The End Is Nigh: An Interview With Serj Tankian

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Videos by American Songwriter

Serj Tankian, best known as the frontman of System of a Down, has continued to establish himself as a solo artist to be reckoned with. Following 2007’s Elect the Dead, 2010’s Imperfect Harmonies expands on his unique metal stylings with the prominent use of an orchestra.  Tankian is known for his prominent support of human rights and environmental causes, as well as his strong relationship with his Armenian heritage.  While System of a Down remains on hold, he has remained busy with an impressive international touring schedule.  Additionally, Tankian helms his own label, Serjical Strike.

This is your second solo album. How was its creation different from the first?

The first one (Elect the Dead) was more of a straight-out rock record. On the first one, I learned how to make a rock record without a rock band. On this one, I learned how to fuse different sounds together to create a whole new sound altogether. If it was a soup, it would have a rock broth, and the vegetables would be the orchestra, and the meat would be the electronics, there’s a lot of electronic beats and samples as well as live instrumentation. The spices would be certain jazzy vibes, trumpets and…stuff. It’s quite a different type of record. More brooding, melancholic, and kind of unraveling over time…. It’s also the type of record that is designed as a record, sequenced straight, takes you on a ride, on a trip. An adventure, if you will.

Unfortunately, that’s not as common anymore.

Yeah, as a joke I told a friend that I’m going to make a ringtone record, and he goes, “Wow, what a great marketing idea.” I’m like, “Yeah, but you know.” There’s not many records that are full records that you listen to, everything’s a quick gratification, easily digestible, kind of a tune that stands on its own as a song instead of on a record. Which is fine, too, I guess, but that’s not what this record is. This is the real thing.

What was it like recording with an orchestra?

I wrote all the arrangements using sampled strings and then brought in 25 string players and got a studio in Hollywood…and recorded demos. It was great, it was an awesome experience watching or hearing the music come to life with instrumentation on the orchestral side. It’s always more powerful than just having sampled strings in your recordings.

How did that affect the way the album was made?

The album was made primarily in my own studio. The live orchestra was definitely a major element of it, but it wasn’t the only element. [There’s] still a lot of rock instrumentation and electronic beats and samples. It’s a hybrid of different sounds into one unison kind of expressive talent.

What’s your songwriting process like? Has it evolved over the course of your career?

The original writing of the song is still the same, it’s still with a piano or an acoustic guitar, then vocals. I usually write a song like that and then leave it. Then, when I’m making a record or if I’m working on a project, decide how I want to arrange it, what instrumentation I want to use, the arrangement I want to instill into the song. And in this case, some of these songs that I had written either on piano or acoustic guitar,I decided that I was going to do electronic beats to them and also add a full legato orchestra and rock instrumentation. But it’s primarily written in the same fashion that I’ve always written songs, from…stuff with System.

Do you normally write the music or the lyrics first?

I typically write the music first and allow the music to call out the lyrics from the ether based on the emotion of the musical interludes. So while I’m writing the music, usually a concept or a few words pop out based on the emotions of the music and then that becomes the thematic crux of the song lyrically. Sometimes I cut and paste poetry that I’ve prewritten into the song if the phrasing, the theology, [and] the potency, actually fits.

How is songwriting different between being with a band and being solo?

Well, Elect the Dead was a rock album without a rock band…When you have a vision of a song that’s very strong, and you know what you want in that song and how to do it, and if you’re able to accomplish that on your own by bringing in session players, then it’s much easier to write a song without a band. If you don’t have a full vision for the song, and you have a good part of a song that requires someone else to help you finish it or conspire with, then it would be better for the song to bring in another artist and add another vibe, another songwriter to finish it off. So it depends on what the project is and what the songs are, and how complete they are…

You’ve been composing for a musical. How do you approach that differently compared to your other work?

It’s quite a whole different gambit, composing for a musical. It’s the first time that I’m doing it in my life, so it’s another great new learning curve for me and it’s taught me a lot. I’ve been working with Steven Sater, who’s the playwright, and he did a lot of plays like Spring Awakening and whatnot. And working with the director, Diane Paulus, who’s part of the American Repertory Theater at Cambridge and Harvard, it’ll be opening there next year. I’ve used a lot of the stuff I have in my archives. I have very diverse music in there, from noise to electronic to jazz to rock to experimental to hip hop to orchestral, all in the same musical. It’s both underscores as well as full-on songs. With a musical, it’s always ever-evolving. You don’t work on something until you’re done. You work on something, and then the next workshop you have, you end up cutting stuff out, putting stuff in, lengthening things, making stuff shorter, shaving things all around. It’s ever-evolving until you’re opening the show, it’s always going to change.

That sounds like quite the project. How did you get involved with it?

I was introduced to Steven Sater through a mutual friend in the industry. I checked out Spring Awakening, [and I] thought it was very creative. I had never really been a fan of musicals before, though I thought a few were really amazing, and I thought what he was doing was really interesting. I read the script for Prometheus Bound, which is Steven’s take on the first Greek play, and there were a lot of resonating profundities having to do with injustice and tyranny and civilization itself, which is something I’ve been thinking about in the last number of years. I thought it was quite appropriate to have a musical at the end of civilization about the beginning of civilization.

