Interview: Serj Tankian of System of a Down — "I feel like I'm definitely treading on new territory musically and doing something I've never done before."
Mon, 12 Apr 2010 12:01:47
Serj Tankian may very well be music's most hospitable host.
"How do you want your coffee, bro?" The System of a Down singer asks while standing of the foyer of the San Fernando Valley studio where he's mixing his second solo offering, Imperfect Harmonies.
There's really nothing Imperfect about the album (or the coffee) though. In fact, Serj has painted the perfect aural pastiche—from sweeping orchestral electronic passages to jazzy mid-song breakdowns to a distorted jagged guitar crunch. There's never a dull second on songs like "Corporatocracy," "Electron" and "Beat Us." Each and every moment pulsates with a true vibrancy that's been a trademark of the singer's since System of a Down's self-titled debut.
About the eclectic mix, Serj laughs, "It's like tutti frutti ice cream! I was thinking of calling the record that and then I was like, "I can't call my record 'tutti frutti ice cream!'"
Nevertheless, the title would've certainly fit as absolutely anything goes in this sonic sundae, and it's undeniably tasty.
Serj Tankian sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for an exclusive preview of Imperfect Harmonies and oh so much more…it might make you hungry it's so delectable.
What does Imperfect Harmonies mean to you?
On different levels, it means different things. I've never studied music; I'm not classically trained. However, I've been playing music for over 24 years. So, when I'm writing ensemble pieces for orchestras or whatnot, I know what I'm doing because my ear and my intuition tell me what to do. But, because I'm not learned, some of my harmonies are probably more than imperfect—or less than perfect, I should say. It was in that frame of mind musically. To me, Imperfect Harmonies is also like an adjective that describes our relationship with nature, our relationship with each other as nations and as people, and our personal relationships with marriages and loved ones. When you think of Imperfect Harmonies, there's a lot you can think of in terms of layers. That's why I called the album that. It has a lot to do with the times we're living in now, and it's a macro-, micro- type of adjective.
Well, you could view the way all of these different sounds cascade together on the album as the way people communicate.
Interesting, wow…what do you mean?
Basically, there are all of these sounds in each song. They're all doing something and communicating something different, but they're all stuck within the framework of one song. It's similar to how the world works with people…
Or any company or any organism, yes!
You've created a whole vision of human interaction period with these songs.
Can I quote you?! [Laughs] I'm going to start quoting you. People will ask, "Did Serj say that?" I'll respond, "No, my friend did!"
Go for it! Do you feel more open than ever before?
I feel like I'm definitely treading on new territory musically and doing something I've never done before. I'm even hearing things I've never heard before within that frame. To me, that's exhilarating, creative and exciting. That excitement is making me work harder and do all that. I spent four or five months just locking myself in my studio six or seven days a week and pumping the production aspect of it—from the orchestral portion to the electronic to the re-sampling to the light instrumentation to the last bells and whistles.
If you were to compare this record to a movie, what would you compare it to?
That's a good question, but it's a tough question. I don't think Imperfect Harmonies compares to one single movie. There's a lot of stuff. On "Beat Us," the orchestral part that opens the song up is like a beautiful, glorious day. Then there's that chase scene that comes in. Even in the middle of one song, there are two different vibes. I can't pin it on one movie, but it definitely has a huge score-style sound because of the usage of orchestra.
What's the story behind "Electron"?
It's a pretty old song. I've had in the vaults for quite a bit of time actually. To me, it's like a poetry of our existence. It talks about nature and spirituality and what we're facing in the times to come in a very poetic way.
Is there anything that's encouraged your lyrical evolution?
I haven't been writing more, but I have been reading; I always read. Every year you think about new things and your thinking changes—your influences change, maybe not drastically but to a certain degree they progress and evolve to whatever you're really interested in at the time and where that's going. When you're writing a song, it doesn't have the free-flow, connection and truthfulness of a poem. In a poem, at least the type of poetry that I write without any restraints, you can say whatever you want to say. I don't put it into form. I write wild form, stream-of-consciousness poetry. Within a song, you have to really focus on what you want to say, and that's important when it comes to finalizing lyrics for me. I go in there and say, "Are those the words I really want to say?" For example, "Corporatocracy" had another pre-chorus with other lyrics but when I listened back to it, I was like, "It's not as good as the first one." You've got to make these determinations—almost as a producer.
Where does this record fit in your catalog? Where does it take you as an artist?
It's definitely a huge step after Elect the Dead, with Elect the Dead Symphony the orchestral DVD and CD as a bridge in some ways. It's a whole different kind of record. It's got the same spirit and power of stuff I've done my whole life musically, but with a whole new style of painting with different colors I've never used or never used together. I think I made a record that I haven't heard in this exact way anywhere else. Whatever happens from here on, that's a whole different story, but I'm happy I made something that I had never worked on in this exact way.
Check out our exclusive video interview with Serj here!
Are you excited for Imperfect Harmonies?