INTERVIEW: Serj Tankian Talks Music, Politics & A Kardashian

Photo Credit: Robert Sebree
Harakiri is the latest studio album from singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet and political activist Serj Tankian. Tankian is well-known as the frontman for System of A Down, however, during the band’s hiatus, the musician has been exploring various musical territories on his own. Ranging from jazz, classical and orchestral to electronic, the musician isn’t one to be forced into boundaries even though his fans mostly come from the alt-metal world. B-Sides spent some time speaking with Tankian about his music, politics, Kim Kardashian and more, just ahead of the start of a handful of U.S. dates that will include a stop in San Francisco, September 24th at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium.

Harakiri is a return to a heavier rock sound for you, was this inspired by reuniting with SOAD or was it just a natural progression after writing Imperfect Harmonies, which was very orchestral based?

Maybe a combination of all of the above. It’s been a few years of a lot of upheaval in the world from the Arab Spring, to the Euro Crisis, to the Occupy movement, to the death of a million species around the planet, the environmental degradation, so I think the kind of raw aspect of Harakiri speaks volumes about what’s going on in the world. Touring with System last year and this year might have added to that as well and it’s not something I planned on doing, it just kind of came to me early last year.

Did you do a lot of writing on the road when you were with SOAD or was it mostly after the tour and you were on your own and these things had been floating around with you when you were on tour?

I wrote everywhere, I wrote songs during the musical when I was working in Boston, I wrote songs on tour with System, I wrote songs in the studio, I wrote songs while I was in Armenia, I wrote songs everywhere. I was all over the planet doing a million things and writing music at the same time, and not only this record but all four records. I was composing everywhere.

While you were writing and composing the 4 upcoming records, you came up with your own iPad app available now called “I Am Serj,” did you use this when composing Harakiri and can we expect to see you using the iPad on tour?

I wasn’t planning on releasing it while composing Harakiri but because I used some music apps on the iPad to kind of sketch songs on the record, it inspired me to create my own app. We basically took a lot of the loops from Harakiri as well as a bunch of loops from my previous solo records and create this app so that people could make their own music and ringtones and post on Facebook, it’s basically a music creation program for non-musicians. I haven’t used an iPad on tour but I’ve been thinking about doing it actually because I think it’s a cool thing for the band to jam to and start on something but I think it would be more fun if there was a camera showing what I was doing on there rather than just kind of making sounds with the iPad. I’m definitely thinking of integrating it into the show.

Do you think that other celebrities of Armenian descent are doing enough to bring light to Armenian genocide of World War I, like Kim Kardashian, for example, whom most people know for her reality TV antics rather than her activism in the Armenian community?

I know that Kim has done a bunch of Twitter posts having to do with the awareness of genocide and I have given her props for that before. I think a lot of Armenians have done their part in trying to disseminate information and awareness about the genocide because it’s such a personal thing for us. My grandparents were survivors and it’s important for people to understand our story and it’s important for humanity because had the genocide been recognized and the justice issues addressed, I think it would be hard for the Holocaust to have occurred. I think it’s important for Turkey as a modern country to fess up to it’s own past and history. It’s got a lot of journalists still in jail because of their Kurdish issue as well as freedom of speech issues. Being in the NATO Alliance, so closely aligned to our military, having a country that throws journalists in jail speaks volumes about who we do business with on our foreign policy.

Over the years, you’ve worked and toured with a lot of amazing personalities. SOAD toured with Ozzfest, worked with Wu Tang Clan, including prominent names in the Bay Area like Mike Patton and Metallica; which has been your favorite tour or collaboration and do you have any fun stories?

That’s a tough one, bro. Speaking of Patton, I’ve toured with Patton on a number of different projects of his, including some of my solo stuff. Last time it was with (my solo touring band) the F.C.C. in Australia when he was doing Fantomas. We’ve toured with Patton with Mr. Bungle with System and same with Faith No More in New Zealand. There’s been so many cool interesting tours, it’s really hard to pick one.

Speaking of the earlier days of System, you have consistently produced music that carries political messages and social themes; How do you continue to keep the message fresh and relevant with the audience without getting to the point where you are repeating yourself or simply beating the listener over the head with these messages?

That’s a good question, I’m not sure. I try to use the most honest intentions and words that I can to express the things that I’m talking about and hopefully it will internally connect to the listener.

You are very open about your music and allow a kind of open forum by answering questions from your fans on your website. Do you get a lot of questions about the messages in your music?

I get a lot of interesting questions, if that’s what you mean, about the music, about songs. Someone asked me yesterday, they said “’Lie Lie Lie’ from the first solo record really confuses me. For all these years, I’ve been listening to it and I still don’t know what it’s really about and I saw the video by Martha Colburn, it’s a great video but that confused me even more,” and I looked at her and I just laughed and I said “Good!” [Laughs]

You’re set to release 3 more solo albums in the near future and each of these has their own sound or style, including an electronic project called “Fuktronic,” what can we expect?

“Fuktronic” is the name of the actual writing team of Jimmy Urine and myself. Botched Up is going to be the name of the project. It’s a British gangster film, we’re working on visuals right now with a high tech interactive mobile company developing these amazing apps to be able to experience Fuktronic as an integrated, artistic, visual experience.

Was Fuktronic inspired by the recent up-rise of electronic music or is this something you have always wanted to experiment with or has always been in your head.

It’s inspired by a love for British gangster films like “Gangster Number 1” and “Sexy Beast” and stuff like that that are very funny. Both Jimmy and I enjoy the violence and they are great things to fall asleep to, like just watch and go to sleep because they’re so over the top that they’re not really very effective in terms of sensibilities, they’re just over-sensitized, you know? Over-sensitizing, if that’s a word. We find them funny, we find them enjoyable so we both cater to that so we both had a lot of electronic tracks that we put together and brought in most of our friends who played different parts; British gangster, Russian gangster, French girl and frothy British accent girl and all these different characters, it’s a lot of fun.
That sounds like a really interesting and fun project. I’m really looking forward to the next 3 solo records to follow up Harakiri.
Thank you! On October 28th, we’re recording ORCA live with an orchestra, the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, Austria. It’s one of my favorite orchestras in Europe, I worked with them before on the Elect The Dead Symphony Tour and so we’re recording ORCA live with them, that’s going to be interesting, right after the European tour.

Contributing Writer: Sunny Boparai

Serj Tankian - "Figure It Out" Official Video

Serj Tankian U.S. Dates:
Sept. 24 San Francisco, CA Fillmore
Sept. 26 Las Vegas, NV House of Blues 
Sept. 27 Solana Beach, CA Belly Up
Sept. 28 Los Angeles, CA Club Nokia