Solo artist and System Of A Down singer Serj Tankian is about as creatively driven as anyone you'll ever meet. When System went on hiatus back in 2006, Tankian jumped immediately into a solo career that began with 2007's Elect The Dead and was followed by Imperfect Harmonies in 2010. He has just released his third solo recording, Harakiri, but there is a lot more to come. The singer/producer/engineer/songwriter has also been working on a jazz album, an electronica project, a classical symphony, a music score, a book of poetry and touring with his former bandmates in System Of A Down.
Still with everything else going on Tankian's focus is on his third solo album, Harakiri. There are elements of goth, electronic and even 80s rock mixed amongst the tracks that were all composed, produced and engineered by Serj alone. In a sort of run-up to the composer and singer represented on the Harakiri record, we began with a conversation that book-ended his work with System Of a Down. In order to look forwards, sometimes you have to look behind you.
UG: Do you think you had already developed as an artist on the System Of a Down album?
Serj Tankian: Developmentthere's a beginning and no end, right? You start somewhere and you keep on going and I'm still developing what I do. If I was to look at my own self at that time within the band System and the stuff I was doing, it was very experimental and very interesting. It was heavy and a lot of angst within the expression. Every record you make you evolve and you learn stuff from and you change in life. I was in my late 20s and now I'm in my mid-40s. I made a bunch of records in the middle and I'll keep on making a bunch of records and not just records but music. Records are getting outdated.
How would you describe the music you made on that first System Of a Down album?
At the time when I was doing System stuff my compositionsand I'm not talking about lyrics but I'm talking about actual music compositionwere fairly rudimentary. Now I feel like they're pretty wide and I can pretty much do anything I want to do. I can make a rock record; a jazz record; an electronic record; write symphonies and scores and melt all of them into one if I want to. It's like the experience I've had making all these records has really given me a pallet like no other that I can just pretty much do anything musically.
Do you think that by the time you'd gotten to Hypnotize, System's last album, your songwriting had expanded? And maybe expanded to the point where you needed to pursue it in a solo career?
It's kind of interesting that you're looking for reasons for someone to do a solo record but in reality it's the other way around. You should always be looking for reasons for someone to collaborate. In other words everyone starts out as a solo artist and if you can't play an instrument or carry a tune no one will want you in a band. Right?
That's a unique way to look at it.
So it's kind of like the other way aroundI was always gonna do my solo stuff irrespective of what System did or didn't do. I like creating all sorts of music and not just experimenting.
How would you characterize the music on Harakiri?
Harakiri is a rock record and not too dissimilar from what System may have done. It's not necessarily all orchestral and jazz and other genres. But it's all the same to me, manit's just music. I like doing it in many forms with many people and alone.
System Of a Down broke up in 2006 and you went off to do the Elect the Dead album.
System never broke up; System took an indefinite hiatus in 2006.
No worries. It's all good.
When System took the hiatus, had you been collecting ideas for the Elect the Dead record along the way? Were those songs that System were thinking about recording?
That's a really good question that no one's asked me in the last five years actually. That's really good, bro.
Yeah absolutely. I'm trying to thinkI don't think there are any songs on Elect the Dead that I ever tried with System. I think they were all written for the solo record but I was working on them while I was doing the last System record. I remember recording on the bus while we were doing the Ozzfest in 2006 with System. I had a lot of those songs in the original versions at least on acoustic guitar and piano written by 2005. Well, not 2005 but definitely 2006 I would say. So I was working on that and some of it I may have written after because I put it out in late 2007 and early 2008 so that makes sense.
Has anyone told you you sound like Lars from Metallica on the phone?
No, I've never heard that. That is so funny. Was there a spillover from the way you recorded with System Of a Down onto the Elect the Dead album?
It's kinda like if you were writing an article with three other people and an editor versus you writing the article yourself. It's gonna never be the same obviously but the approach I took was quite different. Because when you're not working with a band you're doing everything yourself obviously. Working with System we would write on our own, bring it to the rehearsal studio, collaborate with each other and work everything out so that it's played really well live and then go and record it.
That's now how you approached the Elect the Dead record?
