When System of a Down first hit, they fit right alongside their nu-metal contemporaries, yet their sound and sensibilities came from somewhere else. Serj Tankian’s voice shattered and soared with cultural history, out to educate as well as entertain. I suspect there are many who would never have heard of the Armenian Genocide if not for Tankian’s visibility and activism, and as he’s set out on his own, his work has developed an even finer focus on the state of the world. His latest solo effort is Harakiri, a release that offers pounding licks and flowing melody while taking on issues of environmental degradation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reality television, and American corporatocracy — all fitting topics for the performer who co-founded the social-action organization Axis of Justice with guitarist Tom Morello.
When I first heard System’s music back in 2001, I remember wanting to hear more of the Armenian performer’s softer vocals, like the ones that crept into “Toxicity” and “Deer Dance,” and — amid the hard-hitting rock — Harakiri provides just that. The album’s title was inspired by the eerily synchronous mass die-offs of fish and birds in early 2011, to which the musician applies the metaphor of harakiri, a samurai’s ritual suicide. “They crown the sun,” he sings on the title track, suggesting a spiritual significance to the creatures’ mysterious demise. Harakiri is my favorite of Tankian’s solo releases thus far, and it’s one of several projects he’s currently working on.
Also in the pipeline is a fusion of classical jazz and dancehall synth called Jazz-Iz-Christ, and a full-orchestra symphony entitled Orca — a beautiful work, if this sample is any indication. The Lebanon-born artist — who used to design software for the jewelry industry — has collaborated with Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self Indulgence on a project called Fuktronic, an experimental mix of jazzy, Euro-inspired electronics laid beneath a British-mobster, spoken-word audio play. Just finishing up the North American leg of his Harakiri tour, Tankian performed his final Stateside show at L.A.’s Club Nokia to an adoring audience, and now he’s off to Europe.
It’s a serene drive through the Santa Monica Mountains to meet with Tankian at his home in Calabasas. I had interviewed him once before for his Elect the Dead Symphony in 2010, and I was looking forward to the follow-up. He’s flanked by two friendly dogs — one named Bowie for his different-colored eyes — when we meet in his peaceful, hardwood sanctuary overlooking a forest valley. The quiet, thoughtful rocker kicks back on the couch to chat about Harakiri, social change, and the blast he’s had back on the road with System.
How did you develop the frenetic feel of Harakiri, which seems to bounce around between landscapes?
Frenetic is a good word for it. I was bouncing around continents, landscapes, projects. I was working on four records at once, all of completely varied genres, so I think all of that lent itself to making each project really interesting. I would say Harakiri is the easiest record I’ve ever written in my life, the least filtered record, and the least amount of time I’ve spent making a record. I just put it down and didn’t question what I was saying, didn’t question what the arrangement was, I didn’t fuck much with it, basically. And I think the message comes out that way, that there is a certain urgency, a certain direct connection, a certain unapologetic sense of transference.
You are carrying on a long tradition of rock ‘n’ roll harnessed for social change.
It’s always easy to err on the side of public opinion. It’s always harder to take a stand and go, this is the truth. With all my heart and soul and knowledge, I believe this is the truth. And you’re going to fucking hate me for it, but this is the truth and you’re probably going to take my song off the air and not buy my records, and call me unpatriotic sometimes, or whatever, you know? The truth is the truth. It doesn’t change.
Do you feel this is something that is important for you to do as an artist?
Yes. Music has many phenomenal purposes, and entertaining is a great one; dancing is a great one. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there are so many variations of music; it’s such a gorgeous, inspiring, intuitive medium. But I think part of that is to illustrate the times that we live in, to narrate some of the truths of our times, and to inspire for positive change. There’s definitely that aspect of music and I’m very partial to that. Now, I’m partial to that on Harakiri; the jazz record [Jazz-Iz-Christ] is not partial to that because that’s a whole different vibe. Orca’s not partial to that because that’s a whole different vibe. So it depends. Lyrically, maybe, I am partial to that.
How did System of Down decide to saddle up again and go on tour?
