With more projects to his name than you can shake a wizard’s wand at, Arjen Lucassen is Holland’s most prolific prog export. Projects such as Star One, Guilt Machine and, most notably, Ayreon, with their famous guest singers, have made Lucassen famous in his home country. Always the ‘name’ behind his albums, Lucassen has never really ventured into purely solo territory. He’s since deemed his 1994 solo album, Pools Of Sorrow, Waves Of Joy (released under the name Anthony) a flop, making this year’s Lost In The New Real the first album to be released under his full name: Arjen Anthony Lucassen.
It’s a fresh spring morning when Prog visits Lucassen at his home, tucked away amid flat farmland and the odd windmill in Roosendaal, Holland. It’s hard to imagine the number of high-profile singers and musicians that have entered the modest home he shares with partner Lori and their dog Hoshi.
We take a seat in the open-plan kitchen/living room. Lucassen has just been reading YouTube comments about the trailer video for Lost In The New Real and is bothered by one comment describing it as “cheesy”. Does he take fans’ opinions personally?
“I deal with criticism in a bad way, every bad word hurts,” he admits. “I can read a thousand good comments but I’ll always remember the bad ones. If there’s a review that completely slags off the album and it’s unfounded, I always react. I find out who the guy is, find his email address and send him a pretty heavy email. But in the end we always end up as friends because we argue it out."
“With the last three albums [Ayreon’s 01011001, Guilt Machine’s On This Perfect Day, Star One’s Victims Of The Modern Age] I’ve been thinking more about the fans than about what I want,” he continues. ”So when I started this album I was like ‘Fuck yeah, this is going to be a solo album and I don’t care if it sells or not’. The great thing is people don’t have expectations with this one, because if I do Ayreon they expect huge bombastic stuff, with all these guest singers, and if I do Star One they expect this metal album, heavier than heavy. But if I do a solo album they have no idea what to expect.”
There are two major differences on the new solo album: firstly the deviation in sound, towards a more light-hearted, 1960s vibe, drawing influence from The Beatles, Floyd and Zeppelin, and, secondly, that the vocals are all sung by Lucassen.
“I’m not a rock and metal singer, I’m more like John Lennon. So I could write songs that I knew would sound cool with my voice and that was fun. This is a big jump from the small parts I used to sing on the Ayreon albums. A couple of times a day I would get Lori down to the studio and ask for her opinion. I’ve become more confident about singing, and I know my limitations.”
Continuing Lucassen’s lineage of concept albums, Lost In The New Real tells the story of a 21st century man cryogenically preserved while suffering from a terminal illness. Aeons later, he is revived in the hope of finding a cure for his illness, only to discover that world has changed beyond recognition. A pivotal character in the story is the man’s psychological adviser; requiring an additional voice on the album.
“I’ve been a fan of Rutger Hauer since the age of 10, when he starred in my favourite programme Floris,” says Lucassen. “I remember I was jogging and I started thinking about the album’s concept and then about Blade Runner. I thought how great it would be to get Rutger as the narrator. So I sent an email through his website and, to my surprise, I got a reply a couple of days later saying ‘Tell me more’. He didn’t know me but he must have Googled my name because he said yes.”
Through Skype, the two were able to discuss the project. Hauer was given the brief and worked on some lines. “He really immersed himself in the story and spent weeks rewriting the narration. At first I was unsure because there were lots of ‘fucks’ in there, but it was so cool. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it was so much better than what I wrote. In the end Lori recorded him in Santa Monica, and he was a real gentleman.”
Focus turns to the thematic content of the album and in particular a song that names his influences. Pink Beatles In A Purple Zeppelin deals with the advancement in technology and how it overshadows human input (‘I just think of what I like/Any blend will do/They reproduce what’s in my mind’). It reflects Lucassen’s fondness of the days before Pro Tools. “I like limitations,” he explains. “That’s why I record with old analogue synthesizers. My favourite synth is the Minimoog because you can only play one note and you have to dial all the buttons. It’s unreliable but it makes that instrument so interesting.”
Perhaps the fact that machines can’t authentically replicate the human voice has influenced Lucassen’s choice of guest vocalists on past albums. The list reads like a Who’s Who of prog rock: Fish, Neil Morse, Devin Townsend, James LaBrie, Bruce Dickinson, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Dave Brock, Bob Catley and more. “I’m interested in the voice, not the technique. It can be this amazing singer who can sing incredibly high, with a beautiful vibrato, but if I don’t like the voice I’m not going to ask.”
Many of the vocalists have been to Chez Lucassen. “It’s the best feeling ever when they come to my house. But especially with people I grew up listening to, like Dave Brock,” he adds, gesturing towards his extensive Hawkwind CD collection. “I was at his place for two days. He was this incredibly nice guy, we had fun and made a meal together – we’re both vegetarians. We ate fish and went to his forest and looked at his horses.”
Strangely, for a polymath who has worked with so many musicians, the mild-mannered Dutchman describes himself as a “social recluse”. Lucassen refuses to conform to the stereotype of a rock star, and seems visibly repulsed by the whole idea.
“I don’t go on holidays and I don’t socialise. I hate small talk. I hate hanging out or going to a bar,” he says, positively grimacing at the prospect. “I’ve had singers who really wanted to hang out, like Bob Catley who was like ‘Hey! Where shall we go?’ and I had to say ‘No man, I don’t go out, I’m a recluse, I’m the most boring person in the world’.”
Whether it’s the result of a divorce that left him depressed and suffering from anosmia (the inability to smell), or the hedonism of his days in 80s Dutch metal band Vengeance, but Lucassen has a ‘still-waters-run deep’ quality reflected in his hermetic lifestyle and quest for perfection.
“I’m really insecure and I guess that’s what makes me a perfectionist,” he admits. “People call me a genius, but I know I’m not because I have worked with so many geniuses like Thijs van Leer of Focus or Fish or Russell Allen [Symphony X]. They are geniuses. It’s amazing, when I work with them, they humble me.”
One part sensitive introvert to two parts proficient control-freak, the six-foot seven-inch tall Dutchman might be modest but his work speaks for itself. A wander around his home reveals more: his garage studio where, he ‘jokes’, he lived when still with his ex-wife; the studio overlooking the swimming pool; the office where he tries to reply personally to every message he gets through Facebook. As for future plans?
“I never plan ahead. After an album I’m completely empty. I’m hoping it will be another Ayreon. But all I can do is wait for inspiration to come. Only time can tell.”
This article originally appeared in issue 26 of Prog Magazine.