Working on my own, I would start from scratch and record immediately. I'd start from the guitar track or piano track or whatever was the first instrument I wrote on and start building it up from there. The drums in a live recording situation as we would do with System, the drums are the first thing you record. The way I did it with Elect the Dead, the drums are the last thing I recorded. Cause I had these drum loops I was using to temp everything and then replaced a lot of the temp drum tracks with live drums. Not everything. Sky Is Over for example is electronically done and no one knows that, which is really cool. It's kind of like writing a rock record without a rock band. That was what I learned doing Elect the Dead and producing it and engineering a good part of it myself as well. With each record you learn something new. With the Elect the Dead Symphony I learned how to write for an orchestra.
Did you take what you learned from recording Elect the Dead and apply that to Imperfect Harmonies?
With Imperfect Harmonies I learned how to make a fusion record of a sound I've never heard before using orchestra, rock elements as well as electronic elements. With Harakiri I guess I just wrote the most upbeat punk record I've ever written in some ways. So with each record I think you learn something else.
The music on Harakiri doesn't sound like punk music. It's far too arranged and orchestrated but it's interesting that you would describe it as uptempo punk rock.
I don't necessarily think it's a punk record but you're rightit's a rock record. There are different tempos; there are mid-tempo songs; there are more of the kind of melodic anthemy songs; and there's more of the heavy songs like Uneducated Democracy Figure It Out, which are more of the heavier kind of metally stuff. I guess what I'm trying to say Elect the Dead was a rock record with progressive elements and I think Harakiri has some of those elements. But it also has a more upbeat kind of vibe to it that Elect the Dead didn't have. It's a little more in your face at some moments I've noticed with Harakiri and a little more urgent in terms of its message than Elect the Dead was.
You used your iPad to actually sketch out ideas for Harakiri?
Umm, when I got the iPad I got all these music programs. They make these amazing music applications for it and I started playing around with em and there's some really cool synths and beat boxes and all sorts of stuff. So I was playing around just for fun cause you knowit's fun. Sketching three of the songs and some of the more ethno-electro songs from it like Reality TV, Ching Chime and Deafening Silence. I sketched those originally on the iPad and put it in ProTools and worked em with live instruments et cetera.
Did you try any other new approaches?
I did a lot of like de-composition stuff with this record, which is I would take stuff from my first two records and break em into loops and use em just to temp up and create stuff on the fly on the screen. And just go, Oh, hey, this looks like a good arrangement. Let's switch it this way. Oh, OK, that looks good. And then replace some of it with live instrumentation or scratch it all and record it live. In other words I used fun little musical recycling tools to kind of trick myself into writing different ways than I had previously. As a songwriter with the propensity and desire to always progress and change, I welcomed the opportunity to write with instruments I've never written with or in ways to arrange that I've never arranged them.
You've been playing with the F.C.C. Band for quite some time. Do they bring life to your music in a different way than System Of a Down did?
When you write a solo record you have to look for artists that play that material well. You're not comparing them to previous players you played with. I was trying to find people that played the material I wrote for Elect the Dead really well and that's what I found in the F.C.C. guys. Every player is different obviously and you can't really compare musicians; everyone has their own style and way of playing. But they've become my band and we've toured together for the last five years. System is my band and they're also my band. I've also played with 12 orchestras in Europe that are my band that I would love to play with again. So my band is the world now.
Ching Chime as you perfectly described it earlier was one of the ethno-electro songs on Harakiri. It opens with that great ethnic stringed instrument.
An oud? That was stupidI should have known that.
No, why would you?
I have some understanding of those instruments and I should have known that. The song has a middle eastern vibedid that come from your Lebanese background?
Yeah absolutely. Everything I've listened to influences my writing from Armenian music, which is vastly different than middle Eastern music to European music. I grew up mostly on those kinds of music; Greek music when I was really, really young before coming to the States. I was seven years old I guess when we came here and when I came here I was listening to disco and Abba and a lot of early soul music. Then in the 80s obviously listening to kind of like more of the New Wave and goth and that kind of vibe. So it's not until late 80s or early 90s that I really, really got into rock, metal, punk and hip-hop. All that stuff was kind of percolating at the time and especially with hip-hop being a later genre I guess. So I'm influenced by all of it.
All of those styles you mentioned do come out on the music from Harakiri.
I listen to a lot of jazz and a lot of soundtracks. Scores. Everything influences me. But I'm also influenced by the wind. [laughs] I'm influenced by conversation and I'm influenced by birds and all of nature. Theoretical ideaseverything is an influence and everything is fair game.
Deafening Silence was a cool mix of electronic keyboard sounds and organic instruments. Are you looking to create different textures and blends of sounds?
