Serj Tankian: 'I Have My Songs Arranged For Orchestra That I Can Play Anywhere'

artist: serj tankian date: 03/05/2010 category: interviews
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Serj Tankian: 'I Have My Songs Arranged For Orchestra That I Can Play Anywhere'
Serj Tankian may be most well-known as the passionate lead singer for alternative metal/hard rock band System Of A Down, but there is another side to this musician. Last year he recorded a DVD with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, a 70-piece classical orchestra that interpreted the music from his first solo album, Elect The Dead. Tankian fronted the symphony, singing the music from that album and successfully bringing together elements of classical and metal for an upcoming DVD release titled Elect The Dead Symphony. On a rainy day in Burbank, California, he recently talked about the project and what it was like recording the performance at the Auckland Town Hall in New Zealand on March 16, 2009. Seated in a conference room at Warner Bros. Records, the animated and engaging singer revealed how the recording came together and how it feels now that the DVD is due for release in March of this year. UG: Can you talk a little bit about how the Elect the Dead Symphony DVD came about? Serj Tankian: I have a good New Zealand artist friend named Bo Runga and she had worked with the orchestra before and the orchestra had told her, Hey, you're friends with Serj, why don't you reach out to him and see if he'd be interested in doing something with us? So they reached out to me and got in contact and figured out a time, place, and how and where we could do a show. So that was the first thing. Once we figured that out then I go, OK, well now I have an orchestra at my disposal and you know, What am I gonna do?' And so I went back and stripped down all the songs to the basics to like piano and vocals or acoustic guitar and vocals and started building up the arrangements from cello, viola, violins, horns, etc. And then worked with John Psathas who is a New Zealand composer/orchestrator and he helped me flush out all of my arrangements for the 70-person orchestra including percussion, harps, etc. So, it was a long process; it was the most work I've ever done for one show but it wasn't just for that show. Now I have all my songs arranged for orchestra that I can play anywhere around the world with any orchestra. So, in fact we are setting up those shows in Europe right now for June playing with different orchestras including some national orchestras. So, that's really exciting. And it also opened the door to many other kind of works having to do with orchestras. I'm using orchestras one of the flavors I'm using on my next solo record. And I'm also writing a full classical jazz symphony using an orchestra. So, you know, this whole experiment of the live show really, really was beneficial to me in terms of helping shape my vision and my path having to do with music. Coming from the System thing and the classical thing, where did those two come together for you? Back in the day was it you studying orchestration? I've never studied orchestration. I mean I read a book about how to read music and whatnot but I don't proficient at all at reading or writing music. I use MIDI and sampled strings to mock up what I wanna do with the orchestra one layer at a time. And then have someone clean up my work so that all my mod wheels and everything is correct so I'm using the right articulations in every part using sampled strings. And then I export or import it actually into Sibelius, print it out, and that way I have the whole sheet. And then I'll work with either another orchestrator or a conductor directly in making sure everything is done correctly; making sure that all of my kind of harmonies if they're dissonant or anything like that that's my intention and not a mistake. And then rehearse and then go. The music from Elect the Dead did translate to a classical orchestra but was there a chance that some of the pieces might not have worked? Sure. Yeah, for example, I didn't orchestrate The Unthinking Majority which is probably the fastest and heaviest song on Elect the Dead. I couldn't imagine it with the orchestra so I didn't do it. So I left some songs out and added new songs to it so it made it a little more interesting. So if you're watching the DVD there are songs you've never heard before which is cool. Plus the songs if you have Elect the Dead the record, then, songs that I reinterpreted with the orchestra.

"And so I stripped down all the songs to the basics and started building up the arrangements from cello, viola, violins, horns, etc."

