Thursday, July 22nd 2010
Interviews: Serj Tankian
We spent some time last week with the enigmatic, politically-charged System Of A Down ringleader Serj Tankian, who’s out promoting his upcoming new solo album Imperfect Harmonies, scheduled for release on September 7 via Serjical Strike/Reprise Records.
Two songs from Imperfect Harmonies are already making the rounds: Borders Are and the first official single, Left Of Center, both of which tackle pertinent controversial issues that increasingly affect our lives each day. Tankian’s participation in the Sound Strike movement to boycott Arizona in the wake of the state’s controversial new immigration laws undoubtedly a catalyst for the creation and pre-release offering of Borders Are, a damning assessment of the walls we create to divide our minds, hearts, lives and cultures:
As with his 2007 solo album Elect The Dead, Tankian produced Imperfect Harmonies himself at his home studio in Los Angeles, utilizing the orchestral strengths he developed during his time on the Elect The Dead Symphony tour and blending his own brand of charged political rock with jazz, electro and symphonic textures. As I discovered throughout our conversation, Serj is as multi-faceted and complex as his music, an fascinatingly insightful mix of philosopher, sociopolitical activist, poet and rock star.
Antiquiet: You’ve made reference to how your experience with various orchestras on the Elect The Dead Symphony tour allowed you to better orchestrate for large ensembles and full orchestrations – taking that to Imperfect Harmonies, how much is that responsible for the grandiosity of the sound?
Serj Tankian: It’s definitely partly responsible. I think that the two main influences of Imperfect Harmonies besides rock were electronic and orchestral. And the big challenge, really the fun part, was asking how we make all these different elements work within one song. The Rock, the orchestral, the electronic, the jazz… So it was a really fun balancing act, and a lot of tracks. A lot of fuckin’ tracks. Like 150, 170 tracks per song.
Serj Tankian: Yeah, man. So it was quite interesting. I learned a lot in the process, not just about orchestration but about using different sounds together. It was quite a unique experience making this record.
Antiquiet: When it comes to that many tracks on one song, how do you check yourself? What’s your balance beam?
Serj Tankian: You’ve gotta step back and look at it with a producer’s eye, and just go OK, this part’s too much now, it’s getting to be too much of a clusterfuck. So you’ve got to look for the strengths and weaknesses of the song, and obviously fortify the strengths and minimize the weaknesses, and that’s kind of how you’re able to take some stuff out after putting so much of it in.
Antiquiet: As for the next track Borders Are - it’s a particularly poignant choice as a first taste for the album, given what’s happening in Arizona currently – “Fear is the cause of separation / Backed by illicit conversation…” There’s a direct reference to be found there, especially given your participation in the Sound Strike movement.
Serj Tankian: While the first official single is called Left Of Center, Borders Are was the first thing I wanted to release because it was more about the statement than a first single idea for me. It also did a good job of introducing some of the sonic qualities of the new record, moreso than the first single probably.
That said, it definitely makes a bold political statement having to do with borders and our incessant use of them in physical land separation as well as the borders of our mind and hearts separating each other. It definitely interacts and is timely with things happening in Arizona, things happening in Gaza with the flotilla aid, things happening in North and South Korea with the sinking of the South Korean ship, the denial and allegations, the Kashmir conflict which has existed since the creation of Pakistan… It goes on.
I was just in Berlin playing a show with an orchestra there, and to think that that city was divided for almost 50 years, the same people on both sides… It’s quite an interesting thing to pay attention to these days.
Antiquiet: Given your participation in the Arizona boycott, I imagine these events weighed in when considering a first impression. Giving people a musical platform for awareness, be it to dig deeper into the topics you touch on or otherwise, you’re helping draw attention to the cyclical patterns of oppression that are going on in our own culture, which in some ways mirror events we’ve seen on grander scales throughout history.
Serj Tankian: Absolutely. I fully agree. That’s a good insightful comment. There’s a lot going on today that we need to pay very focused attention to, that are important for the times to come. Immigration will be a very important issue in the years to come as well, based on global warming and the necessity of having a lot of populations migrating due to the need to find food and water. You think North America has immigration problems now, wait for another five years – it’s going to be just ridiculous. So it’s important to note all these things, definitely.
Antiquiet: That begs the question – examining of the perils of entering your work into the public debate and thus have these concepts caricaturized and manipulated by the media, what do you say to someone who thinks we should leave music as merely a form of entertainment?
Serj Tankian: Just like we shouldn’t put borders on our thoughts, I don’t think we should put borders on music. I don’t think we should say music is designed for one purpose or another. So to say that it was only designed for entertainment would be short-cutting music, as would saying that music was designed solely for messages. That would be not giving music the wide span that it deserves. I think music is used for many, many purposes, and I think it’s an intuitive medium that inspires. It comes from the universe, it connects us, it co-inspires us – the presenter as well as the listener. It’s a very, very unique and beautiful gift from the universe. I don’t think we should take it for granted and use it in abusive ways.
There’s always going to be someone who says, ‘What would a musician know about politics?’ Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. It doesn’t depend on the music, it depends on the musician. I know a lot of people who know about politics that do other things with their careers. Businessmen that know a lot about politics, plumbers who know a lot about politics – it doesn’t mean they can’t discuss it because they’re a plumber. I think that’s ridiculous to say, that someone shouldn’t talk about something because they do this. That’s like saying ‘Sorry, you can’t vote, you’re a janitor.’ It makes no sense. So to me, I think everyone should be talking about what’s important in our lives. It doesn’t matter what our vocation is.