Interview: Serj Tankian

A singer, poet, songwriter, activist, and composer; Serj Tankian has always created music as an outlet to express his thoughts and feelings with a level of passion and consciousness that few in today’s world of music can rival. An Armenian immigrant born in Lebanon and re-rooted in Los Angeles, Tankian was introduced to the melding of cultures, ideas and ideals from a very young age. The principles learned from this integration and adaptation have led to his understanding of the oneness of all things and have since maneuvered and transfigured into the music that he lives to create.

Imperfect Harmonies’, Tankian’s newest solo album follows in this evolution of song writing and showcases a new side of his musical talents. The album is the second solo release from the System Of A Down frontman, following up his critically acclaimed 2007 solo debut ‘Elect the Dead’. As with Elect the Dead, Tankian produced Imperfect Harmonies himself at his home studio in Los Angeles.

I recently had the opportunity to submit some questions via email to Serj which you can read below.

With it being almost three years since the release of ‘Elect The Dead’, do you feel that you have established yourself as a solo artist away from System Of A Down as the album was met with acclaim or do you think people still put too much weight on your past?

Although I feel like I have truly established myself with Elect the Dead and the follow up orchestral live DVD/CD, Elect the Dead Symphony, I also realize that my unique work in SOAD over 12 years will always be remembered and cherished.

And for that I am very grateful.

‘Imperfect Harmonies’ is the title of your new album. The title is one that to I, can be interpreted in many different ways from not only the musical styling but to relationships and world events. What did the title mean to you when you thought of it?

Imperfect Harmonies can be interpreted on many levels. My personal relationship to music is an imperfect harmony. People’s relationship to each other, countries with each other, and our relationship to nature are all imperfect harmonies.

In fact, I think we strive in our lives to reach perfect harmonies, never truly reaching them till death, though it’s important to try.

‘Elect The Dead’, as you stated, was your rock album without a rock band but you had all of the years of experience from System Of A Down behind you in order to take the task upon yourself to create that album. Now that you’re creating not just a unique sound but effectively your own sound with electronic, orchestra, jazz and rock elements, how difficult was it to write and structure of the music with these elements combined?

It was quite a challenge fusing the electronic with the orchestral more than the live rock instrumentation or anything else. But with some help from some amazing friends and tinkering around in the studio, I figured it out.

I got a lot of great advice and help from my friend Junkie XL on this record.

I’ve read that you had electronic songs and orchestral songs already written but you didn’t want to release an album which was half and half. How long have you been experimenting with different styles and what made you wish to look at such sounds as electronica?

I have over 400 unreleased songs and pieces of music from all types of genres. I have been programming beats and slicing and dicing samples and adding synths for a while. It’s the first time that it’s present in my solo works.

I have used some of my other pieces and songs on other projects (licensed to films, video games, co-written songs, and songs for the musical I’m working on: Prometheus Bound).

While these key styles of music will be featured on ‘Imperfect Harmonies’, are you actively or do you plan to invest time to explore other genres for future albums or projects?

Absolutely! I have full album’s worth of songs in many genres, from jazz to dance, to experimental, to electronica, rock, you name it. I’m also keen about doing an acoustic record, now that I made a completely non-minimalist one.

You’re highly regarded as one of the best lyricists in the world today and politics has always been a major influence for you when writing. ‘Imperfect Harmonies’, with the exception of ‘Borders Are’ and ‘Left Of Center’, you have taken different directions with the meanings to the other songs. What other topics as such have influenced your writing for this album?

Personal stories (those of loss and love) and ecological occurrences that influence human behaviour and habitation play a major role in my lyrics next to the political on this record.

At the end of the August you released the video for ‘Left Of Center’ which certainly was one of the more interesting and well-crafted videos we have seen in recent time. With the uniqueness of the video can you take us through the ideas and the process of moving from drawing board to the reality of what was released?

The video and the treatment were the creation of Tawd Dorenfeld. It relates to man’s unending quest to progress while falling into the pool of apathy and misguided entropy in the process.

Taking this album on the road will be somewhat of a task I imagine as I believe, along with the F.C.C., you are accompanied by additional musicians who perform the orchestral and jazz element to your sound. How does rehearsing for such a show begin with so many elements? I would also think that cost would become a large factor for touring with so many individuals and equipment, especially for European tours, so have you ever considered changing to a backing track or do you feel that could ruin the song as it has to be there, live, in order to gain the full perspective of the music you have created?

We have been playing these songs live with the FCC (my backup rock band) plus 8 classical ensemble players (4 violins, 2 celli, and 2 French horns) selected from each city of our tours. We had a wonderful time doing this in Europe.

The challenges were rehearsing the ensembles every day (since they were different all the time). But it was a really great way of interacting with local musicians and having the audience know that we’re using some of their own on stage.

The sound has been powerful, huge, and massive due to 14 musicians rocking the stage. It’s definitely more expensive, but well worth it :)

How much freedom does working on and releasing the album from your own label alongside a major give you that you never had when working with System Of A Down?

Being a solo artist and working through my own indie label to achieve the results has definitely been emancipating in many ways.

A big part of the release is the packaging which uses tree-free paper. There are of course people who still love to purchase albums, receive all the artwork and specials that are including in physical releases but with the rise in digital music sales and labels being reluctant to break deals with manufacturers and unwilling to explore alternatives, do you feel that digital is the way forward?

There will always be a market for physical product. I for one love getting the vinyl and cd, checking out the artwork with the packaging, design, and material developed and decided by the artist and his people.

However, most future sales will be digital, and I’m totally cool with that as well. It’s the most green way to proceed as well of course.

Serj TankianOn the topic of owning and obtaining music there is the issue of illegal downloading and sharing of music. This isn’t something new to you with the 2002 incident of low quality MP3’s being leaked of System Of A Down songs which led to the release of ‘Steal This Album!’ Are you against sharing and downloading or do you agree with some artists that having your music reach a wide and varied audience will in fact benefit you in the future?

It’s never one or the other. The piracy of music has caused a contraction in the industry as we know it, which in turn, has caused labels to focus even less on artist development and focus on the few easy hits (mega pop format).

The reach of music and the popular rise of music listening has risen dramatically further through piracy and that’s great of course. So it’s really not an easy thing to take sides on. I think people should support artists financially so that artists continue what they do best and not be forced to look for other avenues of expression or income. You see many more artists touring than making records because that’s more profitable. That’s not good for the recording of records.

Along with ‘Imperfect Harmonies’ you are also involved in many other projects from your musical opening next year to your first symphony and you’re second poetry book. As an artist and looking at the full aspect of being an artist, do you see your talent, with the ability to explore so many paths in life and succeed in, as a blessing?

Of course. I have been given the gift of following my vision and passion and making a living out of it. I don’t want to do anything to mess with that. I never take the gift for granted. That is why I try not to needlessly repeat my art for commercial gain.

I try to do something different, creative, honest, and quality with each of my recordings and projects.

If music had not entered your life when you were in college and you found your calling, were do you think you would be now; have you ever envisioned yourself if you never made the move into music?

I’m not sure. I have a very well balanced left and right brain so I could have done many things, still could.

I think I would have found my way here through another channel.

Serj Tankian will release ‘Imperfect Harmonies’ on 21st September – Armenian Independence Day via Serjical Strike and Reprise Records.

Official Website / MySpace

Serj Tankian Imperfect Harmonies


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Michael is the owner and creator of EspyRock. He is your general all round geek; sports fan; TV show fanatic. You can find him sharing his thoughts on his personal Twitter account. Contact Michael on Twitter or via Email.

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