Interview: Serj Tankian
Tue, 23 Oct 2007 10:33:00
Elect the Dead marks the full-length solo debut of Serj Tankian, who for the past decade has made his mark as the fiery and charismatic frontman for System of a Down. Along with Rage Against the Machine, SOAD (now on a reportedly short-term hiatus) had been one of the few bands to achieve major mainstream success while keeping their activist ideals constantly at the forefront, both on and off stage. Among the many issues that Tankian has long championed is Congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide, an issue that is currently the subject of hot debate on Capitol Hill.
Elect the Dead blends the personal with the political, with Tankian taking a DIY approach—playing almost all of the instruments, recording in a home studio and releasing the album on his own label (Serjical Strike). Right before the release, he sat down to talk to ARTISTdirect about the changing music industry, his growing song archive and the cowardice of Congress.
What's your take on the Radiohead release of In Rainbows? Do you think it's adaptable on a broader scale, or is it a curiosity confined to bands of that stature?
I think it's the wave of the future, man. For a while I've thought that in five years we're going to be at a point where every artist is going to be their own main portal for sales and distribution, not just information and promotion. I think Radiohead is the first one to actually crack that safe door open—and it took someone like Radiohead, an established act with a very loyal base and a revolutionary bent. I think it's very encouraging.
Radiohead is smart because their loyal fanbase is still going to buy and give them a decent amount. Those that don't know the band are going to get the album for virtually nothing and become fans of the band, and some of those people are going to go to shows and buy merch and buy their back catalog. I think it's really pretty economically socialistic, as well. If you only have five bucks instead of fifteen bucks, the band is giving you a break. They were already a huge band, but I think this will propel them into a bigger stratosphere.
And you think that sort of distribution can be harnessed by upstart bands, too, not just the Radioheads and System of a Downs?
I think the possibility is there, yeah. There are upstart bands now that are using MySpace and different community-based music websites to launch their careers and get interest. ARTISTdirect was one of the first companies that did that. We've been working with you guys for years. Maybe you guys were a little bit ahead of your time. It's all democratizing the music industry. I don't even get demos that much anymore. I get them out on the road, but at the office I just get links to somebody's MySpace—and it's great. You know, you can check out some music, watch some videos, read a bio, check out some pictures, and really get a grasp of what that artist is about—all in five or ten minutes. It's phenomenal.
Do you think that labels will always have a place in the equation?
I think there will still be a need for labels. Artists don't know how to promote themselves or market their records. Unless you're a very well established artist and people are coming to you, you're going to need to promote yourself. There are indie companies you can hire to do web promotion and radio promotion, so you can do it without a label if you become the label yourself and you use those different companies and stay on top of it. But it definitely takes a business perspective and it takes organization, focus and a lot of work—on top of being the artist and touring. We do that with Serjical Strike, obviously, but I don't think most artists will be doing that.
Speaking of Serjical Strike, to what degree does it affect the art when it's your money on the line? Does it make you any more nervous or cautious?
No, it makes me less cautious. Actually, the music itself doesn't change no matter what. When I'm writing music or lyrics, I don't have anything or anyone in mind. I'm just pouring whatever comes out of me from the universe and channeling it and structuring it into a quality record. Now I'm trying to infuse the same integrity that's in the artwork and the record into everything else—the videos, the publicity, the promotions, the photography. From the label perspective, I push to make sure that the artist—which is me in this case—gets the same representation through the business side as he would if he put it out himself.
I read your recent interview with MTV and, while I know you write a lot of songs, I was a bit astounded that you have 4,500 of 'em stockpiled.
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