SERJ TANKIAN: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Going into my chat with Serj Tankian I already had a high opinion of the man as a singer, a musician, and as a member of System of a Down, a band whose body of work I hold in high regard. But through the course of the interview, the picture of the man behind the music only became more clear: Tankian is a true artist, a man who considers himself extremely lucky to be able to do what he does for a living and, as such, feels continually inspired to constantly push himself and his art forward.
Our talk touched on obvious subjects such as Serj’s forthcoming new solo record Imperfect Harmonies and the differences between his solo projects and his work with System of a Down, but we also spent a lot of time talking about ways in which he’s constantly striving to push his art forward by trying new things: recording the new record with an orchestra and bringing its 25 extra musicians out on the road with him, what it means to him to let politics and music intermingle, and some non-traditional projects he’s working on such as his new poetry book, a musical that’s opening next year, a symphony he’s writing, a museum project he’s putting together and much much more.
So you have a record (Imperfect Harmonies) coming out in September. In the most general sense possible, what can you tell us about it?
It is an audiograph that was originally created by Edison — phonograph recording. [Laughter] No. Well, let’s see. It’s a completely different type of sound than what I’ve been working on that people know of me. Let’s say because I’ve been working on many different types of genres of music, on my own stuff, for many different purposes — video games, films and the musical that I’m doing. What I’m know for is the rock, so this is a little variation of it. It doesn’t really matter what I say or what I think; you’ve got to hear it. It’s kind of one of those things. It’s a multilayered record that has a lot of stuff going on, and it’s very deep in terms of the layers of the music phonetically and whatnot, without being immodest. [Laughs]
You mentioned that people expect or know you more as a rock guy. How does that affect the way you approach the writing of something like a solo album or a film score?
It doesn’t affect the way that I approach writing at all. I write whatever comes to me, and I write whether I have a project or not. I write with different inspirations that come to me in different colors and genres and whatnot. The only time that I deal with expectations or what I’m know for or whatever is when I’m doing press for it.
No, I actually do. I kind of push to do certain types of press over others because to me it’s all kind of connected how we get the word out, how we make the music and how the label puts it out. I like being part of the process every step of the way from the marketing to the visuals to how we’re going to present it – to me that’s important. It’s cool being just the artist and kind of making the record and then disappearing (I guess). [But] if you want to make sure that it gets out there with the right intentions with the right message, then you have to be proactive.
Is that something that’s different when you do a solo project as opposed to your work with System of a Down? Are you more able to be hands-on and involved in the marketing and so on and so forth with your solo stuff?
Yeah, just based on the way that it’s all designed with my own solo project. It goes through Serjical Strike [Records] so that allows me a lot more flexibility in handling the business side than going through Sony with System of a Down which gives me less flexibility as a business person. You know what I mean?
Right, right. So with Serjical Strike you go through Warner?
Yeah, we still work with a major but it’s like being an indie under a major rather than just working directly as an artist with a major. We have an amazing staff that works very hard, and they’re around me right now smiling at me because they thought I was going to give them shit instead.
We try to do a lot of stuff in-house so that it’s the original artist’s intention, in this case, me as an artist but sometimes other artists – that it’s the artist’s intention in how they want to release the record and maintain the integrity of how the artist would like to be presented and represented.
Right. I definitely got that impression. I watched the lyric video that you put out of “Borders Are,” and I listened to the lyrics and read along and definitely got the impression that that was something you directly had a hand in as opposed to some label person just cobbling together a video.
Funny enough, I had nothing to do with that lyric video at all.
That had a lot to do with George (Tonikian) who works with me. He helps me run Serjical Strike. I was on the road, and he didn’t want to bother me so he came up with the concept based on the video and went with it. I give him all the credit for doing so.
Wow. I stand corrected then. He did a good job.
[Laughs] He did. He did a great job, but next time he should check with me because there are a couple of adjustments that I would have made on it. [Laughs]
Ah there we go.
Perfectionist, no, just the perfectionist part of me.
He’s not standing next to you right now too, is he?
He was. [Laughs] Just giving him shit.
So about that song, we posted that on our site. The last border to disappear was the U.S./Mexican border, and there were some people commenting that maybe it was a commentary on that. Was it specific to that particular issue or is it just a general, worldwide issue and concern?
Cool, thanks. I read those blogs as well. It’s amazing how it made people just kind of think and question. It was quite effective in what we wanted to achieve with putting “Borders Are” first out as a song. “Borders Are” is actually not our first single. “Left of Center” is our first single, but we wanted to put that out to #1 as a message of a lot of stuff going on right now whether it’s the flotilla into Gaza or the Arizona thing with immigration or the sinking of the South Korean ship. There are border skirmishes happening every day, and it was a statement to make about borders that was very timely and necessary in our opinion. The last border that disappears… I’m not going to say what the intention behind that is because then that would kill the whole process of people guessing about it, but it definitely had an impact.
