Serj Tankian interview: full transcript
System of a Down vocalist talks to The List
System of a Down were a singular prospect in metal, intelligent, intricate and utterly unique. Now vocalist Serj Tankian has released his first solo album, Elect the Dead, as you'd expect it's as distinctive as his former band. Classical pianos morph into vitriolic rails against pollution and war alongside longing odes to love, as musical genres collide and create a multifaceted whole. Henry Northmore catches up with him before his rescheduled Glasgow date.
Your music is pretty complex, how would you describe your music to someone who's never heard it?
I've been asked this question since the first days of System of the Down, you know, like Frank Zappa says “talking about music is like dancing to architecture", right? It makes no sense. I try to make it in a way that I'd be interested in listening to it myself.
Is that how you keep yourself interested in creating music?
I just love making music mate. I'd be doing it whether anybody listened to it or not. It's just what I do - like last night I got back and set up my little studio in my room and just worked on new music. It's just what I love to do, when I'm retired that's what I'm gonna do is write music. Writing and recording music is just what I love.
Now you're doing solo work are you enjoying that freedom to really explore your own ideas?
I've been doing that for a while with film and songs for licensing in videogames and different projects and collaborations like Serart, but I'd never done a full solo effort. I wanted to devote and prioritise the time for it so this turned out to be the best way of doing it. And I am enjoying it, I'm enjoying contemplating what I'm going to do next in terms of solo records and other projects. I'm gonna start working with this playwright, we're doing music for a play or films. But I’m also thinking of working with an orchestra and doing a jazz orchestral record for the next one, it's really exciting for me.
How do you consolidate all these ideas into one coherent whole, or are you trying to explore as many areas as you can?
I want to try one of everything, I don't necessarily have to keep on doing everything but I want to at least try one of everything because, hey, that's what life is about.
On the new album you've played nearly all the instruments. How much more complex was this compared to doing a System of the Down record?
I don't really get the word “complex” having to do with music to be honest because it's just about having a song and then nurturing that song with different instruments and arrangements, trying different things, experimenting until something really works out well and you know when it works and you know when it doesn't work. So, I've never seen it as complex. I think it's just more efficient to do it myself for my own songs because my vision has been so strong with my own songs. At least this set of songs for Elect The Dead were. It was just easier as I had everything in my ear already, so it was easier for me just to play them. In a lot of cases you have a good acoustic guitar line and some good vocal ideas but you may not have great arrangement ideas, you might try stuff and kinda fail and be like, “I'm gonna save that for another day. Maybe someone else can work with me on that” but these were songs that I just knew in my gut what I wanted from them so that's why I also ended up producing them, because I knew what I wanted to hear. I knew what the eventual song was going to be before I heard it in reality.
Did you even set out to make a rock record or is this just how it turned out?
I wasn't shooting for a rock record. A lot of the songs were written on piano, the rest on acoustic instruments, some electronically put together through this chopping system that I've designed for myself. I didn't know I was going to make a rock record until I started arranging a couple of the songs with different instrumentation and weighing it out I realised that the dynamics of the kind of operatic vocals and the tunes that I was writing on piano really lent themselves well to a more layered rock type of world. But I didn't want to do it like System of a Down in a sense that, you know in System generally there's many layers of guitar but they sound like one guitar. I wanted it to be different layers of guitar, different layers of keys, different layers of samples. It's more of an orchestral sound if you listen to it than System of a Down. System of a Down was a four piece band and the depth sounds like what a composer would do with a rock record, and that's kind of my approach with it.
Do you think it’s fair to say Elect the Dead has an apocalyptic theme with tracks like ‘The Sky is Over’ and ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’?
It's hard to be creative when you have a word like “apocalyptic”. It's like saying “Christianity”, it brings out certain feelings and things in people before you even get to explore whatever other words you want to use after it. So “apocalyptic” could mean many, many things, I'm kind of dealing with, in my mind, what I call “the end of civilisation”, it's not a doom and gloom type of theory for me, it's a very realistic way of looking at what's going on in the world right now. Everyone wants a modern progressive way of life around the globe, which I don't blame them for, everyone wants to be the First World in some ways economically and lifestyle wise however the planet will not be able to sustain it obviously and we've already past the point of that and in terms of carbon emissions or whether it's heating of the globe, environmental devastation or pollution. We've past the point that we can live as far as sustainable living, we need to retreat in some ways to a more logical way of balanced living with the Earth. I don't necessarily mean this going to indigenous times which was quite balanced but some new way of doing so, using technology and using our understanding of agriculture. We've overused the land on this planet as well, which is not giving the whole ecosystem the ability to maintain its own temperature because of the devastation of forests etc. So looking at all these things any scientist, any climate scientist will tell you that based on the current progression of civilisation and the accelerated rate of population growth, coupled with the accelerated rate of destruction of natural resources, our civilisation as is, is scientifically unsustainable. So that's what I'm really talking about in my head but done in a very personal way. I like having songs that go from the personal to the kind of inter-relational, universal, because everything comes back to micro/macro and everything's tied in. A nucleus is our universe, the universe is our nucleus.
Do you think more musicians should set out to raise questions in the listener’s mind?
