Arjen Lucassen has made a series of "big records," ones that feature all-star casts of musicians, whether the likes of Floor and Irene Jansen, Russell Allen, Bruce Dickinson, Fish on past projects or the likes of Heather Findlay, James LaBrie, Devin Townsend and amazing newcomer, Marcela Bovio on The Human Equation. To learn more about the project, feel free to visit http://www.ayreon.com/thehumanequation. In the meantime, read Jedd Beaudoin's interview with Ayeron on the genesis and evolution of this very human record.
SoT: When did you first have the idea for The Human Equation project?
Arjen Lucassen: My previous Ayreon albums were from 2000 with the Universal Migrators. After that I did an album called Ambeon which I did with a 14-year-young Dutch female singer [Astrid van der Veen]. After that I did a Star One album, which was like a straightforward metal project. That was so successful that I did a tour and the tour was filmed and became a DVD. So for the last three years I've been really busy doing all these other things. Maybe in a way I was, well, maybe I was a bit afraid to start with the next Ayreon because people expect a lot from Ayreon. But through all these years I've been recording a lot of ideas on a cassette player. So, when I was done with Star One and the tour, I started listening to all these little ideas and slowly started working them out in the studio.
Mainly, I try to do something different each time. The first Ayreon album from 1995 was a big bombastic old-fashioned album, then the second was a big more modern, a bit more electronic with so many singers. The third one, Electric Castle was this huge double album with loads of singers and guest musicians, the fourth and the fifth ... I did a soft album and a heavy album. This time, I wanted to do something new again, so I worked only with new musicians and new singers and instrumentalists who'd never been with me before. Also, the concept is a little bit different this time. Usually, all the Ayreon albums were science fiction and fantasy, but this time, instead of venturing out in space, I explored the human equation.
SoT: You have a tendency to use people from all corners of the world on your records. How big of a headache is that for you?
AL: Headache? Let's say it's a migraine. [Laughs.] Getting all these singers together is hell, you know. That's the only downside of doing something like this. Finally working with them is great, it's the best thing you can imagine. But getting them in my studio is really hard. You can imagine bands like Dream Theater and Opeth and Devin Townsend, they're so extremely busy. They're touring all the time and they're hard to get in contact with, they're hard to make appointments with.
And because this album is about emotions I definitely wanted all these singers in my studio, working with me, standing next to me. That's very important for me. I had to fly them all over to Holland, arrange flight tickets and arrange dates. That's hell, it's a big headache. But when they're here, when James LaBrie or Michael Åkerfeldt is standing next to me, working on the songs, it's all worth. It's great to work with singers you actually really like, whose albums you've been listening to for years. That's really great.
Arjen Lucassen, live with Star OneSoT: Do you work with the specific vocalist in mind or is more a matter of you write the piece and then say, "This would be great for this person."
AL: What I do is work on the little ideas for about half a year. Then I go into the studio and turn them into songs. Then, I've got about 20 or 30 ideas. From there, I throw away a lot of things and let the music inspire me to come up with a story. Especially, this album, it had so many different styles, so many different emotions, I thought about writing a story about emotions, where singers would be portraying emotions. Then, the next step is getting the singers. So, I had a list of about 30 singers and there's always somebody on the list who's impossible to get. Like Robert Plant or Paul McCartney or Ronnie James Dio but I keep trying.
In the end, I've got 10-12 singers I know will be on the album and then I start to look for the right parts for these singers. When I've got this really heavy part, I put Devin Townsend on it. When I've got this beautiful, lovely part, I put Heather Findlay on it. Then, at the very end, I start writing the lyrics. And I write the lyrics especially for these singers. When I first get the story and the idea for the lyrics, I write the lyrics based on the character of the singers. Obviously, if I've got Devin Townsend, I write in the character of him into the story.
SoT: You know, you spend a lot of time studying these people very carefully but do people ever come in and say, "Well, that's almost how'd I'd do it but can we change it just a little bit?
AL: I hope so. That's always the thing. I want them to show as much initiative as possible. Basically, what I do is sing all the lyrics myself. I sing all the guide vocals, so they get a cassette from me, or a CD-R, with all the parts they have to do with my guide vocals and all the parts they have to do without my guide vocals. I clearly tell them, "Listen, these are merely guide vocals. I've asked you to do this because I think you're a great singer, so please change this anyway you want. Sing it your way." That's why I also give them CDs without my guide vocals, so they can change it and adapt it to their own styles.
When they're here, we work on it again, see if it works. If it doesn't work, we try it again. "Try it a little bit higher or in a different voice." We might even change a lyric if it doesn't fit their character. That's really very open. I actually had to learn this because when I started Ayreon, I wanted all the singers to stick to my melody. It was, "This is the melody, stick to it." But then you start working with guys like Fish or Bruce Dickinson and they just go for it, you're not going to tell them what to do. You find then that the result is much better if they do it their own way.
SoT: Is one of the thrills, then, of doing a record like this that you meet so many different people and you're able to learn something from them?
AL: Absolutely. That's true. They've all got their own way of working, especially a guy like Devin Townsend. He and Mike Baker were the only guys only guys I didn't get to record in my studio, by the way, which was a shame. But when I got Devin's tapes back it was like, "Whoa." I learned a lot from that. The same for James LaBrie. He came here and he was so professional. He knew what the story was about, he knew his motivation in each song, maybe even better than me. But the way he works and the others work, or the way that they do their harmonies? I learn a lot from them. I really noticed that I get better with each album.
SoT: LaBrie sounds really good here. He does so much work every year and always seems to give everything his all. What was it like watching him put down his tracks?
