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Star One - Arjen Lucassen Interview

Arjen Lucassen Interview
Arjen Lucassen

Sara Letourneau chats with Arjen Lucassen, the man behind Ayreon and Star One

If you’re a fan of female-fronted metal, chances are you know who Arjen Lucassen is. He’s the songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. However, he’s most famous for the numerous musical projects he’s created: Stream of Passion, Guilt Machine, Star One, and most notably Ayreon. Also, it takes talent to know talent, and that couldn’t be more true in Lucassen’s case. For each of his albums, he invites a wide variety of rock and metal musicians and vocalists to perform with him – and that list has grown quite long. Here’s a brief list of some of the female singers he’s worked with: Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation), Floor Jansen (ReVamp, ex-After Forever), Marcela Bovio (Lucassen’s co-founder of Stream of Passion), Anneke van Giersbergen (Agua de Annique, ex-The Gathering), and Simone Simons (Epica). It seems Lucassen is in tune with female-fronted metal, and his music has left an impact on the scene as a result. 

In October, Lucassen released the long-awaited second Star One album, “Victims of the Modern Age.” While more guitar-oriented and lyrically darker than Star One’s first album, 2002’s “Space Metal,” “Victims” still fuses progressive metal with 70s space rock and features the same all-star musician and vocal line-up, including Floor Jansen. Sonic Cathedral writer Sara Letourneau talked with Lucassen on the eve of the new album’s release. Read what he had to say about Star One, some of the singers (male and female) he’s worked with, his love for science fiction movies, and much more.

Arjen Lucassen 

Sara:  Congratulations on “Victims of the Modern Age”! You must be busy since it’s coming out this week.

Arjen:  Right, yeah. Right now, we’re handling all the pre-orders, and I’m signing CDs and shipping out CDs, and doing interviews in the meantime. So, it’s a madhouse.

Sara:  How do you feel now that the album is so close to coming out? It comes out in the US on Tuesday, correct?

Arjen:  Yeah, Monday or Tuesday. Very close, really! But, it’s always nerve-wracking. I never get used to it. The moment I finish working on an album, which was four months ago for Star One, I get so sure of it. I’m like, “Oh, this is the best thing I ever did, and people are going to love it!” And then, after waiting four months for it to be released, I start thinking, “Oh, my God, the album sucks.” (laughs) And, “Oh, no, how can I let this out into the world?” It’s always like that. So, right now, I’m in my insecure phase.

Sara:  (laughs) I don’t think you should feel insecure about it! Because it seems like the album is getting a strong positive buzz, from what I’ve read so far online.

Arjen:  Yes, very positive. But, of course, you know how it goes. You read 10 positive reviews and then one bad one, and you only remember the bad one. Somehow, that always sticks. Even if there are 10 good reviews, if there’s one bad review, it’s like, “Dammit!” (laughs) But, no, I’m really happy so far.

Sara:  That’s good. Do you get the feeling that fans are excited as well?

Arjen:  Well, they’ve been asking me ever since the first album 8 years ago to do another Star One album. They were saying, “Please do another Star One album!” I guess there are a lot of people who like the heavy side of Ayreon. Because, basically, that’s what Star One is. It’s the metal side of Ayreon. And, yeah, I think a lot of people have been waiting for it. So, I was finally glad to make the second album this time.

Star One - Victims of the Modern Age 

Sara:  The last album you did was for Guilt Machine. [Lucassen’s Guilt Machine album, “On This Perfect Day,” was released in September 2009.] After that, how did you end up deciding to do another Star One album?

Arjen:  Well, every album I do is a reaction to the album I do before that, or really a contrast. I’m always looking for challenges, and I hate to repeat myself. I guess that’s the reason why I have so many different projects going. The Guild Machine album was very atmospheric. It had long songs with long intros, and it had just one singer. The lyrics were very deep and profound. A lot of people had to get used to it. And, unfortunately, it didn’t sell as well as Ayreon or Star One.

Sara:  It didn’t?

Arjen:  Yeah, and it’s a pity because I really like that album. And, it’s a very personal album.

Sara:  I thought it was outstanding. [“On This Perfect Day’] was one of my favorite albums of last year.

