Few acts in history have made brilliantly contrarian music with a multitude of outspoken opinions on everything from social justice to spiritualism with the kind of against-the-odds commercial success as System Of A Down. SOAD frontman Serj Tankian’s solo efforts like Harakiri and Elect The Dead continued that tradition, with the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist exploring the esoteric outer reaches of jazz, electronica and abstract atmosphere on projects like Orca and Jazz-Iz-Christ. As the anniversary of the April 24, 1915 Armenian Genocide approaches, one of the world’s most visible descendants of that atrocity releases his score for 1915, a fantastical, fictional narrative steeped in the tragedy. AP offers the exclusive premiere of Tankian’s first music video from the 1915 project while catching up with the monstrously prolific part-time New Zealand/part-time Californian resident about his new music and the 2016 presidential election.
1915 is your first full film score, right?
SERJ TANKIAN: Yes. I’ve done 20 some soundtrack pieces before on different films and whatnot and [the Morning Star] video game score. But 1915 is my first full film-scoring gig. Since then, I have another film, which will be going to festivals this year, The Last Inhabitant. It’s great. I really love scoring and doing pieces for orchestras. I’m still writing rock music, of course, that’s on the horizon here and there, but most of my time is actually spent doing more classical type of compositions.
What’s the writing process like for this kind of material?
When it’s a film, step one is reading the script, seeing if I like it, talking to the director and really appreciating and respecting them creatively. Otherwise, I don’t want to do it. I’ve got to really be into it. Once I’ve got the script, I usually get a few ideas musically and start extrapolating them, usually on the piano. It’s usually just some strange and rough mockups. Then I’ll have a conversation with the director and see what sort of sound they envision. Are they envisioning rock, classical, electronic? Once you get that, then you have your colors and it limits you, which is great because you know on my own music, I get to be unlimited in everything I want to do. [Laughs.] Then I’ll really get into it and share the things I have in mind based on the storytelling, emotions, geography and all of that. If they’re into that, then I’ll wait for the final cut, technically. I don’t want to fuck with earlier cuts and then move music around. I’ve done that before and it’s a bitch. [Laughs.] Once I have five or 10 minutes of music, I’ll send it to the director, get feedback, make some changes, and move on. That way you know you’re headed in the right direction and you’re not going to have to reverse your work. It just makes thing a lot easier. That’s the process, really, in a nutshell.
Do you have scenes from the movie playing in the studio as you’re composing?
Yes, I’ve got a separate screen for video playback. So anytime I’m working I’m always looking at the screen. I’m pacing the tempo to the dialogue and anything else that’s going on. The emotion [of a scene] creates certain hits, when you know you’ve got a downbeat coming up, for example. You can do a little planning but I’m a very kind of “jump in and do it” composer. I know these guys that literally do tempo maps before they start composing so they know where the down hits are and when they have to speed up and slow down. That’s a little too much science for me. It would make the live orchestra counterpart a lot easier if I had those tempo maps. But we’ve made it work.
There were two directors on 1915. How does that change things?
I was recommended to them by a director friend of mine, Atom Egoyan. Garin Hovannisian is a good guy, very creative. I loved this script. That’s what got me in the door. But in terms of working with two directors? It’s much fucking harder. [Laughs.] You’ve got two directors in the room and one says, “I love that!” and the other says, “Hmm, I don’t know, what if we did this?” And then they both ask me what I think. And I’d be like, “Um, what I think is already in there, dude! You’re listening to it!”
In addition to being a writer/director, Alec Mouhibian is also a comedian.
He is! He’s a good writer, you know, and a very funny guy in general. They’re both really talented. This is their first main feature. They had a lot riding on it. There’s a certain amount of preciousness to maintain throughout the whole process. I really enjoyed working with them. They’d come over to the studio; we’d hang, order some food, go through the different cues and talk about them. It was a very comfortable environment.
That’s great, considering the subject matter is so heavy.
There are horror elements, mystery elements; it’s a strong, dark drama about how to deal with loss. The film is about a theater director who puts on this production on April 24, 2015, the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. He has this dark mystical intuition that things are going to change, that there’s going to be almost a time warp because of the event itself. It’s the first film I’ve seen that deals with the diaspora trauma of loss; how the descendants of people who died in the genocide feel about it, in the U.S., France, Argentina and other parts of the world. I’ve never seen a film like that.
In the span of human history, one hundred years is nothing.
