Interview: Serj Tankian on his prolific solo career and the future of System Of A Down

May 28, 2012 by Ryan J. Downey

Interview: Serj Tankian on his prolific solo career and the future of System Of A Down

SYSTEM OF A DOWN are touring this fall (with Deftones as support) and understandably, plenty of people are curious about when the semi-newly reactivated political/genre-bending juggernaut will release new music. Take a look at the schedule of SERJ TANKIAN, though. The well-spoken, energetic and good-natured frontman has no less than four new albums on the docket this year: his third rock-oriented solo album, Harakiri, due July 10 (pre-order it here); a jazz record called Jazz-Iz-Christ; the Fuktronic project with Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self Indulgence; and a symphony, Orca. How could he possibly make new music with System this year? Tankian was kind enough to spend some time with AltPress.com over Skype, where he spoke candidly about the innumerable hats he wears as an artist, the changing music business (he predicted holograms!) and more.

INTERVIEW: Ryan J. Downey

Wikipedia defines you as, “a Lebanese-born Armenian-American singer/songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist, playwright, record producer, poet and political activist best known as the lead vocalist, songwriter, keyboardist, and occasional rhythm guitarist of the rock band System Of A Down.  How does that strike you?
Serj Tankian:
“Playwright” is wrong. I've composed for a musical but the playwright was [Tony Award winner] Steven Sater. [Laughs.] I’ve never seen that Wikipedia entry, but that line is interesting because it shows how we break everything into so many categories that it clutters our brains when we look at it on a page when it's actually very simple.  What I do is one thing and that’s music, whether I do it this way or that way.

Four years ago, you did interviews saying holograms were the future of touring. People laughed at you. Now after Tupac at Coachella, that’s all we’re hearing about. Did you get the last laugh?
Yes and no. [The Tupac hologram] was the same technology, but the difference is, that was a one-way communication. What I wanted to accomplish was “Telepresence”: two-way, simultaneous, non-delayed communication. We are still looking into it, actually. I wasn’t at Coachella, but I heard it was pretty amazing, although I think some people were creeped out because not only did it present the image in a trick photography kind of way, but it was the image of someone who is deceased. They’ve done that with Frank Sinatra using the same technology, but this was more pretending someone was there, with Tupac saying “Coachella!” and stuff like that. That’s the creepy aspect. Also, you're not supposed to use that technology outside, because it's affected by the wind. It's an invisible 45-degree angled screen. But Dr. Dre made a huge impact by doing that. I think it was a great idea.

So having accurately predicted the role of holograms in the music business four years ago, care to make any predictions now?
Like they say with the weather, it’s not hard to predict when you see the first bits of rain coming in that it’s going to rain. I predict that our whole delivery style—what we see with Spotify and Rhapsody, that sort of service, [will be] all in one. I don't see download sales lasting at all. I think you would make the same prediction. I don't know if it's four years or eight years or whatever, but I think the laziest consumer wins. I've got Spotify on my phone, Bluetooth in my car—I can listen to any song, any artist, any time. The Beatles aren't there yet, but just like iTunes, they'll eventually get there. I don't have to download anything; I'm paying monthly so I don't have to pay per usage, no storage space necessary. The laziest consumer wins! Technology, that's where they've taken us. The shortest shortcuts I can make while listening to whatever I want wherever I want on whatever device I want is what’s going to win.

You’re releasing four albums this year. Don’t you ever sleep?
I fucking love sleep, man! I slept nine hours last night. I needed it. I like doing a lot of things at once. I like reading multiple books at once. I like making multiple records. I like working on numerous projects at once. It keeps my mind healthy. I think focusing on one thing at a time is good, too, when you have to finish something, but when you want to be creative, jumping around different genres if we're talking musically or reading different books, it tantalizes your mind and plays in a way that's healthy and artistic and creative. Orca, the symphony I started writing three years ago, we just happened to finish it all within the same year. I started that way back. That was a lot of work. It was great. It’s my first symphony, it's all orchestral—no vocals. It's a really nice combination of early 19th century composing with modern film composing and a little bit of my craziness songwriting method thrown in. The jazz stuff, I just had all these jazz tracks over the years that I’ve compiled that I was working on. I always write music, not for any particular project, but just to have, you know? So I was hanging out with a good friend of mine who's a pianist and I said, “Hey, let's finish a bunch of jazz tracks together and put it out.” Then got couple of other awesome players, this amazing trumpet player from the east coast named Tom Dupree that I worked with on the Prometheus Bound musical and this other friend of mine, a flautist from Switzerland. We just passed it around the planet, everyone did their thing on it and sent it back. I called it Jazz-Iz-Christ to piss off jazz purists and the religious right at the same time.

Fundamentalists of any stripe are easy to incite.
I remixed this Charlie Parker/Miles Davis track for Savoy Records a few years ago. Jazz purists just bashed it. Coming from the whole metal and rock world, I was like, “Why are they dissing this?” I was reading a Miles Davis biography at the time, thinking, ‘If these guys were alive they'd be calling us and telling us, “Wow that's really cool!” They were trying to blend genres themselves. So that's why I want to piss them off.

Metal purists are some of the worst snobs! You were surprised?
Very true! What am I saying? Different shades of snobbiness? [Laughs.]

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