Interview Millennium Trilogy Project (John van Heugten)

"I'm very happy to have the privilege to write and play the music I like"

(November 2020, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen, pictures by Arthur Haggenburg)

Between 1998 and 2006 Dutch band Ricocher recorded an EP and two full-length albums in the neo-progressive rock tradition and then disbanded in 2006. They made a short comeback in 2016, but apparently that seemed to be their last effort. Now, after a hiatus of four years and the split up of his new formed band Eleven's Eve keyboard player John van Heugten returns solo with a new project called Millennium Trilogy Project. The music on Act I: The Trial is inspired by the famous Millennium books of the Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Of course, Background Magazine was very interested to learn about this new project, so we asked John to tell us all about the ins and outs and the musicians who accompanied him on this solo effort.

John van Heugten (live with Ricocher)
John, did you have a special reason why you choose the Millennium Trilogy as a subject of your new musical project?
John van Heugten: “After the split up of Ricocher and Eleven's Eve, I decided that I wanted to write and compose a concept album. Since I liked the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson a lot, I picked one of the storylines and rewrote it to my own story. Over time I came in contact with Bart van Geleuken and Joss Mennen of Rock Inc. Recording and plans were made to record the songs and release it as an album. Because my story was based on the Millennium books I called this project the Millennium Trilogy Project. Since I'm only a keyboard player I asked some friends if they would like to help me recording this album. Fortunately, they all did a great job and put a lot of time and effort in it.”

Which vocalists and guest musicians play on the album?
“I found Nicole Verstappen willing to sing the character of Brynn, Bart van Lierop as her friend Emlyn, Noëlle van Bussel as a psychiatrist and René Janssen as the lawyer and for doing the backing vocals. Josien Obers joined to sing the backing vocals as well. The instrumentalists who are playing on this album are Maikel van der Meer on drums and Niels Nijssen on bass guitar. They were both band members of Ricocher. Furthermore, I have John Rovers playing all the guitar parts and Marcel van der Loo plays the saxophone on a track called My Guide.”

Your former band Ricocher disbanded in 2006 but made a comeback in 2016. What was the reason why it all stopped there?
“The reason why we did three comeback shows was because it was ten years ago that we split up Ricocher. We were a group of friends and we had a lot of fun together and we still have. We did these three shows and we decided that if other venues were interested in a live show we would perform there. Some of us wanted to work on new songs, but others were too busy to put more time in playing in a band. And as I mentioned before: we were friends since we were twelve years old and we respect each other very much. Our friendship is more important than anything else. Maybe in the future we will reunite again and work on new material.”

What's the difference between what you did with Ricocher and what you do with this new project?
“Of course, the main difference between the two is that Millennium Trilogy Project is a solo project. So, I had to organize it all by myself. There's so much work to do next to spending my time with playing, composing and arranging music, but it was great fun to do and I learned a lot!”

When did you start thinking of doing this musical project and how long did it take to finish it all?
“After the split up of Eleven's Eve, I decided that I wanted to do something with the songs I had already written. After some conversations with Josien Obers she advised me to write a storyboard about the storyline I had in mind.
Some of the former songs I had written fitted perfectly in the story, but I had to write a lot of new material as well. Bart van Geleuken and Joss Mennen convinced me that my music was good and that I should record and release it. That was at the end of 2018; it was the start of a rollercoaster. I had to find the right musicians to perform on the album, make the right arrangements for the songs and start a crowdfunding campaign. Bart and Joss helped me a lot. In May 2019 we started the actual recording sessions with Niels Nijssen playing his bass parts. Due to some cancelations, injuries of band members and the corona pandemic it took until August this year to do the final recording of Maikel's drum parts. In August and September, we worked on the final mix and mastering. The album was finally released in October.”

Was some of the music you wrote intended for a next Ricocher album or for other projects you were involved with?
“Yes, it was. Inside Of You, Close Your Eyes and My Guide were tracks we already played with Eleven's Eve. For this album, I made some adjustments on the arrangements and vocal lines to fit into the concept. In fact, My Guide is a song I basically wrote way back when I was only twenty years of age. We played it with Ricocher, although it sounded completely different then.”

The whole concept is based on the famous Millennium books. Why did you choose those books for your musical inspiration?
“I really love reading and I read the Millennium books more than once. All the different storylines that intertwine through all the books are so great. When I started with the storyboard one of these storylines immediately came into mind. And there are so many storylines left, that it's always possible to create a new album!”

I guess you will release three albums to tell the story?
“I don't know yet if there will be two, three, four or more albums! The word 'trilogy' in the name of this project refers to the number of books and not to the number of albums. However, if people like the album and I'm able to achieve a break-even point as far as the costs are concerned then most likely a new album will be recorded.”

