ARJEN LUCASSEN TALKS ABOUT AYREON UNIVERSE, MANAGING A CAST OF SIXTEEN SINGERS, AND THE FUTURE
First Published 11 April 2018
Arjen Lucassen’s ambition to take his Ayreon Universe to the stage was realised in three massively successful shows in Tilburg last year. With the video and audio recordings of the show just released, MetalTalk caught up with him to chat about all things Ayreon.
Words: Ian Sutherland
Last time you spoke to us at MetalTalk you were in the planning stages for the Ayreon Universe shows. Now that you’re at the other end and the recordings have been released how do you feel about it all?
I’m a perfectionist so I’m very rarely happy. I did ‘The Theatre Equation’ about three years ago and I wasn’t happy at all. There were a lot of things that bugged me. This time we worked on the Ayreon Universe shows for two years and I didn’t want anything to go wrong so we worked like crazy to get everything perfect.
Looking back at it now this is the first time I’m really happy with a live release and with a live show. So looking back is very satisfying this time, it’s amazing.
That perfectionist streak of yours normally drives you crazy, right?
Yes I drive myself crazy, especially at night, that’s when it starts going. I remember with ‘The Theatre Equation’ when we got the camera edits from the live show and it was so bad. It kept me awake for weeks!
What was the hardest thing about putting the shows together?
If you spread something out over two years like we did, nothing is really hard. It gets hard when you leave everything to the last moment. Then you have the last weeks where you have to solve all the problems, that’s the hard thing.
We aimed to avoid all that this time. We aimed to be ready one year before the release then we would spend a year getting everything that was already good perfect.
You know things will happen at the end but to really answer your question nothing was really hard. If a singer wasn’t able to do it we just asked another singer. We had plenty of time. Or if the song wouldn’t work in the rehearsal room we just changed to another song. It was really smooth sailing.
That’s interesting actually. Which songs were you going to include but didn’t?
Songs like ‘Isis And Osiris’. It just didn’t work somehow, and also we didn’t have Fish so I thought let’s just not do it. We also planned to do ‘Sail Away To Avalon’ which didn’t really work out the way we wanted it to.
There was a whole list of songs which eventually were dropped and we picked another one because we could get other singers. The reason we did ‘Waking Dreams’ is because we had Anneke and Jonas. We did ‘Ride The Comet’ because we had Maggy on vocals.
There were also a few changes in singers. If a singer cancelled because they had to play with their own band or something we would just pick another song with a different singer. It’s a bit of a puzzle but if you have plenty of time to do the puzzle it’s not a problem.
Did the songs pick the singers then?
No, it was both ways. First I made a list of all the tracks I would like to do live. I based that on the fact I wanted a lot of dynamics in the set so I want these huge big songs like ‘Into The Black Hole’ and these very small, delicate songs like ‘Valley Of The Queens’, ‘Comatose’ and stuff like that.
When I had the list I started approaching the singers. Once I had the singers and the confirmation that they would really do it I tried to connect the singers with the songs. So it was really both ways.
Was it just about matching the singers to the right songs or did you have to think about how many songs each one got to sing?
I wanted to spread out the parts they did equally so I made an Excel spreadsheet with the songs on the top and the singers on the left and I wrote a cross where each singer had a song. I think each singer had four to five parts. I wanted to spread it out evenly.
I also wanted each singer to have their big moment. That’s usually the first time they come on stage when their name is up on the screens. So the moment Tommy comes on the stage with his name on the screen that has to be his big moment.
Each singer I picked their big moment, for Tommy it was ‘Into The Black Hole’. For Floor Jansen it was ‘Merlin’s Will’. For Damian it was ‘And The Druids Turned To Stone’.
That performance by Damian was amazing on ‘..Druids’.
Damian actually wanted to do ‘Into The Black Hole’, he was ‘Arjen, please can I do ‘..Black Hole” but I was telling him that’s Tommy’s big moment, I don’t have any other big moments for Tommy. ‘..Druids’, it’s not Damian’s favourite song.
In fact when I gave it to him back in 2000 or something he didn’t want to do it. He was like ‘I don’t really feel it.’ And I’m like ‘It’s such a perfect song for you, please come to my studio and we’ll try it together’. He did that and he liked it. I think Damian, he prefers to do the heavy stuff, on stage he wants to go for it.
Of course ‘…Druids’ has this big moment in it but it’s a very laid back song. I think the song fits his voice perfectly because you get all aspects of his voice. You get the sensitive low singing Damian and you get the powerful, emotional high singing Damian. Even though it was an atmospheric song, it was a highlight of the show for me.
I’ve noticed that in any backstage or behind the scenes footage in any project that you do that there is always a happy atmosphere, everyone is enjoying being there. Is this something you set out to create?
To add to the previous answer I gave you about the singers, it was very, very important to me that the singers fit the atmosphere, that they all really wanted to do it. As soon as I got a feeling like someone is doing it for the money or they’re not sure if they want to do it, I really needed some dedication.
The people who really, really want to do it, that’s who I want to work with. Someone said to me you don’t have to pick a singer because you like them, you don’t have to marry them but for me it’s really important that I like the people that I work with.