Arjen:  Oh, excellent! But, yeah, that’s the way it went. The people who bought it, they really like it. But, it’s just that not too many people bought it. (laughs) Then, I had the feeling like, “Let’s just do a simple, in-your-face metal album. Let’s just plug in the guitar and make some heavy riffs. Don’t make it too complicated for people. Don’t make the lyrics too deep or profound. Just watch some of my favorite science fiction movies, and write some lyrics.” (laughs) That automatically pointed me in the direction of Star One.

Sara:  “Victims of the Modern Age” has a lot of the same elements that “Space Metal” has. But, one of the big differences between the two albums is the new one is much more guitar-oriented. How did you come up with the idea for that? Or, did it naturally evolve that way?

Arjen:  Well, the thing is, when I did the first Star One album, I always said that I wouldn’t do a second one. Because it would be ‘part two,’ and it wouldn’t be as good, and I wouldn’t get the same magic I found last time. So, when I wanted to do another [Star One] album, I listened to the first one to find things I could improve on. So, I listened to it, and I really like the songs on “Space Metal,” like “The Eye of Ra” and “Set Your Controls.” I didn’t really find any way of improving on the songs, but I didn’t really like the guitar sound on the first album. It’s like it faded a little bit in the mix. So, I thought, “OK, I can improve the guitar sound, so let’s start by getting a good guitar sound.” So, for weeks, I tried out all these amps and speakers and microphones and shit, and finally I found the base sound. That was so important because it was going to be basis of the new album. So, I guess that’s the reason why it’s more guitar-oriented. And, I’m proud of the sound.

Sara:  And, you’ve said in other recent interviews that this is the best-sounding album you’ve ever done.

Arjen:  I think, sound wise, I’m getting better all the time. Definitely. I’m getting better at producing drums, and I’ve got a much better bass guitar sound now. I don’t know if I’m getting better as a musician or a composer. I can’t say that. That’s for other people to decide. But, I do know that I’m getting better at the set-up and production and stuff like that.

Sara:  The lyrical content for the new Star One album is different than last time. This time, the songs are based on dystopian and post-apocalyptic science fiction movies. How did you get that idea? Was it based on the sound you were hearing?

Arjen:  Absolutely, yes. That’s always the way I work. I let the music inspire me to come up with the lyrics or the concept or, in this case, the movies. The first album had all these bleepy sounds. It really reminded me of space. So, for the first album, all the movies I chose were set in space. And then, there was the title “Space Metal,” which was a play on Hawkwind, who invented space rock. But this time, the music was more down-to-earth, not as spacey, and also a bit darker because of the guitar sound. So, I decided to base it on movies that are set here on Earth, and movies that are a bit darker like “The Matrix” and “Blade Runner.”

Sara:  I’m curious, because I know you’re a big science fiction fan. How do science fiction films inspire your lyrics? Is it something to do with the characters or the story?

Arjen:  It’s pure escapism. I think it started when I was a kid. I didn’t really feel like I was a part of anything. I felt different. I didn’t really belong to a group or anything like that. I don’t know why. And then, I remember I saw “Star Trek” on TV as a little kid. I saw this weird guy with the weird ears, and all these red boys with the blue girls, and I thought, “Oh, my God! This is great!” That was the moment when I first escaped into science fiction. I could go into a different time or a different space. I think that’s it for me. It’s adventure, and it’s escaping. It doesn’t mean that I’m unhappy or something like that. It’s just that I didn’t really feel a part of things. I think the album cover of “Victims of a Modern Age,” that’s me standing there going, “Hey, look at what this thing is! The world is destroying itself, but I’m not a part of it!” (laughs) I don’t read newspapers or watch much TV because I just don’t get it. If I do watch something on TV, I think, “What is this?” (laughs) I keep going back to the word “escapism,” and that’s why I like [science fiction].

Sara:  Yeah. Everybody gravitates toward different things, so that makes perfect sense.

Arjen:  Yeah, and in some ways, escaping into science fiction is not good, of course. Luckily, I’ve been able to make a living from it. Making songs out of all the weird space stories. So, yeah, it’s good when you can make your dreams come true.

