About Me

Interview with Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon)

Dutch songwriter, singer, musician and record producer Arjen Anthony Lucassen is the man behind Ayreon. Such a fine gentleman! “Transitus” was released on 25th September, via Music Theories Recordings and Metal Imperium had the pleasure to talk with him. He talked about the guests, the musicians, his projects and 25 years of career. Let’s hope to see a movie about this amazing album. Fingers crossed!

M.I. - Hi there. Good morning and what an honour it is to talk with you. How are you?

Thank you. All is well, thank you very much. And what about you?

M.I. - I’m well and flattered to talk with you.

I’m honoured, thank you very much. 

M.I. - “Transitus” was released on 25th September, via Music Theories Recordings. Why did you decide for this title?

Well, it’s a long story. I started working on this album, about three years ago and it wasn’t supposed to be an Ayreon album. I was really working on a movie! I’m a huge movie fan and it was my biggest dream, to one day make my own movie. I mean, like a musical movie, like Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy, that kind of stuff. Usually, I always do science fiction stuff, as you may know. But, of course, science fiction movies cost a lot of money. At least, 15 million euros or dollars. So, I thought: ”Let’s not do science fiction, but a ghost story!”. That’s basically how I started. It was going to be a ghost story, a romantic ghost story, set in the 19th century and, basically, it’s about a love affair, a forbidden love affair, between a rich man’s son, called Daniel, and a black servant, called Abby. That’s where I started. And then, I just started changing the story, coming up with new plot lines and, at some point, I came up with this realm between Heaven and Hell, where the Angel Of Death decides whether you go to Heaven or Hell. I was thinking of a name and usually this realm is called “Limbo”, or “Purgatory”. But those are official names. I wanted to come up with my own name. After a lot of Googling, I came up with “Transitus”, which basically means the journey after death, where you go after death.

M.I. - The story is not directly connected to the Ayreon universe, though there are some allusions to it. What are they?

Indeed! It wasn’t going to be Ayreon. So, there are no direct links to an Ayreon story. But, as I was working on it, it just happened. Suddenly, I get all these references to the old Ayreon story. And, of course, there are obvious references, like “These Human Equation”, which is, of course, the title of an Ayreon album. I don’t plan these things (laughs). It just happened. I was thinking about this Angel Of Death. She’s in Transitus and she’s looking down at the Earth and she sees the Mankind, she thinks that they are weird, you know (laughs). They are very strange, but very interesting. Basically, she was talking about “The Human Equation”. What makes us human. Yeah! There are lots of little links to an Ayreon story. Also, if you read the comic book, you will see some links to the story as well. They weren’t planned but they are there.

M.I. - This amazing album didn’t start out as your next album and you were looking for a new approach. Why did you think that and what made you change your mind?

Good question! I’ve been working on it for two years and it was still supposed to be a movie, but the all Corona thing started. In this period, it’s very hard to get founding for a movie, because a movie costs billions of euros. In this Corona time, firstly, it’s very hard to get that founding together. Secondly, it’s very hard to film in these days, because there are all these restrictions. All these guidelines and you are not supposed to be together right now. So, filming is hard too. So, I thought: “Ok! The music is finished, but the film can’t be made! So, what am I going to do now?”. I didn’t feel like waiting for a long time, until the Corona is over, to finally do something with this. I went to the record company and I played them the music and told them the story. And they said: “Well, we really think you should release this as an Ayreon album, because it has all the trademarks of an Ayreon album! It has many singers, many different music styles, it has a concept, a story!”. So, first I had to think about it, because I didn’t make it as an Ayreon album. But at some point, I thought that it would be a good solution to release it. After that, I changed a few little things in the music. But generally, instead of having it laying there for years and doing nothing with it, we decided to release it as an Ayreon album. 

M.I. - Tom Baker (Doctor Who) is the narrator and results in fewer memorable moments and less stylistic diversity. How did you contact him and was he your first choice?

