Interview With Serj Tankian: The Pursuit Of Imperfection

Interview With Serj Tankian: The Pursuit Of Imperfection

—by , March 2, 2011

On March 1, the boundlessly provocative frontman from one of the most innovative metal bands ever, Serj Tankian, will have a special remix EP of songs from his second solo effort, Imperfect Harmonies available on iTunes. The follow up to Elect The Dead, like Tankian himself, is far from predictable and soulfully designs a new kind of sophisticated heavy. His flair for the dramatic is matched only by his dedication to experimentation.

Serj was supposed to make a stop in NY to support the initial Imperfect Harmonies September release date, and although that didn’t come into fruition, it’s the announcement of a string System Of Down dates in Europe that has fans buzzing.

The Axis of Justice cofounder balanced being personable, gracious and astute when he spoke to The Aquarian Weekly about Imperfect Harmonies, a tormented epic, which also brings moments of absolute elation.

Imperfect Harmonies is mind-blowing. It’s a new kind of heavy; it’s epic and theatrical.

Cool, well I appreciate the positive feedback. That’s always good.

At the same time, lyrically, it’s the most personal and intimate that you’ve ever gotten.

Yeah, I agree.

That lends for a great dynamic. An epic soundscape blended with a personal and moody prose.

Yeah, I guess it kind of works with the music as well. It’s kind of unraveling over time. It’s not so direct, so it works with the moodiness all around. It’s quite a melancholic record, I would say.

“Borders Are…” feels like your “Imagine.”

“Imagine.” John Lennon’s “Imagine?” Wow, interesting. Yeah, life without borders. I could see that theoretically. Musically, as well?

More lyrically, but somewhat musically, as well.

Yeah, wow, that’s interesting. Cool, well, that’s a big compliment.

“Deserving?” is another favorite of mine, because it seems like there’s a character arch in there. It feels like a story.

It’s kind of weird, because it’s a juxtaposition of sort of a gothy, dark verse. You know, a brooding, sad verse with this really happy disco chorus, and ultra poppy and over-the-top in that sense. To me it’s kind of funny. [Laughing] I don’t know how to describe it. How would you describe it?

It’s kind of funny. See this is one of those interviews that I wish was an in person, because it’s just a cool vibe.

Yeah, because it’s not a strict interview kind of thing, it’s more of a conversation, which I prefer. But it’s always so much better smiling and looking at someone’s face when you’re having a conversation [laughing].

We met on your first record with System when you played Old Bridge, New Jersey

Oh yeah, I remember Old Bridge. They had like crazy security, didn’t they? They used to beat everyone up. That’s what I remember.

Yeah, you were really nice. I told you that I’m Sicilian, and you were saying how our cultures are really similar. You were super cool then, like you are now.

Thank you.

So yes, “Deserving?” I had a guy tell me the same exact thing.

What’s that?

The first line, “I don’t deserve you.”

Damn right!

[Laughing] So please elaborate. What’s that supposed to mean?

You never know. Affairs of the heart. Maybe he was just afraid that he would wake up with an ice pick in his chest if he wasn’t good to you [laughs].

Yeah, a dead horse head in the bed [laughs].

Exactly.

All kidding aside, I just think that’s a testament to the personal level that you reached with the lyrics. It’s’ just really intense.

Yeah, it’s kind of heavy. Like a couple of producer friends that I have known for a long time, musician friends, journalist friends—I always get people’s take on it as well. I don’t just answer their questions; I also ask them what they think. That’s kind of overall. Everyone has said, “I think this is your deepest record, most melancholic, more serious, and kind of like what you have been waiting to make, more personal.” A lot of the things you’re saying are pretty spot-on.

Does this make you feel more like a fully-fledged solo artist, as well? Not that you didn’t before, but even more so now?

Yeah, I think Elect The Dead, my first solo record, being out there and establishing myself as a solo artist in some ways at least. It kind of gave me the confidence of, “Okay what do I want to do next?” Why don’t I work with an orchestra, why don’t I do a live show with an orchestra? And put out a DVD of a live show with an orchestra. Okay, cool, that’s done. What do I do next? It gave me a lot more comfort and confidence to go out and do what I want to do artistically, musically, and once I established myself as a solo artist, then people know who the fuck Serj Tankian is. It became a little easier to do all of these things.

“Gate 21” is beautiful, is that Armenian that you’re singing in?

“Gate 21” is not Armenian, but the song after it on the record which is “Yes, It’s Genocide” is Armenian.

Yeah, it just kind of flows.

That’s the thing. I sequenced and I wrote the record in a kind of way that it takes you on a ride. It takes you on a trip. It’s a full record experience. Unlike, here’s a song that you might like kind of thing. Not just that, listening back to it myself, it’s the kind of record that you need to put on more than one time even to just figure out what’s going on. It’s not immediate gratification, immediate fulfillment, it’s one of those where you put it on, and you’re like, “Wow, that’s a lot of stuff going on. What was that? I got to put that on again.” I really, really cherish those kinds of records, personally, because they stay with me. Their vibe stays with me, and I want to go back to them, and you learn something new from them every time you put them on. Rather than, “I liked this record, I listened to it three times. I remember the songs.” But what else is there? You’re not going to listen to them again, maybe one or two times. Or maybe a couple of times a year, but if it doesn’t take you on a ride, you’re not going to go there that many times.

Yes, exactly. The other impression that it gave me is that it almost feels like it could be a soundtrack for a Broadway play.

Wow, yeah how interesting, because I am actually doing a musical. Doing a musical over at A.R.T, at Cambridge. We’re opening in March of next year, based on Prometheus Bound by Steve Sater, who did Spring Awakening. I am composing the musical.

Congratulations.

Thank you.

Will you be acting in it as well?

No, I am just the composer. It’s got an underscore as well as songs, and stylistically it goes to noise to experimental to jazz to electronic to hip-hop to rock. You name it, it goes all over the fucking place, which is really cool. It’s at Cambridge, the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, and if we do well, then we’ll take it to Broadway, and if that does well, then it travels.

Did you play everything as well on this record?

On this record, I wrote everything myself, I played the majority of the instruments. I composed all of the orchestral arrangements, but I did not play live drums or live bass. I had my bassist from my touring band, The F.C.C, Mario Pagliarulo—he played bass on the record and my drummer Troy Zeigler played drums. But otherwise, I kind of played a lot of it. My guitarist friend, who plays with me, he played some of the guitars, but I played a majority of the guitars on the record. I played all the pianos, I did all the beats and samples and vocals. I had my female vocalist friends join me, Ani Maldjian, who is an opera singer, and my friend Shana Halligan, who is a beautiful jazz stylist and singer. So yeah, it was fun.

Is Shana the one on “Wings Of Summer” with you? That’s a great song.

Yeah, Shana is. She’s great.

How long did it take you to do all this? That sounds like a huge undertaking.

Well, I got my own studio. So I worked tirelessly many, many months over this year, and part of last year. I recorded full live with that orchestra, and brought in people, but mostly did it myself, produced it myself, engineered it myself. It took awhile, we had 150 to 200 tracks per session, per song so mixing it was more like mixing a film than a record. So it was just a big project.

It’s just a very moving record, because it has this larger than life sound.

Definitely, I like that as well.

Have you been in embraced by System fans with your solo material—since I think the band’s sound really only attracted the more open-minded from the start, or do you get any backlash?

I don’t know how to define who System fans are for me to even answer that question. You know what I mean? A lot of my fans are System fans, but I also have a lot of fans that are not necessarily System fans. It’s hard for me to know the difference and what their thoughts are. So far the response to the record has been great, and I have been very honest in the press saying it’s a very different type of record, and you need to sit with this. My goal as an artist is to create something new, but quality. If you like it, get it. If you don’t, that’s okay, there’s plenty of shit to get out there.

Why Imperfect Harmonies? Why that title?

Well, it applies to things on many different levels. Imperfect harmonies could apply to domestic relationships. It applies to relationships between nations. Our relationship with nature is an imperfect harmony. My relationship with music is an imperfect harmony. I am not classically trained but I write for band and orchestra and electronics. I think we always try to achieve perfect harmonies within our lives never totally reaching perfection, but always striving for it. I think we reach perfection in terms of harmony in death.

I can understand that. Just in going back to what you were saying earlier with how massive of an undertaking making the record was, would you say you’re a workaholic?

Sometimes I am, when I am in the middle of a project, I get quite obsessed and consumed by the project. In other words, I would be in the studio working on one element of it, and then I would be like, “Okay, I have to eat some food.” I would eat some food, and then I would be taking a shower—I remember on this record, I was taking a shower and I came up with this amazing brass line for one of the songs. So it’s kind of like when you’re consumed by the music you are working, you’re in it and it’s in you until it’s done, when it’s done I can kind of let it go for a second. Then do all the physically work stuff, which is all of the promotion and touring, but at least it is not as possessive of you in terms of your spirit and your emotions. It’s more logical and physical at that point.

What’s your downtime like?

Downtime, I go to my place in New Zealand. I go to my place there. I just relax, hang out at the beach, and hike and swim and read. I do write music, writing music to me is not part of my work, it’s part of my joy. It’s what I actually enjoy the most in what I do, writing and recording music so I do that even on holiday, because when I have space, a lot of things come out. Cool influences just pop out.

I think that’s the key to inspiration, that moment of love or joy as you said of having it come to your head and onto a piece of paper, recording or canvas. I think that’s the key of having it keep coming.

Yeah, absolutely. When that window is open for that muse—that inspiration that comes from the universe—anything could come. It could be a poem. It could be a song. It could be anything. I released a book called Cool Gardens, which is a poetry book with over 90 poems that I put out about seven or eight years ago. We’ve done pretty well with it, and I am coming up with a second one next year called Glaring Through Oblivion, and putting that out in spring sometime.

Imperfect Remixes is available now. More info at serjtankian.com.


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