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Serj Tankian in Overdrive

©"Robert Sebree"
Serj Tankian (©Robert Sebree)

A tireless, shape-shifting rocker, poet and activist plots a dizzying array of projects

By Bryan Reesman
Special to MSN Music

Serj Tankian may qualify as the proverbial "hardest-working man in rock." His third solo album, "Harakiri," just dropped this week, he is touring with his old bandmates in System of a Down this summer, then doing a solo tour, and he has three other studio projects forthcoming --  not to mention a sci-fi video game score and a movie called "My Year" that documents what his 2011 was like.

Bing: Watch videos by System of a Down

Contrary to what you might think, the man does sleep and works passionately and feverishly when the muse strikes him. Serj just loves making music.

"Harakiri" is an eclectic mix of hard rock tunes and more contemplative songs, and it's an interesting contrast to his metallic solo debut, "Elect The Dead," and 2010's "Imperfect Harmonies," which used an orchestra to generate bombast and intensity rather than traditional rock band pyrotechnics.

The new album was originally inspired by the spontaneous deaths of land and sea animals last year throughout the United States -- blackbirds falling from the Arkansas sky, hundreds of thousands of crabs washing up along the Maryland shore -- and the rest of the world. The conceptual threads for the album were woven from there.

Tankian recently sat down with MSN to chat about the album, politics and his music-making process.

MSN Music: "Harakiri" deals with themes of natural and societal breakdown. The title track deals with the seeming mass animal suicides of last year, while "Reality TV" deals with our own virtual cannibalization -- two sides of the same coin. Were these conscious themes you were writing about, or did they just all come together while you were making the album?

Serj Tankian: It started in early January [last year], when the deaths of all these birds and fish were happening. It was such an ominous, almost biblical type of thing that just moved me, so I wrote the first song, which turned out to be the title track. The concept started coming to me, and it started coming together as this symbolic event of what we're doing to our planet and, as you put it, cannibalizing, which is a great word.

It's quite interesting. It connects everything. It connects our ecology, our economics, our political upheaval around the world and civilization itself. We've talked about this before, how the way that we're living our lifestyle is outdated. We can't consume resources at the rate that we are and with the population that we have, yet we still blindly continue forward and without making any major efforts for change. We'll wait for that time when things have to change, when we're forced to change.

Do you think we'll be forced into making changes?

Absolutely. I think most of the changes that we're seeing right now spur from environmental stuff. Environmental catastrophes, climate change. I think more changes will be as a reaction from humanity to climate change rather than our own political games and war. I've been paying attention to diminishing rainfalls around equatorial lands and how that affects immigration into Europe. And immigration into Europe has caused a lot of their societies to swing toward the right because they're being overwhelmed by it, and that trend will continue to get worse obviously. That political effect will have an effect on the societies and how they deal with austerity measures. It's all so much connected it's incredible. We don't even see those connections, but if you catch one and follow it through, there are so many other ones.

In the video for "Figure It Out," you and your peeps crash the "Bailout Party" festivities. I've been thinking about the fact that when the French get mad about something, they take to the streets to protest whatever is on their mind. Do you think we will need to have a revolution the streets in order for change to happen in America?

Oooh, I'm not stepping on that line. [Laughs] I've got enough trouble in my life. I think the revolution in America has started in some ways. I think the Occupy movement is a good little first bubble that came out. Finally, I'm encouraged to see younger people realizing that a lot of us are falling into the cracks of this globalist system setup, like WTO and all these world trade organizations, and in these last 30 or 40 years this has been the economic global constitution in some ways, and it's not a good one. Finally people are realizing it and standing up for their rights against it.

"Figure It Out" is like political satire, and -- instead of [discussing] the complexity of the inequities of the economic system and all these CEOs that are getting away with murder because what they're doing is morally reprehensible but not ethically illegal -- I just took a simple target rather than deal with all those issues in the song, which would be really hard to sing. I just go, "They're the CEOs, they're f---ing us over, let's get 'em." It becomes comical, obviously, and that's the idea behind it.

In a recent interview with Guitar, you addressed the song "Uneducated Democracy" and expressed the idea that perhaps a benign dictatorship would be better than a dumb democracy. A lot of people are mad about certain things Obama has passed, yet Bush did far worse things and their outrage wasn't there. It's funny how things like the war are more easily backed than social change like health care.

