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Serj Tankian

We schrijven het jaar 2001. Nadat ondergetekende op TMF een videoclip voorbij zag komen van het nummer 'Chop Suey' van één of andere band genaamd System Of A Down die mijn toenmalige echtgenote direct wilde wegzappen wat slechts voorkomen kon worden door een ferm 'NEEEEEJJJJ', was het tijd geworden om de platenzaak binnen te stappen, de cd 'Toxicity' uit de schappen te nemen, af te rekenen en naar de auto te gaan. Ik heb letterlijk een kwartier zitten staren naar de autoradio en voornamelijk door de klanken die eruit kwamen. Gebiologeerd was ik door deze band. Toen zij in 2006 voor onbepaalde tijd uit elkaar gingen om hun eigen ding te doen, zou je kunnen jammeren dat System er niet meer is, maar ik zag voordeel: Twee bands die de krankzinnige muziek van System mee zouden nemen in hun nieuwe projecten. De ene band, Scars On Broadway, bracht in 2008 een album uit maar de zanger van deze band, Serj Tankian, kwam al ruim een half jaar daarvoor met zijn solo album 'Elect The Dead', waarop de waanzinnige stijl van System veel verder werd uitgewerkt door de toevoeging van meer melodie, andere arrangementen en evenzo aangrijpende teksten. Toen begin dit jaar een versie van 'Elect The Dead' uitkwam met een symfonieorkest in plaats van een band, was het voor Lords Of Metal tijd om eens contact te zoeken met Serj die op het moment van spreken in Los Angeles druk in de weer was met de eindmix van zijn nieuwe cd...

Door: Wilmar | Archiveer onder different metal

band image…good afternoon, or good evening I should say…

Yeah, it's around eleven o clock over here. What time is it at your end of the world?
It is two PM in Los Angeles and we're just finishing some mixes for the new LP I am working on.

Which is also my first question: how is the work on the new album coming along?
Good. Thanks brother. Yeah it is coming along really great. We have mixed three tracks already out of the eleven and we're about to put another one up. We're doing some options on one of the mixes you know. Yeah it's exciting you know, I get to listen to it in my own studio and then we're going to the studio where it is being mixed and then coming back here again and listen to it again, because I am used to listening to things here. So it's kind of like... You know you can take your reference with you in some ways.

Another item we are going to discuss is your recently released album 'Elect The Dead Symphony'. How did you experience this concert as a vocalist? I imagine you have to tap a whole other register there in comparison of singing with a rock band
It wasn't that much different. It was different that in a rock band your mistakes can always be hidden by the heavy guitars and drums, you know? With an orchestra it's all plain for everyone to hear, so you really have to sing out. The good thing is that I didn't have to compete with the other instruments as you would on stage with a heavy rock band. With an orchestra there was a lot of space for the vocals obviously because it's all acoustic instruments although it's still dynamic and big. So I basically sang out instead of singing 'rough' if that makes any sense.

I was wondering why two of my favourite tracks from 'Elect The Dead' were not rearranged for the symphony, to be exact 'The Unthinking Majority' and 'Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition'. Were those two too hard to be rearranged that way?
I think they would be and by far we haven't attempted it, but those are two songs, and I love those songs as well. They sounded great in the rock version with all of the twists and changes and everything, but it was going to be quite a challenge to do that with the orchestra. Especially 'Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition because there are a lot of samples and you need more equipment. It was something I was just doing on my own in another country without worrying about trying to get production things in line so I decided to skip them because they would be more difficult. Not impossible mind you, maybe one day I would do it but it would be more difficult yeah.

Another thing that stood out was when you start the third song 'The Sky Is Over', somebody is really screaming their lungs out. Now only having a cd for reference, I was wondering if you could tell me what was happening that made this person scream like she was being killed or something.
[laughs] I don't know, we had a couple of screamers in the audience and they kept on screaming between the songs and sometimes during the songs. Since we were recording this sometimes things get picked up. We tried to lower the audience sound but we can't get rid of everything obviously. So... yeah we had some excited fans, that's what it was [laughs].

There was nothing special happening...
No, no nobody was getting murdered in the audience, nothing like that

OK, your new album. I recently discovered that the title will be 'Imperfect Harmonies'. Is that correct?
Yes. It is correct.

Is it an indication of the new musical content?
You know, it comes from one of the songs that I actually finished but didn't put on the record. To me it's just a general state of things just having to do with the music, like here I am doing all these different things with orchestral music, and I never studied music. I never learned that, so I don't know what is right or wrong musically, I just do what feels right and sounds right, you know? Intuitively. So maybe in some cases I might have imperfect harmonies. I know that when we were recording live strings the conductor would get me on the PA and ask me “are you meaning to do this this way, because it's very diffusing or it is very dissonant” and I listen to it and I go like “yeah, yeah that's on purpose” [laughs]. You know because it sounds good to my ears even if it's the wrong notes with each other so I guess I am doing a lot of imperfect harmonies this way. But as long as it makes sense to my ears, it's fine. But it is also a statement about life. The combination of chaos and order, Yin and Yang, everything is technically an imperfect harmony. Relationships, you can take it to many different levels.

You can take this more ways than one then?

