System Of A Down's Serj Tankian Talks About Politics, The Record Industry And His Solo Debut
Starpulse.com caught up with Serj days before the album's October 23rd release date to discuss the current state of American politics and the role it plays in his music, his plans for the future, and making songs that'll cause a person to explode out of their rectum.
You put out a great interview with yourself on Youtube where you played yourself and a whole slew of characters. Were any of the people that you portrayed inspired by actual people?
Not in particular. I didn't even know I had so much insight on different characters in the music industry until I actually did this video. I didn't even know what I was doing until I watched it later and thought to myself, "That was hilarious." So it wasn't based on particular people, but kind of like an overly dramatized version of particular roles and constructs of different job qualifications and what everyone does.
In that interview, you answered the popular question of, "What are you trying to say" with "I don't like explaining what I think it means because what you think it means is more valid." That made me think about the current state of American culture and perhaps a parallel to a few of the songs on the new album. Do you think that there might be a sort of intellectual laziness in the US, that Americans are constantly being spoon-fed information, whether it be in school or in the media, and that that, coupled with our desire to have things instantly- like being able to get a hold of people immiediatly with cell phones and Blackberries or know something right away with Google- that that might impede or maybe even decrease our abilities to critically think, the sort of skill that we'd need to answer "what is Serj trying to say" ourselves?
That's a great question. That's a mouthful! Of course as Americans we really love our luxury and we love getting everything immediately with good service and a smile and all of that, but I don't think it hinders our thinking or our ability to think about stuff. Being able to get information at the drop of a needle is an amazing thing. If I want information I can Google it or Yahoo! or whatever, I can get that information immediately and can dive into it immediately and as deep as I want. I think that the real problem is the construct of mass media in this country, like television, and how it's gotten more and more entertainment based than before. I never thought that I would watch CNN and go from a school shooting to Paris Hilton in the same five minutes.
Our educational system is a huge part of it as well. Let's take Iran as a case right now. There's all this talking about war mongering having to do with the Iraq war and Iran with their nuclear issues. It's really interesting because not a lot of people who I've spoken to or dealt with this issue knew the history of America with Iran. They don't know that in the 1950's we helped overthrow a democratically elected government and prime minister because they wanted to nationalize their oil company, which was co-owned by the British, BP Petroleum. So we helped overthrow a democratically elected prime minister, helped bring in a king into Iran in the 1950's, the Shah. The Shah ruled Iran with an iron grip for many decades. The people revolted against that and ended up bringing in a religious cleric to lead their country. So we're very, very involved with what's happened to that country and how it's turned out. A lot of people even say that we're responsible for Islamicizing that country because we overthrew a democratically elected government because of oil interests.
Now, most Americans don't know this fact, a historic fact. It's in the books, you Google it and you'll find it. So you look at this and it'll give you a different interpretation of whether or not we should be at war with Iran right now. You'll look and go, "Wait a minute, we first owe them an apology." And after that we can discuss their nuclear issue, obviously, and then we can try and make peace with them having to do with Iraq, because obviously they pulled a lot of strings with the Shiites in Iraq. I know that this is really important. When you don't have a strong educational system, especially having to do with foreign policy, it is difficult for a democratic citizenry to make the right decisions in a democracy and it's a lot easier for our leaders to take us for a ride like they did with Iraq.
What do you think it will get to take young people to vote and try to change things?
Well, voting is not the be all, end all way of changing things either. I think that voting is great. I think that there can be a lot of change made with voting because when you actually get out there and make your presence heard based on your choices that obviously changes a lot of things. But I think that there are a lot of things that can be done with activism and street level organizing as well. If you want to change the world around you, start with yourself, and your friends and your local community. Don't expect some president a year from now or two years from now to change the heading of the universe for you. That's pretty lazy, as you put it.
Do you think that today's American youth might not be up for that sort of activism or civil disobedience?
We still see a lot of civil disobedience occurring but not a lot in our country. I think generally we are made to feel impotent with our voices. When you have a president who's elected by electors instead of a popular vote, when the majority vote went to the other guy, it's pretty depressing for a democracy if you think about it. When it comes to elections, that's why I say before we elect our next president we should get rid of the Electoral College altogether. We don't need some guys to possibly reverse the majority votes, the popular votes. We don't need that; we're not kids. If I can buy a gun and drink alcohol and I can vote, there shouldn't be someone to reverse my vote called an electorate when nobody even knows who these people are.
The way we elect leaders in this country is pretty weird. We elect people we think are electable instead of people we think are the best representative of our selves and our values. For example, I might be a fan of Dennis Kucinich because I'm very progressive in my politics, but I might vote for Obama or Hillary Clinton because nobody thinks he's going to win. I think that's sad. I think to introduce that kind of capitalistic economics into our voting politics and our democracy is dangerous.