Absolutely yeah. Sometimes you end up doing a lot of EQing to get things to get thing to jibe well together. But it's great to mix different elements together: analog instruments and traditional instruments with more electronic stuff and beats with live rhythmical elements. That song in particular has a really cool guitar line with the Moog Murf pedal is my favorite delay pedal and I love that kind of vibe.
How does a track like Deafening Silence get built.
That started with a sample and a beat and I sketched it out on the iPad first and then kind of broke it down and remixed it. I added live instruments like drums in the chorus. Maybe we didn't even add live drums in the chorus; I don't remember if we did. It might be all beats for that song. That was the only song I think we didn't add live drums.
As the artist, producer and engineer of Harikari, can you be objective about everything?
Yeah, it's a really good question. When you're producing everything yourself and wearing all the hats it sometimes gets difficult to be impartial. Which is why it's really important to have other people to listen to music like musician friends and other producers. I play music for producer friends and did that for every record. Get their two cents along the way where I can. Just to kind of have a different outlook and a different ear. I play it for kids. The most honest audience of music are 11-year olds and under. Friends' kids and cousin's kids come over and you play it for them and you watch the kids' reactions. I'll ask them, What do you think about this song? and their reaction is usually the best fucking and most interesting reaction that you would get from anyone listening to the music. They have no fear of repercussions as far as their honesty and they have a very close connection to the music because of their intuitive nature moreso than adults do. Adults will get kind of heady and start thinking about it too much and the kid will go, I like this because of this. And you're like, Of course, that's the fuckin idea of the song. It's like genius. All producers should be under 11. We'll start a new trend.
"It's kind of interesting that you're looking for reasons for someone to do a solo record but in reality it's the other way around. You should always be looking for reasons for someone to collaborate."
Harakiri was your sort of ode to dying animals?
What's interesting about the title track is I wrote it in early January 2011 about the ominous sites of mass species death, which is why I called it Harakiri. There were about a million birds and fish that died between the first week of January 2011 to three weeks from then and then was about a month-and-a-half before the Japanese nuclear disaster and whatnot. The events were happening all over the world at the same time and all the scientific explanations that were given were pretty bunk. The events were very ominous and very powerful and almost Biblical if you will. There's still no particular scientific explanation why 20,000 blackbirds died in Arkansas that day or a half-million crabs [actually fish] washed up in Maryland the week after that or why 100,000 sardines washed up in Redondo Beach, California two weeks after that. They each have separate little scientific explanations but they're not acceptablethey're dumb explanations.
You wanted to write about all that and try to figure out an answer?
It was such an ominous event that I found it very symbolic. I started thinking, Why were species that were so inherently close knit within nature decide to go? They have early warning systems way more developed than ours in terms of environmental changes and disasters and earthquakes and tsunamis. What made them go? What symbol made them go? What does that mean for environmental degradation? What does that mean for humanity? Those questions led me to write Harakiri.
Everybody knows about harakiri and how it's the ritual suicide by Japanese. You were using that as a sort of symbol for the world?
I used harakiri as symbolism for our own poisoning of our environment and our kind of unconscious suicide.
This isn't a political conversation but certainly you have feelings about the upcoming election. Are things going to get better or worse?
Simplifying the issue of better or worse, it's not really gonna solve everything. I think when it comes to the U.S. elections instead of looking for the elections to design our lives, we should design our lives so that our elections reflect it correctly. In other words it doesn't start and end with the presidentit starts and ends with us. That's very important to note. I believe that we should become a smarter democracy because with a smarter democracy we're less likely to led blindly down some dark alley by anybody or any interest I should say. We've got the top military in the country; we've got the top economic system in the countrylet's have the top education system to match. I think those things are very important.
You touched earlier on being interested in a lot of different types of music. You put together the Fuktronic project with Jimmy Urine. Why did you pursue that?
We're friends and I was having sushi with Jimmy and we're both fans of British gangster films. So we each put our electronic tracks together and got a bunch of friends to do voiceovers that also like British gangster films and came up with Fuktronic. It's like a British gangster film and now we're getting interest by different people to do like visuals for it. And any different ideas that are coming to the table that are really interesting that we're trying to implement before we release the project.
Orca is the first official symphony you've ever written?