Can you talk a bit about those unreleased songs? Sure. One of those songs well, Blue is a song that wasn't released on Elect the Dead but an acoustic version was a bonus CD on the premium package that we had. So that was really cool to arrange with the orchestra cause it's such a dark and slow, beautiful kind of song; melodic song. The song The Charade that was worked out with the orchestra was not on the record. The rock version was finished for Elect the Dead but I never put it on the record and that's being released with the DVD now so you'll have both the rock version and the orchestral version of the new song on the CD dash DVD. Oh, there's a song called Gate 21 which is a brand new song that I played just by myself on acoustic piano on the DVD and I'm working that with a full orchestral arrangement on my current solo record. So that's a little hint of things to come in some ways from there. And what else was there in there? I think that's it. You touched a second ago that you went back to the record to get the stripped down parts, the strings did the orchestra actually hear the record? That's a good question; I'm not sure. The orchestrator friend that I had had heard the record obviously. I'm not sure whether the conductor or any of the musicians in the orchestra had heard the rock version of the record at all. On Elect the Dead, there are strings, cellos, keyboards, synths; there are electric guitars. For instance, would a keyboard part be transferred to a brass section? Great; that's a good question. Umm, what I did first was to write new melodies so that they worked really well in an orchestral sense before I tried to substitute the guitars with brass or whatever; which I did later. So once I had my new melodies already in there for an orchestral arrangement that made sense orchestrally in terms of the flow of a legato orchestra, then I went, OK, well I want to hear what I'm doing with guitars here, what do I use? So use brass for that. Well, there's like seven vocal harmonies here and only one voice playing it live; what do I use for that? Woodwinds for that. So started kind of adding to it and so that we get the same richness in terms of sound as Elect the Dead the record with the symphony. And that's what you're referring to. Yeah, absolutely, that's really interesting. That's amazing. You're obviously a very accomplished guitar player; you played a lot of the acoustic on Elect the Dead. I was watching the sample online and the acoustic guitar player in that orchestra seemed extraordinary. Did you actually sit down with him? Were you showing him voicings? Did it get that specific? Well, Dan [Monti] who played with me and the orchestra, he's one of my guitarists on tour with the F.C.C. so he knew the songs really well. He just basically had to transpose it to 440 for the orchestra. I heard in Europe it's like 445 or 443; different tuning, a little. But, umm, so, yeah, so Dan was very versed in the songs so that wasn't a big deal. Teaching the pianist, you know, we had a Kiwi pianist play and I worked with him a little cause I had written all my piano parts as well obviously and I play em with a certain energy, a certain kind of vitality that is not customary to classical playing. Classical playing is very light and flowy; I play like, I grind with my fingers, I dig in there, you know. And I wanted to get some of that out of the performance. So I did work with the pianist more. I'm sorry I didn't know that was your guitar player. Oh, that's OK; no need to be sorry. You talk about the orchestra, their approach, their attack on instruments is obviously a lot lighter than what you were doing on the record. When the Beatles used an orchestra for Sgt. Pepper's, they sort of had like each member of the orchestra wear a big rubber nose Right. to kind of get em in a mood and loosen em up. Did you have to kind of push or cajole any of these players to be a little more aggressive with their attack? Were they open to your suggestions and ideas? They were. Before I even rehearsed the orchestra, there was an event at a school where they had a school program where some of the members of the orchestra play with student musicians. And they wanted me to go there and meet certain members of the orchestra just for a vibe since I was in Auckland anyway. So I did and I got to meet some of the principle players which was great. And not play with them but just talk to them and get on a piano and show them some of my vibe and whatnot and connect with them. So that was good. And then during the rehearsals, they were really professional and doing really great anyway and I was just really thankful and grateful that they were playing my music and I think that came through when I talked to them. I was a bit nervous at first; I'm not nervous now with an orchestra. I just feel like, a bunch of amazing musicians and I'm like, Hey, how's it going guys? But before I was like, Wow, these guys are like 70 amazing classical accomplished musicians so it turned out really well. The conductor was cool and he always checked with me and John to make sure that everything was going correctly, et cetera. What were those rehearsals like? We had three rehearsals before that show. One on the day of the show; full rehearsals including vocals so I sang the show twice on the same day actually. And yeah, they were quite useful although I gotta say because it's not on a click and the orchestra's a moving machine, a very dynamic machine, songs that they immediately got from the first read were songs that they performed well throughout. Songs that were tough for them in the beginning, were songs you know what I mean? In other words, it was very constant in terms of whatever they immediately perceived easy. I thought that was interesting even after three rehearsals. Which songs did they get right off the bat? The Sky is Over immediately off the bat. I think more the tempo and kind of phrasing and whatnot. Pretty simple, I think, of a song as far as orchestrally. It's been a year so I can't remember all the details but yeah, some songs were immediate. It's funny that you mention The Sky is Over because that does have the strings on it. Yeah. Like you arranged originally. Yeah, the original arrangements, actually a good point, had strings on them; it's just they were less. They were more like sampled strings and, no, actually I had a solo violin player and a solo cello player play on those songs. Yeah, yeah, that's true on Elect the Dead.