What do you mean by “the end of civilization”?

By the end of everything as we know it. We are living the death of civilization in our daily lives, that’s what I mean.

You’ve packaged your last several albums in tree-free paper, an environmentally-friendly move.

I’ve used tree-free paper over the past number of releases, beginning with System of a Down…I researched it years ago and when I found out about it, I definitely made the switch. We’ve done stuff with Elect the Dead on tree-free paper, as well as the new one. I think it’s much better. It’s a combination of hemp and flax and post-consumer recycled paper.

So how do you stay low-impact on tour?

We used to work with this organization called Reverb that basically retrofitted some of our backstage stuff with more green plates and knives and forks and make sure we have a recycling bin and all that. We haven’t done the biodiesel tour yet, but I’ve read a lot about it and I find it quite interesting. I think touring itself is definitely the biggest carbon inefficient part of what we do. I think what we should do is find a different way to tour altogether. I think we should have holographic touring. I’ve been talking about it for years, and the technology’s out there and it takes a big band to break it through with a nice promoter who can retrofit a lot of the venues with the appropriate gear and technology. But it’s definitely worth trying out.

Environmentalism seems like something you’re really interested in. On your new record, one of the songs has a reference to running over a guy with a Hummer. Is that supposed to be a representation of the oil-crazed excess of American culture?

(laughs) Nice, I like that. Sure, why not? The last song on the record is an acoustic song called “Wings of Summer” and it’s a really beautiful kind of bluesy, jazz, Americana type of song. And there’s one point where it kind of gets funny. It could mean many things. I try not to divulge any meanings of lyrics so that I can get amazing interpolations like you just gave me.

What’s the song on the album that you’re the most proud of?

I don’t know what I’m most proud of. I think some of the standout tracks are the songs that are different from anything I’ve ever done, like “Reconstructive Demonstrations,” “Beatus,” and “Yes, It’s Genocide.”

What makes them different?

“Reconstructive Demonstrations” is quite a unique song. It starts with this big orchestral meets band kind of intro, breaks into a Miles Davis trumpet solo type of vibe then goes into a verse that has four different signatures, very moody, very eerie and regarding our life on this planet at this point. And the chorus is a huge statement of what’s going on in the world. The song “Yes, It’s Genocide” is just because it’s the first song I’ve ever written in Armenian, and it’s a mantra that repeats over and over again to an acoustic, kind of beautiful music with elements coming in and out. “Beatus” is different because it’s primarily an electronic song with a very kind of soulful vibe, it’s got certain R&B vibes in there, different than I’ve ever done. It’s definitely the sexiest song I’ve ever written, and it’s got this really strange middle eight part that goes from this R&B-ish, beat-based electronic song to this Middle Eastern kind of repeating phrase that turns into like a chase scene from a movie. It’s quite unique of a song, of a trip.

You recently got to tour in Armenia for the first time. What was that like for you as a cultural experience?

I’ve been to Armenia before, but playing there was really special. They don’t get a lot of modern rock bands, especially ones that are culturally associated with the country. It was a huge thing, a huge kind of amazing feeling. They really made a big deal out of it, and I was very honored.

You’ve already released a live album this year. It seems like it must be really important to you to keep coming out with new material as often as possible.

The live album kind of came in between this record and the last, between Elect the Dead and Imperfect Harmonies, due to a live show I did with a 70-piece orchestra. So, that was from a live show. It’s not so that I want to produce a lot of stuff, but I do a lot of stuff. One follows the other. You do a lot of music, then you end up releasing a lot of music.

Is it a fan benefit thing, or just a way of supporting the orchestral direction?

The Elect the Dead Symphony is a CD/DVD of a live show I did with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra about two years ago. It’s a 70-piece professional orchestra, and it was a unique experience to convert my songs from the Elect the Dead record, which is a rock record, to full symphonic sound. Since then, we’ve taken the orchestral symphonic show on the road and played with a number of different orchestras throughout Europe. We’ve played with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and the Italian Philharmonic Orchestra and [another orchestra] in Moscow. It’s quite a different sound, a different way of touring.

Certainly, with someone who’s had such a long, successful career with you, that’s opened up so many more opportunities.

Sure. Touring shouldn’t always be taking the same people out and doing the same thing. For Elect the Dead, I toured with my backing band, the FCC. For Elect the Dead Symphony, I toured with anyone, I had a full orchestra at my disposal from different countries, and I just took my pianist and acoustic guitar player. And for the new tours that we’re doing, for Imperfect Harmonies, I’ve got the full band, FCC, plus eight classical players from each city that are playing with us, so it’s fourteen people onstage. Each tour, we did one show with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, which is 55 people. Just arranging differently for different kinds of musicians is really quite interesting and exciting, because the show sounds and looks different each time, even though you’re playing the same songs.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the new record?

I honestly think it’s my best work. I’d like to say that.

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