Yeah I think it definitely did. One of the specific things that I wanted to ask relates to that issue, which is that you’ve always been heart-on-your-sleeve as far as letting your politics bleed into your music. That’s something that some people find very contentious. Some people think that politics and music should remain separate, while others argue that they absolutely shouldn’t. Do you take those criticisms to heart or do you just really not care and you write whatever you feel?
Those same people wouldn’t mix their peanut butter and chocolate I guess too.
They’re missing out.
[Laughs] They’re totally missing out. It’s a funny issue, and it could be contentious in certain situations. A lot of people ask me “do you think it’s an artist’s responsibility to talk about political or social issues,” and I always say no. I think it’s an artist’s responsibility to be honest with their own inspirations. Some people are inspired by personal stories, some people are inspired by love or heartbreak. I’m inspired by everything. I have a huge dynamic realm of inspiration, and to me, geopolitics has always been a kind of hobby. I read about it daily. I read about it just like I read business E-mails and stuff. I read about what’s going on in the world. I have gained a decent understanding of geopolitics through that over the years. It’s something that I cannot help comment about. It’s something that I fervently believe in as far as my beliefs having to do with politics. I don’t like hypocrisy. I don’t like injustice. When I see those things, I have to speak out about it. It doesn’t mean I can’t go write a love song. It doesn’t mean I can’t write a funny song. It doesn’t mean I can’t write a more philosophical, ambiguous song that makes people think. I do all of the above. I don’t mind putting my money where my mouth is because a lot of artists are afraid to do that because of backlash and because of public opinion. I’m not fucking running for office. If you don’t like what I’m saying, don’t buy my fucking CD. I don’t give a fuck, and that’s how it’s always been with System of a Down and my own solo stuff and that’s it.
Yeah, and I think that’s a healthy way to look at it, as long as you’re being true to yourself. What are some of the other lyrical topics that you touch on on this new album?
Well the only 2 directly political songs are actually “Borders Are” and “Left of Center” — the first 2 things that we released which is kind of funny that it turned out that way. A lot of the songs are more ambiguous and interpretive, kind of having to do with nature, dealing with our times, and spirituality. There are a number of personal stories of heartbreak, loss and love as well. There’s a story about, well not a story (sorry), there’s a song in Armenian that I’m singing called “Yes, It’s Genocide” which is a very emotional song with this kind of mantra thing over and over again. There’s a song called “Wings of Summer” which is more of a bluesy/jazzy acoustic type of song that’s really interesting. It’s quite different things that I’m talking about. It’s not based on one thing.
Speaking then about the music as opposed to the lyrics, is there a difference in the way that you approached this then you approached Elect the Dead or is it a continuation of the same musical thought?
It’s quite a different approach. Elect the Dead was my making a rock record without a rock band. In retrospect, my first record ended up being a rock record which is something that I’m known for, the rock genre. On this one, the original songs I wrote in the same way. I always write songs . . . if I sit at a piano, I write the song on piano and the vocals. If I sit on an acoustic guitar, I’ll write the song in that way. The songs are written in a classic sense just like they were with Elect the Dead, but the way that I arranged the instrumentation was completely different.
With Elect the Dead, I would just start with one track and then add a number of tracks until it was done. With this one, I kind of threw everything against the wall and started picking things out that didn’t make sense. It was more of a different type of painting. The reason I did that was that I was really interested in interfusing a number of different influences that I hadn’t touched upon with Elect the Dead musically. One was electronics — beats and samples and whatnot. The other was the orchestra. We got an orchestra that I did. I did a live show with Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra and put out that DVD 4 months ago or whatever. So I had a number of these orchestral songs, I had these number of electronic/rock songs and I wanted to merge the sound and create this sound that kind of perfectly merged everything together. That became the challenge and fulfillment all at the same time. It was a really interesting process. It was a lot of tracks though. It was 150 to 200 tracks per session per song.
So mixing it was more like mixing a film score than a record. It was really interesting. I learned a lot in the process. I gained complete confidence in composing for ensemble orchestra. I did a lot of electronic stuff which I’ve done in the past, but people just don’t know me for it. Learning how to fuse all of that in a successful fashion was really the interesting part in building bridges between the synthetic and the organic elements of the sound to a point where it just sounds like one full piece playing them together. It’s going to be interesting pulling it off live in a North American show we’re going to do. We’re going to have a full orchestra and a full band. It’s going to be amazing.
Wow. That’s intense. Doing a tour like that is no small undertaking.
Is that something that’s already planned or is that something that you would like to get going?
Yeah, we have the dates up for North America as well as Europe. I’m jumping back to Europe in 2 weeks. I just got back from there 4 days ago doing a full orchestral tour. I’m going back this time with the F.C.C. (my band) and doing a full band plus 8 musicians per show for all the European festivals. Then coming back and doing a North American tour with a full band and orchestra with anywhere from 24 to 45 pieces per city. We already have the dates up. It’s all booked.
