Getting down to earth with Arjen Anthony Lucassen
By Naughty Mickie
Photos courtesy www.ayreon.com

He uses his full name, has played in impressive projects such as Bodine, Vengeance and Ayreon, as well as with a virtual list of who's who in music and lives in the middle of a forest. So it's little wonder that I am nervous and excited to meet Arjen Anthony Lucassen, who is on a stopover at the home of friends, fellow musicians Lana Lane and Erik Norlander, while on a rare tour.

But I don't feel daunted for long. Lucassen comes to the door, tall and thin with wispy long blond hair and a big smile. He speaks softly, escorting me to a table and chairs on the backyard patio and seems slightly surprised that I am willing to drive an hour and a half just to meet with him.

I don't waste time, but get straight into asking him how he came to produce his latest release, ``Star One'' on Inside Out.

``I've been in bands for 15 years, I think I started in 1980,'' Lucassen responds. ``And I've toured the world, played live, with two bands called Bodine and Vengeance until 1995. Then I decided to do something that I liked. No more concessions to band members, no more concessions to the record companies, no one. I thought, let's just make an album that I like and I will probably be the only one who likes it.''

Lucassen laughs and goes on, ``And so I did it, a progressive rock opera in the '90s, and everyone said, `You're crazy.' But well, I wanted to do it just once and then I'll go and find a job or whatever. And I did it and all the record companies laughed at me and said, `It's great, but come on man, I mean we're doing Nirvana and Alice in Chains and get off with your progressive rock.' And then there was this one guy in Holland who said, `Well, it's great and I want it.'

``He introduced me to the fans who said, `Well, we want it too.' Then it started selling like 1,000, 2,000. I'm like, `Two thousand, who's buying my album?' Then there was like 4,000, 10,000, 20,000, 40,000. I was happy. I never never imagined that. And so of course the record company says, `We want another one.'

``The first album is called `Ayreon,''' Lucassen continues. ``That wasn't the project's name, it was the name of the album, like the Who made `Tommy.' Then the record company said, `Well, your second album has to be called Ayreon too,' but I said no, that was like the Who suddenly calling themselves Tommy. It's the name of the album and they said, `No, we have to keep calling it Ayreon.' Which was a good move, because I made the second Ayreon album and it wasn't such a success as the first one. It was really different, it was a bit more electronic. And then I made the third Ayreon album, which was the biggest success. It was a double album called `Into the Electric Castle.' And then I couldn't do anything wrong any more, the albums after that were a success- amazing. You know, doing something that you like yourself and no concessions, just me on my own in my studio with guest musicians and having a great time.''

I remark on his good following, especially with the ``Star One'' release.

``I'm not doing that well any more,'' comments Lucassen. ``The first album did great and the last couple albums didn't do that well.''

He confides that his biggest following is in Germany.

``To answer your question after that long intro,'' Lucassen smiles, ``I bought a new computer like two years ago. I wanted to experiment with it, but I didn't have new songs, so I loaded Ayreon songs and just started messing around with them on the computer. Then I got this e-mail from a 14-years-young singer (Astrid van der Veer), a Dutch singer, 14, she's incredibly good, so I had her sing on two songs. The first time she was in the studio she was amazing. And then, as she sang, I tried to do an instrumental album with two vocal songs, but she was so great that it became a vocal album with two instrumentals. And that was called `Ambeon.' But I had been behind the computer doing this kind of ambient stuff, electronic stuff, for about a year and I really felt like doing something really heavy and that's how `Star One' was born. I thought I would just plug in my guitar and rrrooow!''

I comment that ``Star One'' is very orchestrated, which makes it stand out.

``If you listen to Ayreon you'll see it's much more orchestrated and in fact, I failed,'' Lucassen admits. ``I didn't want to do an Ayreon album, I wanted to do a really heavy honest album. And I did. I recorded it and it was no computers, no midis, no samples, nothing, just wow! And then, I'm in my own studio and I'm a real producer and I start building and building, adding this, synthesizers and so forth. I didn't want to do it, but I love it and I couldn't help it. And it became orchestrated like you said with all these added layers on it.

``But it's much simpler than Ayreon,'' Lucassen goes on. ``There's a lot more going on in Ayreon. There's a voices and a bass part, an electronic part and then a folk part and then acoustic and death metal and it goes into progressive rock and it's all over the board. So this is different from Ayreon because it's more in one style.''

``Did you have a musical childhood?'' I ask.

