Singer-songwriter Serj Tankian

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Activist singer-songwriter discusses why he feels he must be both direct and indirect in his political statements.

Best known as the unconventional former frontman for the Grammy-winning band, System of a Down, Serj Tankian is a Lebanese-born singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet and outspoken activist. In '07, he launched his solo career and recently released his sophomore disc, "Imperfect Harmonies," produced at his home studio in L.A. He also has a record label, Serjical Strike, releasing music otherwise ignored by the mainstream. In addition to numerous side projects, Tankian co-founded Axis of Justice, aimed at fighting for social justice.


Tavis: Serj Tankian is an acclaimed singer-songwriter who cofounded the group System of a Down back in 1998. He has since gone on to success as a solo artist. His new CD is called “Imperfect Harmonies.” From the project, here now, some of the video for the song, “Left of Center.”

Tavis: “Left of Center.” Is that a political statement? (Laughter)
Serj Tankian: Hey, I’m starting to get both more direct and more indirect with my speech.
Tavis: What do you mean by “direct and indirect?”
Tankian: Well, in terms of political things, I think it’s important to be more direct in terms of political statements. I think in terms of philosophical and things that you plant things and see them grow lyrically or musically, it’s okay to be subtle. But political statements are usually more direct, and it works with the upbeat music as well, for some reason, the directness of your statements.
Tavis: Has that been a process for you? Did you start out being this direct, this kind of clarity in your political observations, or has that been a journey?
Tankian: I think it’s taken time.
Tavis: What’s made you more comfortable with it then now?
Tankian: I think a lot of the skepticism after 9/11. I had written a statement called “Understanding Oil” years ago, right after 9/11, and got a lot of – from death threats to all sorts of different condemnations. I had this song, off the air, System of a Down had our “Toxicity” record out, and we had “BYOB.” Or not “BYOB,” what was the other song? “Chop Suey.” They took it off the air, the FCC, along with all these other bands.
There was so much condemnation of free thought and expression at the time that going through that made me a lot more confident as an activist and as a spokesperson for whatever I believe in.
Tavis: How does an artist come to terms with the FCC pulling his/her record off the air?
Tankian: They pulled “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” because it had the word “sky” in it at the time. It was quite confusing, and there were a lot of bands and songs that were pulled at the time.
It’s kind of funny, I decided to call my backup band that I tour with the FCC, and I won’t say it on your show but it’s the Flying C of Chaos, (laughter) so I decided them to make them a cussword to kind of play a trick on the FCC.
I think it’s a little hypocritical. We’ve got a lot of different societies, a lot of different great open media in Europe and elsewhere that are not paying so close attention to those things, and yet we are? Our puritanical tale still exists, I guess.
Tavis: So when the FCC pulls your project off the air, as an artist, as a songwriter, that does what to or for your gift?
Tankian: I’m not sure. At the time, like I said, there were a lot of artists, and it may have also been – I’m not sure, it could have been Clear Channel along with the FCC.
We also have a lot of – we self-regulate ourselves, we self-censor ourselves a lot in this country instead of having someone else censor us so we can blame them. That’s not good, either.
Tavis: But I’m asking that, Serj, because I would think, to your brilliant point now, that if one were ever going to self-censor, it would come after being yanked by the FCC.
Tankian: Could be, yeah.
Tavis: Or the other option is that it makes you even more aggressive, like naming your backup band the FCC.
Tankian: Right, right, could be. The record itself did well in terms of “Toxicity” was our best-selling record, not because of that, I think, but –
Tavis: That didn’t hurt, though, the controversy.
Tankian: I don’t know, I don’t know, because like I said, there were a lot of bands that were taken off. It wasn’t just us. But yeah, whatever – we do what we do and let them do what they do.
Tavis: On this new project, as a matter of fact, let me preface it this way. So Earth, Wind and Fire, one of the groups I love –
Tankian: I love them, too.
Tavis: Yeah, I think we all do, the Elements, they were just here at the Hollywood Bowl some days ago doing a concert with the L.A. Philharmonic. When I saw that, I was like – at first it made me just think, like, Earth, Wind and Fire with the philharmonic? Then as I thought about it, for us fans of the Elements it made sense. The strings, the horns.
Tankian: The horns, it’s all about the horns.
Tavis: I didn’t make it, but I heard it was an amazing show from all my friends who were there. So I raise that to ask you now, here you are now with your rock stuff, with an orchestra behind you. Why that for you, and what do you make of the end result?
Tankian: Well, a couple years ago I had the lucky opportunity of working with a New Zealand orchestra called the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra and doing a live show with them, which we released as a DVD-CD, and the experience gave me all this confidence in working with these orchestral colors and being able to kind of integrate them into the rock music and everything else that I was doing, along with electronic vibes and jazz moments and whatnot.
