Influenced by rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who's Tommy, composer Arjen Anthony Lucassen has created yet another phenomenal rock opera, Ayreon. The former member of bands like Vengeance and Bodine teamed up with an all-star lineup of musicians from bands like Genesis, Yes, Lacuna Coil, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and King Crimson, creating a one of a kind rock experience. The latest Ayreon release, Theory of Everything, will be in the States in time for Halloween.
Author Marisa Williams: When I read you were born in The Hague, in the Netherlands, I couldn't help but thinking back to naked bungee jumping there over the North Sea at sunset. Do you still live there?
Arjen Anthony Lucassen, creator of Ayreon: I lived there til 18, and then I began touring with bands all over the world. I never went back there. Right now, I live in the southern part of the Netherlands, but my mother still lives there, so I go back there. I grew up 500 meters from the water, so I miss the water.
Marisa: How did you get started in music? Did you come from a musical family? What were your biggest musical influences?
Arjen: I didn't come from a musical family at all. My original influences, I grew up in 60s, so that was The Beatles. I think when I was around 10-years-old, I was completely mesmerized by glam rock, like Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and T. Rex. I played a lot of schools, mimicking, but when I heard Made in Japan, that's when I wanted to really learn to play guitar, so that's when I started myself.
Marisa: With Ayreon, you're working with people from Lacuna Coil, Yes, Genesis and so many other big names, but who were you most excited about working with and why?
Arjen: I grew up listening to Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, along with Rick Wright, so those were a few of my favorite keyboard players in the world. To work with these guys is really a dream come true. From Genesis, Steve Hackett - and John Wetton from King Crimson - those are also bands I listened to in the 70s. I could not choose. I'm so proud of everyone on the album, even the newer names, like Cristina Scabbia from Lacuna Coil and from Nightwish, Micheal Heitala.
Marisa: What was your first concert that you attended, and what was the first album you purchased?
Arjen: First concert was Blue Oyster Cult, and it had an amazing laser show. I musta been 11 or something, maybe 10. My first album was Electric Warrior by T. Rex, a British glam band.
Marisa: After being in bands like Vengeance and Bodine, what made you decide to strike out on your own?
Arjen: Well, in a band you have to concessions and compromise with other musicians. I've always sort of been a bit of an egomaniac. In '92, I stopped with Vengeance. I wanted to make my dream come true with a rock opera. I was fascinated with Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as Tommy by The Who. I always wanted to do something like that. I thought I'd do my own, put my own style in with metal, rock, folk and classic. I thought everyone's going to hate it, but I don't give a shit. I want to do something I'm proud of, and to my surprise, it became my biggest success so far.
Marisa: How did you come up with concept for the rock opera, and when you first envisioned the opera, what parts came were the first into your head, and how did it develop into a whole opera?
Arjen: For me, it always starts with the music. It kinda started with riff on the hammock, and that became the theme of the album, which was the first thing I had in the studio. Next, I record the music, and when I got roughly 40 minutes of music, I let it inspire me to come up with a story. I come up with images and start with a story, then I start looking for singers and musicians, and then I start lyrics.
Marisa: In the opera, each singer has their own character. In writing the lines, did you follow any particular syllable or rhyming pattern?
Arjen: Basically, on this album, I tried to not rhyme too much. Also, if you listen, you won't hear many choruses, because I tried to tell a story. I wanted dialogue to be real people talking, and they don't talk in rhyme or have a chorus repeating same thing. You'd think it's easy not to rhyme, but it's really hard not to rhyme. Also, it's hard to make simple, to not use explicit words. It's hard to write a clear story with simple words.
Marisa: How do you go about writing music? What comes first for you: drums, guitars, vocals or something else? Has the process of writing changed for you over the years at all?
Arjen: Yes, it's different. I do a lot of projects. Star One is a mental project. It always starts with a guitar riff. I'll plug in, and out comes a fat riff. I did a solo album, which was more song-oriented with an acoustic guitar. Ayreon is usually based on chord sequences, melodies, keyboard sounds; it's more instrumental than vocal.
Marisa: What is your favorite musical technique, and in working on the Ayreon project, were you introduced to any new techniques by people you were working with?
Arjen: I'm kinda traditional. I love all the old keyboards. I love Hammond, synthesizes, use real guitar amps, real Leslie organs. I'm not into techniques at all, more into emotion and the sound of an instrument, than sound itself. I never practice scales or technique. If I grab a guitar, I start writing, looking for great sound and beautiful melodies. People come to me with try this whammy bar or that, and it's all about what to do with it and how it sounds.
Marisa: What's the coolest thing about your latest project, and what can people expect in the future?
Arjen: I think the coolest thing is that it is a real adventure. You have to take the time for it. Sit down, put headphones on, get into the story, and have time for that. It's very rewarding. As for the future, I never plan ahead, and even if I plan, I change my mind many times. I start with a project and let my inspiration guide me to whatever it will turn into.
Marisa: What is the scariest thing about creating such a massive undertaking like a rock opera?
Arjen: It's not so scary for me any more. I've done it so often. In the past, I always wrote science fiction, which is easy for me, as I'm a big science fiction fan. I wanted to stay away from it, do a real human story with emotion. It's a really interesting story that makes sense. Finding the right motivation, still, to make it work and make it interesting, that's the scary thing this time.
Marisa: Best or worst moment while creating Ayreon?