Sara:  On “Victims of the Modern Age,” you were able to reunite the vocalist line-up from “Space Metal.” So, you’ve got Russell Allen of Symphony X, Dan Swanö from Nightingale, Damian Wilson of Threshold, and Floor Jansen formerly of After Forever and now with ReVamp. Was this originally your plan to reunite this group of vocalists? Or, was this something that happened after you had written all of the songs?

Arjen:  Well, I was thinking about it. I was thinking, “OK, I’m going to do Star One Part Two, and people are going to compare it to the first one. So, maybe it would be a good idea to use different singers.” That thought crossed my mind for, well, maybe 10 seconds. I was thinking of who I could replace these singers with – and I can’t. Because they’re the best at what they do. Working with friends like Floor, who’s got such charisma and such a great voice, and Russell, who’s the best singer in the world in his style. The same goes with Dan and Damian. I can’t replace these guys. And also, these four voices are so different from each other. You’ve got the low voice of Dan, the clear voice of Damian, the power voice of Russell, and the high voice of Floor. They’re so different, and they really complement each other. So, that decision was made very quickly. And, I knew that because they’re all friends of mine, they would want to be involved again. So, that really helps when I’m writing the material that I’ve got these four secret weapons in the end. They were going to lift the songs up to a higher level.

Sara:  You’ve worked with Floor quite a bit. Not only does she sing on the Star One albums, but she was also on two Ayreon albums, correct?

Arjen:  Yeah, definitely.

Sara:  And, I personally think she’s one of the best female singers in metal, too. But tell me, what about Floor’s talent makes you want to work with her time and time again?

Arjen:  Because she’s got it all. She’s got the charisma, not only onstage or physically, but in her voice. She likes my music. That’s very important for me that she likes my music. It’s so important for the chemistry. She’s a very nice person. Again, something important. I wouldn’t want to work with someone I really don’t like. Plus, her voice is so versatile. She can do beautiful soft stuff, like she sang on “Valley of the Queens” [during the Star One tour in 2002]. She can do the power stuff. I even think if you listen to the song “Cassandra Complex” on the new album, she has the lead with Russell, and you hear that her voice has more soul. It’s got more power, and it’s a bit grittier than it was. And, she can also do the opera stuff. It’s really quite amazing. She’s got a rubber voice. I honestly wouldn’t know anyone better than her.

Floor Jansen with Arjen Lucassen

Sara:  I already have “Victims of the Modern Age,” and one of the biggest surprises on there for me is Dan Swanö’s performance. I don’t really follow his career. So, for me, to compare what he did on “Space Metal” to what he’s done on this new album, it’s like night and day.

Arjen:  You’re giving me goosebumps just by saying that. Really, I’ve got goosebumps all over. Because I so agree with you. Dan was the absolute surprise for me this time because he’s gotten so much better. And, I think I may not have given him enough room on the first album. I kind of hid his voice in all these harmonies and effects. And, again, he’s such a nice guy. I sent him the tracks, and in his own studio he worked all out. After a week, I got an email from him with all the songs, and he said, “What do you think of this?” And, “What do you think if I did it like that?” And, I thought, “Oh, my God! This guy can do so much more!” He can do a great lead. He can do this low, sinister kind of voice. And, he can do the growls, if necessary. And also, he came here [to The Electric Castle studio in the Netherlands], and he was ready within one afternoon to record. (laughs) This guy is so talented and a great person overall. So, for me, he was the biggest surprise. Not that I don’t like the other singers, because they also outdid themselves on the new album. But, like you said, the difference [in Dan’s vocals] with the first album is indeed night and day.

Sara:  Is there any particular song on “Victims of the Modern Age” that you’re most proud of? Or, maybe there’s a song that turned out better than you had expected?