Orca is my first real symphony cause Elect the Dead Symphony is more like the Elect the Dead record in symphonic form. It's really a record done with an orchestra but this is a real symphony. There are no vocals and it's an actual symphony and it's a really interesting symphony that fuses early 20th century composition influences with a lot of soundtrack and film scoring influences.
Have you always loved the sound of violins and oboes?
I didn't always love it, no. I didn't grow up with classical music and I've never been trained on classical music. But it's something watching films I really started appreciating the musical content delivered by the musical side using an orchestra and the dynamics of an orchestra. Which are far wider than anything you can get out of electronic instruments or amps. The dynamics of an orchestra are pretty incredible so I became influenced by that. The experience of working with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and doing the Elect the Dead Symphony really opened my palette to many more colors of being able to compose for anything. Now I can compose for orchestra, a jazz record; I can compose electronic and rockrock is a no brainer. Any form. Acoustic stuff. Whatever. It doesn't matter. I mix em all and I fuse em all.
Which is what we hear in all of these recent projects.
Coming back to one of your original questions about the difference between Serj in the self-titled System Of a Down record and now is I have the confidence and the tools and the skills to pretty much write any type of music that I can imagine.
"With Harakiri I guess I just wrote the most upbeat punk record I've ever written in some ways."
You did a jazz record called Jazz-Is Christ where you mixed modern and traditional jazz elements?
Correct. It's kind of like a progressive jazz record and it's got hints of classic jazz but definitely an experimental side as well. It's really well done. I worked with three amazing jazz musicians: one of them is named Tigran Hamasyan who is on Verve Records and is a phenomenal pianist; the other guy is Valery Tolstov on flute; and the third is Tom Duprey on trumpet who I worked with on Prometheus Bound the musical. He was part of the Prometheus Bound band. They're incredible jazz musicians and it was incredible working with them and putting it together. Yeah, we're looking for the right distributor to work through and put it out whenever we're done with Harakiri. We've got all these projects waiting down the stream basically
You mentioned the Prometheus Bound rock musical. Writing a musical must have been different than writing a rock record?
Absolutely. It was an incredible experience, man. I learned a lot about composing for theater and working with some incredibly creative people. Steven Sater, prior to Prometheus Bound, had done Spring Awakening and won eight Tony Awards. Diane Paulus was the art director who had done Hair in New York and all these amazing musicals and theatrical performances. We did our musical at Oberon Theater at Harvard over on Massachusetts Avenue and it ran for five weeks. Now we're trying to bring it into New York and restarting it next year.
You also came out with your second book of poetry, Glaring Through Oblivion, as a follow-up to Cool Gardens. Were you a reader of poetry back in the day?
Absolutely. I really enjoyed the kind of limitless expression of poetry that I found very moving. So I would write growing up so I have thousands and thousands of compiled songs and about 10 years ago I put out Cool Gardens, my first poetry book. It's done really well for a poetry book. Last year I was attempting to do it again; I thought I would never do another poetry book. But I decided to do more of a coffee table style book this time with my friend's artwork, Roger Kupelian, whose worked on Lord Of the Rings and a bunch of films and is a phenomenal digital painter. So we put out more of a really beautiful art book with poetry so it's not so much the same as Cool Gardens in that sense.
Is there a fine line between a good poem and a corny one?
It's eternity between a good poem and a corny one.
Lastly, the question that must be asked: Will System Of a Down get back together to record a new album?
Well we're getting together to do some shows on the east coast in August and we have a few festivals in Canada in Toronto and Montreal. Right now I'm busy with Harakiri and I'm going to be working on that with the F.C.C. and touring with the F.C.C. until the end of this year and a good part of next year. And then I've got all these other projects down the line. So it's not gonna be for a while I'm sure but when it's the right time we'll get together and do something definitely as far as another record.
When System got back together in 2011 it felt good?
Oh man, it was a blast. We had a great time. Everyone's telling us we sound better than we ever did and I agree as far as tightness onstage and professionality, it's fuckin' on. It's spot on. So I don't know what the six years did but it made us better that's for sure.
Everything you've just described in this interview is what's made you better.
And the same with the other guys kinda just growing as artists.
You're a wonderful A-type personality who's kind of driven to constantly pursue new things. That's a great way to be.
That was a really great interview and very complete. I really appreciate that. It was awesome, man. Thank you. Have a beautiful day.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I can make a rock record; a jazz record; an electronic record; write symphonies and scores and melt all of them into one if I want to."