Arjen: Best moment was when I was ready, writing lyrics, very insecure. Are they interesting enough? Is it going to work? It is poetic enough? When I saw the lyrics, I thought they're so weak. First thing came, Michael from Nightwish, started singing, and the story came to life. I had tears in my eyes. He asked, “what are you crying for, sissy?” My whole story coming to life, that's the best moment, I think. The worst moment is when you try to get a singer, and at some point, it looks like it's going to work out, then someone says, “sorry I can't do it,” because of whatever reason. It's always bad when that happens, but you just look for someone else, then they wind up being better than who canceled.
Marisa: What's your favorite way to travel and why?
Arjen: I hate traveling, I'm a total recluse, and I really prefer to stay home. Any way is terrible. That's why I don't tour any more. If I'm outside, I want to jog or walk myself. I hate traveling.
Marisa: What's your favorite place to travel to, and is there anywhere you have not been to that you would like to go to?
Arjen: I toured the world for 20 years, so I seen the whole world, been everywhere. My favorite place, wow, as a kid, as a teenager, a group of friends went to the south of France. Those were wild times, and we had a lot of fun there.
Marisa: What's your biggest musical fantasy?
Arjen: To work with Vincent Furnier, Alice Cooper. He's my all time hero. He did Welcome to my Nightmare, which was one of my major influences as well.
Marisa: I have three personality questions that I ask everyone. They might sound like hogwash, but I promise, there is a psychological basis to the answers ;-) First, if you were an unicorn, and you could be any color but white, what color would you be and would you have any special powers?
Arjen: My favorite colors are red, white and black, and since I can't be white, I'd be red, or black, or a combination of the two. Aren't unicorns supposed to be healers? So, let's stick to that, heal people, good guys.
Marisa: If you were yogurt, would you be mixed fruit, fruit on the bottom, what flavor and how would you be served?
Arjen: I don't like stuff in my yogurt, so I'd just be pistachio, the green stuff, served cold, really cold.
Marisa: Describe yourself as either a dog, a cat or a cartoon.
Arjen: I guess I'm more of a cat person. I love to cuddle, so yeah, and a cat goes their own way, does exactly what it wants, and that fits my description perfectly. I'd be short haired, as I love to feel the body. Maybe no hair. I love naked cats.
Marisa: Do you collect anything?
Arjen: No, I'm not a collector at all. It's weird, something I never had, the collecting thing. I collect money. Might sound greedy, but I can live with it.
Marisa: What's your biggest guilty pleasure?
Arjen: I live so healthy, I'm really boring. I don't smoke, don't drink, don't drink coffee. Incidentally, there's a song, Yes Sir I can Boogey. It's so terrible, and I really love it. I'm thinking, “oh my God, I'm afraid to tell them how much I love that song!” It's two Italian girls, so awful that it's funny. You have to check it out. Baccara, I think, is the band.
Marisa: Do you have any hidden talents or special skills?
Arjen: If I have talents, I would not hide them. Ney, Ney, not at all. Only one talent, and that's doing what I do, so I definitely do it. People call me a genius, but I'm definitely not, because I work with a lot of them, but I do have a talent in making music that I don't hide.
Marisa: What's the most important thing to remember?
Arjen: The Beatles. Very simple and short, so brilliant. Nobody should ever forget them.
Marisa: What was your most influential moment?
Arjen: Probably the first time I heard Jesus Christ Superstar. That's the reason why I'm doing all these rock operas. I'll never get close to it, but I want to try and get close, so that's my quest in life. I will never reach it, but that's a good thing.
Marisa: If you were not doing music, what would you be doing?
Arjen: I would be very dead. I cannot imagine my life without music. Maybe, I remember I was good at drawing, so maybe something like a painter, maybe, or dead.
Marisa: What are three things you must have with you when you are on the road?
Arjen: I only leave my house when I'm going shopping, so credit cards, shopping bags and preferable, I need to have clothes on. It would be weird to go shopping naked.
Marisa: Any advice for musicians starting out?
Arjen: Yeah, definitely. When in bands for 20 years, you get very tired of it. I did exactly what I wanted, didn't give a shit what anyone else would think, and that's when I got good. Either way, you can feel something you like, so do something you're good at. It's better than trying to do stuff you think other people will like.
Marisa: Where can people find more on Ayreon?
Arjen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7QL2DXc4do&feature=youtu.be, http://www.arjenlucassen.com/, https://twitter.com/arjenlucassen, https://www.facebook.com/ArjenLucassenOfficial, http://www.arjenlucassen.com/content/
Facebook is best, I'm always on there, and I answer everyone, so that's the place to find me and to hear what's happening.
Marisa: Closing thoughts and additional comments?
Arjen: This was such a weird interview. I'm completely lost now. I have no idea what to add. I've been a unicorn with super powers... what more to add? I'm kinda speechless, like unicorns eating pistachio flavored yogurt, so there you go, definitely different.
Ayreon vocalists include JB as The Teacher, Sara Squadrani as The Girl, Michael Mills as The Father, Cristina Scabbia as The Mother, Tommy Karevik as The Prodigy, Marko Hietala as The Rival, and John Wetton as The Psychiatrist. Instrumentalists include Ed Warby on drums, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, Keith Emerson on keyboards, Jordan Rudess on keyboards, Steve Hackett on lead guitar, Troy Donockley on Ullieann pipes and low flute, and Arjen Anthony Lucassen on electric and acoustic guitars, bass, mandolin and keyboards. Additional performers include Ben Mathot on violins; Maaike Peterse on cellos; Jeroen Goossens on flute, bass flute, piccolo, bamboo flute and contrabass flute; Siddharta Barnhoorn on orchestrations, and Michael Mills on Irish Bouzouki.
The author of more than 100 books, Marisa Williams earned her Master's in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University; for more on Marisa, visit www.lulu.com/spotlight/thorisaz.