"I'm using orchestras one of the flavors I'm using on my next solo record."

Antonio Pontarelli? That's right; that's right. Yeah, and Cameron Stone played cello on Elect the dead, the record. Yeah. You said you were a little bit nervous. Was it before that first note came out for that show? You've been in front of big audiences. Once I was on stage I was totally fine. It was the moment before where I'm like, OK, I've never done this before. And then you realize, OK, I guess I'm about to do it kind of thing. And the audience was very receptive thankfully and the orchestra was having a good time. The musicians loved doing something different so they were totally rockin' it. I realized that one of the guys in the brass section was throwing out metal signs to the audience. I'm like, This is gonna go great; there's no problem here. Yeah, this is gonna be fun. So it was cool, yeah. You as a singer, Serj, did you have to bring a different dynamic? I mean is it a different personality? Is it a different voice singing against a 70-piece orchestra as opposed to your touring band? Good question. Not so much but I had to be more clear and more robust in my performance because with rock instruments there's always many frequencies kind of jamming in the same area as the vocals; especially the high-mids and highs; the guitar specifically. But with the orchestra even though the violins and whatnot take a huge amount of space, they're like encompassing; they're all around you if you were looking at it visually. But your voice is still a solo instrument so it's very clear. So I kinda gave it my all and I tried to sing really in a very strong, confident and open way. I don't know, yeah, it was different in that sense. I'm actually listening back, I would say that the performance was really good vocally if I was just to take it vocally. For a live performance I thought it was pretty good. You talk about the range that electric instruments tend to take with a voice, here, any pitch in your voice and I think you would hear that instantly against that kind of a background. Because these instruments are obviously playing so perfectly in tune. Exactly. With electric guitars, you have things flying and distortion. Yeah; no you would, exactly. There's a lot you can hide within a band in terms of a vocalist but you can't do that here. You're kind of pretty naked with an orchestra. Exactly. I mean Serj did you want an arrangement that touched more on modern classical? Were you more of an old school guy? Were you from the Bach/Beethoven/Prokofiev thing or did you want more of a modern texture to it? You know I never thought of how I want to do it; I didn't think of classical versus modern; traditional versus non-traditional. I just did whatever that came intuitively musically to my ear. I think that's the advantage of not being a studied because I've never studied composition and I've never done that, I think I have this more immediate intuitive approach to things. There's a drawback for that too obviously; the downfall is at certain points it would help to be able to read especially when you're recording an orchestra. I was in the studio with an orchestra two weeks ago and everyone was talking bar numbers and I was still saying middle eight. And they're going, What's the middle eight? And I'm like, I need a bar number translator to song format. I need someone next to me going, Middle eight is 76 to 82.' So I had a friend of mine do that and that really helped because I kept on going middle eight and everyone is like, Middle eight? I've got 40 musicians waiting to find out where middle eight is. It was more like Middle Earth; trying to find Middle Earth. So, yeah, it would help, it would help down the line, I think. Would you actually try to pursue some of that? Getting some more chops on that level? I'm open to it, yeah. Not just with the APO [Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra] DVD but with what I'm doing now. I'm definitely, I want to make time and learn more. Yeah, I have friends that have been recently learning; other musicians that come from the rock world. It's kind of helped what they're doing so that makes sense. Do you talk to any of the System guys? Yeah, we communicate. Have they heard this? I don't know if they've heard this. I wanna think; we're just making the rough copies for press right now so my parents don't even have this yet. No, I just sent it to them last week actually. So, I don't think they've heard it unless they saw some of the clips online. And while we're there, could we just touch on what might be the future of the band? Well, you know we always have offers to do stuff and I'm thankful for them. There's always people interested in us working and doing things together. And, you know, when the right time and place comes for that, it'll be obvious. Until then we really haven't made any decisions as of now as to what to do. Nothing's really changed in that sense.