Absolutely. The perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide were the Ottoman Empire, whose descendants are the modern Turkish Republic. On top of our grandparents’ bones in the desert in Syria are the new bones of the Yazidis, Syrians and others being murdered by ISIS. It’s more than just irony—it’s fucking political reality. It’s basically saying we haven’t stopped genocide from occurring in the world. Irrespective of the Nuremberg Trials and everything we learned from World War II, we’ve had Stalin, Cambodia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Indonesia… and it’s still happening now. As long as we do things for profit over people, it will continue. The scourge of this horrible self-inflicted disease of genocide is not acted upon seriously. Despite the 1948 genocide convention and multiple ad hoc national committees from the U.S. and European Union—all of them with good intentions—mostly what they do is monitor genocide. Because there is no agreement between China, Russia, the U.S. or any powerful country in the world where if genocide is occurring, then all bets are off, whether they’re an ally or not. There is no [multilateral action] making genocide a priority. That’s why it’s still happening.
It’s appalling how difficult it is to get a government to even acknowledge it. In America, people say, “Why should the government apologize for slavery?”
As long as you’re benefitting from it, you can make an apology. In terms of the Armenian Genocide, I think most people would agree that a hundred years is enough waiting for a country to recognize their own historical ills. It’s time to move more toward justice, in terms of restitution, reparation, prevention. People will ask, “Well, if Turkey recognizes the Armenian Genocide, won’t you be happy?” Imagine running after a dude who killed your family and burned down your house, for a hundred years, and finally they turn around and say, “Alright dude, fuck it, I’m sorry.” We need justice. We need a court of law. That’s what should happen with nations who have committed genocide, as it was correctly done in the Nuremberg Trials.
I would imagine the subject matter made 1915 that much more important to you.
Yes, it was easy to be connected to it.
What are you doing next? How do you even choose between scoring a movie, making a solo record, making a jazz record—all of these different things you can do?
Do ‘em all! That’s the fun part! [Laughs.] I just finished doing a beautiful seven-minute orchestral piece for an organization called the Hundred Lives. They give money to these modern [Oskar] Schindlers who are putting their own lives on the line to save others. I did the music for an event they’re having April 24. What’s next? I’m looking at different options in scoring between videogames and films. I’m also writing some new rock songs. We’ll see where they go and what happens with them.
When will we see you performing live again?
We played a bunch of shows with System last year. We haven’t really planned anything with System for this year. I have an orchestral show I’m planning at the Valley Performing Arts Center with the California State University Northridge orchestra. CSUN is my alma mater. We’ve done two-dozen shows with different orchestras for Orca and Elect The Dead. That’s my only live performance plans for 2016 as of right now
I’d be remiss if I don’t ask you about the Democratic primary.
The Obama administration to me was generally successful but the obstructionism of the Republican Party made it impossible for it to be as progressive as I would have liked. I saw a big problem with the American people rewarding the Republican Party for their obstructionism by giving them control over the House and Senate. If I didn’t show up for work, people wouldn’t give me a promotion, would they? He’s made some bold changes in terms of social impact. You can argue that our healthcare system is still in shambles, but he made an effort to actually create some version—a bastardized version thanks to the obstruction—but a version of universal healthcare. When it comes to today’s candidates, the pickings are slim. To be a country of such incredibly smart people and talent in terms of technology and innovation and to have fucking clowns like these guys? It’s a fucking shame. We need smart people running our country not a bunch of dramatic idiots. In terms of choices, I only see one choice: Bernie [Sanders]. His voting record says it all. He stood for the right things, always. He didn’t do it to look cool. He’s even saying things that make him unpopular with some of the population that have a lot of power, knowing that it might work against his candidacy, yet he’s still saying them. Hillary [Clinton] has done some good things, but she’s also done a lot of bad voting and sellout type of moves. The rest I wouldn’t even consider in a serious manner.
I don’t think Fox News and talk radio were prepared for what their push for anti-intellectualism would cause. We have inched so close to idiocracy.
We had eight years of anti-intellectualism and that’s what started Iraq and what birthed ISIS. It was called the George W. Bush administration and we don’t need that again.
I remember talking to you before the invasion of Iraq. You were not a fan.
I just saw a video of Hillary Clinton defending her vote for the war in Iraq. She supported the worst geopolitical move of the 21st century and she’s running for president? I don’t believe in “American Exceptionalism” or “exceptionalism” for anybody. I’m no better than you. You’re no better than me. Fuck that shit. But I do believe we should start acting a bit more morally in terms of foreign policy. Why are Saudi Arabia and Turkey our allies? It’s such a clusterfuck. We are arming countries with Wahhabi monarchies bombing civilians with our weapons. To get rid of a gang of hit men, go after the boss, too. In this case, it’s our own allies. You want to stop ISIS? [Talk to] Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey. If you want to act for the people and not the oil companies and multinational corporations, there’s only one candidate that’s been doing that. It’s simple. It’s not that hard to decide.
It’s worth noting that the League of Conservation Voters gives Hillary Clinton an 85 percent lifetime pro-environmental rating. Ted Cruz’s voting record put him at 11 percent.
Yeah, there’s a difference between the “sellouts” and the fucking sold [Laughs.]. ALT