Could you tell our readers in a nutshell the concept of the first part of the trilogy?
“The first part of the story is about Brynn. She is completely abandoned by society. At the beginning of the album the trial is in progress in which her case will be discussed. We get back to some crucial moments in Brynn's life and those moments made her become the woman she is. Everyone sees her as dangerous, suicidal, autistic and schizophrenic, but the only thing she tries to do is survive. The judges advise a treatment and she gets in contact with a psychiatrist who tries to find out what happened in her life. Bit by bit the psychiatrist gains her trust. In the meantime, her friend Emlyn tries to support her as much as possible. At the end of the album the judges pass judgement and they decide that it's time for Brynn to get back into society and start a life of her own.”

Video 'Theater Of Thoughts'

Some people might compare the music to Ayreon, meaning: symphonic and bombastic progressive rock with a touch of AOR. What is your opinion?
“It's a great compliment to be compared with Ayreon. It looks like the Netherlands is a cradle for this kind of projects. Next to Ayreon we've also got Medea and Magoria, which I like all a lot. There may be some similarities between all these acts, but definitely there are a lot more differences. I wrote my music behind a keyboard while others write on guitar. I think my music is more progressive cinematic rock instead of progressive metal. I really like great orchestras like the scores in movies or the orchestras in combination with pop and rock songs as you can hear on the Night Of The Proms show. When I was busy arranging the songs I constantly had this idea in mind.”

The string parts on the album are very cleverly done. They remind me of real orchestral parts. How did you do that?
“Well, I have a soft-synthesizer from EastWest. They have astonishing sounds when it comes to orchestras, so I used them a lot. In the mix some of the instruments had to be muted otherwise it was just 'too much'. It's a great challenge for me to arrange the songs this way, but that was also the way to make it sound bombastic.”

Are you satisfied with the final result of the album or did you think afterwards that some things could have done better?
“During the process of recording an album you are in a learning curve. There are always points to improve, but I'm satisfied with the end result. It's great to have so many friends and musicians around who helped me and put a lot of time and effort in making this record! In this process I learned a lot about managing every little detail, from asking the musicians and vocalists to the promotional activities that I had to do. So next time I will do things differently and without running into the pitfalls I experienced with this recording. Up to now the reviews are very positive, so that's a relief as well! I'm very happy to have the privilege to write and play the music I like and the way I like it!”

Did you contact other record companies to release the albums of the Millennium Trilogy Project?
“From the beginning I had contact with Bart van Geleuken en Joss Mennen of Rock Inc. Recording. They gave me the chance to release my album on their Snakebite Records label and they are also taking care of the distribution in the Benelux. So, there was no need to contact other record companies. In fact, this release is a private release and I'm completely in charge. I'm contacting distributing points outside the Benelux to find out if they can help me, and off course people can order the album directly through my website:”

Do you have any plans to take this musical concept on the road or will it just remain a studio project?
“Initially I intended this project to remain a pure studio project. However, I also like to play live on stage, so I'm looking for possibilities to bring the concept on the road. It's quite an undertaking because a lot of
John van Heugten
people are involved. When I play it live on stage it has to sound good, so next to the vocalists, a drummer, bassist, guitarist and an additional keyboardist and guitarist are necessary to perform it live. And they all have to be paid by me, so it will cost some amount of money to get it on stage, but I really hope that we will be able to play it live on stage after the corona pandemic.”

Did you already write and record the second and third part of the trilogy? And if so, did you ask the same guest musicians?
“I have already a new storyline for the next album. The working title is Act 2: Maze Of Mirrors. Most of the demo songs were recorded in my home studio and I'm now trying to arrange them. But I will only record a new album if there is enough demand for the albums. The question whether or not I'll ask the same guest musicians and vocalists depends on many things: do they have enough time to work on the album, do they fit into the storyline, do they want to work with me again, and so on? Time will tell!”

Did you contact other musicians who were not available at the time to work with you?
“Yes, I contacted other musicians and vocalists as well and asked them if they were interested. They all liked the idea, but some of them were too busy to participate in the first place. With others it turned out to be difficult to find a suitable date to record their parts and in some cases people just let me know that they were too busy with other things a couple of days before their part would be recorded. I was very disappointed to hear that and it delayed the recording process for quite some time, but these are the problems I had to deal with. However, I always tried to focus on the things that went right and moved forward.”

My final question: when can we expect the second part of the trilogy?
“I hope that I'm able to record the next album within a couple of years. For now, I focus on the sales and promotional activities for the first album to make it a success story.”

John, thanks for allowing me this interview!
“Thank you, Henri, it was my pleasure! And to all the readers of Background Magazine I would like to say: don't forget to buy the album if you like the music and stay safe!”

More info about The Millennium Trilogy Project on the Internet:
       review album
       video Theater Of Thoughts

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