Not necessarily. I think it's more a journalist's job, or a job of anybody to be honest. I've never seen it as an artist's responsibility to speak out against things. People always ask me “do you think there should be more bands doing political music?” and I say “absolutely not”. Sometimes a good love song can change the world and create positive energy more than any political song can. I think every artist should follow their vision, their hearts is what they need to reveal, not something that society is looking out for. That said though, I think also artists have, continuously good artists, have been good for their times. True tellers of their times. You listen to Bob Dylan and you can't help but think of the 60s, it's very relational and if artists are true artists and not just mere musicians they need to be truthful because the music doesn't come from them it comes from the universe and it's to be shared. At best, we're skilled presenters, and I say that at best.
Do you find that now you've almost been labelled as a political artist that people focus on that aspect of your music more than some of your other songs that are equally as good? Is that frustrating or are you perfectly happy with that?
I'm not frustrated by it, the reason for that is because, to me, it's a whole different thing. Making my music is one thing and talking about my music to the press is a whole other thing. When I'm talking to the press I'd rather talk about something bigger than myself as an artist, or my record as a record, so I tend to stick to the more socio-political, ecological or societal type of conversations, and that's why I've been deemed more political but my music itself is more diverse. And the reason that is because what am I gonna talk about? My day? That I'm in Salt Lake City? That I'm having a bottle of water talking to you? That I'm gonna go exercise after and probably play some music? What interest is that to anybody, you see what I mean? So I think it's my interaction with journalists that has pegged me more as political than my actual records, although they have obviously political aspects to them as well.
What led you to set up your Serjical Strike label?
Originally I had a bunch of friends bands that I wanted to put their music out on the internet and about six/seven years ago we set up the website and put some of their songs on there. They didn't sell much but at least it got them some type of attention, got their name known, and that evolved into a distribution deal with a number of majors over the years. My original idea was to get music out there that wouldn't otherwise be available, that I thought was original and substantial, and it turned out to be that I, because of my label, I learnt a lot about the industry and how to put out records the right way, how to market the correct way, who to work with bands on the type of music that we're releasing and the gut feelings of singles and this and that, marketing and publicity, promotion and everything. The reason that I wanted to know all this was I've always been interested in reflecting the credibility of an album and an artist through the business aspect of it, so that you don't just have a credible artist with an un-credible record company representing that credible artist, because that doesn't match well. It's like having a nice artist and an asshole of a manager. Which happens a lot in our industry, so the asshole manager's yelling at somebody and then the journalist or someone else is angry at the artist because they’re represented by this manager. I kind of wanted that balance of the credible music and artist with the credible marketing and promotion of the record, interesting artwork, interesting videos, creative marketing and promotion, new ways of doing things, everything is entwined, it's connected, so the more that an artist has a say over how their music is distributed and marketed I think the better it is for that artist basically.
Are there any bands in particular coming out on Serjical Strike that are exciting you?
Well we're looking at a couple of new bands for this coming year, I can’t name them but we're looking at one Australian band, we're looking at a US rock band and we actually have more of a pool of artists to pick from because the major labels haven't done their job well, and a lot more established artists, or semi-established artists are available for indies, so that's exciting.
Are you looking forward to the UK shows and what can we expect from them?
Yes I am. I'm looking forward to coming and headlining there. We did some shows with the Foo Fighters there in the UK in November so that was really fun. Now it's time to come and do our own shows. I'm looking forward to it and as far as what you can expect: a flurry of English gentleman with top hats, with brilliant politicism and humour, something like that.
Your solo record and System of a Down are not a mainstream band when you look at the concepts, the ideas or the sound. How do you think you crossed over, particularly with System of the Down, to such a mainstream level?
I don't really know, and I don't want to pretend to know. I read this book called The Tipping Point, by this guy Malcolm Gladwell who wrote another interesting book recently called Blink, which is actually more interesting than The Tipping Point, which has to do with intuitive responses, I don't know what people grab onto that makes it popular music, commercial music or whatever. I think it has to do with some intuitive response to. You know when I want to test out my music to see how someone reacts to it I don't play it to an adult, I play it to a kid, because if a kid likes your music then it's honestly good. You play it for a ten or 11 year old and if they like it, and you can tell when they like it, and when they really don't like it, or like it a little, that's when you really know if it's going to be received well generally. Even with babies, I had one of my friends with his baby over and I was playing him a Wyclef Jean track that I did and the baby was bouncing and we were looking at the baby and going, “oh my God, that is wild”. Music is intuitive, we make it logical through our lyrics and things that we say but ultimately, and originally, it's an intuitive medium and when it hits us we can't really define that moment that it hits us, why we react to things in an intuitive sense. It's later that it can become even more powerful on a logical level. Like when I first heard Rage Against The Machine I had no idea what Zach was saying, no idea, but I knew what the music was about intuitively because the music hit me. I didn't understand a single word the first time I heard it but when the lyrics are good you psychologically translate them into your left brain, then they could become even more powerful, it's like their bonus for me.
We have to ask, what is the status of System of a Down?
Same as we were before, we're on indefinite hiatus.
What's next for yourself? Another solo album, or are you going off in yet another direction?
I'm gonna do another solo album after this, a more jazz orchestral record like I referred to earlier, and I'm exploring other avenues of producing music. Doing a play, composing for a play, that's exciting because I've never done it before, I've done film once but I'm looking forward to doing more film and working with other composers. More collaborations probably, more releases on Serjical Strike, more activist oriented events for Access of Justice. And myself, the wheel keeps rolling my friend . . .
Serj Tankian plays the ABC, Glasgow, Mon 1 Sep.