Category: Musician Interviews

How Moby Taught Me to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse

BY ANDREW FISH

Moby
Moby (photo copyright Eleanor Stills)

In the midst of working on a top-secret photo album for my girlfriend’s birthday, I noticed the time and sped off to a 7pm screening of the new Jake Gyllenhaal art-house film, Enemy. It was a jarring transition to leave my half-built microcosm of love, memories and pink polka dots for an aggressively puzzling universe of dualities, enigmatic motivations, and the demise of everything as embodied by a big, creeping tarantula. A familiar ball of angst began to grow in my chest after the credits rolled, as I headed back to the office for a frenzy of late-night, heartfelt scrapbooking. When my girlfriend texted me to come home I couldn’t tell her what I was working on, nor did I know quite how to explain the visions of spiders now haunting my thoughts.

I got back before midnight and we snuggled up to watch the Olympics on DVR. My arachnid ruminations began to wane. The following day I drove into the hills to retrieve my medical records from my retired doctor and ended up spending an hour trying to help him fix the Wi-Fi connection on a computer nestled below a display of fossilized horseshoe crabs. I failed as tech support and was now officially late, navigating rush-hour traffic to get home and prep myself for opening night of Moby’s art show, a photo exhibit called Innocents, a companion piece to his 2013 album of the same name. There was the possibility of interviewing him. Thirty minutes later I was on the couch with my laptop, reconnecting with the sounds and images of the symphonic maestro, breathing deep to mantric repetitions, the words and notes layered and revisited. The spell broke as an email popped up from a scientist friend, a link to an article about the impending collapse of the California almond industry, and the doom that awaits the unsustainable agricultural system we’ve built in a desert. With frightening ease, my mind circled back to looming disasters colossal and small. What if I’d broken my doctor’s computer? The spiders were back.

I tamped it down the best I could as my girlfriend and I donned our finest rocker duds and drove to Project Gallery in Hollywood, where the exhibition surprisingly mirrored my state of mind. Moby’s photographs were a compelling homage to the apocalypse: dark clouds over Los Angeles, people in unsettling masks posed serenely against a backdrop of society’s end. Moby gets it, I thought. We’re barreling toward catastrophe.

After posing for cameras, Moby mingled with the growing crowd. I saw an opening and reluctantly approached. I’ve never liked guerrilla interviewing and I was sure this would blow up in my face. I pulled out my recorder and inquired if I could ask him a question or two. Moby looked at me like he’d just had a great idea. “Sure,” he said. “Why don’t we go in the back and talk?” And just like that, I was in a small, darkened storage space with the global superstar of electronic music. He told me we were there both because he likes talking to people and he really wanted to get out of that loud room. I was his excuse for solace, which I was more than happy to use as an opportunity to talk with him about the end of the world.

My first question was about finding beauty in the apocalypse and I learned that his outlook was far brighter than the gloom I’d projected onto his work. “There’s a conventional Judeo-Christian pejorative judgment of the apocalypse,” he said, and explained that the “connotations of destruction and death” were constructs added after the fact, and that “etymologically in ancient Greek, ‘apocalypse’ just means a revelation.” He offered the theory that over the past 200 years or so, the greatest threats to humanity have shifted from “big scary things that were out of our control, like bears or dental problems” to “problems that humans have created for themselves. So my hope for the apocalypse is that we start being less stupid and stop creating so many problems for ourselves. It seems like it’s so easily within our grasp.”

Offering specifics, he said, “Should we get our energy from the sun, which is free and ubiquitous? Or go a few miles underground, dredge up black sludge, refine it and make toxic byproducts and then burn it? I’m not a crazy hippie, but one seems sane and the other seems insane.”

He told me that after tearing his rotator cuff, he began to compare the apocalypse to “going to the chiropractor’s. Day after day, year after year, you get your posture out of whack and stuff isn’t working that well, and it takes movement to readjust everything, like a tectonic shift, and that’s what I hope is happening with our apocalypse.”

“Think of our culture now,” he suggested. “We have an African-American, progressive president who listened to punk rock in college, we can get healthy, organic food almost everywhere, and most countries are not at war with each other, which they were 50 to 100 years ago. Gay marriage is being legalized. The atrocities in the Ukraine are being documented immediately, with immediate repercussions; stuff that would have been done in obscurity 50 years ago and now people are shining the light of day on it with social media. I feel like we’re generally moving in a more rational, benign direction. So that’s my theory, that there is this change. It’s almost like humanity, at this point, can be broken down into the people who are accepting this change and then the people who are very attached to the atavistic status quo of the way things have been …”

He had me at “my hope for the apocalypse.” The tempering of my worries led me to ask about the calming nature of his music, and why he tends toward repeating lyrics and patterns that seem like a meditation.