I always have a lot of options, when I look for a singer. For instance, when I look for a singer, people always think if I ask them to sing, they will do it (laughs). I wish it was true. It’s not the case. I always try five singers. I hope that one of these singers will do it. And it was the same with the voice. I think I had between five to ten options of actors, that I wanted for this part. But you know, it’s very hard to get these actors. It’s a totally different world. You have to really negotiate a lot with agencies and managers, and it takes months, before you finally get through. He was definitely one of my first choices. He was in my top 5, because I’m a huge Doctor Who fan and I grew up watching all his episodes and I bought them all on DVD. I saw them like a hundred times and, of course, he was in Doctor Who for eight years. Those were my formative years. That was in the 70’s and I was fifteen years old, or something. To be able to work with him, it’s like a dream come true. He’s my hero and it’s so great to meet your heroes and find out that they are great people as well. I contacted him through a voice agency, on Google. I found on Google a voice agency and they have a lot of actors. It’s a lot of negotiating and, at some point, you agree to a price with this agency and then, they contacted Tom Baker. Tom Baker still had to like it. He heard it and he loved it. Luckily, because he was the only one who could have done this. 

M.I. - Was it difficult to write the ideas for the album (lyrics, melodies and instruments)? I know that this was a challenge for you and pushed you out of your comfort zone, musically and creatively.

Usually, I work in a different way. Usually, I start with musical ideas. So, just a little bit of guitars, a little melody on a synthesizer or whatever. And then, I’m ready with the music and I let the music inspire me to come up with the story. That’s usually how I work. But this time, it was the other way around. As I told you earlier, I started with the story this time. Yeah! That’s very different. It was a challenge for me to work that way. Usually I just choose singers, because I like them. I like their voice. But this time, I needed singers, who had a lot of charisma. Who could act, because it was going to be a movie. I definitely wanted the movie to have the same singers as the album. With all the singers, I thought: “Can they act? Do they look good? Do they look charismatic? Do they fit the part?”. There were a few challenges on this album. 

M.I. - We can hear some classical instruments, such as the violin, flute and an organ. Which was the most difficult to record?

Basically, I always use this kind of instruments on Ayreon. I’m very used to record violins and flutes and stuff like that. But, on this album, I had a lot of new instruments. I had the hurdy gurdy, trumpets, trombone, horn players and stuff like that. They were all total professionals. Nothing was difficult to record. If you work with a professional, it’s luxury, because they do exactly what you want to do and they even add something of themselves to it. To answer your question, nothing was difficult. The only thing that was difficult, was the parts I play myself, basically, because I bought a toy piano and I had to play it. I wasn’t very good at it (laughs). I had to stand here and play it. I also bought a Glockenspiel and I never did that before. Those were challenges for me, to learn how to play these instruments. 

M.I. - This is the follow up to 2017’s “The Source”. When did you start writing for this album? While you were recording the previous album or after that?

I basically started working on this, as soon as I was finished with “The Source”. It was in 2017, which means, I worked on this album for 3 years. But, I didn’t work on it for 3 full years, because, in the meantime, we did shows with Ayreon. We did Ayreon’s “Universe” shows and we did Ayreon’s “Into the Electric Castle” shows. And that took a lot of time. We spent a lot of time rehearsing, having meetings and also we did live releases, live CDs and live DVDs. That took a lot of time. In those 3 years, a lot happened. I worked a lot on different stuff. 

M.I. - The previous album wrapped up the Forever/Planet Y and “Transitus” is the start of a new direction. It centers on “a gothic ghost story (a tale of ill-fated love), set (partially) in the 19th century, with elements of horror and the supernatural.” Why did you decide for that specific era? What fascinates you about it?

I wanted an era without mobile phones (laughs). If you think about gothic horror movies, they are usually set in 19th century, in Victorian age. It has something romantic and mysterious about it. I love a lot of stories that are set in that time, like “Jack The Ripper” and stuff like that. Somehow, for me, it’s more of a romantic era. And also, this story is about a forbidden relationship between a rich man’s son and a servant. And in this case, a black servant. Of course, in the 19th century, that was a taboo. That’s another reason to set the story in the 19th century.  

M.I. - “Fatum Horrificum” is the prologue of the album and introduces the characters and what is about to happen. Why did you decide to divide it into 6 parts and not put them together?

They are together. I’ve put them together, basically. I really wrote the music with the movie in mind. With each little part of the music I wrote, I knew what would happen in the movie. So, “Fatum Horrificum”, like you’ve said, is like the intro. In each of the little pieces, something happens. In one piece, they are laying in the bed together, making love. In another piece, curtains are set on fire and so is the bed. On the other piece, he goes down to Transitus. It’s a very cinematic album, basically. I really hope that the movie is going to happen, you know? It’s very important for the story. 

M.I. - Transitus is the name of the netherworld between Heaven and Hell. What ideas did you have when creating it?

It’s funny really, because the whole Transitus parts, weren’t part of the story, originally. It’s just that I really wanted Simone Simons to play a part in the movie and on the album. I had to think of a part for her. Then suddenly, I thought she would be very cool as the Angel Of Death. I didn’t want the story to be too serious. I wanted a sort of a comic elements in the story. I thought: “A lot of people don’t know this side of Simone. They see a quite serious singer, when she sings in Epica!”. But everytime she comes to my studio, she’s always joking around and she has that little glimmer in her eye. She’s really very funny, a sweet lady. On this album, I wanted to highlight that side of her. So, I came up with a part for her as the Angel Of Death and that’s basically how this whole side of the story came up. It wasn’t planned that way. It’s often the way I work. When I get a singer, I often change the story, because of the singer. It’s really weird the way I work. 

M.I. - Daniel and Abby are the main characters. Do tell us more about them, please. What do they represent?

Daniel is the son of a very rich man and the father part is played by Dee Snider, who you may know from Twisted Sister. He’s a very introvert person. His mother died and he feels very responsible for the fact that his mother died and also, he has a very overwhelming father and he has a brother, called Henry, who’s always better at everything than he was. That was really frustrating for him. That’s the character Daniel. Abby is the daughter of Abraham. Her mother died and her father got together with Lavinia. There were two very different sides of the spectrum. Two very different people. But it didn’t matter that they were different, because they were in love, they did not see the difference between them. They were just in love and they didn’t care about what anyone else said.

M.I. - The Angel of Death and her friends The Furies have an important role. Why those names?

The Angel Of Death is obvious. It’s a common name for this angel. She’s the one who decides, whether you go to Heaven or Hell. She’s getting tired of it, because it’s always the same. People arrive in Transitus and they’re always like: “I’m innocent! I’m innocent! I should go to Heaven, because I’ve always been a good person!” (laughs). She’s getting tired of it. Her sidekicks are The Furies and I really had to think about that name. I think I had about ten different names. At some point, I thought The Furies were really cool. They are also a little bit between Heaven and Hell. One side of them is sweet and angelic, and the other side is naughty, like a little devil. 

M.I. - Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Joe Satriani, Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber), Marty Friedman, Dee Snider, Johanne James (Threshold), Juan van Emmerloot, Simone Simons (Epica), Marcela Bovio (MaYan), and Michael Mills (Toehinder) are some of the guests, including singers and musicians. Was it difficult to choose all of them and contact them? 

Some are difficult, some are easy. If they know my music, it’s always easy. If they like my music (laughs), it’s always easy to get singers. A good example, is Cammie. I heard her voice and I was so impressed by it and I really wanted to work with her. And I contacted her and I was afraid she wouldn’t know me. But, luckily, she knew me and she knows my music and she and her boyfriend, Dobber, who he’s the drummer of Oceans Of Slumber, they’re big fans of my music. In that case, it is easy. One message on Facebook: “Would you like to be part of it? Of couse! We’ll come over from Texas, to record with you!”. In her case, it was easy. In the case of Dee Snider, for instance, it was much harder, because you have to first get through the manager. It’s negotiating with the manager for months and months and this guy is so busy, you know, that you have to find a date, somewhere that he can record. Yeah! Some are easy, some are hard!

M.I. - On “This Human Equation” music video there are several clues to the intricate Ayreon mythology. What are they?