I think there's more than one reason for that. That's a good comment that you just made, because I agree; I think the stuff that Bush was doing was horrendous, and although there was a reaction to it, it was almost like a lot of people swallowed it, maybe because it was presented in the traditional light of being embraced by the flag while doing all these things, on the right side of the spectrum. I do know that racism is alive and well in America, so that's a part of people not liking Obama. That's neither here nor there, but I think it comes down to the exact thing that I'm saying in the song.

When you have the No. 1 military in the world and the No. 1 economy in the world, but you're No. 30 among nations in terms of education, you will not know when you're being taken for a ride. The Iraq War is a great example of this, of how we were told there were weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida, and none of them ever existed. They were all fabrications designed to convince the U.S. public to go ahead with this horrible war that has cost many lives as well as trillions of dollars. If the Republicans want to talk about austerity measures and cutting things for poor people and health care, they should first give our $3 trillion back from that war. Then we can talk about those things.

By the way,  I noticed that you put a song from your A.R.T. rock opera, "Prometheus Bound," "Weave On," on "Harakiri."

That's the perfect closer for any project, right? It's a fun song and fit in perfectly with this collection of songs. As a bonus track in some territories, I also have "Tyrant's Gratitude" [from the same show]. Last time I spoke with [playwright and "Prometheus" collaborator] Steven Sater, we were talking about trying to do a one-off performance in New York, one of the musical and one of a concert version. We would love to be able to do that.

You're touring with System of a Down for the second summer in a row after a long hiatus. A lot of fans are wondering if there will be a new album coming out in the near future. Do you think that will happen?

We're just touring right now. There are no plans for a record as of now. We're enjoying doing the shows. It's been a blast. We had never played South America and did that last year, and it was just incredible. We played Rock in Rio -- 125,000 people partying and rocking out in front of you, I can't describe how that feels. It's just incredible. I think we play together better than we ever did in our first incarnation, so I'm happy with it. As far as a new record, I'm doing all my stuff and the guys are doing their own stuff, so I guess when the right time comes we'll look at it.

You have three other projects coming out that you recorded last year: a jazz record, and orchestral album and an electronic release. Could you talk about those?

Sure. The jazz record is called "Jazz-Iz-Christ," and I did it with three other jazz player friends. One is Tigran Hamasyan, who is on Verve Records and is a phenomenal pianist, keyboardist and songwriter. The other is Tom Duprey from "Prometheus Bound," and he's a trumpet player. I love what he was doing, so I included him in this collaboration. The third player is my friend Valery Tolstov from Switzerland, who is an incredible flautist. A majority of them are my tracks, but a couple of them are their tracks. It's a progressive jazz record, mostly instrumental with three or four songs that have vocals. It's definitely not your typical jazz record. It's a little more modern than that. The title is definitely going to piss off a lot of the jazz purists as well as right-wing Christians, so I think I'm already one up before I release the record.

What about the orchestral record?

The orchestral record is "Orca," my first real symphony, and I want to call it my masterpiece. It's something very unique. It doesn't follow all the classic guidelines of a traditional symphony, but it's still an orchestral piece and, obviously, instrumental. We're looking for a good orchestra to record all the live tracks with. Right now there are all samples on the demos, and all the scores are done.

Then there's "Fuktronic," which is my electronic record that I'm doing with my friend Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self Indulgence. It's a soundtrack, with actors on it playing scenes from a movie that we're putting together ass-backwards, basically. We started out with the music, then the actors with their scripted lines, and now we are working on visuals composed with some technology companies to do something very unique for mobile devices, for people to be able to experience the music in a very unique, modern way.

You obviously want to get all of this music done while you have the opportunity.

When the muse comes, you've got to do it. It's exciting working on different records. All this stuff is making me a better composer. Right now I'm doing a sci-fi video game. All the extra palettes and brushes from all of these projects have made me a more confident composer, from the musical to working on more rock records to my symphony to jazz and electronic stuff. I can pretty much do anything right now. I feel very confident about it. I'm excited about that.

Regular MSN contributor Bryan Reesman is a veteran entertainment journalist who writes for American Way, Playboy, Grammy, Inked and numerous other outlets. He has written liner notes for Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and AC/DC. Try as he might, he cannot write, watch, listen to or read everything he wants to, and he hopes to apply the Serj Tankian method of project management to his own life.

Jul 9, 2012 1:55PM
this interview + the free stream on red bull are getting me awfully pumped for the CD....gonna buy all 4 of his new ones for my family
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