“Part of it is, subjectively, I find repetition to be quite comforting,” he replied. “Maybe it’s why I gravitated toward a lot of electronic music; electronic music does tend to be repetitive. Also, when I was really young I studied classical music and I had a music teacher who only liked very complicated music, and he hated repetition. So when I was, like, 13 or 14, part of my rebellion against him was loving simplicity like Neil Young and John Lee Hooker and the Ramones, and also loving repetition. Other people are driven crazy by repetition but a repetitive piece of music or repetitive motif within an art show, I don’t know why, it’s very soothing to me.”

I told him that I find it mantric, to which he said that his understanding of a mantra, “at least according to the TM people, is to liberate the tight grip of consciousness, and so maybe intuitively, unintentionally, that’s what I’m doing.”

I had more to ask, like whether he experiences the same emotional trip when he’s creating his music as his listeners do when they hear it, but someone was knocking at the door. I fell back on my standard final question. “What do you love about what you do?” I inquired. He answered that his “favorite thing about music or art or literature is it’s a way to express things in a nonlinear — or at times nonlinear — way that helps me to better understand the world in which we live, and my experience of it, if that makes any sense. I honestly don’t know how I could exist in our world with some degree of perspective and sanity if I wasn’t able to express myself.” And, he added, he enjoys figuring out “how to turn weird, exhaustion-addled perception into something that someone else might like.”

I thanked him and departed, feeling an awful lot better. Maybe everything isn’t a catastrophe waiting to happen. The birthday scrapbook was a rousing success, I still haven’t received a phone call telling me I owe someone a new Dell, and Moby was perfectly happy to answer my questions. And though the California drought might be the catalyst for a downward spiral and all manner of disasters may lie ahead, it’s also simultaneously possible that I could run alongside one of those spiders I think is chasing me, grab hold, and ride it Slim Pickens-style straight into the business end of the apocalypse and be the better for it.

The exhibit runs at Project Gallery through March 30th. For Innocents photographs, music and videos, visit www.innocents.co.

System of a Down’s Serj Tankian: Upgrading the Dynamic of Art and Audience

BY ANDREW FISH

Serj Tankian | Orca | Jazz-iz Christ | System of a Down
Serj Tankian (Photo by Robert Sebree)
I’m still running iOS 5, which means I have ad-free YouTube, native Google Maps, and a smartphone experience that’s more like playing with bubbles than sifting through index cards — which would you rather do? It also means my outdated phone isn’t compatible with many of the latest apps and I wasn’t going to be able to use it at Serj Tankian’s multimedia exhibit, Disarming Time, last month, which required iOS 6 or higher to experience his latest piece of innovation: an art show where each painting is intertwined with a piece of music. Though I refused to budge on my increasingly irrational anti-update stance, I was determined to fully experience the event that had gathered this eclectic crowd. You know something interesting is going on when Tom Morello, Moby, and Richard Dekmejian, a world expert on the history of genocide, are all in the same room.

So I promised my friend an enormous sandwich at Fat Sal’s if he would forego the full-immersion element of the show and lend me his iPhone (that was no longer compatible with his snap-on charger since his iOS 7 upgrade, which, I felt, further validated my decision to live in the past). Upon our arrival at the bustling Project Gallery in Hollywood, however, he’d realized he had forgotten his new iTunes password and sat down to figure it out. Luckily, I’d brought a backup friend. This one had a rickety Android with 20% battery life that couldn’t handle multimedia texts, which he handed to me with a gracious, hopeless smile. I downloaded the app, plugged my iPhone headset into the foreign device, and with childlike faith aimed the camera at a painting.

A sound crept in, smooth and low, and the clamor of 100 conversations melted away until all that remained was the painting, the music, and me. The back-up friend was definitely getting the sandwich. Once “Space Clock (Green)” — a burst of emerald shades, quicksand-like enveloping a handless clock — had taken me with a softly wandering beat, I moved on to “Space Clock (Blue),” which mirrored the previous with the addition of what I can only describe as audible snowflakes, or maybe stars. Nearly all of the 22 multimedia pieces featured deconstructed clocks surrounded by color and abstract shape, with companion musical compositions that varied as wildly as the moods and hues of the respective paintings. “Timeless” and “Self Portrait” were fast and fun, “Grieving Banner” evoked a jarring sadness, and I found myself at their mercy. Continue reading

New Ground: Serj Tankian on His Symphony, Jazz Fusion Record, and Moving Forward with System of a Down

BY ANDREW FISH

There’s a chill I get sometimes when I know I’ve dug too far into someone’s work or philosophy during an interview, a silent request to change the topic before things get weird. I’ve never felt that with Serj Tankian, no matter what I’ve ever asked him, which is one of the reasons I was looking forward to talking with him again. He’s basically the ideal subject — friendly and articulate with a seemingly bottomless aptitude for detail — so when I learned I’d be connecting with him about his full-orchestra album and new jazz record, I knew I wouldn’t have to hold back.

