Arjen Lucassen, the Dutch prog rock mastermind behind Ayreon and many other projects, has just released Supersonic Revolution – The Golden Age Of Music. Lucassen covers bass duties alongside Jaycee Cuijpers on vocals, Joost van den Broek on Hammond Organ, Timo Somers on guitar and Koen Herfst on drums. MetalTalk’s review is here. He took time out of his busy schedule to talk with MetalTalk’s Ian Sutherland about the album, his influences and the upcoming Ayreon live shows.
With every album that Lucassen puts out, he always does the interviews, but he says he is OK with that. “Talking about my own shit is a good thing,” he smiles.
Lucassen says the idea behind Supersonic Revolution was for a book. “A rock book,” he says. “It’s really cool. It has reviews of every album that a band made. There’s always a cover CD attached to it, and the first few times, I happened to have a cover lying around, but this time I didn’t.
“So I thought I could do a ZZ Top song, but it had to be ready within a week. So I contacted my favourite artists that I thought could do it within a week, Dutch guys on Whatsapp and 10 minutes later, they were like, sure, man, we’ll do it. We don’t have time, but we’ll do it for you, and you will have it tomorrow. Usually, I’m such a perfectionist that I always send them back. This is not good, change that, but I got it in, and it was like, OK, it’s perfect, and then it was done.
“It was such a shame because we were on Whatsapp, and we were joking, and we were having fun. We were like, this should not be the end. Let’s do some more songs. Shall we do more covers, and I said let’s do some of our own songs? I’ll write a new song. Let’s record it and see if there’s chemistry and let’s see if it works.
“I started with Came To Mock, Stayed To Rock. It was the most difficult song on the album, but everyone pulled it up, and everyone had fun, and we decided, let’s do it.”
Lucassen says the new songs were tailor-made for these musicians. “That’s one thing I’m good at. I’m not good at much,” he says.
I say that I disagree with that, but Lucassen says he knows how to get the best out of musicians. “That’s my biggest talent,” he says. “I think that’s why I work with so many musicians. I didn’t want to use old ideas because, at some point, they must not have been good enough, or otherwise, I would have used them. So I tailor-made all these tracks, thinking about the drummer and guitar but thinking mostly about the singer. I want to have the perfect pitch for the singer. So it’s all new, apart from the four covers we recorded.”
Listening to the album, it all sounds fabulous, actually. I didn’t get a lyric sheet with the version of the album that I’ve heard, but I can hear many of the inspirations, glam rock, Bowie, and Radio Caroline have a mention.
“I had an email from Radio Caroline just this morning,” Lucassen says. “They said we heard your song, and we love it. Can we use it as a jingle on our station? I grew up listening to Caroline on my little transistor radio under my sheets, and now they’re emailing me, can we use your song? I said sure, man, no copyright. That’s brilliant.”
He says that Came To Mock, Stayed To Rock is based partly on fiction “because it’s not true. But it’s about a little guy who was a Metalhead, which is true because I was with Purple and Sabbath and Zeppelin. His parents hate their child’s music. There’s all this Metal, and they like Abba, these lovely ladies with lovely voices, saying he should get into them. The guy is like hey, man, it’s shit. I don’t like it. Then his parents take him to an actual show. He came to mock, but he stayed to rock! He was like, goddamn, this is good!
“It’s true about a singer I met because he told me he was a big fan when he was a kid, and he’s even in a cover band now, heavy versions of their songs.
“I did not appreciate it as a kid, I have to say, but now when I listen back to it, I’ve always got an oldie station on TV, and as soon as Abba comes on, it just gets stuck in your head. You’re singing it the rest of the day.”
I tell Arjen I love Burn It Down. I think the idea is genius, Smoke On The Water from a different perspective, from the point of the stupid with the flare gun.
“Very early, I thought the song was so much like Smoke On The Water, I was like, I cannot use this,” he says. “Then I thought, well, what if I make it obvious, you know? And what if I make it about who was this stupid with a flare gun? What happened to him? Why did he set the place on fire? I thought, let’s explain it.”
I think it works really well. There are lots of hints of Smoke in there, but I never thought it was over-obvious. “I hope it’s not too obvious,” Arjen says, “otherwise they got me. I contacted Ian Gillan. I asked him if he would do a little message in the beginning, like on my answering machine. Something like, ‘I hear you guys ripped off Smoke On The Water. You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.’ But it didn’t happen, unfortunately.”
This album is about the ’70s and about the formative years of music for Arjen. The rest of the guys in the band are a bit younger than him. How did they connect to the ’70s vibe and the subject matter, I ask.
“Well, maybe they didn’t,” Arjen says. “Maybe that’s a good thing because I didn’t want it to sound like the ’70s. I mean, it’s been done. I can’t write another Child In Time or another Bohemian Rhapsody or another Stairway To Heaven or whatever. It’s been done. So I like that they weren’t aware of the ’70s, and they have different roots and influences.
“Obviously, I made the demos for them, and I played all their parts the way I see them, hear them. But they totally made it their own, which was what I said from the beginning. I don’t want it to sound like then. I want it to sound like now. And that’s where these guys come in.”