Well, that’s a good question. With System I think we’d just rehearse it. It was very live-oriented, so we would rehearse everything the way that we wanted to – the same with the recording. We’d rehearse everything until we had it down and then we’d go and record it the way that we rehearsed it. As far as a solo artist, I don’t record that way obviously. I do it track by track and do it mostly myself, so that’s a different approach.
As far as live, in this case for example, I’m going to rehearse with the band the new songs that they don’t know. They already know the stuff from Elect the Dead that we’ll brush up on, but we’re also playing with 8 extra musicians for the European tour then a full ensemble for the North American tour. It’s a different process altogether. I have to make sure that the scores are correct. I have to make sure that the conductor is in tune with my drummer so that they’re all on the same tempo. There are a lot of technical things involved in the process to make sure that the 2 ensembles are communicating and that everyone is playing together correctly. I have to make sure that scores are correct so I have to test them in rehearsal by bringing people in and checking those out with extra players, or test them live on the road with the orchestra that we just did in Europe. It’s a lot more, you know, it’s a lot more. [Laughs] It’s more work.
That’s a lot of work. Do you enjoy the challenge of putting together something like that? Something that you necessarily haven’t done before?
It is. Hell yeah, man. Who wants to do the same shit for the rest of their lives as art? Having different types of instrumental setups onstage, different types of musical setups, is challenging and fulfilling all at the same time.
Is that perhaps more enjoyable for you than going out and doing another System of a Down tour – something that you’ve done many, many times already?
I think it’s all enjoyable. You can’t compare one to the other. I like doing many, many different things. If we do stuff in the future, it’ll be interesting to do System stuff as just another project because I got a lot of stuff going on and it would be cool to add that. It’s a different vibe going out with a band that you’ve had for 12 years; totally rocking and going crazy onstage is a different vibe than playing with the F.C.C.,which is a different vibe than playing with the F.C.C. plus orchestra. Just recently I did a show at the MOCA opening of the Arshile Gorky exhibit with a number of musician friends. We had a DJ, an oud player, a percussionist, a piano player, and a violin player. That was a different, amazing, unique show that I did. Again, I was excited to do it. Is that better than playing with an orchestra? Is it better than playing with System? It’s all just different. All of them together is better.
I would think also there’s some element of having your own control over everything that is maybe a bit easier than dealing with 3 other cooks in the kitchen at the same time.
That could be the case in terms of creating stuff and making decisions on a business level. But when you’re playing live, there’s not so much decision making. It’s just going out there and having a good time and letting the music go through you and connecting. There’s not that much on the live front that would apply to what you said.
Right, right. I didn’t mean to imply that in a live way. If you’re committing to doing a System of a Down album just because of the legacy of that band and the level that you guys took it to on the last album with headlining OzzFest and all of that. That’s a big 2 to 3 year commitment of touring. Where if you’re just calling all your own shots, it might not be to that extent.
When you were planning to do this new album, was there ever a time that you were thinking of getting together with the System guys and doing something or was it always the plan to come out with this new album so soon after doing the last solo album and the symphonic record?
I’m not sure I understand. The new record has nothing to do with the System guys.
Was it always your plan to . . .
My plan is to continue making music on my own and doing whatever I do in a variety of ways – not just music but different things. I’m putting out a 2nd poetry book. This is what I do. I do art. I do music in one form or another, and I’ll do it with different people and I’ll do it mostly by myself as well. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Yeah, yeah it does. What about this poetry book?
I’m putting out a 2nd poetry book, a follow-up to Cool Gardens which I put out 8 years ago. It’s a collaboration between myself and a good friend of mine Roger Kupelian. Roger is the top digital painter who did a lot of stuff at Weta (Peter Jackson’s company in New Zealand) for all 3 Lord of the Rings as well as a number of great Hollywood films. He’s a phenomenal artist. So it’s going to be a beautiful, visual coffee table poetry book that we’re going to put out this year.
So that’s being finished, and [there are] just a bunch of [other] projects. I got the musical opening in March of next year at the American Repertory Theater – Prometheus Bound with Steven Sater and Diane Paulus. I got my first symphony that I’m finishing up. I’ve done 3 out of 4 acts. I’ve got a museum project in mind and a nonfiction book idea and a bunch of other musical ideas in mind as far as records down the line. I think my next one might be an instrumental jazz record or a broken down kind of acoustic, me and a guitar kind of record. [Laughs]
That sounds fun. That must be amazing to be at that point in your career where you can just take artistic leaps like that – you can afford to really branch out.
Well it’s kind of like the industry has gone in such a weird direction anyway that you can’t really plan for what you knew to be the industry, so you got to do whatever you want to do as an artist, enjoy it, bring in the inspiration, present it and explore. I got into music because this is what I love to do. I had a software company. I was making money doing other things. I didn’t need to . . . it’s such a privilege making a living out of doing music. I’m not going to sacrifice repeating myself for anything basically. I’m going to do whatever I want. It’s like someone gave me the blessing to be able to play with this for the rest of my life, and I’m going to do it.
Well that’s great. Thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
My pleasure. Thank you for the questions, bro.