Saturday, 1 March 2008

Serj Tankian Interview

Serj Tankian surges forward
America’s angriest Armenian 
wants to elect the dead

He’s certainly come a long way — from living a traditional Armenian childhood in Lebanon, to studying marketing at the University of California, to fronting one of world’s hottest-selling, stadium-fillingest hardcore outfits, System of a Down. Still, for Serj Tankian, it’s not a question of how far you’ve come, but how far you’re willing to go.

Setting the stage for a combined career of metal god and political gadfly, Tankian and his crew of angry Armenians (a.k.a. SOAD) captured the attention of a generation by channelling anxiety and outrage into blistering thrash punctuated with Tankian’s operatic rap-singing. Taking on issues from genocide to suicide over the course of five internationally renowned albums released between 1998 and 2005, Tankian is also the centre of filmmaker Carla Garapedian’s award-winning documentary Screamers.

“It’s primarily a film about the denial of the Armenian genocide,” Tankian explains, “but it also addresses other areas in the world today that are receiving the same treatment. It is a very exciting time, because we [in the U.S.] have the opportunity to elect the first non-white [or] non-male president. But, no matter who’s president, we all have a responsibility to collect knowledge and work towards a world we all want to live in.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, Tankian has recently written and produced a long-anticipated solo album, Elect the Dead. While his former bandmates may have been unsettled by his sudden desire to work with classical instrumentation, it was Tankian himself who was ultimately most surprised by the final result.

“I wasn’t planning on making a rock record, but that’s the way it turned out,” the singer-songwriter says with a chuckle. “I poured over hundreds of records and musical pieces — orchestral, classical, electronic, hip hop, goth, experimental, ballads — and these songs just worked out to be rock songs. I was playing around with dynamic orchestral music written for piano and strings, letting my stream of consciousness lead me, and at a certain point I was surprised because everything was becoming much more dramatic and powerful sounding. I thought ‘Wow! Cool. We’re going rock!’”

Taking his one-man orchestral rock opus out into the public spotlight presented a new challenge. Many of the album’s songs were created on the fly with guest artists and friendly neighbourhood musicians popping in and out of Tankian’s studio to put their own unique stamp on his self-proclaimed “art album.” Every track on Elect the Dead will eventually be accompanied by its own video, each from a different director. To bring his vision to life, Tankian has rounded up a road-worthy dream team to take on the task of re-creating his album live. Dubbing themselves the FCC (or Flying Cunts of Chaos) in a direct snub to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Tankian will be touring North America with Dan Monti, Mario Pagliarulo, Troy Ziegler, Erwin Khachikian and Primus’s Larry LaLonde, along with opening act Fair to Midland, on Tankian’s own Serjikal Strike record label.

“I put together the FCC to help me out on tour,” he says. “I’m really thankful for all they’ve done to make this the best show it can be. We like to give a classier kind of presentation when we perform. We’re known for wearing tuxedos and top hats. It’s kind of a taste of the English-gentleman-meets-Vaudeville.”

With a ready smile and without the begrudging glad-handing typical for a figure of his popularity, Tankain has a well-earned reputation as a really nice guy. Perhaps it is this willingness to meet humanity and all its woes head-on that has kept him engaged in social activism. Tankian continues the dialogue, promoting causes like Amnesty International and tracking his own efforts to run a “green” tour, on his homepage, It’s clear that Tankian is always willing to take things further.

By Christine Leonard
Originally published March 12, 2008 in FFWD Magazine

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