You call your music techno-orchestral-jazz-rock, but something to me is still vague. By jazz do you mean bebop, fusion, free jazz, how can I make this mental picture of the new music, or should I just hear the new album?
You have to hear the record. I never used the word 'techno', I used the word 'electro', because it's got a lot of electronic beats and filtered, there is a lot going on, I mean there are two hundred tracks per song that we mix, so there is a lot going on. There is a live orchestra, a sampled orchestra, strings, timpani's, a full orchestral percussion, full live drums and bass, guitars, acoustic guitars, sometimes electric guitars sometimes not, there's a whole lot electronic beats all over the tracks in different tempo's, synths and also for the live feel we added a jazz kit so we had so many variations and options and layers of music going on that when you listen to one song, part of it will be rock, part of it will be jazz, part of it will be electronic, part will be orchestral but they all come perfectly together as well. That's the challenge and the trick that I have been playing with and it has taken the most time to get through and I found some interesting ways of bridging organic and synthetic music together. So it has been quite an adventurous sound for me to come up with. All of the songs sound really kind of artsy and improvisational but they are actually crafted songs in a typical song writing fashion just arranged with a lot of different colours. That made it really interesting for me.

Could you give us the scoop of some song titles?
Sure. There is a song called 'Borders Are'. There is a song called 'Electron'. Let me think. Some of the song titles are temporary and I am still thinking which ones I want permanently. There is a song called 'Gate 21' that's also on the orchestral dvd.

Yeah I heard it.
That one I just played on piano, on the record it will be fully arranged. And... what else... Oh that's good for titles for now.

You know, I don't want a lot of temporary titles floating around...

band image

A colleague of mine was at the Amsterdam concert you gave three years ago and he described it like 'Frank Zappa lives and plays in a heavy metal band'. I kind of came to the same conclusion separately, since your way of composing and performing are becoming quite 'Zappa-esque'. Can your relate to that?
That is a huge compliment, I am a huge Zappa fan. Some people have said that I have his sense of musical exploration and adventuralism but I kind of do my own thing obviously and follow my own musical vision or the muse that comes to me. But I love his stuff and I think that his stuff is divided, you know I try to get all his records, but his stuff is divided into extreme experimentalism and adventurism in terms of music, and I like that. But to be honest I don't write music to try to do different things with it. I write music the way things just come to me, in an organic way, like the things I am doing today. I just try to make it interesting creatively and in quality so that I enjoy it years later and so that I am proud of it and I put something out there that I really, really believe in. There is so much out there that is just done for, you know we really need to make records we really believe in.

That's audible. 'Elect The Dead' was a straight hit here at my place.
Cool, thank you.

Another question. I am a big Primus fan as well, and you had Larry Lalonde tour with you. So how did you manage to get Larry to come along?
Well we were very lucky, we had for 'Elect The Dead' the record Primus on most of the tracks, Brain had played on them and he suggested we could get Larry for the tour even though Brain didn't tour with us. So that's how I met Larry... No wait, I met Larry years ago touring with System and Primus on Ozzfest and what not. I met him a number of times. But we started playing on tour together and that was awesome. I love his.. I mean he is a huge experimental force, a phenomenal adventurist as far the guitar is concerned, you know he has jammed with Tom Waits... He just got a great spirit, not only musically but personally as well, a real positive guy. I love him.

How was it to work with your father on an album?
[laughs] It was great! It was definitely a labour of love man! My dad has been a singer and a musician his whole life but he never had the opportunity to do music professionally, because he could not make enough money to support us, the family and the kids and what not, so he became a designer, he picked another art form that suited him. He has been doing that all his life. When he retired he had the inkling to do something, you know every man has to be productive and we were sitting around the table on a Sunday and I think my mom suggested it like “Hey why don't you make a record?” and I said “that's a great idea”. I just love to make that record and I suggested “hey let's make some more”. So we made an Armenian record with mostly Armenian traditional songs and some new songs he and some friends collaborated on writing. And I think it really turned out great. We put it out on Serjical Strike in early January. Now he is getting requests to do shows and come sing and he is happy with that. I owe him a lot. When it came to the music he was very encouraging. I know there are a lot of parents out there that don't encourage the artist as much as the... eh... professional... I don't know what to call it, being a doctor or a lawyer. But my dad did. He was very encouraging. It was difficult to be encouraging like that but I definitely appreciated that.

About the return of System Of A Down, you already stated that nothing is in the works, but how do you feel about a facebook message by System bassist Shavo Odadjian called 'Are you guys ready for System?' on which Blabbermouth had all alarms going off that a System Of A Down reunion was imminent...
Well, there is always rumours going around about everything around System. I got friends from all around the world calling me and saying “hey you are playing Rotterdam on the twenty-second of april” and I go like “Am I really? Cool! Have fun with that!” [laughs]. You know, the rumours are always abound and that's all good. But there is no collective decision to collaborate on anything as of now. We often get offers to play shows and what not, that we discuss collectively but there is no current decision that I can report. The possibility is there of course and what and when it will happen will be quite transparent.

Have you heard the 'Scars On Broadway' album?
I did, but it was a while back, about a year and a half or two years ago. I got a copy around that time...

And what did you think of it?
What are my judgements about it? I am very encouraged by it. I love hearing what the other guys do artistically and expend their horizons and I think that's an awesome thing yeah.

I love the album as well. I have to rush for the five more minutes [laughs]. 'Elect The Dead Symphony' is coming to theatres near us, is there a possibility we can see this show in The Netherlands?
I don't think there will be other shows, I believe that all the dates have been done. I have to check with my office if there are more dates yet, but I am not sure. I don't remember all the dates and cities by heart.

Final question. You are very politically engaged with the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish government, the Axis of Justice, and I once read you were supplying meals to homeless people in Los Angeles. I wonder when we will see Serj Tankian in the Oval Office...
[laughs] Oh, that kind of political activity. I don't think that is for me bro, I like speaking through my art and that is my favourite way of speaking, and I never want to be in a position where I will be in office to negotiate the truth.

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