BY ANDREW FISHI’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 It also means my outdated phone isn’t compatible with many of the latest apps and I wasn’t going to be able to use it at Serj Tankian’s multimedia exhibit, Disarming Time, last month,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 →
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 →
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. Continue reading →