Thu. Nov 26th, 2020

Interview with Arjen Lucassen: “I had to learn to keep changing and keep adapting.” (Musicalypse Archive)

Fans of Arjen Lucassen were delighted to hear about the upcoming release of the next AYREON release this week, a sci-fi/fantasy ghost story called Transitus. Starring big names like Tommy Karevik (SEVENTH WONDER, KAMELOT), Cammie Gilbert (OCEANS OF SLUMBER), and Simone Simons (EPICA), AYREON promised to bring a whole new world to the fans with this heavy metal musical. As concept albums are regularly inclined to make us wonder about the story as well as the music, we were lucky enough to get to chat with the mastermind, Arjen Lucassen himself, about all things “Transitus.”

Just to give fair warning, there are spoilers in this review for the new album, as well as a few of the older albums, so if you’re sensitive to that, consider waiting until you’ve heard the material.

Hello, it’s nice to actually get to talk to you in real time for a change! Most of our past interviews have been done by email. How has this year been treating you?

Arjen: Right! The weird thing is, it wasn’t weird for me [laughter]. Nothing changed. I mean, I’ve been in lockdown for 25 years now.

So you’re a hermit, like me!

I’m a total hermit, a total recluse. I’m not a social person, I don’t have a family, I don’t have a job, and I’m always at home in my studio, so really nothing changed for me. I go shopping once a week and even there, nothing much changes. Of course, in the beginning I was really scared and wearing gloves and stuff, but that’s a bit over too now. I’m also not playing live much, as you know. So really nothing changed [laughs]. It’s terrible, I’m so antisocial.

I completely understand. With all the craziness going on in the world, it’s kind of funny that this is one of the first AYREON albums in a while that isn’t about some sort of apocalypse. Do you think it’s nice to release something that’s – I don’t want to say light-hearted because this is certainly a very dark story in many ways – maybe not so directly related to the world and what’s happening?

Light-hearted it is not [laughs]. Everybody dies, people burn up, it’s awful basically. Like Tom Baker says in the beginning, this is not for the tender-hearted. But the message always kind of creeps into my stories. I don’t like messages in music. Really, as a kid already, I just wanted escapism, I wanted to be entertained, I didn’t want to be confronted with what’s happening in the world. I wanted to escape it for an hour. So I’ve always said, in my music I won’t do that. But then I made the first AYREON album, “The Final Experiment,” and somehow that message crept in. Somebody sends their visions back in time to warn mankind against the eventual decline of humanity and it was essential for the story, but I don’t really like the messages or to confront people with negative stuff like that.

This time, of course because it isn’t related to the big AYREON Forever story, I could do something entirely different and I was thinking, what could I d. I’m a huge horror movie fan and I’d done some lyrics about it in the bands when I grew up. I’d been touring the world for 15 years and we had some songs about The Omen and stuff like that, but I didn’t really do a ghost story and I love ghost stories… especially because this album wasn’t planned to be AYREON. It was going to be a movie and hopefully it will be a movie one day. It wasn’t planned that way. Of course, I started 3 years ago with the album, so the whole pandemic wasn’t there yet. Basically, because of the pandemic, I realized that it wasn’t going to be a movie right now, it had to be an album.

Talking about “Transitus,” as you mentioned just now and to Tuonela Magazine, this was meant to be a movie, but you also mentioned that Simone’s [Simons; EPICA] character had changed, that she was originally supposed to be the main character and the whole Angel of Death and idea of transitus were added later on. So what was the original story like?

It was a very basic ghost story and I think “Transitus” was the fourth or fifth title it got. The first title was called Why, because [Daniel] burns up and thinks that Abby set the fire purposely, so he was shouting, “Why? Why?” so the first title was Why. Then I didn’t really like that, it wasn’t so important, so the title changed into Two Worlds. Obviously, because that was kind of the theme of the album, there were rich and poor – like Tom Baker says in the beginning – there’s black and white…

Life and death.

Life and death, right, or not-really-death as he says. So that’s always the way I work. I start very simple with a very simple story, and then when I decided I need another part for Simone, that she’s going to play the Angel of Death, then suddenly the whole transitus part came in and then it was like, okay he dies and maybe he ends up in limbo and he has a chance to save Abby. So yeah, that’s always the way I work. Keep changing stuff.

It’s something I had to learn. I was just talking about “The Final Experiment” – I had that story and I didn’t want to change it no matter what people said or what other people’s ideas were, or if I had idea changes myself, I didn’t allow it. It was just a story and it had to be like that. But then at some point you work with amazing musicians who do it their way [laughs]. They won’t be told what to do and and you find out that this is better than what I had originally. Then I had to learn to keep changing and keep adapting.

That’s really interesting. It sounds much more similar to writing a story than music necessarily, starting with an idea and adjusting it, this doesn’t work, switch this, etc. Is it usually that you start with the story and the music comes after?

Never! Never, this was the first time. I think music is more important. It always starts with a guitar, it starts with a little riff or melody or a few chords, and I put it on a cassette player and I do that for a couple of months until I have fifty little ideas. I put them in the computer, then I start working on them, this idea fits with that idea, then at some point something starts developing. At that point, I have no idea what it’s going to be, if it’s going to be AYREON or STAR ONE or THE GENTLE STORM or whatever. Then at some point I see a pattern, so then I have the music and I let the music inspire me to come up with a story. Then I start thinking about the story and then I start thinking, okay, which singer fits the music, which singer fits the story. If I have a science fiction story, I know I can always already count out some singers who don’t like sci-fi, for instance. Once I’ve got my singers, then I divide the singers over the album, so there are parts – like really soft parts – where I think, oh Jonas Renkse would be cool here. Only then do I start writing the story and the lyrics.

Basically, I base the lyrics on the singers. A good example is Fish in Into the Electric Castle.” It wasn’t like I have a story with a highlander in it. No, I have Fish, so I wrote a highlander in the story.

Oh, that’s really interesting!

Yeah, otherwise it limits me if I have a story and I have to find a singer who fits the character in my story. Then I’m limited, because maybe I would rather have another singer but it’s not possible then, so I’d rather turn it around. But! With this album, it was more like I had a story and I have to find characters that fit this story. Then still, I was adaptable. Like you said, I still changed the whole fact that Simone was going to be the main character when I heard Cammie [Gilbert; OCEANS OF SLUMBER]; I thought, oh no, she would be cooler for that part. It plays in the 19th century and of course, relationships between black and white were taboo, so it makes the story more interesting.

It’s a really interesting story, especially for me who was religiously watching Downton Abbey a few years ago.

Me too! It was a big inspiration. Downton Abbey is in my top five favorite TV series of all time. I love it so much. I love the whole “tea on the lawn” thing.

Talking about the concept of “transitus” specifically, there are lots of names for that space between life and death, like limbo or purgatory. Why did you choose “transitus”?

It was “limbo” for a long time. Even the song was called “Limbo.” Then I thought limbo… here in Holland, people who come from Limburg, they call them “limbos,” so it sounded really silly at some point and I wanted to find something original. It took me a long time. I think I had a whole list of options there. I also asked my brother, because he’s a teacher of Latin and Greek, if he had any ideas. The same with The Furies. I had so many names for them too. Then suddenly I found “transitus” somewhere. It fit the story, so I called it “Transitus,” then at some point I realized that this sounded way cooler than Two Worlds. It was a hard decision, because Two Worlds makes more sense. This is really the theme of the album, the two worlds, but transitus sounds way cooler, so in the end, I was thinking about what kind of logo would I do. If I did “Transitus,” you can make it much more spectacular than for Two Worlds, so in the end I decided on “Transitus.” It’s a weird decision because transitus doesn’t play that big a part in the story… but sometimes you make those choices.

Do you find it hard to tell stories though music? It seems different from writing text – where you can puke everything onto a page, add as needed, and refine it – or is using music more freeing?

If I would have to make an album with fourteen songs with fourteen different lyrics, that’s hell! [laughter] It would drive me crazy. I did it on my solo album and I have to come up with fourteen subjects, it’s awful! People often tell me, oh, you’re a genius because you write these rock opera stories. No, no, it’s just way easier because you have one story. Like you said, you keep adding. I still remember with The Human Equation,” I started writing the story and I had no idea how it would end. I write the lyrics and as I write the lyrics, the story develops. So with “THE,” the story is about 20 days and I definitely did write those lyrics in 20 days. Every day I wrote a lyric and I had no idea what was going to happen. The next day, I really didn’t know. I didn’t have an ending, I didn’t know how the story would develop, I just let it run its course. I was curious myself, whoa, how is this story going to end? What’s going to happen tomorrow? [laughter] So the story develops while I’m writing lyrics. I think I can only do it because I have the music and the music inspires me and I have the singers and the singers inspire me, and then it develops.