With the title The Golden Age of Music, you can make a real strong argument that the ’70s was indeed the golden age of music. Is that what Arjen genuinely feels
“Obviously, 100%,” he smiles. “But I’m not objective, of course, because those were my formative years. I think it starts to develop when you’re ten years old. Before that, I did like music, and I did listen to The Beatles and stuff like that. But it was only when the whole glam rock thing started, with T. Rex and Sweet and Alice Cooper and David Bowie. That’s really when I got into music, and it was such an exciting time. So for me personally, it’s definitely the golden age of music. But maybe if I would have been born in 1970, it would have been in the ’80s. I have no idea. Nevertheless, I think those bands in the ’70s were the most influential bands.”
Arjen says he did not see that many of those ’70s bands live. “I was ten years old. I wasn’t allowed yet,” he says. “I think the first few shows I saw, I was 14. I got to see Blue Öyster Cult. And, of course, I saw Rainbow every chance I could get. I saw them loads of times. I think the Rainbow shows with Dio, Cozy Powell and Ritchie Blackmore. They made the most impact on me. Those were totally magic for me.”
On the album, after all the original material, Lucassen has added some covers at the end. We talked about ZZ Top, and there’s the T. Rex cover, and Love Is All is a Dio deep cut as such. Fantasy, however, is by Earth Wind And Fire, a left-field choice. Where did that one come from?
“Well, of course, in the ’70s as a kid, that’s where the girls were,” he smiles. “They weren’t in the rock club. There were just sweaty guys there. So you had to go to the disco to meet girls. Each evening they played Fantasy, and of course, we were like, oh, that’s terrible. But deep inside, thought I don’t like the style, and I don’t like the full set of voices, but I love the song. It’s such a good song, such a good melody.
“When we were thinking about which songs to cover, I asked the singer because he has to sing. So he needs to have some communication with it. I asked him to make a list of 20 songs, and I made a list too, and we both had Fantasy in there! He was a closet fan as well!
“If I do a cover, I want to do either a better version which is hard, you know, because the song is magic, or I want to do a completely different version. Of course, with Fantasy, it gave me the option to turn a disco song into a rock song with the singing instead of a full set of voices. You got a singer in style going for it. That’s definitely my favourite cover of the four because it’s the most challenging.”
It took me a little while to recognize the song on the first listen, I say.
“I actually contacted the Earth Wind And Fire guys and sent it to them,” Lucassen says, “but I never got a reply. I was very curious, what do they think of it? It was right at the time when the drummer died, so too bad. Maybe one day, I’ll get a reaction.”
In the band that Arjen has put together for this, he has chosen to be the bass player rather than the guitar player. “It’s a deliberate choice,” he says. “Why did I choose to go that way? Because this guitar player is so incredibly good. I worked with his father in the ’80s in a band called Vengeance, and his father was for me, the best guitar player in Holland.
“But now this guy is one of the best in the world and, and he actually played a solo on my last album before this. It was a Star One album, I had Steve Vai there and Adrian Vandenburg, Joel Hoekstra, and Michael Romeo. I had the top of the world with guitar players on there, but Timo’s solo stood out for me.
“So I’m not going to play guitar on an album where he plays guitar. He’s so much better than me and so much more inventive, and has so much more technique. I did play guitar on the cover versions, but when I heard his playing, I was like, you play all the guitar.”
The guitar playing is great on the album. It has a modern feel. He is a modern player. “He’s a very modern player,” Arjen says. “He’s got the shredding under control, but there’s still so much emotion. I mean, there are so many mindless shredders, but he’s got those long notes. He’s got the beautiful vibrato. He’s got strong melodies. So, for me, he’s got it all.”
So is it a band? Is there going to be a second album?
“I really hope so,” Arjen says, “because there’s like a questionnaire with each musician in the artwork for the album, and it’s one of the questions, would you want to do another album? And they all were like, is that a rhetorical question? Of course! So I would love to do another album, but of course, I can’t plan ahead. I got so many projects, and if I’m working on an Ayreon, it takes up two years of time, so it will depend on a lot of things. Also, if people will like this album. If no one likes it, that makes it a bit harder to do a second one! But we would definitely love to do another one.”
Lucnassen has a big weekend coming up in Tilburg in September, five shows in three days. How’s all that shaping up? “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “We’ve been working on it for a year now, and there’s still a lot to do because the first one, Ayreon Universe in 2017, was huge. Then the Electric Castle afterwards, we built the whole castle on stage.
“So we have got to top that. It will be so over the top, with lasers, explosions, pyro, lights, and surround sound. There’s so much to arrange. But it’s shaping up good. We’re well in time, we always start really early because things will always go wrong at some point. We started rehearsing, and every month we get together. We have production meetings every two weeks, sometimes in real life, sometimes on Zoom. So, yeah, it’s shaping up.”
They will perform all of the album 01011001. Will there be two halves like there was with the Electric Castle show? A second set of material? Maybe a chance for a song or two from Supersonic Revolution?
“01 is pretty long,” Lucassen says. “100 minutes, and especially if we have to do two shows a day, it would just be too long to do more than a couple of encores. I fought for Supersonic Revolution. I wanted at least to play The Golden Age Of Music. But just no time. Joost organizes all these things, and he’s the boss.”
Lucassen says the city of Tilburg will partner with him again for the weekend. “We have a meeting every month where we talk about things and what we can do with restaurants, cinemas and flags all over the city and the camping and shit.
“So, yeah, that’s all in full swing. We had people from 64 different countries at the last show, so everyone gets to have a great weekend.”
I’ll be there for MetalTalk, and I cannot wait.