can keep on going as long as I'm a music fan.


review of Ayreon 'Universal Migrator'







Interview: Anthony Syme [ ]
Editor: Brant Wintersteen [ ]
Webmaster: WAR [ ]

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