Well, of course, the title! “This Human Equation”, because, as I told you before, it’s an Ayreon album. She talks about the Universe on migration, which is of course, a knot to the album, “The Universal Migrator”, of Ayreon. I think those are the only two links to the Ayreon story.

M.I. - “Hopelessly Slipping Away” and “Get Out! Now!” are very different tracks. Do you think that, if you didn’t make these videos, people would think the album would sound the same, from the first to the last song?

It was very hard to pick a single, because none of the songs on this album are the same. Each song is completely different and if we would have only released “Get Out! Now!”, people would have thought that this was an 80’s Hard Rock album (laughs). If we only released “Hopelessly Slipping Away”, people would think it is a very soft album., you know? I was very clear to the record company, that I wanted to release those two singles, at the same time, so that people could see that the music, on this album, is very eclectic, you know? Very different. 

M.I. - “Talk Of The Town” is, in fact, the most Ayreon-ish track on the album. Can we say this is your favourite?

No, I don’t think so. I chose it as a single, because it’s an Ayreon-ish track. I think it’s the most representative track on the album. Because it has all these different styles. It starts with a 19th century chamber orchestra, flute, violin, horn, etc. And then, it goes into a heavier song at the end. It has many different styles in it. That’s why I picked it. But I don’t think I could choose a favourite song of this album. It’s very hard, because they’re all very different. 

M.I. - The most amazing track on this record is in fact “Daniel’s Descent into Transitus Medley” and you made a mini-movie for it. Why for this song? Will you make another video, with the other characters?

This mini little mini movie, I made it more than a year ago. it was made a long time ago. it wasn’t meant to be a videoclip. This was meant to be an audition for the movie. It would be something that I could show on making the movie. It was a very expensive clip. We worked on it for half a year, costed a lot of money. Basically, this is a blueprint for what the movie could be like. It wouldn’t be part of the movie, because we have to redo it, but I wanted to show how I would see the movie.

M.I. - Who is the responsible for the album cover?

Usually I work with Gepetto, who is a real painter. He did most of Ayreon’s albums, like “Into the Electric Castle”. But I didn’t think he would fit this story, because it’s a 19th century gothic story. I didn’t really feel that his science fiction kind of fancy style, would fit with this album. I had a couple of people, who made a cool Transitus logo. I felt that the logo was very important for this album. On previous albums, it was more about the painting, but on this album, it’s more about the logo. The guy is David Letelier, he also made the videoclips for “Get Out! Now!” and “Talk Of The Town”. He’s the guy who also made the album cover. 

M.I. - A very Theatrical Progressive Rock/Metal with an Operatic and Musical taste. Are you found of musicals? Which ones do you like and were you inspired by?

It all started with “Jesus Christ Superstar”. With the album, basically. I think I was 10 years old. It was in 1970. It’s the original, with Ian Gillian, as Jesus. At first, I didn’t like it because my mother liked it (laughs). You’re not supposed to like what your mother likes. Then I heard it on my own a couple of times, with headphones on, reading the lyrics. Then I got totally hooked. It’s such a strong album, such strong melodies, such lyrics. A couple of years later, I got the movie, which was great too. It was shot in beautiful locations. Yeah! Definitely “Jesus Christ Superstar” is the biggest influence. Other influences would be “Tommy”, of The Who. Again, first the album, it would be the end of the 60’s. Later, you would have the movie. The movie was a bit of a mess. But still, the music was so cool, that I didn’t care. And then, of course, there were albums, like “War Of The Worlds”, which was kind of a musical too. These were my biggest inspirations.

M.I. - Let’s talk about the Bonus CDs and DVD. Were they difficult to make? How did you plan them?