``No, not at all,'' Lucassen answers. ``My parents aren't musical at all. I think it started when I 15, like everyone that age. I heard John Lennon's whole psychedelic period in UK rock. And I think it all started out, do you remember the glitter rock? Alice Cooper, Sweet. And that was the time when I thought that's what I want, you know. Not even the music, the image-- the long hair and the glitter and all that stuff, I loved it. But I was too lazy to learn how to play the guitar.

``So I just started to play back then, I was playing Sweet songs and Alice Cooper songs and Mud and Slate and all these bands.'' Lucassen continues, ``That's how it started and we played back then. I would be touring from school to school. Of course, I was the singer, wearing my mother's wig and stuff and the flares with the white white socks and holes in them.''

He chuckles as he describes his rock singer garb and then tells me how guys from the school classes above him introduced him to Deep Purple.

``I thought, `Oh, yeah, this is it,''' says Lucassen. ``I heard Ritchie Blackmore and I bought a Stratocaster, at least I bought an imitation of an imitation of a Stratocaster. It was called after the shop I bought it, really cheap, out of tune. That's when I decided that's what I wanted.''

He was 12 or 13 years old then, ``I was still small, it was a long time ago.''

His parents originally wanted Lucassen to continue his studies, but they accepted his decision to devote himself to a career as a musician.

``Well, of course they wanted me to go to a university and stuff,'' says Lucassen. ``I had the brains for it. But when I was 20, I got into a professional band straight away. I was touring straight away and making albums.''

He finish his required schooling, but was already playing professionally by then.

``I wanted it all, the whole rock and roll. Maybe not the drugs, but the whole sex and rock and roll thing,'' Lucassen grins. ``But then after 15 years, I had enough of it. I don't know if I never liked it or if I had enough, I'd seen it and that's it. But I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I experienced it. Or maybe that's why now I retreat to studio, live like a hermit in the middle of the forest, no neighbors.''

``You can be as loud as you like then,'' I tease.

``And the neighbors can be as loud as they like and I won't hear them,'' he counters.

``What kind of hobbies do you have?'' I probe.

``Sleeping,'' Lucassen laughs. ``And not even that, I can't. I run, I jog, really like two hours twice a week and then I watch DVDs. I've got this whole theater room, really horrible, it's really horrible, people get jealous when they get in. Television, projection screen, and there's speakers all over the place and DVDs and I light the candles and enjoy that.''

He has a passion for science fiction films, so I ask him which is his favorite.

``It's so hard,'' Lucassen shakes his head. ``I always say `2001.' It seems that there have been better movies, but that's the one, maybe one of the first I saw, that had a real impact on me.''

We talk about my favorite, ``Silent Running,'' and he tells me that he wanted to use it for ``Star One,''
but couldn't find a video or DVD.

``Tell me more about your `Electric Castle,''' I say.

``My studio or my album?''

``Your studio, that's what you call it, right?'' I ask.

``Yeah, because my album was called `Into the Electric Castle' and of course people think of it like a huge castle.'' A smile crosses Lucassen's face, ``I once did a promo pic in Holland for this huge castle and people actually think it's my studio. It's like the biggest castle in Holland and if you go there, there's a museum. But it's actually just a little room.''

Lucassen laughs, ``But the house is big. But it's not a castle. Because I do everything on my own, everything's computerized nowadays. You don't even need a mixing board any more, it's all within your computer. And you don't even need all the outboard equipment any more, it's all plug in.

``All those years I kept saying, `Not me. I won't do it, I'm an analog guy and will keep on using the tapes.' But then one day, I surrendered to digital because you can do so much and it's so fast. But the albums don't get any better. And in the end, when anything's faster at all, you get much more critical, you get much more critical. Because you can see everything, you have the screen in front of you and you see that, `Oh, there's some noise there' and you clean it all and he's cleaning up and saving everything. So it's not faster in the end.''

analog vs. digital

``I think all that happened with analog tape is it took away the top end, that's all,'' Lucassen goes on. ``Digital won't take away the top end. That's the only difference I think. Because with `Star One,' I got that feeling like I did everything. I thought, aaah- I wanted analog so when we mastered it, we put it back to analog tape. And we listened to the difference before and after and there really was no difference. So we did it anyway. I just liked the feeling of the analog, but I couldn't hear a difference.''

``How do you write?'' I query.