I don’t know. It wasn’t a particular event that happened or anything like that. I think one day, John [Dolmayan] and I were communicating — we would always get offers to tour and stuff like that, and it was like, okay, I can make it, [but] no, he can’t make it. Everyone’s schedules and stuff. So Shavo [Odadjian] was about to get married [in 2010], so we all got together then, but even before then, I think we met up one time just to hang out; it had been a while since we had all hung out. So everyone said what they felt like doing; like, this is what I’m willing to do. At first, I’m like, hey, let’s just play a few dates; maybe just play an L.A. show and have fun. And that turned into a whole tour. The whole tour turned into two continents, turned into four continents. [laughs] So it wasn’t like, let’s go back tour again and tour the world! It was more like, hey, I miss playing a show; that would be fun. Not thinking of recording, not thinking of anything. Just like, I miss this. I miss the jokes, and I miss having food with you, let’s go play a show! We haven’t done this in six years, let’s go play one!
Is it like traveling back in time when you’re together with them? Is there a sense of comfort and familiarity, like going back home to visit?
There’s a certain aspect of that, I guess. But it’s not going back in time because everyone has changed, time has changed, time has moved on. Although some of the old jokes come back and you’re like, I remember that from fucking 1995, dude! [laughs] You’re still saying that joke? Are you serious? And we’ll laugh. But it’s a good vibe among all of us, which is the important thing. We’re all actually really having a great time doing it. Sure, it’s comfortable. You’ve been doing it for a while. Doing your own stuff is always a little tougher, of course. There’s more responsibility, more of everything to do. You’ve got to do all the press and everything’s on you. Whereas, when you’re doing it as a band, you separate out the responsibilities and everything else. Plus, touring with System has been great, also, because we’re not supporting anything. We don’t have a record out, we don’t have press to do, we don’t have shit to do! We just go play the shows. We barely sound check — just the first show — because that’s how we like to roll. It’s like, let’s have some fun out there! So that’s been awesome. That’s made the show better, I think.
I’ve always wondered about the influence your background has had on the way you use your voice.
I think the influence on my voice, there is a certain melancholy to my voice that’s inherent in my people, in the Armenian people, because of all the 600 years living under the Ottoman Empire as second-class citizens. And the pain behind the Genocide and all that. I think there’s something behind my voice that has that tinge to it. I can’t really describe it.
When did you first become interested in music?
My dad would sing at home; there was always that influence. He loved music. Growing up, he played instruments, although he never played them at home because he was too busy working to raise the family — but not as a musician, as a designer. So I remember as a kid singing with my dad at home and stuff like that, and that song that we used to sing together, I sang with him on his record [Inchbes Moranak] two years ago. My dad’s name is Khatchadour. [Writer’s note: see Tankian and his father sing together here.] But I never really got into playing music until I was in college. I just had a little Casio keyboard, just to get my mind off my studies. It was a great way to relax, and that’s what it was. But I started getting more and more into it, so after college, I was writing these little pieces, and I had a more professional keyboard, and singing along — and I’m like, wow. But I still didn’t consider it a career choice. I think coming from a culture that has seen hunger, everyone wants their kids to be professionals — doctors and lawyers — because they want the best for them. They want the most security possible. But we have such inherent cultures that have the arts as part of our blood, that it’s hard to avoid.
What do you see as the ideal state of the world in which things could work out better rather than worse?
If I could make everyone believe in one thing that they all share together, it would be interconnectivity. If everyone can feel interconnected with other beings, other animals, other people, the environment, everything around them. If everyone was like that — they could be of any culture, any race, any religion; it doesn’t matter. If they could just believe in interconnectivity, I think the world would be a different place, altogether. Because if you yell at the guy in front of you and honk at him in your L.A. traffic, and you believe in interconnectivity, you’re connected to that guy. He could be your brother from another lifetime. He could be you, really. So am I yelling at myself now? All compassion would rise automatically. We’d still go into our states of egoic existence, which we all have, but if I could change one thing on this planet in everyone, then you would go, “Wait, my actions are causing this. So if I reverse them or if I do this, there will be less of this.” You’d look at global warming — or climate change, I should say more correctly — and you’d go, “Okay, what’s causing this?” It’s very factual. You look at our meat industry, you look at the water that we use, what most of corn is used for, and all this stuff, and you go, “If I believe in interconnectivity, and if I did this, this, and this, then I could help, here, here, and here.” Everything would be simple, really. I guess knowledge, too. Interconnectivity is one thing and knowledge would be the other.