"If you're watching the DVD there are songs you've never heard before which is cool."

Was there a sense up there that there was no room for error? As a one-off performance, how does that work? There was no room for error was there? Well, not really. We're lucky that it turned out the way that it did cause it could have been horrible, I guess if it was otherwise. But you know when you plan on something like this, we could have planned on doing more than one show and recording it so that we can cut it together and all of that. But in the end that doesn't guarantee anything either to be honest. The vibe's either there or not and if it's not there then you don't release it; if it's there then you release it. Either way the show is a live show and you're gonna go through it. And luckily for us it did work out in the end. It there a point where the classical interpretation of your music could have been too much? Too flowery? Too Muzak sounding? No, it's definitely not Muzak sounding. It wasn't but did you ever have any of those thoughts? No, that's just an insecurity. When I'm working on stuff, I don't think of how something could be wrong; I just think of what I'm supposed to do and I do my best to make it great. If it's not great, I don't release it whether it's a song on a record or a live performance or anything. If I don't personally put my seal of approval on it, that means I'm not totally secure about it; that means I won't release it. It's that simple. Just a couple words on the next record you're working on? Sure; it's an electro-orchestral jazz-rock record. It's a new sound that I've kind of tinkered with and created; one I've never heard in the same way at least. And it's a really big sound, a bigger sound than I've ever heard. It's kind of like putting Elect the Dead the record and the orchestral record and meshing them together and bringing in a DJ. It's kind of like that; it's really big sounding. But I mean that sounds like a clusterfuck right now the way I said it but so that's the whole trick. The challenge is to find the perfect bridge to be able to make it a cohesive sounding piece that works together successfully and I think I've accomplished that. So it's a really interesting new sound. I'm thinking of calling it Music Without Borders because of the kind of like the thing that it is and also as a tip-off to Doctors Without Borders that is a great non-profit organization. And last question, you have your own signature Taylor acoustic? Yes, I do; the T5. That must feel pretty cool. It is; I love that company. The first Taylor I bought, I bought years ago from Guitar Center in Hollywood. I wanna say the 410 or the 310; it's still my favorite acoustic guitar to record with. And the T5's I started using on tour because the regular acoustic Taylors -you know the whole feedback, all of that stuff, and the electronics were good but I wanted something that was even better in terms of the sound electronically so I wouldn't have to worry about miking. And so that's when the T5's came in and then over time we developed a T5 that I really liked that was crisp and that had no feedback. I do a lot of plucking with my playing on the acoustic stuff so it had to be like really clean in terms of plucking. And when you're playing in a big setting be it arena or giant theater or stuff, you know, having a guitar that's acoustic/electric like that successfully is very important. Especially when you're playing with a band or a big outfit you want that control; you want your mixer to have that control on your instrument. Otherwise it's just, you know you've played acoustic guitar on stage, I'm sure, it's just whooo, it could be really noisy. Yep. That's great. Awesome. Terrific. Thanks, Steven. Thank you so much. Thank you, bro. Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2010
Watch this interview on ug.TV:
  • Part 1
  • Part 2 Head over to iTunes to get your digital copy of Serj Tankian's Elect The Dead Symphony DVD or pre-order a physical copy at this location.
  • More serj tankian interviews:
    + Tankian: 'Harakiri Is Not Dissimilar From What System May Have Done' Interviews 07/16/2012
    + Serj Tankian: 'My Feelings Are Always Expressed Through My Music' Interviews 05/01/2009
    + SOAD's Serj Tankian Goes Solo Interviews 09/08/2007
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