That’s really incredible, because despite playing a lot of violin in my youth, I’ve never even tried to write a song. How you guys do it is like magic.

Baby steps! Only for me. Other people… I’ve worked with geniuses and they can write a whole symphony in 5 minutes. I know it, I’ve been with a keyboard player, like Joost [van de Broek]. He comes in and I have a little idea of two chords and WHOA, within 5 minutes he makes his whole symphony. I cannot do that. I start with these stupid three, four chords and it doesn’t really work and then I work on it weeks and weeks, every day changing it, and then it becomes six chords and then suddenly I have this melody, but then I change it again, and after 2 weeks the original four chords I had are gone [laughter]. So it takes me weeks and weeks to just write one song. But I’m glad it works that way, because these geniuses, I’ve worked with a lot of them, and they’re not really enjoying it. It’s too easy for them. They come up with this whole symphony in 5 minutes and then they sit down again and play computer games or whatever, but me, I really have to work at it and that’s the process that I like the most, being in my studio with all these little sounds. “Oh, this chord is cool!” and then I’m all happy that I found this extra chord. The working on the compositions is way more fun than when it’s done. When it’s finished, I fall into that black hole where I’m not proud of what I did. Oh no, I become insecure. “Oh, it’s shitty, what I did.” I have to work on new stuff and make something better.

It’s so fascinating to hear this. Again, referring to Tuonela Magazine, they just did an interview with Cammie about the new OCEANS OF SLUMBER album, so of course she had to ask about the AYREON album. Cammie had said that you had really pushed her to try new things and she had gotten vocal coaching to help her do it because, you know, this is Arjen Lucassen. You don’t show up to an AYREON album and half-ass it. You have to blow it out of the park [laughter]. So it’s really incredible that, not just from the vocalists, but also for you that each album is an adventure and you can push yourself. That said, was it hard to do a project that was more of a musical than a rock opera?

Not really, no. I have to keep challenging myself, otherwise it becomes too easy or I start repeating myself. I still repeat myself. There’s a song on the album called “Talk of the Town” and there was a part of it in the trailer. When we showed the trailer, there were like ten or twenty fans who said, “Hey, that sounds like the melody of “Digital Rain” by STAR ONE,” and I’m like… damnit! They’re totally right! [laughter] Without knowing it! At least I stole from myself. So it’s very hard, I really try not to repeat myself, so I’m looking for new challenges and once I’ve got that first song and that first idea, that’s the hardest. I want to do STAR ONE next, but I don’t have ideas. It’s terrible! Of course I’ve been working on “Transitus” for 3 years, so I’m kind of empty, but I want to dive into the next thing and it doesn’t come and it’s terrible. I’ve got fifty ideas but they’re all crap and all I need is that one idea that’s good, that gives you self-confidence. It’s maybe like you with the writing. White paper and you just write down shit, whatever comes up, but then suddenly there’s that one thing that gives you another idea and then it starts going.

You’re definitely preaching to the choir [laughter].

But each time I have to go through that period, where the well is dry, it’s empty now, I made music for 40 years now. Oh my god, 45 years! [laughter] There’s a track on my solo album, “Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin.” You know, “every song’s been sung before, every note’s been played.” That’s how it starts and it’s true. I did every chord progression! I did every melody! It becomes harder with each album, but then again, like I said, I need those challenges.

Because your music is so complex, I’m interested to know how you go about composing a song with contributors, like Mike Mills, who are so involved in their parts. What’s it like working with him, for example?

I totally, totally look up to him. He’s one of those geniuses I was talking about. He just comes up with… like in “The Day that the World Breaks Down” on The Source.” I had this whole middle part and I had very cool chords. He’s so incredibly good, so all I had to tell him was “here are the lyrics” and it was a bunch of 0s and 1s [laughter] and I just knew he would come up with something brilliant that I could never, ever come up with. And I’m sure he just sat down and did it without thinking about it. Really, I have to work on that for months and then put it in the computer and then put it in midi and are these notes right with each other? And he just sits down and he does it. So on the one side, that’s very frustrating [laughter] but on the other side, it’s also very inspiring. I just sent him a part and my God, it’s possible that he did something beautiful with my chords. So I try not to get frustrated. I try to learn from it. It is possible.