AL: It was so inspiring. He came in and became the character. But ... to go back to how we got in contact ... it was great because he actually contacted me. [Laughs.] That wasn't such a big headache. Gary Wehrkamp had played on Electric Castle and James was like, "Great music, I want to be part of this," he even said that in interviews he'd been doing. So we got in contact, exchanged e-mails and knew that we'd be working together. I said, "Listen, I'm going to do this album and it's going to be about emotions." He said, "Count me in! I'll sing as much as you want me to." So, obviously, I gave him the main parts on the album. I sent him the story and could really feel that he immersed himself into the story and really became the character he was portraying. Very inspiring. And, now, there's the DVD with the 45-minute section where you can see all the singers working on the songs, you can clearly see how much James was part of the story and how professional and enthusiastic he was.
SoT: Tell me a little bit more about what the DVD includes.
AL: We filmed everything. We filmed me getting the singers from the airport. I'm extremely tall so you hear, like 11 times, "Whoa, you're tall." [Laughs.] Or, "You're taller than I imagined." We filmed them in the car, getting into the studio, recording the drums, bass, guitars, synthesizers and the artwork, all of that. Plus, there's a five-minute explanation of the story, five minutes of me explaining the story of Ayreon. There's the video clip, the making of it, all these things. A lot of jokes, a lot of funny stuff, a lot of serious stuff.
SoT: Some people might say, "Gosh, recording's high pressure enough and now we're going to be filmed?" Did you ever have any doubts about that or did you say, "I have completely confidence that this will go well, so it doesn't matter?
AL: We didn't have them on all the time. Obviously, some people are different when the cameras running. Some people act differently and I didn't want that. So, basically, the whole first day when we were recording most of it, there were no cameras. A lot of singers didn't sing as well when the camera was on but other singers, like James LaBrie, gave more when the cameras were rolling. So, whenever I noticed that there was extra tension or whatever, we stopped the camera.
SoT: Are you ever worried that you'll get lost in these projects or does it work the other way, where you say, "I'm the creator and the whole purpose is to make my work sound good, so I want to work with the best people I can"?
AL: I'm not interested in the credit. Not anymore. In the old days I was ambitious and wanted people to know that I was the star, that I was the brains behind the project. It was that way in bands I was used to be in. I was in a band with a singer who was crazy, he was a combination of Bon Scott and David Lee Roth. He was the star, everybody talked about him. He did nothing. I did everything. I arranged the songs, I wrote the lyrics but I didn't get the credit. I wanted people to know that I was the man. In the beginning of Ayreon, I was very determined to let people know that it was me. Now, that's gone. I know now that I couldn't have done it without all these singers and they all had so much input, each and every one of them. And, also, when I know that somebody can do a better job than me, they get the credit. Devin Townsend wrote all his own lyrics and there are parts where I let others write their own lyrics or melodies. It's definitely the end result that matters now.
SoT: When you told the record company about this project and explained the scope of it, did they say, "No way! You can't do that. Do you know how much money you'll lose?"
AL: [Laughs.] The good or bad thing is that I'm my own boss. I pay for everything myself. It's just me. I'm completely the boss. I don't have to ask permission, I just work on it for a year and then that's when I go to the record company. Having said that, I did work with a record company in the past that said, "Hey, you have to ask famous people because it will help your sales." On Universal Migrator there was a push to get all kinds of people on there. With this one, Inside Out said, "Hey, you sell records because of who you are, not because of the singers, so choose whoever you like." So, with this album, there's singers who've never made albums before and a couple of big names who actually approached me.
SoT: One of the great discoveries on this record is Marcello Bovio from Mexico. How did you encounter her?
AL: After the Ambeon record and working with that young singer, I thought, "There has to be more talent like here in the world but maybe they don't have a chance to be heard." So, I put a notice on my web site that fans could send in demos and one would get a chance to be on the next Ayreon album. I got may CDs and I listened to them all, which was a big job. Obviously, there was a lot of crap and also a lot of good singers. The first time I heard Marcello with Elfonia, I got goose bumps. I started sweating. I e-mailed her and said, "I want you to come over from Mexico." She said, "I've never been outside of Mexico. I'm not sure." I said, "Bring your boyfriend." I expected this little fan that was really insecure and really nervous. But it was quite the opposite. She was very creative and had ideas of her own. It was great. It may have been a dream come true for her but it was for me too.
SoT: What was it like for you the first time you were able to hear this record from one end to the other. I imagine some people would say, "I was so tired, I just wanted it to go away," others would say, "It was incredible. It was a realization of my vision."
AL: The first. I hate it. I hate the album. I really can't listen to it at the moment. For me, working on the album is a joy. It's so cool, it's so great. I'm thinking about it night and day. Once I'm finished with it, I'm sucked into this deep black hole without creativity. It's horrible. A lot of people tell me, "Oh, you must be proud of what you've accomplished." It's not that way at all. While I'm working on it, I'm like, "I'm going to shock the world with this, I'm going to conquer the world with this. This is great." Then, I finish it and I don't even dare to listen to it anymore. I'm so afraid of what people might say. I'm afraid to listen to it because people might hate it. My joy is definitely working on the album. Once it's finished, I have to go through a horrible period. It's like that every time.
SoT: I understand. As a writer, I'm terrified to go back and look at things once they're done because I know I'll see something wrong. Maybe it's not wrong in a technical sense but I'll know I could have done better. No one else will get that but it'll get me.
AL: You're probably as big a perfectionist as I am. [Laughs.] I think it's a curse but also a blessing. The fact that I'm so insecure is the reason that I'm such a perfectionist. I think it's good. I enjoy working on albums. It's good this way.
SoT: Well, it looks like our time is up. It's been fun. And I have to say that you're much taller than I thought.
AL: [Laughs.] Get in line.
Photos courtesy of http://www.ayreon.com