So this record for me, the first solo record that I did, “Elect the Dead,” was more of a straight-out rock record. It’s the type of rock record I’ve always wanted to make on my own. This one ended up being something completely different. I wanted to integrate different elements, bring orchestral elements and electronic elements and jazz elements along with the rock, but do it in a way that it’s one voice, that it kind of works as a unison, cohesive sound and not as all these disparate elements in the same bowl.
Tavis: What makes orchestra, or an orchestral sound and a rock sound, what makes that blend together nicely? Why does that work?
Tankian: They both pick up a lot of frequency. The drums and guitars and bass take up a huge frequency on their own, those three instruments, and then the orchestra itself, 70-piece, has a beautiful way of taking up the full spectrum of sonic frequency.
So you’ve got to balance them out. If you’re using live bass versus orchestral bass, you’ve got to make sure that you’re not stepping on the toes of the other elements, so you’ve got to balance it out.
The electronic also, because that’s a whole synthetic element and orchestra is an organic element. You’ve got to balance it out in a way that it all works, and you do that through building bridges in between, re-sampling and playing live instrumentation and kind of having an idea of how everything fits in the picture.
Tavis: Kind of hard to tour that way, though, huh, with a full orchestra.
Tankian: It’s expensive, but it’s not hard. We did a show in Holland recently at the Lowlands Festival with the Metropol Orchestra, which is a 50-person big band / orchestra, and it was quite an amazing show, and it works. It actually works.
Like you said, in the ’70s, whether it’s progressive rock bands or soul bands, Earth, Wind and Fire, they used to use a lot of horn sections, string sections. It was common. I think we’ve kind of lost it, and now we’re coming back to it, maybe.
Tavis: To your point now, Serj, as you tour around the world, is there a noticeable difference between how an American audience responds to the politics in your music than how it’s responded to by people around the world?
Tankian: In America, there’s more of the question, should music be political or should it just be for entertainment purposes, whereas around the world that’s not even an issue. I think people just assume that music should be everything. It should be entertaining, but at the same time a vehicle for social messages and statements of truth, et cetera.
There’s other differences between audiences and whatnot that I’ve noticed over time. I think as consumers Europeans are a lot more artist loyal irrespective of the genre of music or the type of project or the collaborative effort, and Americans are more media-loyal, because they need to be fed that media to know what’s going on, because we’re so inundated with promotion and marketing and everything that’s going on – advertising.
Tavis: So does that mean it’s easier, then, to build a following for an artist like you in this country or abroad?
Tankian: Luckily, I’ve built a following through System of a Down and on my own solo stuff, both here and abroad, but over the long term I think there’s more loyalty toward artists elsewhere because of the way that our media is here.
Tavis: To the point you made earlier about the fact that folk outside of the country seem to have a much easier time, are much more open to the intersection of art and politics, music and politics, I was thinking as you were commenting a moment ago, I think I believe this. I think I believe that there’s a line – I don’t know where it is – but I think I believe there’s a line between truth in music and proselytizing. I think there’s a line between truth and proselytizing.
If I’m right about that, how do you know where that line is, or am I off base completely?
Tankian: No, I think you’re absolutely right. I think nobody wants to hear a sermon. Well, some people do, but (laughter) maybe not through music or not with me. No one wants to hear me give a speech that way.
But I think the gift of music is it’s intuitive capability. I think music is a powerful medium because it co-inspires. It inspires the artist who then inspires the listener, and it’s a back-and-forth process. Because it’s intuitive, the truth has to be defined intuitively. It can’t be preached, it can’t be pushed. It’s got to normally go across organically and make someone feel something, and that’s the power of music.
For example, poetry and writings to me are a lot more flexible in thought patterns. You can say a lot more with a poem than you can with a song, but with a song you can really be more powerful with it. You can express it a lot more powerfully.
Tavis: Why the title for this CD? I love it, but why the title “Imperfect Harmonies?” Sounds oxymoronic, actually.
Tankian: Yeah, it is. It absolutely is. I like putting things next to each other that don’t have a preexisting relationship. But to me, “Imperfect Harmonies” is a great way of explaining a number of things – our relationship with each other, domestically. Our relationship between nations, our imperfect harmonies. Man’s relationship with nature is definitely an imperfect harmony.
My personal relationship with music is an imperfect harmony because I never studied music, but here I am not just writing for bands but full orchestral sections and doing all this composition, and I never learned the right way of doing things so I have a lot of dissonant sounds and things that are brought to my attention, and generally I leave them that way because I like those imperfections. So I think it could be anything.
Tavis: Well, it might not be the right way, but it’s your way, and it’s working. (Laughter) That’s all that matters.
Tankian: Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: The new project from Serj Tankian is called “Imperfect Harmonies.” Serj, good to have you on and congrats on the project.
Tankian: Thanks, bro.
Tavis: My pleasure, good to see you, man.
Tankian: Good to be here, always.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm