EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: SERJ TANKIAN
There are busy people and then there is Serj Tankian. Somewhere between large-scale System of a Down reunion tours and his political activism, the vocalist/frontman/multi-instrumentalist has found time to work on far more projects than one MetalSucks interview properly has time to cover.
Tankian has established himself over many years as one of the most recognizable and outspoken frontmen in rock and metal who brings an unusual vocal approach and whistle-blowing wit to all of his work, including his upcoming third solo effort Harakiri, out on July 10th.
After the jump we chat about his new single “Figure It Out,” his plentitude of projects, System’s upcoming tour with Deftones, and whether it’s possible in this day and age to maintain one’s relevance as a political artist.
Million dollar question: why do we pretend that we don’t know [a lyric from “Figure It Out”]?
[Laughs] Well . . . that’s a good question. We pretend we don’t know because we’ve already accepted the pill; we’ve already taken the pill. Once we take a system for granted as what we know, as all that we know – then we can’t see the abuses in it because we can’t imagine a world without it. The abusive, kind of globalist hegemony that we’ve created with the WTO, World Bank, IMF and all these organizations in this type of system that it’s set for us — we’ve assumed for the last 30 years that this is the golden grail, but it’s not. We’re finally seeing the cracks in it and seeing how it’s creating huge disparity in classes, economic imbalance, and the environmental destruction that it’s adding to around the world. People are getting out on the streets saying “we’re not going to do this anymore”. So now we can see these cracks – now it’s okay to see them. If you’re referring to “Figure It Out,” which I know you are . . .
It’s interesting. I made it into a kind of comical political song where instead of grappling with the complexities of trying to figure out who is really responsible behind this — is it the government or a multinational corporation? — I made it simple; I said it’s one guy – you know, almost like “get him!” That’s the song. That’s why it’s repetitious. That’s why it’s quirky, but at the same time it drives the point that CEOs are the disease. But we could be the CEOs too; it’s not that far off. In other words, this is the system that we’ve accepted to be true and that we all aspire to that’s created this mess —not one person, obviously.
I think it would be pretty hard to miss the message! Getting a little bit deeper into “Figure It Out,” it’s hard to miss that it’s a very big departure stylistically from your last work, Imperfect Harmonies, which was a very intensively layered, carefully orchestrated album. This has a much more stripped down, up-tempo kind of punk-y vibe to it. I almost get kind of a “Paranoid” Black Sabbath feel from the riffs. What was driving this change in direction?
Well, I never want to make the same record again – so I’ll start there. Elect the Dead was the first record for me without a rock band. It was like, “how do I make a rock record without a rock band” as a new experience? I think it was successful in that way. Imperfect Harmonies was about making a brand new sound that I had never heard before. At the time, I had just done the Elect the Dead Symphony so I was very much into the orchestral vibe. I wanted to make the orchestra be like the guitar in my production and do almost like a film score kind of a record – which I did. I think that it’s unique and cool in that sense. With this one, this is like the fastest record that I have ever written, and, like you said, it’s up-tempo and punk themed. It’s different than both of them. It’s far different than Imperfect Harmonies and Elect the Dead obviously because they’re both rock records. The next one will be different as well because the next one will be Jazz-Iz Christ. [Laughs]
[laughs] Jazz-Iz Christ?
Yeah, it’s a jazz record that we finished called Jazz-Iz Christ. I also finished my first actual symphony without vocals– it’s called Orca — and I finished an electronic record called Fucktronic that’s a duo with Jimmy [Urine] from Mindless Self Indulgence. It’s a British gangster kind of film without visuals. It’s a concept record.
That’s a lot in the works for 2012, between everything that you’ve just described – the four albums and the touring that’s coming up this summer. This has to be a pretty intense, to say the least, year for you.
So far it has been. Last year was probably my busiest year, but this year is turning out to be just as busy if not worse. [Laughs]
That’s what you call a high quality problem.
Yeah, it is a good problem. I love what I do. Sometimes you get tired and you’re overwhelmed, but otherwise I love it.
So the new album – the first new album to be specific – is called Harakiri (out July 10th)— where exactly does samurai-style ritual suicide fit into this record?
The first song was the title track that I wrote after experiencing the global disappearance of bird and fish species that we experienced in January of 2011. Millions of birds and fish died right before the Japanese nuclear meltdown and tsunami stuff. You look at all of this, you’re like “wait a minute, this is not normal. Something is really off here”. For me, there was something very strong, symbolic and ominous about the disappearance of all these species. The first song that I wrote came from that experience and trying to find what it meant to me. The rest of the songs came after, and pretty quickly, I might say. They’re not all tied to the concept of Harakiri, which is, like you said, Japanese suicide . . . respectful suicide of the Japanese by cutting the belly. If you look at the time that we’re living in for the past threee years you can easily affix the term “harakiri” on different songs. You can call “Reality TV” cultural harakiri. You can call “Figure It Out” political harakiri.
As our conversation has already more than hinted, Harakiri is a record that is very deeply concerned with political and social themes which have always been present to varying degrees in your work across different projects. With this in mind: how do you keep these consistent messages fresh in peoples’ minds without getting to the point where you’re rehashing something or beating people over the head with an ideology? Is it even possible?
That’s a good question, actually – one of the best I’ve heard. I’m not exactly sure what the answer to that is. I think the way that I describe things either has a certain… for example, “Figure It Out” has a certain humorous kind of anecdote to it even though it’s a political song. I think that’s what makes the pill more easily swallow-able—swallowable.
You invented a new word.
Yeah, right – swallowed. I think there are variations of themes — whether they’re ecological or philosophical — that are a little different than what I’ve done before with System and Elect the Dead. As people, we grow and mature. If right now I asked you to write a paragraph about music, it would be different than something you would have written six years ago and definitely twenty years ago.
Very true; I wouldn’t have known much of anything 20 years ago.
That’s what I mean – you’ve progressed.
Gotcha. I think Daron once said that one of the X factors for System of a Down’s roster was that “we don’t just do songs about politics, we also write songs about prostitution.”
Right. That’s not very different either.
Switching gears a little bit, you are going on tour this summer with System on a pretty awesome bill with the Deftones.
Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
What inspired you guys to reunite just recently? What is it about right now that gave you the impetus to do this again?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. It just felt right to get together and start playing. We had a blast when we did four different tours on four different continents last year – rather three last year and one this year. The shows have been really great, and I think we’re playing tighter than we ever have in our career. We’ve been having a blast with each other on stage. I guess it was the right time.
Have you had a chance to write yet with the guys again?
No. System has not been writing.
Has your approach evolved or changed at all in playing or putting a live set together with them? Has the way that you interact together musically changed from where you were in the Mezmerize/Hypnotize era?
I don’t really know. I don’t think so. I would say probably not. I think the reason we’re playing better is because over the years, everyone keeps playing their music to become better musicians. Not having played together, it’s exciting to play together and that excitement comes out in the music.
What can we expect set-wise? In terms of songs or anything else that can’t be categorized under the broad term “set list”?
We haven’t started rehearsals for that tour yet, so I can’t really tell you. Whatever we end up putting on the set list usually ends up changing by the third show. [Laughs]
It’ll be a little different each time.
Yeah. It’ll surprise us. Once in a while Daron will start up a song and I’ll go “hmm, we haven’t rehearsed that in the last six years” and then we jump into it. It’s fun. We keep it exciting for ourselves.
Pre-order Harakiri here; it comes out on July 10th.