Interview with Arjen Lucassen

Victims Of The Modern Age is the latest album by Dutch musical mastermind Arjen Lucassen. With projects like Ayreon, Star One and Guilt Machine he has made himself a household name in the progressive rock and metal landscape. Prior to the album being released, Wouter de Boer had an extensive telephone chat with The Tall One, as he is often referred to. Due to technical problems with the recording and the sheer length of the interview, it took some time to work out the final article. A lot that has been said, ultimately didn’t reach the pages of Home Nucleonics. But what remains is an honest portrait of a talented musician who always strives for the best quality possible. Just the way we like it!

Victims Of The Modern Age has sold out after just a few days in presale. Quite the contrast with Guilt Machine‘s On This Perfect Day, Lucassen’s former album. Asked if he was surprised by this, the answer is: ‘Honestly, I felt it coming. Because there were so many people asking for it. In the eight years since the previous album, I have gotten loads of emails asking me: please, do another Star One. A lot of metal fans, I must say – people who really dig the metal side of Ayreon.’

The fan response is more than welcome. Lucassen has had a rough time during his 01011001 period. A divorce, a severe depression, living apart, not taking care of his health, becoming ill… Yet the darkness in his music isn’t a direct result of that. Lucassen explains: ‘The strange thing is, to me it’s some sort of balance. The better I feel, the darker my music becomes. When I got into the depression, I was already halfway with 01011001, but the funny thing is – in those dark days I wrote all the happier songs, like The Truth Is In Here and Connect The Dots. With Guilt Machine and certainly now with the new Star One, I’m feeling better than ever, but the material has gotten much darker.’

With balance also comes inspiration. The Tall One is more productive than ever before. Before On This Perfect Day came out, he was already busy working on Victims Of The Modern Age. And in the three to four months following the finished new Star One – the period the record company supposedly needs to set up the release – Lucassen has already produced the outline for yet another album. The course is already laid in, albeit not entirely set in stone: ‘Every album I do is a reaction to the previous one. Since Guilt Machine was quite atmospheric and relatively soft, I needed to do something heavier, preferably metal. So the choice for Star One was easily made. Automatically this means that the one following Star One should be a quieter album. For over a year I have promised myself to make a solo album, but each time it doesn’t happen because I find better singers or whatever. But this time I’m really going do it!’

Such a solo project does have its advantages. For instance, people’s expectations won’t be quite as high as for a multi-musician project. ‘Whenever I do an Ayreon album, people’s expectations are obviously sky high – everyone expects something really grand and such. But with a solo record I can do whatever I want, and I kinda like that idea. It’s also fun because of the challenge: can I do it on my own?’ The new record will definitely be completely different from his first solo outing under the moniker of Anthony. A country album Lucassen doesn’t enjoy being reminded of, because at the time he had completely lost his way, being pressured by the record company. ‘No, I won’t do another country album. Or it should be really good country, like 16 Horsepower. That’s something truly amazing. Of course I don’t have his (David Eugene Edwards, ed.) voice. But that direction – the darkness and the instruments he uses and stuff… wow! But the silly thing is – you listen to The Beatles and you think: that’s what I’m going to do. And then you listen to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and you’re like: no, this is what I’m gonna do! So… But I already have lots of little ideas.’

On to Victims Of The Modern Age then and how that album came into being. Like every album there was one defining moment for the start of the project: ‘That spark actually came when I was looking for a new guitar sound. I already knew quite early on I wanted to do a follow-up to Space Metal, so I listened to that record again and thought: yeah, I really like those songs, but the sound can be a lot better, especially the guitars. So I started to experiment with the guitar sound, which worked very inspiring. Already in that process a lot of the riffs and ideas came to the surface.’ The new sound is especially apparent in Human See, Human Do, a favourite of the interviewer. Lucassen: ‘The funny thing about that song is, it starts off really bluesy. I played that on a Fender. In the beginning it gives me this Kill The King feeling with Rainbow, I don’t know what it is. Also a bit Deep Purple. But then you get that earth shattering riff that sounds so modern. I play that on a 7-string guitar which obviously gives it a fatter, heavier sound.’

Also on Victims Of The Modern Age Lucassen chose for analog recording instead of digital, which he had done for the last ten years or so. Something that definitely helped define a new sound, but why this approach?
Turns out it was kind of a combination between two distinct musical voices. Lucassen explains: ‘If you hear the first Van Halen record (from 1978, ed.) , that album has such a good guitar sound. Then I thought: damn, this dude can just waltz into the studio, put up a master, rig the speaker with a microphone and he’s done – he’s got this superb sound, you know. On the other hand I am greatly inspired by bands like Rammstein and their sound. But it’s too industrial for me, too cold for my music. So I wanted to try and blend these two styles together and that was kind of my starting point.’

Yet the industrial sound of Rammstein wouldn’t have been out of place on an album that has dystopian world views as its subject matter, right? Not entirely possible according to the grand master: ‘The singers are so incredibly gifted and sing with such passion, all four of them, they already make it a warm sound, you see. Rammstein has Till and his icy cold voice, but here you’ve got these singers – especially Damian – who throw in all their emotion, so the album is gonna get warm no matter what. If I would have put Till’s voice under this score, then yes, the album would have had a very different feel.’

For the artwork Lucassen decided to again go with Chris Dessaigne, whose previous work on Guilt Machine was absolutely mind-blowing. He was the logical choice, because of his own love for dystopian-type material. From the start, the artwork was intended to be different from the first Star One, where pictures actually resembled the source material for the songs. Dessaigne got free reigns to look for material that he found suiting. Insofar as that was possible. Lucassen: ‘I’m a control freak. Ultimately I am really strict, precise and wayward. It has to be exactly the way I want it. And I warned him for that, told him he was going to hate me. But he was sure he could handle, big guy. But then with the front page, I had to send it back to him thirty, forty times before I was satisfied. And at a certain point he got really despondent, depressed even. But I can’t help it – it has to be absolutely perfect. Artwork is just that important to me. It has always been an extra dimension, even when I was just a kid. I have always held on to that.’

The upside is that his eye for detail and his commitment to the product function as a guarantee for quality. Added to that, Lucassen is renowned for the way he treats his fans personally. Says the maestro himself: ‘Especially in this day and age, you have to give the fans something special. If you communicate on the internet with someone, than that person will have a personal bond with you and will listen to your music more intensely. Which is of course what I would like. And they are more inclined to buy your albums, enabling me to continue making new stuff.’

Which is an important issue we like to focus on here at Home Nucleonics. So how does Lucassen fare in this digital age, where record sales are said to keep dropping because of all the illegal downloading taking place? ‘There are obviously two sides to that for me. On the one hand it’s an incredible promotional tool, really awesome. Ten times as many people know me because of the internet. But opposed to that I only sell a tenth of what I would normally sell. And I understand the choice, you know. If you have to choose between hanging out in a pub with your mates or buying an album you can also get for free, I get that. But I hardly notice it. Ten times as many people listen to my music, but only a tenth of them buy the album. So I’m level with that.’

Asked if he has one final thing to say to his fans, Lucassen finally reveals his true nature: ‘Buy my shit!‘ Followed by a roaring laughter that is exemplary for the entire interview. What a joy and what an honour it has been. Mr Lucassen, thank you very much! Arjen, bedankt!

written by Wouter de Boer

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