Known for his high-decibel, borderline operatic vocals, Tankian has been taking some creative quiet time, at least in a relative sense. Even as he’s back to rocking live with System of a Down, his two latest solo projects are comparatively low-key. Released this month is Orca, his first symphony, recorded at Brucknerhaus in Linz, Austria, and in July comes Jazz-iz Christ, a wide-net jazz fusion project — both featuring elements of traditional Armenian melodies. Meticulously assembled and packed with guts and pathos, the albums come through as musical meditations with a subtle brand of buildup and climax. Orca’s full orchestra lays out a grand narrative leading up to a heart-wrenching piece played on the duduk, a traditional Armenian reed instrument, while Jazz-iz Christ injects electro-pop, dance-hall synth, ’70s vibe, and classical into old-school jazz. Check out this “Waitomo Caves” track for some serious funk and one of the truly dopest distorted flute solos. Tankian has set himself free and you can feel it.

The multi-genre musician and singer will tour with System of a Down in late July and August and then take his symphony through Europe in September. And as every Tankian fan is anxious for work to begin on a new SOAD album, I have it on good authority that patience will pay off.  After our interview, I sent him a note to clarify — does he see himself committing to a new System record at some point? The answer I received was “Yes.”

I spoke with Tankian just before summer set in.

Iconic Interview: How do you begin putting together a symphony? Take us through the process.
Serj Tankian: Like all great discoveries, it starts by accident. I had started working on Imperfect Harmonies, and I was writing these long piano diatribes and fleshing them out into songs. With one or two of the pieces, they were just so long and so melodic that I couldn’t envision adding vocals to them, so I had put them aside. At first, I thought these would be great at the end of a record, just listening to these long two pieces. I was in New Zealand at the time and a good friend of mine was over, having a beer and checking out music that I had written — just fresh off the press kind of thing — and he’s like, “Bro! These are the first two acts of your symphony.” It hadn’t even crossed my mind. And I shit you not, I Wikipedia’ed “symphony” to see how many of these acts I would need. [laughs] I’m like, wow, you need four acts, roughly about ten minutes each. I could do this! So I put them aside and worked on other music that could complement it, or other ideas that were symphonic. The first instrumentation is piano in all cases, and then I basically work on the celli, bass, viola, violin one, violin two, brass, percussion, in that exact order — and then add on other instruments we might need. At first I did an original demo and then I refined the demo with tempo changes and modulations here and there to add things that I wanted to it. I reviewed it many times and adjusted it and modified it. Then, when I was happy with the final demo results, we went and scored the whole thing. I have an arranger and I sat down with him and gave him all the material and he basically notated everything. At that point, once we had an orchestra to record it live in Austria, we went in and worked with the conductor. We sent him the score, made some other adjustments, rehearsed the orchestra for a few days, and recorded it! We did a live show; that’s what we will be hearing as the final result.

Did you have people playing the instruments for you on the demo, or were you synthesizing it?
I was playing them myself using piano, sample strings, sample brass, sample percussion, and just basically tamping everything that way. Then with the second variation of demos, we started using other samples, better samples, and more modulations and tempo changes, which my arranger does really well with me. I’ve done all the original demos of all of the different layers of the music. Continue reading

Interconnected Melodies: Serj Tankian on Harakiri, Social Change, and System of a Down

BY ANDREW FISH

Serj Tankian performing in Bulgaria
Serj Tankian (photo by Vladimir Petkov*)

When System of a Down first hit, they fit right alongside their nu-metal contemporaries, yet their sound and sensibilities came from somewhere else. Serj Tankian’s voice shattered and soared with cultural history, out to educate as well as entertain. I suspect there are many who would never have heard of the Armenian Genocide if not for Tankian’s visibility and activism, and as he’s set out on his own, his work has developed an even finer focus on the state of the world. His latest solo effort is Harakiri, a release that offers pounding licks and flowing melody while taking on issues of environmental degradation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reality television, and American corporatocracy — all fitting topics for the performer who co-founded the social-action organization Axis of Justice with guitarist Tom Morello.

When I first heard System’s music back in 2001, I remember wanting to hear more of the Armenian performer’s softer vocals, like the ones that crept into “Toxicity” and “Deer Dance,” and — amid the hard-hitting rock — Harakiri provides just that. The album’s title was inspired by the eerily synchronous mass die-offs of fish and birds in early 2011, to which the musician applies the metaphor of hara-kiri, a samurai’s ritual suicide. “They crown the sun,” he sings on the title track, suggesting a spiritual significance to the creatures’ mysterious demise. Tankian has just finished up the North American leg of his album tour, having performed his final Stateside show at L.A.’s Club Nokia to an adoring audience, and now he’s off to Europe. Harakiri is my favorite of Tankian’s solo works thus far, and it’s one of several projects he’s currently working on.

Also in the works is a fusion of classical jazz and dancehall synth called Jazz-Iz-Christ, and a full-orchestra symphony entitled Orca — a beautiful work, if this sample is any indication. The Lebanon-born artist collaborated with Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self Indulgence on a project called Fuktronic, an experimental mix of jazzy, “Euro-trash electronic music,” Tankian explains, which plays underneath British mobster-style dialogue. “We started ass-backwards. We did the music and the voiceovers with a small script. Now we’re starting to work with a company to do these really awesome, interactive, mobile, visual applications. So we’re making it into an interactive, illustrated film.”

Tankian is also planning to adapt Prometheus Bound, the theater production he composed in partnership with Amnesty International — a collaboration with Steven Sater and Diane Paulus — into a “virtual web-based musical,” he says. “I’m thinking of doing things that haven’t been done before, because that’s exciting, artistically, creatively, technologically. Some of them might be successful, some of them might not, but either way, it’s a success when I want to do them and I can do them. That’s a success!”

It’s a serene drive through the mountains to meet with Tankian at his home in Calabasas. I had interviewed him once before for his Elect the Dead Symphony in 2010, and I was looking forward to the follow-up. He’s flanked by two friendly dogs — one named Bowie for his different-colored eyes — when we meet in his peaceful, hardwood sanctuary overlooking a forest valley. The quiet, thoughtful rocker kicks back on the couch to chat about Harakiri, social change, spirituality, and the blast he’s had back on the road with System.

How did you decide you were going to put an album like this together?
I started early last year and I had no intention of doing another rock record. I was in New Zealand, I remember, in January of 2011, and we were experiencing the massive deaths of birds and fish around the planet. I was playing those chords on the piano, which turned out to be the title track. I sat down at the piano, and I was playing this tune already, and I kind of put the two together, and that became the title track. I stepped back when I was singing it and playing it and I’m like, wow, this could be something really amazing. Because it felt powerful, even as an acoustic song on piano. And for whatever reason, right after that, the songs just started coming to me, like from the universe. By April or May, I had most of the record, as far as writing — not the production so much, but the basic elements were done. So by the end of the year I had finished the record and started mixing it, and I finished mixing it early this year.

Harakiri is almost like a collage in the way that it incorporates so many different styles. Was this intentional or just how it happened?
I think it’s the working process that created that, because the songs that I wrote originally were these three or four that had this certain flavor, like “Harakiri,” like “Forget Me Knot,” that I wrote in one period in New Zealand. And then I started doing a musical [Prometheus Bound] in Boston and I wrote one or two songs there — “Occupied Tears,” and I want to say “Uneducated Democracy,” maybe. And then I got on the road with System — it was a busy year! — so I wrote a few songs there. And then I did the three songs that I had sketched out on the iPad, so depending on where I was and what was going on and how I wrote, the songs came out accordingly. There’s one song from the musical, actually, called “Weave On,” which is the last song on the record.

That does explain the frenetic feel of the album, bouncing between landscapes.
Frenetic is a good word for it. I was bouncing around continents, landscapes, projects. I was working on four records at once, all of completely varied genres, so I think all of that lent itself to making each project really interesting. I would say Harakiri is the easiest record I’ve ever written in my life, the least filtered record, and the least amount of time I’ve spent making a record. I just put it down, and didn’t question what I was saying, didn’t question what the arrangement was, I didn’t fuck much with it, basically. I mean, I played around with it to make it as great as possible in its presentation, performance, and recording. I spent a lot of time mixing because I didn’t want to use a mixer; this time I wanted to do it in-house with my engineer. So all of that stuff took time, obviously, but it was very, very raw in how it got together. And I think the message comes out that way, that there is a certain urgency, a certain direct connection, a certain unapologetic sense of transference.
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