Oh, yeah! Well, the Bonus CDs weren’t difficult. The instrumental version is easy. I just turn off the vocals. That’s simple! I also added a CD, with guide vocals. I thought that was very cool. I always have singers in my studio, who sing the melodies, and then, we send these versions to the eventual singers, who are going to sing it. But usually it doesn’t happen with these guide vocals. They always stay secret. But this time I thought the guide vocals were so great, that it would be cool to put them on a CD. The DVD was really hard to make, the behind the scenes took months of work. Firstly, you have to film everything and here in the studio, we have all the musicians. And then, you have to make a very good story for the whole behind the scenes and you have to edit it together. That was a couple of months of work. So, yeah! My girlfriend, Lori, made the behind the scenes and she did a great job. I think it’s really interesting!

M.I. - Felix Veja illustrated this 28-page comic book. Was something you always wanted and how well do you know Felix’s work? What made you choose him? Can it be sold separately?

I’m a huge comic book fan, ever since I was a little boy! All the kids were playing outside, I was sitting inside, reading my comic books (laughs). To be able to make my own comic book, was definitely a dream come true! As for the illustrator, I really searched the whole world for a good illustrator. It took me many, many months and I saw hundreds of illustrators. But I’m hard to please, you know? I know exactly what I want and it didn’t click, until I contacted a publisher in Chile and he gave me links to ten illustrators, and then I saw Felix’s work and I was like: “Oh, My God! This is so good!”. I ordered a couple of his comic books on line and I got them and it was beautiful, the colours were beautiful and it was magical. I contacted him, luckily he likes my music, that’s very important. If he said: “I hate your music!”, he could have not done it (laughs). It’s great, when you get inspired. it’s great, when I send him music and he gets inspired. It’s cool, when he sends me comic books. We worked together for about a year. It was really great! Yeah! The comic book is available on its own.

M.I. - From “The Final Experiment” to “Transitus, 25 years have passed. Do you think that you have accomplished everything you desired the most, professionally speaking? What’s next for you?

I hope I haven’t accomplished everything, because then I would be finished. I would rather die (laughs), than stop making music. No, I definitely don’t think I have accomplished everything I want to accomplish. But I have to say, I’m really proud with what I’ve done in those 25 years, because when I started with the first Ayreon album, I really did not expect people to like it. It was just one album, it was called “The Final Experiment”, because I thought it was going to be my final experiment. I didn’t think people would like it. I didn’t think I would make another one and I definitely didn’t think that, 25 years later, I would still be making Ayreon’s albums and I would be so successful with it. I’m extremely proud of it. What’s next? Well, definitely not an Ayreon album, because I did a few Ayreon’s albums. Now I want to do something different. Each album I make is always a reaction to the album before. “Transitus” is not very heavy, it’s more of a musical than a Rock opera. After this, I would like an album that’s a little bit heavier. I have a project called “Star One”, which is basically the Metal side of Ayreon. I think I would like to do another “Star One” album. That would be my third “Star One” album. So, that’s the plan. But I’ve been known for not sticking to the plan and changing my mind all the time (laughs). I don’t know what’s going to happen. At least, that’s what I’m thinking.

M.I. - If someone wanted to turn this album into a musical, what would you think about that? Would you like the idea and help them out?

Of course, that would be great! That would be a dream come true, actually! I don’t know if I could help, because I know nothing about theatre. Really, I don’t know anything about it (laughs). So, yeah! I would try to help them, at least give them ideas, but I would be very open for people to change things, change the story or even parts in the music, because that would probably be necessary, if you make a musical from it. Yeah! I would love to help and I would not be the usual control freak that I am. I would give them, definitely, a lot of space to interpret their way. 

M.I. - Thanks so much for this honour. What would you like to share with your Portuguese fans and audience?

This is quite a difficult album. As I said, my previous albums were Rock operas, this is more like a Rock musical. I really hope people will like it and I can understand you, you know, why people would be like : ”Wow! This is very different!”, but I would give it a chance, listen to it a couple of times. But I know, they will, you know? Because my Ayreon fans are extremely loyal and they are also open-minded and I really like that. They are not : ”This should be heavy! This should be this way!”. They want to like it, they listen to the album and they hear the good things about it. All I want to say, is that I’m really proud of the fans I have. I think maybe every artist says that, but I think they’re the best fans in the world! 

For Portuguese version, click here

Questions by Raquel Miranda