I’m sure you see it on stage, the whole atmosphere is cool and there are no big egos. No difficult people. No drunk people or drugs or whatever. I’m sure that the audience can feel that the atmosphere on stage is good. Even in a serious song you see that the singers are having a good time.
All that is a very conscious decision. Some of my lyrics are really heavy, like in ‘Everybody Dies’ well everyone dies! But I told the singers you don’t have to act out your part. If you want to act out your part, go for it but have fun. A good example is ‘Inter Galactic Space Crusaders’ which is based on ‘Blake’s 7’ and is about the fight between Avon and Blake, they didn’t like each other.
I clearly told Damian and Maggy, you can kick the shit out of each other but do it tongue in cheek. My music should not be taken too seriously, or at least my lyrics. It’s escapism. People who take it seriously, they might think it’s cheesy, maybe it is but if it’s done tongue in cheek I think you can get away with it.
I thought Maggy along with Damian was the perfect choice for that song.
Maggy was the real surprise of the show. We deliberately asked her to do ‘…Space Crusaders’. Actually we just wanted to see her kick the shit out of Damian!
The band sound amazing. How long did those guys have to rehearse for the show?
We had plenty of rehearsals for the band. Basically we rehearsed once each month for six months. Some more at the end so there must have been eight rehearsals with the band, without the vocals.
Eight doesn’t sound like a lot of rehearsals to me!
They are such professionals. We also had meetings where I explained songs on my guitar. This song works like this and so on. The cool thing was all the musicians were from Holland so we could get together and rehearse every month. They had plenty of rehearsals. However with the singers we only had one rehearsal!
In a way that was scary but that was also a conscious decision. Firstly I was thinking that they’re all professionals, they all have plenty of experience. So long as they know their lyrics, nothing can go wrong. There’s no choreography, they can be where they want to be.
I kind of like the danger aspect, they come on stage and things could go wrong. It’s very spontaneous and that’s very important to me. We had three shows, four if you include the dress rehearsal so there’s no routine creeping in.
That’s the thing I hated when I toured myself. I toured for fifteen years and after a while the routine is there and you make the same jokes you made five hundred times before I really felt like an actor on stage. I’m glad that couldn’t happen here.
Of course people forgot their lyrics. We didn’t want to work with a teleprompter. I’d rather people make mistakes because you can fix mistakes. Maggy made a mistake on ‘Star Of Sirrah’ on the Saturday and we used Saturday’s show for the DVD but we took the first verse of that song from the Friday.
So ‘Star Of Sirrah’ is partly from Friday, partly from Saturday?
The first verse of ‘Star Of Sirrah’, just the vocals is from the Friday and my speech in the show is from the Friday too. All of the rest is from the Saturday.
Something that’s very noticeable in the show is how much of a contribution the three backing singers made to the overall sound of the songs. Was this something you were consciously going for?
Very much so. When we were thinking about what kind of backing vocals we were going to use, two male singers or whatever, I decided I didn’t want to work with tapes with voices on it, I didn’t like that idea. I wanted everything to be real.
I thought the best way to do that was with three female singers. They are not backing singers, they are three lead singers. I thought they can do anything. If for example, you take the Mike Mills parts in ‘Everybody Dies’, that’s complicated stuff. Mike did that at his own place and it’s like sixty voices on top of each other.
It’s very tempting live to just roll a tape there. I didn’t want to do that and with these three backing singers you have a lot of options. It worked out perfectly. We had a lot of rehearsals with them figuring out the songs. Marcela is really great, she knows how to separate the voices and all that stuff. That worked out perfectly.
Marcela always gives 100% to everything.
Her acting is really good too, she always acts out everything she sings. She was perfect. From the first moment I worked with her I knew she had that charisma, I knew she had that talent.
It’s great that you gave Lisette a chance to, she’s an amazing new talent.
I discovered her in the choir for ‘The Theatre Equation’. She was in the chorus, the Epic Rock Choir. That was thirty people or something and she really stood out for me. She has charisma, she’s a lovely person and of course she has that powerful, emotional voice.
Having done ‘The Theatre Equation’ and ‘Ayreon Universe’ have you now acquired a taste for putting your music up on a live stage? Will you do it again?
It’s still scary for me and it’s still something I’m not good at. I think that’s where my nerves come from about me playing live. I’m just not very good at it.
The reason to do ‘Ayreon Universe’ was because I saw the reaction of the people at ‘The Theatre Equation’. Everyone was excited and happy, not just the audience but the singers and the band so that’s when I decided to do the Ayreon Universe’. So now having seen how excited and happy everyone was at these shows I talked to Joost, we do everything together.
I said ‘I think we have to do this again, this was such a big success’. We’re definitely going to do it again, probably next year. I won’t tour though, that’s not my thing. Something like this every two years or something, it should be possible.
The only thing is I don’t want to repeat this. I don’t want to do a part two as it will never be as good as part one. I want to come up with something new.
Any ideas on what you’ll do yet?
Yes, but I won’t tell you (laughs)
What’s next for you?
It’s the twentieth anniversary of my ‘Into The Electric Castle’ album. I’m going to do something with that. It was all recorded on old Adat digital tapes so I have to convert that to my Pro-Tools on the computer. I think I’m going to remix it, I’m going to do a 5.1 mix and there will be a vinyl release, a really special package.