``With Ayreon, I started with chord progressions and melodies.'' Lucassen explains, ``At night, I sit in front of my television, turn off the sound and I've got my guitar in my lap, just trying something. Chords, melody, keyboard sounds, atmosphere and at the very end I write the lyrics, it's always the same. With `Star One' it was different, I just plugged my guitar in, get this huge sound and I'd base the songs there on the guitar riffs. That's the difference between Ayreon and `Star One,' and as far as lyrics are concerned. But like I said, I'm like a hermit, I live in the forest, I don't watch the news, I don't read the papers, I absolutely don't know what's going on in the world.

``When I see it, I'm like, `Oh, shit.' I don't understand it, this crazy stuff.'' Lucassen continues, ``I can't change it either, you know. And for me personally, I don't think- I think, for me, music is escapism. I listen to music, which I do every evening. I like lay down between my boxes and no one is in the way, I don't want to be confronted with misery and stuff. And I think that's the reason I write about science fiction, escapism. And it's making stories up, it's all I can do because I don't know anything about the real world. I have to make it up myself.

``And with Ayreon, I make up my own stories. I've done five Ayreon albums now and I've created this whole Ayreon universe. I started out with one story and then another one and when I wrote the third one, I suddenly saw a connection between the first two. And when I wrote the fourth and fifth one, they all were connected, which is great. It's easy to write that way because you start the story and I'm curious myself what the next lyric is going to be, so it's very easy. If you have to do an album and create or write all the songs different or write different lyrics for all the songs, it's much harder.

``I carry a theme with Ayreon, it makes it a lot easier because people always tell me, `It's so hard to make up your own stories.' But it isn't, it's much easier.''

``And so this time, I didn't want to be too close to Ayreon,'' Lucassen says. ``So I thought, let's do a theme, but not a story, not a rock opera concept. And then of course, I thought, well, I love space movies, space movies take me away far from the Earth as possible. I decided to base it on space movies, which is extremely tricky of course. If you're too close to the movie it will become cheesy. If you go like that with `Star Wars' it's like, `I'm your father Luke.' Or you'll do a `Star Trek' thing, `Live long and prosper.' So that was actually really hard to base lyrics on film, but not get too close. That was really hard.''

Lucassen then picks my ``Star One'' CD up off of the table and makes me try to guess which songs are about which science fiction films. I do OK, he offers me a few hints, but I still don't get them all. We agree that you really need to know your sci fi flicks and you may still have to listen to the effort several times to figure them all out. Here's a few to get you started:

   Song: ``The Eye of Ra'' -  Film: ``Star Gate''
   Song: ``High Moon'' - Film: ``Outland'' (based on the western ``High Noon'')
   Song: ``Master of Darkness'' - Film: ``Star Wars'' (specifically the character Darth Vader)
   Song: ``Songs of the Ocean'' - Film: ``Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home''
   Song: ``Starchild'' - Film: ``2001: Space Odyssey''
   Song: ``Perfect Survivor'' - Film: ``Alien''
   Song: ``Sandrider'' - Film: ``Dune''

After our bit of fun, I ask Lucassen what he thinks of the music scene.

``I think it's going in the right direction again,'' he says. ``I'm now signed with Inside Out, a new label, and they've got all these great bands like TransAtlantic; Pain of Salvation. They've got loads of great bands, so it's definitely going the right direction. But the problem is in the '70s, when I didn't play an instrument yet, I was really, I don't know, music made more impact on me. Nowadays, when you're a musician, it's hard to listen music as a fan, really hard because you're listening as a musician. It's a shame. So when I  listen to Dream Theater, it's like, `Whoa, amazing musicianship.' It's so good, but can't listen as a fan any more.''

As a musician myself, I agree, it is hard to separate yourself and just be a fan. We discuss our favorite bands and musicians and I can't help but bring up Ronnie James Dio.

```Rainbow Rising' was the best rock album ever made,'' says Lucassen. ```Stargazer' was the best song ever made.''

In fact, Lucassen tells me that he did a cover of ``Stargazer'' with Lana Lane on the vocals. He is hoping to have Dio record on one of his albums some time, as he's his favorite singer too.

Having checked out Lucassen's Web site, I ask him what he thinks about the Internet.

``That's funny because I was against anything that had to do with computers and I even wrote an album about it, which was my second Ayreon album,'' Lucassen replies. ``It was called `Actual Fantasy,' which is the opposite of virtual realty because all these people would be virtually playing computer games. That's why I called the album ``Actually Fantasy,'' to tell people please use your imaginations, stop toying with computers and stuff.

``And then the funny thing, I had to do the artwork and the artist lived like an hour drive away from me. Each day I used to drive to him, he'd say, `It's silly man, I can e-mail you the stuff.' `Aww! But computers, you know, ahhh!' He said, `Today we're go to buy a computer and I'm going to install Internet.' `Wow, I don't know, you know.' So he came up to me, put the computer there, installed the Internet and since then I've been behind the computer four, five hours a day.''

He spends most of that time responding to e-mails from fans and friends around the globe.

``I enjoy it, it's not like I feel obliged to it,'' Lucassen says. ``It's wonderful to get these e-mails and to get feedback on your music. I love it.''

He feels it's easier to keep in contact with his fans because he doesn't tour. He used to surf the Web more and often punched in his own name for fun. Lucassen even found vocalist Lana Lane that way, by putting in Ayreon. After he kept seeing her name pop up in association with his own, he finally sent her an e-mail asking if she might like to be on his album and a friendship was formed. He also met musician Erik Norlander through her.

What does the future hold?

``First of all, this was going to be a side project, I just wanted to do a heavy album, I wanted to let off steam. I never expected it to be this successful,'' states Lucassen.

``Star One'' has been album of the month in many music mags prior to its release and now, he feels he needs to make a sequel to it, but plans to work on an Ayreon album first, but the recording will be less heavy. He wants to keep the heavier stuff for ``Star One.''

I then hit Lucassen up about his ``hiding out'' rather than touring.

``With Ayreon I always had an excuse,'' Lucassen says. ``Like it's twenty guest singers and I could never get all these guys on stage, it's like a huge story and I can't get all the costumes and scenery and stuff. But now, with `Star One,' I don't have that excuse any more.''

Before this most recent tour, he had not played live for seven to eight years. Lucassen thought that if it felt good, he might tour more. He grins and admits to me that the previous night's show felt good. 

I ask him if there's anything we haven't discussed that we should have and Lucassen shakes his head. So then I explain that part of my interview is to give people insight ``into who you are.''

``Maybe I'm not that important, the music is more important than I am. Maybe I'm just a boring old
fart,'' Lucassen shrugs.

I dig a little more and learn that he is married and has eight cats, ``They're my kids.''

``My wife and I were fighting, I wanted two cats, she wanted only one,'' Lucassen explains. ``So then finally after a year we decided OK, we'll get two- a male and a female. But then there was this stray cat and she had a lot of kittens. Mostly the foxes killed the kittens. I'd find dead kittens everywhere. This stray cat was really wild. But then, we had horses too and she put the kittens in the horses' stable. And we were like, `What do you do with four little kittens in a horse's stable?' Of course you're going to feed the mother and before we knew it the kittens were inside.

``There were seven cats, but we still couldn't touch the mother, she was wild. Then she had more kittens and they ended up in the flower pot next to the window. They were so sweet, we were like, what can we do? We can't drown them and nobody wants to buy the cats because you couldn't touch them. So we had to befriend the cat and now the funny thing is that the stray cat, the mother, is always close to us. Wherever we're at, she's somewhere sitting by us.''

They had the cat fixed, but were up to 10 cats. Unfortunately, two of the cats were later lost to the forest. One of them was Lucassen's favorite and he was heartbroken.

He says that all of the remaining cats look alike, black and white, but their personalities are different and he keeps changing their names to suit them better.

``That's what I like about cats they'll come to you if they want to, not because your tell them. They do exactly what they want to,'' Lucassen says.

His wife also has three horses.

``I have no feeling for the horses,'' Lucassen says with a tinge of sadness. He's not sure why he doesn't like nor dislike the horses, but he thinks maybe if he rode them or drove them it would change his mind.

In addition to their menagerie, the Lucassens also have two roosters and a peacock. The bird just turned up on their doorstep, like the cats. He doesn't know where all the animals are coming from because there's no neighbors nearby, so we share a laugh about the animals telling each other to go to his house if they need a new home.

The peacock is called Captain Peacock after the character in BBC's ``Are You Being Served?,'' which leads to a discussion on British television. We talk about ``Chef'' and agree that it's star, Gareth Blackstock, is terrific in everything he does. Lucassen also confides in me that he is a huge Monty Python fan.

```Life of Brian' is the funniest movie ever made,'' he says.

It's getting late, so I decide that it's time to take my trek back home on the freeway. But before I leave, Lucassen insists on giving me a copy of ``Into the Electric Castle,'' which he ``borrows'' from his house host, Norlander. I resist and he promises to replace it for his friend, so I relent.

We met with a handshake, but we end up parting with a hug. Lucassen has proved to be as wonderful and intelligent as his music. And by the way, Arjen, ``Electric Castle'' rocks!!

To learn more about Arjen Anthony Lucassen, visit www.ayreon.com

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