Arjen:  It’s always hard to say because I can’t be objective about the songs yet. I did 13 songs in total, and the songs that I thought fit together the best, the biggest and most impressive songs, I put them on CD 1. The other five songs I put on CD 2 [for the album’s limited edition]. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the songs that are on CD 2 as much. People call them bonus tracks, but they’re not really bonus tracks to me. It’s just that these songs have a little different feel than those on CD 1. But, yeah, to choose between the songs on CD 1, it’s so hard. They all have moments in them that I really like. And, I worked on those songs for a year, so it’s not like they really turned out differently. Basically, I kept changing the songs, all of them. I’m such a perfectionist, you know? (laughs) I kept dissecting them and changing them until I was 100-percent happy with them. And, the thing is, I keep changing my mind [about my favorites]. People keep asking me, and I think, “Well, I really like ‘Digital Rain,’ the first song.” And then, “Oh, I really like ‘24 Hours’ because it has so many different layers in it.” And then, “Oh, I really like ‘Human See, Human Do’ because it’s a straightforward, double bass song.” And then, “Oh, I really like ‘It All Ends Here’ because it’s such a heavy doom song.” And then I’m like, “No, it’s ‘Cassandra Complex’ because it’s the catchiest song.” And then, “No, it’s ‘Victim of the Modern Age’ because it’s the weird song on the album.” And then, “No, no, it’s ‘Earth That Was’ because of the heavy riff.” (laughs) I keep changing my mind. So, I can’t answer that for you!

Sara:  You have a knack of picking some very talented singers for your projects. Not just for Star One, but for all your other ones as well. And, not only have you picked some famous singers to work with, but you also like to pick some up-and-coming singers, sometimes people that your fans may have never heard of. Some of those singers have gone on to have successful careers since they appeared on your albums. For example, Sharon den Adel and Robert Westerholt from Within Temptation. They were on [the 1998 Ayreon album] “Into the Electric Castle.” Within Temptation’s become huge since then.

Arjen:  Absolutely. Yes.

Sara:  Do you tend to follow the careers of any of the not-as-well-known singers after they’ve appeared on your albums?

Arjen:  Of course! Yeah, of course. It’s great to have worked with Bruce Dickenson [of Iron Maiden], James LaBrie [of Dream Theater], Mikael Åkerfeldt [of Opeth], Devin Townsend [of Strapping Young Lad and The Devin Townsend Project], Russell Allen, and all these big names. But, really, it’s equally rewarding to work with new talent, just to give them the chance to be heard. And, in the case of Sharon and Within Temptation, she’s made it really huge. I think she sells more [albums] than I do now. (laughs) That’s such a great feeling. Of course, it’s not because she was on Ayreon that she made it big. It’s because she’s writing great songs. That whole band is just excellent. But, yeah, it does give me a good feeling, like I was part of the machine that got her to where she is now.

Sara:  Let me tell you something. One of my favorite singers on the last Ayreon album [“01011001”] was Marjan Welman.

Arjen:  Cool!

Sara:  I remember that after I first listened to [the song “E=mc2” on] that album, I decided to check out her band Elister. I thought, “Oh, she’s got a great voice!” And, one of my favorite bands is Autumn, and at that time they were looking for a new singer. So I was thinking then, “Hey, Marjan would be a pretty good singer for Autumn.”

Arjen:  (laughs)

Sara:  And, guess what happened about a month later? (laughs) So, it’s good that she’s found another project that really works for her as well as Elister.

Arjen:  Definitely. And, well, I think I had a little hand in that. (laughs) I know the people from Autumn. I know them very well, and I know Nienke [de Jong], who was their first singer. I’m sure it helped Marjan that she was on Ayreon. She’s such a nice person. Actually, I did some acoustic shows with her to promote the last Ayreon album. We went to a couple of radio shows, and we went to a few record stores and played together. And, she’s got such a great voice. She’s not a high-power singer like Floor, but the sound of her voice, her pronunciation, and her delivery are excellent.

Sara:  One other band I wanted to talk to you about was a band you used to have a hand in: Stream of Passion. I remember when I got their new album [“The Flame Within”] last year, there was a sticker on it with a quote from you. It said, “After listening to ‘The Flame Within,’ it’s clear that I’m not needed anymore.”

Arjen:  (laughs)

Sara:  So, I’m assuming you listened to that album. What did you think of it?

Arjen:  Well, I didn’t know they would put that quote on the CD. Really!

Sara:  (laughs) You didn’t know they were going to do that?

