By Carl Begai
Whether or not change is good there’s no escaping the fact it’s inevitable, and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen is no exception to the rule.
As the master(mind) of the Ayreon empire, Star One and Guilt Machine, the towering Dutchman is known for assembling ensemble casts featuring some of the metal world’s finest voices and players – as well as discovering the occasional unknown talent – to create his now trademark epic metal operas. Lucassen composes all the music for all his projects, plays the vast majority of it (with a little help from his friends), arranges the often monstrous vocal parts and does some singing himself, yet in the end he has always been – no matter how important to the proceedings – a cog in the wheel. His latest sci-fi based conceptual outing, on the other hand, puts Lucassen front and center and behind the microphone on his own. A strange place for him to be unaccompanied but as he tells it, a hell of a lot of fun.
“I think everyone is a surprised by that,” Lucassen says of taking on all the vocal duties. “It was a big challenge for me. I’ve always liked singing. The problem was I’ve worked with some of the most amazing singers in the world. When you’ve worked with people like Bruce Dickinson and Jorn Lande, that humbles you. I could never do what those guys do. They’re amazing, having such power and technique, and I don’t have that at all. When I’m in the studio with these guys singing a melody to them you hear my little squeaky voice, and then Russell Allen sings it back like a monster (laughs). I do like the sound of my voice, but technically speaking I’m not a fantastic singer. By this point I know my limitations, though, and these songs were written for my voice so I enjoy singing them.”
As for doing away with the trademark legion of voices in favour of putting himself in the spotlight, Lucassen makes it clear that his ego had nothing to do with the decision.
“I wanted to get back the feeling I had when I started Ayreon. I wanted to make something without anyone’s expectations hanging over me. When I started doing Ayreon in ’93 or whatever it was, I was doing something that I wanted to do and I didn’t give a shit what people thought of it. I threw all my different styles into one melting pot knowing there was a small chance anyone would like it, but I didn’t care. I kind of lost that feeling over the last couple albums, especially on the last Star One (Victims Of The Modern Age from 2010). I’m really proud of that album, I think it sounds awesome, but I was thinking a lot about the fans and what they wanted to hear because they were asking for another Star One album. So, that was an album more for the fans than for me.”
“I think it was the same for the last Ayreon album (01011001), where I had 17 singers. They were singers that fans wanted to hear, so I kind of lost myself in the process of making the album and fell into the trap of trying to please everyone else but me. I figured that if I do a solo album people would have no idea what to expect, and that was a challenge for me.”
“The great thing is everyone can hear I had fun making the album,” Lucassen adds. “Everyone has told me Lost In The New Real feels like I enjoyed making it, and they’re absolutely right. There were no limitations and I did whatever I felt like doing. Some people have said ‘Well, it’s not really my music style, but I enjoy it anyway.’”
Lost In The New Real reflects Lucassen’s eclectic taste in music, which is still rooted in the ‘70s, encompassing everything from prog to folk to stoner to old school rock in one streamlined package. Ayreon fans will be stoked upon hearing tracks like ‘Parental Procreation Permit’, ‘Yellowstone Memorial Day’ and ‘When I’m A Hundred Sixty-Four’, whereas a song like the Cheap Trick-flavoured ‘E-Police’ is guaranteed to mindboggle even his most devout fans.
“Shit like that just happens when I’m sitting there writing;” Lucassen laughs. “I don’t know where it comes from. I hear what you hear on that song, and of course Cheap Trick stuff like ‘Surrender’ and ‘Dream Police’ was an influence, but it wasn’t deliberate.”
As mentioned, this isn’t the first time he’s been behind the microphone, having contributed vocals to his Ayreon albums since the beginning and making a rather big impression in his role of the Hippie on Into The Electric Castle from 1998. It was his performance on that album alongside vocalists like Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering), Fish (ex-Marillion), Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation) and Damian Wilson (Threshold) that set the benchmark for Arjen’s future ventures as a singer.
“Yes, but I think The Human Equation is even a little bit more popular,” Lucassen counters, referring to his role as Best Friend on the album in question, released in 2004. “I don’t mind if people use those albums as that benchmark, as you say. That’s what I get (laughs). And really, I need those challenges.”
Lucassen couldn’t resist pulling in at least one guest vocalist for Lost In The New Real. He invited legendary Dutch actor Rutger Hauer to play his character Mr. L’s “hard-headed shrink”, Voight Kampff. Quite the achievement signing Hauer on, but Lucassen has a history of thinking big when it comes to making his musical visions a reality.
And if the name of Hauer’s character rings a bell, it is in fact a tip of the hat to one of Lucassen’s favourite movies, Blade Runner, which Hauer starred in back in 1982.
“It was quite simple, actually,” he says, downplaying the success of getting Hauer on board. “I sent a mail to his website, and a couple days later I got an email back saying ‘Play me some music, tell me the story, and let’s see if we can make this real.’ And it was signed ‘Rutger Hauer’. I was like, ‘Oh my God! No lawyers, no publishers, no managers…’ It was his reply. I don’t know if the fact I’m Dutch had anything to do with it, I don’t know if he even knew I was Dutch because he communicated with me in English. I think he must have Googled my name and seen that I’ve been around for a while.”
“I’ve been a fan of his since I was 10 years old, so when he said yes to the project you should have seen me (laughs). I was like a football (soccer) player after they’ve scored running across the field; that was me running through the house (laughs).”
Lucassen didn’t actually get to work with Hauer in the flesh due to the actor’s busy schedule. Still, he admits that he suffered from fanboy jitters only once they got down to the business of hashing out Hauer’s role.
“I was incredibly nervous the first time I actually spoke to him on Skype. At first we were messaging on Skype and then he said ‘Hey man, turn your camera on, I want to see you.’ I had to go out the next day and get a camera, and I was so nervous I was shaking (laughs). It was so weird; there was Rutger Hauer on the other side talking to me and being interested in my stuff. That was very scary.”
With an acting career spanning almost 40 years, it’s easy to imagine Hauer choosing to put his own twist on Lucassen’s work rather than simply reading a part written for him. Turns out that’s exactly what happened, inevitably knocking Lucassen’s proverbial socks off.
“Rutger completely changed the lines we wrote for him. At first I had to get used to them, but then I realized they were way better than what we (Lucassen’s and manager / keeper of his sanity / guitarist Lori Linstruth) had written. And of course it was awesome that he didn’t just read the lines that were written for him; he totally immersed himself in the story and did it his way. He sent me his text through Skype, but he kept changing stuff! In the end Lori was present when his narration was recorded in Santa Monica; he was a true gentleman and he listened to Lori’s suggestions.”
For all the changes Lucassen made to his creative formula on Lost On The New Real, the one thing he couldn’t get away from (other than drummer Ed Warby: “He would have killed me if I didn’t ask him to play on it.”) was adding a second CD to the package. More a collection of darker, heavier songs and cover tracks, disc 2 doesn’t follow the concept of disc 1, and Lucassen insists that adding the extra material was never part of the original plan.
“I was talking to the record company and they were telling me, ‘You know, we hate these long albums…’ (laughs). Thomas (Waber / InsideOut president) wanted me to cut things to about 45 or 50 minutes, and he was absolutely right. Of course, when I was finished working on the music I had 15 songs, which was way too much, but I loved all of them. I couldn’t just get rid of a few of them because they’re like my kids. So, initially we were going to put 10 songs on one CD and five on the other, but I didn’t want those extra five viewed as bonus tracks so I added a few cover songs to make CD 2 a full album as well. It’s kind of confusing since Rutger only narrates on the first CD, but I really wanted people to hear all of these songs.”
In the end Lost In The New Real is a huge victory, and not only because Lucassen’s fans have embraced the album as readily as any Ayreon release. He sums it up in a nutshell:
“I haven’t had this much fun in years.”
Check out the trailer for Lost In The New Real here.
And… a scene from Blade Runner featuring Rutger Hauer and Harrison Ford, considered to be one of Hauer’s finest moments, right here.