Ask Serj Tankian how he thinks civilization is doing, and he’ll be pretty candid with you: “Based on ecological disasters and the change in climate temperature, global warming, let alone man-made grievances on the planet, civilization is over, at the rate of destruction of the planet’s resources coupled with the accelerated rate of expansion of population.”
It’s a bit of a downer.
You wouldn’t know it with a casual listen to his first proper solo outing, Elect The Dead, in stores through Serjical Strike/Warner this week, but Tankian is tackling some stark realities. “There’s nothing conscious in what I do in terms of writing, whether it’s lyrics or it’s music, so I don’t really think about it until it’s retrospect,” Tankian says. “But I do think that there’s kind of a very deep sadness, but I think there’s a hope and a high energy of trying to transcend that sadness I guess.”
The energy is there. The exuberant, playful style of the manic frontman of System Of A Down, replete with his sforzando bursts, robust melodic lines and damn good scream, is injected into the 12 tracks, which often border on orchestral due to their massive arrangements. But with some exception, this is about as pure a statement of Tankian’s rock instincts that you’ll ever hear, as he wrote all the material, played nearly all the instruments and produced the record himself.
“Producing this was something. In the beginning when I first started, I was a little skeptical about it, because what if I succeed as an artist and not as a producer kind of thing, you know? So I had that in the back of mind, but I really knew what I wanted on this,” declares Tankian. “I knew what kind of sound I wanted from the tones, I knew what kind of guitars I wanted to use, I knew how I wanted my pianos to be and strings to be and the vocals and what mics to use. I was very involved, and I kind of knew what I was going for, so as I went along, layer by layer developing the songs, it was getting there, so I didn’t want to bring someone else in and change things at that point. But I had to do that, I had to step out into the control room, take my artist/ songwriter hat off, put on the producer’s hat and say, ‘How could this be better, is this the best it could be?’ at every point in the game.”
Still, he didn’t handle the whole thing alone. With the help of his engineer, Dan Monty, and a few visits from friends over the course of the recording, Tankian knew, as a producer, that input was essential.
“Monty, my engineer, and I’d do the guitars on a song and I’d ask, ‘Do you hear any other guitars?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, maybe some high guitars in the last chorus.’ I’d say, ‘You do it. Let’s see what you’re going to come up with.’ It was more like having him put his touch and taste here and there,” explains Tankian. “Ani [Maldjian] is an opera singer friend of mine, we’ve done a bunch of stuff together, she’s on the Buckethead and Friends record I produced before, she came in and listened to the music. Most of it was just friends coming in and wanting to hear what I was doing and then finding a place for them if it worked, just go in and do something fun, and if it works for the song, add it.”
There was also the not-so-small matter of drums. While he was able to perform a majority of the instruments on Elect The Dead, Tankian effectively worked in reverse order of the traditional rock band recording process—do the drums last.
“I wrote all of the songs on either piano or acoustic guitar, and then I programmed all my drums. So once I had the programmed drums I knew which direction I was going,” Tankian says. “Then I started doing all my guitars, bass, strings, vocals, harmonies, synths, bells and whistles. I finished the tracks, and the last thing we did was replaced our programmed drums with real drums, which Brain [Primus, Flying Frog Brigade] and John [Dolmayan of SOAD] played on, really, really amazingly.
“This was the first time I did it that way, and it was…” Tankian exhales, “It could have turned out to be a disaster, and it turned out to sound like a real band playing in the end. We were all really, really enthused by it, we were like ‘Yeah! We fooled everyone.’”
There’s a gleeful pride in his voice, a physical manifestation of the excitement generated from pulling off such a trick, but it’s not just the incredible skill involved in programming everything correctly and both drummers nailing their parts after the fact, it’s the fact that by changing over to live drums, Elect The Dead became a rock record, even though Tankian knew this all along.
“It started becoming obvious that it was going to be more rock-oriented or a dynamic classical music-meets-rock kind of vibe, you know, which was interesting to me. These are songs that I definitely wanted to sing on myself. They had this vibe to them, either on piano or acoustic guitar, just a very classic song-y kind of vibe, I don’t know how else to describe it. So I ended up kind of arranging them and working on them.”
And every rock record needs a rock video. For an album steeped in political and social commentary, it seemed there was plenty to say. So Tankian asked, like Green Jello before him, why not do a video for each song? “I always like involving really artsy friends, whether we’re going artwork for the record, website stuff or videos, I like doing it organically, kind of homegrown,” Tankian details. “Same thing with the recordings. I don’t go and get high-profile names, even though I know a lot of musician friends. I try to do it very in- house, very under the cover and do things organically and artistically.
“The idea was to multiply the art factor of the record with the videos and present artistically other things out there that would appeal besides the songs, coupled with the songs. So I gave 12 different video director friends songs, one for each, and a small budget, and said ‘Hey, go crazy. Do whatever art idea that you’ve wanted to experiment with in the past. I don’t want a treatment, I don’t want to see it until it’s done.’ It turned out to be some of the most amazing, amazing videos I’ve ever seen coupled with music.”
Yet that wasn’t the only reason: “The second reason for it, in today’s world with filesharing and downloading, we have to offer much more artistically to the listener than just the actual music itself. It’s just the reality of the business.”
The videos push Tankian’s messages into the visual spectrum. “The Unthinking Majority” depicts stop motion toy soldiers bombing installations in a mock desert and suited men directing people to take oil. “Empty Walls,” the only “proper video” from the record according to Tankian, features schoolchildren in a “play” war, who also play out the inevitable result.
War and struggle is the immediate focus of Elect The Dead, but the desperation of modern life and what Tankian believes to be the end of civilization eventually breaks the surface. “It’s something that I’ve had on my mind for years. The idea of civilization, what does it mean? When people say civilization, they usually think of humanity, and the two are not necessarily the same thing, because man’s been on this planet for millions of years in indigenous form as hunter-gatherer, and then civilization was formed 10,000 years ago, which we call history, in Mesopotamia, funny enough it’s Iraq today. I just find the whole concept interesting, because to me civilization is over, and we’re just trying to fix this dead animal called civilization. We’re all kind of addicted to it, we’ve all lived within the city, we don’t know what’s outside of it, because 99 percent of modern humanity lives within civilization. We’re all addicted to our iced lattes (laughs) and delivery of goods by truck, and if all of that stopped one day, we would all be shit out of luck.”
“Civilization is scientifically unsustainable, it’s no mystery. So, I’m just kind of taking a look at that, and going, ‘Well, we better figure out what to do next together instead of fixing the holes, the gaps, because this shit’s coming down. Hard.’”