Arjen:  No! I was a bit surprised by that. Someone asked me about [the band doing a new album], and as a joke I said, “Absolutely! They can do it without me. That was the whole plan from the beginning.” And then, they put it on the CD, and I was like, “Whoa!” But, I don’t mind. I guess it’s OK. (laughs) I like the fact that they chose a direction. They chose a clear direction, to do a particular kind of music and to build on it. I think that was a bit of a problem on the first Stream of Passion album [“Embrace the Storm,” released in 2005]. It was kind of directionless. I love a lot of the songs on that album, but it lacked a certain style. It sounded like we were searching. I know now that if I had done a second Stream of Passion album, I would have known what to do, what direction to go in. More songs that would be cool live, for instance. And, there were a lot of enduring ballads on the first Stream of Passion album. Too many songs that wouldn’t work as well live. I saw them live since then a couple of times, and I was at the CD presentation [for “The Flame Within”]. The new songs really work well live. I even thought they were better than the songs I wrote with them. So, I think that was a good choice.

Arjen Lucassen

Sara:  Let’s go back to the science fiction topic for a minute, just because I’m curious. If you could pick your three all-time favorite science fiction films, what would they be and why?

Arjen:  My three all-time favorite science fiction films?

Sara:  Yes.

Arjen:  Ohhhhhhhh… (laughs)

Sara:  (laughs) Too difficult?

Arjen:  No, actually. I would say “Blade Runner” because of Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott, who’s a great director. And, of course, the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer as the replicant. Yeah, great movie. And, I really like “Gattaca,” actually. One of the songs on “Victims of the Modern Age,” [the track “Closer to the Stars” on CD 2,] was based on the movie “Gattaca.” No one really knows that movie. It kind of got snowed under for one reason or another, so no one knows that movie. But, I really like it. It’s a very intelligent movie. So, I would say that one, and then I always say “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but I’ve said that one too often. (laughs) So, this time, I think I’ll go with one that I wrote about on the “Space Metal” album. Maybe “Alien.” I really like the first “Alien” movie. That was great stuff. So, those would be my choices today. Ask me tomorrow, and you’ll get three different movies. (laughs)

Sara:  (laughs) All right. Well, what’s next for you, Arjen? Any idea what your next musical project is going to be?

Arjen:  Actually, I do. Usually, I don’t. I usually record all these little ideas and see where it takes me. But, this time, I want to do something that I’ve been planning to do for over 10 years now. It’s a solo album. Of course, as always, it will be a reaction to the album before, which in this case is the new Star One album, which is a huge, big, heavy album. So, I’d like to do something with less guest musicians. Maybe no guest musicians at all. And, not so heavy. I can’t sing heavy stuff myself. But, yeah, it’s a different challenge. It’s like, “OK, can I do this on my own? Can I do this without the help of all these guest musicians and without the help of all these great guest singers? Can I keep an album interesting on my own?” Hopefully, there won’t be expectations from people, so I can do whatever I want. Yeah, I just really feel like doing that. So, I’ve been planning it for 10 years, and each time I change my mind because I find a better singer than me. This time, I’ve been saying in all of my interviews that I’ll do it. So, there’s no going back now. (laughs)

Sara:  Now, I know other people have been asking you this question, but I’ve got to ask it, too –

Arjen:  Am I going to play live?

Sara:  (laughs)

Arjen:  Did I guess right?

Sara:  You did! Is there going to be another Star One tour?

Arjen:  Well, the thing is, it’s going to be a hell of a job to bring these 10 people together. They all have their own projects. It’s going to be very expensive, of course, to fly them all over [to the Netherlands]. And, we’ve got to rehearse. We haven’t played together in 8 years, so we’ve got to rehearse for at least a couple of weeks, if not a couple of months, which is the complicated thing. You’d have to fly them over from all over the world, put them in hotels, feed them, and so on. So, yeah, it would be a huge undertaking. I know it because for the first Star One tour, it took me half a year to set the whole thing up, just for seven or eight shows. But, I asked them when they recorded with me if they’d do it, and they all said they’d love to do it again if they’re available. So, basically, it would be possible, but there are no definite plans yet.

Sara:  That’s it from my end, Arjen. Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans and to our readers at Sonic Cathedral?

Arjen:  I think I’ve already said way too much. (laughs) But, I’m glad we were able to work out this interview!

Sonic Cathedral thanks Arjen once again for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us! Also, many thanks to Jon Freeman at Freeman Promotions for arranging the interview.

To learn more about the new Star One album and Arjen’s other projects, click on the following links:
Arjen Lucassen’s Official Website
Arjen on Myspace