The same with Devin Townsend. He did the same in The Human Equation.” I sent him instructions and he totally, totally ignored them [laughter]. He did something totally different. Totally different melodies. The first time I got it, it’s like, oh my God, what is this? “You’re killing it from afar, go tell it in a bar?” What the fuck are you talking about? [laughter] Oh my God, this is going to be on my album! But then at some point you realize, oh, this is brilliant and it’s so different from what I had in mind.

He told me that you had to coerce him a little bit to participate in that album. I know he’s not big on collaborating.

No, he said no, but he was my hero then. Before it was Mike Mills, it was Devin Townsend. Every 5 or 10 years or so, someone comes by where I’m like, this guy is brilliant, and Devin Townsend was one of those. Once I set my mind to it, I’ve got to have him, no matter what the cost. I’ve got to have him. I really had to convince him. “I don’t do other people’s things.” “Okay, you don’t have to! You can do your own thing, you can change anything you like, just go for it!” He did it, luckily.

Talking a little bit about the story now, you’re fairly well known as a really nice guy. With that in mind, I was curious if it’s hard for you to write evil characters? I’m asking because of the Father in the story. The narrator refers to him as a monster of a person, where the world would be better if he had never been born, but during the song he outright says, “I’m not a monster, you’re still my family.” He makes sure his son is taken care of. So do you find it hard to write these mean guys?

It’s a total contradiction and I have to say, that was Tom Baker‘s addition. He just blurted it out when we were recording the narration. It wasn’t in the text, in the narration, nowhere. He did three takes of that and [laughs] he just said, “I wish he had never been born,” and it was so cool that we just added it. But basically, the Father in this story isn’t so bad. He’s just very… what’s the word? Dogmatic?

Very class-conscious. 

That’s just it. He wasn’t a bad guy, because eventually he gave his son his house, he gave him money to live from. He said, you are family, I’m not going to desert you, so he’s not such a bad guy.

But to answer your question, maybe it’s compensating a bit [laughter] but I am only a nice guy because I am in the bubble we spoke of before. I am a recluse, I am totally independent, I can do whatever I want, I’m not depending on anyone, I don’t have to compromise, I don’t have to do concessions, anything. So I can be a nice guy. But if I look back at myself in the band years, like I said, I toured for 15 years. Then you have to compromise, you have to compromise with the record company, with other members of the band, you’d have to do concessions to audiences. It was awful! I was an asshole! I kicked so many people out of the band because they weren’t good enough or they didn’t come to rehearsals. I was a total tyrant. One of the guys I kicked out of the group, he was a good friend of an editor of a big magazine here, so he got a whole page talking about me and called me like Hitler [laughter]. So I am really not a nice guy, I’m awful, I’m very opinionated, but especially now, I don’t think music is the medium to express my opinions or political things or whatever. That would not be good, because they are pretty extreme. So I definitely would never ever want to force that upon people, so I keep it all to myself and poor Lori has to hear it all the time. “If there would be a camera in the house now, you’d be totally fucked.”

She and my husband should start a support group for spouses of opinionated artists!

[laughter] Oh yeah! So I can be myself, I can do whatever I want, so I can be a nice guy, but deep down inside, maybe like you see in my lyrics, there is a dark side.

Talking again about the Father, “Get Out! Now!” is a lot of fun – was there any intentional irony in the fact that it’s Dee Snider who originally sang “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and here he is, saying, “get out!”

I know, it makes it extra cool. That wasn’t deliberate. The thing is, every choice I make for singers or for actors or narrators, I never bet on one horse. I always have a list of people that could be interesting for the part, because it takes months, sometimes it takes a year to convince someone to negotiate via managers, etc. I remember Bruce Dickinson, I think it took me a year before he finally got in my studio. It takes a long time. So if you bet on one horse and after 3-4 months it won’t go ahead – which happened a lot of times, it won’t happen because something got in between or they decide not to do it or whatever – then you have to start all over again. So I always start with the list of people. For the Father in “Get Out! Now!” I had a list. Dee Snider was definitely there, because I had heard “For the Love of Metal” and I thought his voice is so, so good. Most people lose it at 50 and he only got better. And he’s so charismatic [laughter]. If it ever becomes a movie, he would be perfect. He would arrive on the scene and everything around him would disappear. So it had Dee Snider, it had Alice Cooper, who is my all-time hero, it had Rob Halford – you know, I’m a huge Priest fan. It even had Jack Black. He would’ve been perfect for that part. So I contact all these people – I think there were four or five – and then you just start negotiating and negotiating and at some point something starts happening. So I was negotiating with Dee Snider‘s manager and finally we agreed on a price and he played it to DeeDee loved the song, and it happened. So it was not deliberate but it is a nice irony. Then again, in the text, you have Tommy Karevik saying, “How can you be so twisted,” and of course that is deliberate [laughter].

Talking about the story a bit now, my biggest question that wasn’t answered by the music or the comic was… how did Abby die? I know she dies in a fire, but how did it happen?

She thinks that the fire is the only way to get back to Daniel. I didn’t want to make it too obvious, but at some point you see her in her room and she’s lighting the candles and there’s the portrait of Daniel; it’s like an altar and she’s lighting the candles. Basically, she says there’s no other way, the only way for her to get to Daniel is to commit suicide. Like I said, not a happy story [laughter].

It’s very poetic, very beautiful… but also a really bad way to commit suicide!

It’s awful! Coincidentally, we were just watching a documentary called Confessions, where people are forced into confessing something and it’s exactly about that, a girl who they think committed suicide by fire, but they coerced her mother to say that she did it… anyway, it is possible, it does happen, and for my story I was thinking if someone would say, “Why didn’t she just kill herself a different way?” of course Daniel died in a fire and she feels very guilty about it, so she thinks that’s the only way to reunite with him eventually in the great beyond.

The other big question I had is about the ending. Again, you told Tuonela that you had gotten in trouble for letting Marko Hietala’s character in “The Theory of Everything” get away with everything. Do you think that’s accurate based on the real world, that bad guys don’t always get what they deserve?

I wish it wasn’t! Here we come to one of my extreme opinions that I would never vent out in the open. I don’t think that should happen. People should not get away with that stuff, but of course it happens. I think it happens a lot, especially with people without a conscience. They get away with so much and they don’t even feel guilty about it. It’s terrible. So I didn’t really think about “The Theory of Everything,” that Marko [‘s character] got away with it, but in the end, I felt like, oh shit, he shouldn’t have, so in this story I’m not going to let it happen.

That’s interesting then, considering you chose to be really harsh on Lavinia, who certainly deserved it, but was also very much manipulated into most of the bad things she did, whereas Henry was the instigator. But Lavinia is dealt with in the album, but Henry is not referred to in the end except in the comic. 

Definitely. I wanted to keep it a bit ambiguous as to if she was interested in inheriting the money. That’s why in the comic book you hear her first say that she’s not interested in the money, but at some point you see her eyes get really big and she says, “Yes, the legacy.” At that point, I want people to start wondering if maybe she was interested in that money. So I wanted to keep it a bit ambiguous and in the end, she did a bad thing. I may have been a bit rough on her, especially since I really like Amanda [Somerville]. She’s such a lovely person [laughter] and I made her the wicked stepmother. I definitely warned her before, but she didn’t mind.

You guys have been doing these every-2-years live shows now. Do you think there will be one coming up again soon or are there any plans?

We would love to and we have plans to do something in September again. We never made it official, we never talked about it, and it’s still booked, basically, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. The reason is that at the last shows we had 12,000 people from 24 countries. That’s not going to happen now though and we need those kind of people, because it’s a very expensive production. We can’t do it for a couple of hundred people who are 1½ meters apart [laughs], it’s impossible. We have to pay for this whole production, so the only way to do it is to get all those people from all those countries together, and it takes us a year to get it up. That’s basically the deal now, we would have to decide by the end of this year if we’re going to do it. Unless a miracle happens, I don’t see it happening.

Maybe push it back a year and hope for the best?

That’s it, yes.

If you were going to do “Transitus,” do you think it would be a big gig like Universe or ItEC,” or would it be more of a stage show like The Theater Equation

I would definitely never do anything the same way. I would find a way to do it differently. It would be a more theatrical setting, I think. That works a bit better for “Transitus.”

As you said, this was supposed to be a movie, so do you think you would have scenes in between the songs where the singers are playing their parts?

Yeah, of course, we would do stuff on the LED screen. Of course we have the lyric videos and the videos we’re working on now. All those videos, we can do something with it.

Well I think I have to let you get to your next interview, so thank you so much for doing this. I hope we can chat again sometime soon!

Definitely! I hope the ideas for STAR ONE are going to come soon and we can talk about that one.

Sounds great! Best of luck until we speak again.

Same to you!

Interview by Bear Wiseman
Musicalypse, 2020
OV: 555

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