Along the lines of civil disobedience, what sort of action are you hoping to inspire with "The Unthinking Majority"?
I like making statements with songs, obviously not every song. I have humorous songs, personal songs, romantic songs, art for the sake of art. I like kind of dabbling, both lyrically and musically on a particular record, but it's also important to make a statement. At that time there was all of this stuff having to do with Iran and I wanted to make a statement about it and let people interpret it the way that they want. Activism is an important thing. I think that that laziness that you were referring to, the antidote for that would be activism.
So, in that same Youtube Interview, you also said, "I think that art and music come from the universe. I don't think that they come from the individual, but from the collective conscious and when we relate them, we are, at best, skilled presenters." What do you think makes for good music?
That's a good question. I didn't just mean that artists are the only people who channel music through the universe; we all do. Whatever you do for a living, we all have that connection. I think that we're all kind of embedded in this matrix, if you will, of energy in the universe and we're all connected. Music does come from the universe, and a great example of that is the song "Baby" on the record, which is track 7. It literally came to me in a dream. I heard the vocals, the lyrics, even the guitar chords. I woke up and called my cell phone and left a message and when I got home I crafted the song. Now that was the inspiration in a dream, as an example. Had I brought it back and not made a great song, in terms of crafting it, adding a nice melody, a breakdown, and good intro and outro, a good verse as far as lyrics and the power behind it and the singing, the quality recordings, it may not have been a great song but the inspiration was still a dream. I think that what made it a quality song was the crafting and that is just the presentation part, so it's only presentation, but that is a big part of it.
I've always thought that poetry was a very honest interpretation of the times we live in, an honest interpretation of our lives. And I also think that music is an extension of that in terms of the art world. It's a very intuitive representation of what's going on. You listen to sixties music and Bob Dylan, you get a vibe of the sixties. Everything in that time period is usually reflected in the music.
On the individual emotional level, how have you been affected by music? What pieces, if you can think of some, have made you cry?
Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruits. It's pretty heavy. There's a lot of really gut-wrenching, powerful, emotional music that I've been kind of going toward that interpretation with my song writing. The song Elect the Dead is that kind of really gut-wrenching song on the new record and I'm going in that direction with my next record as well. More of a stripped down, orchestral and/or kind of jazz vibe. Just very, very powerful based on the vocals more than anything else.
And in terms of physical reaction, has there been any music that has made you physically uncomfortable? Perhaps nauseated?
Possibly. I know that I made a joke to friends that I've been working on a song with frequencies that will make a person explode out of their rectum, that sort of thing.
Is there anything that you want your audience to feel when they listen to your music?
No. I think that music is like art. It should be placed on the wall and people will interpret it how they interpret it, they will anyway. We all approach stimuli through our own experience. We all approach things differently.
What is your opinion on music criticism?
I think it's okay. You always want to read a better review than a bad one. Either way you can't just put your face in something like that because when you're writing and creating the music, I don't have anyone else in mind. I don't have anything in mind, my mind is blank. I'm just channeling and crafting and working and getting lost in that music, and when it comes out, it comes out. Critics are human beings with ears, and they give their opinions based on it and other people give their opinions. It's all good.
In the past, probably in the future, you've collaborated with quite a few artists, such as Saul Williams and Buckethead, and I wanted to know what sort of qualities do you look for when you're looking for someone you want to collaborate with?
Originality, openness to humanity and the universe. Kindness.
Are there any artists that you haven't collaborated with that you would like collaborate with?
Many. I'd love to do a song with Tom Waits, I'd love to do a song with Bjork. I'd love to do a song with Mike Patton, with David Bowie. God, I could sit down and make a long, long list if I really thought about it.
On "Elect the Dead" you're joined by a female opera singer on a few tracks. Amongst the many songs you've recorded on your own, have you done anything like opera, similar to how Freddie Mercury put out his own Opera album?
A lot of the tracks that were written on the piano have a lot of operatic or symphonic tendencies and dynamics. For the next record that I record, I'm looking for more of a symphonic, orchestral sound. I'm doing a lot more scoring for films, and as a composer I'm writing a lot more strings and that makes me want to go into that world a lot more. I don't want to necessarily use the word opera, because I don't want it to be one thing. It will probably have operatic qualities and orchestral qualities, and probably some subtle jazz qualities.
What sort of progress have you made on the follow-up?
I have written some songs for the record, but I'm planning on writing a lot more. I'm taking my time. It's going to be a simple way of doing it for me. I'm going to write it on a piano or sometimes a guitar, which is how I wrote this record actually, and then compose all the sampled strings and then I'll bring in an actual number of pieces of live strings to play those pieces, or a full orchestra to play those pieces maybe and then record them and mix them and then add certain elements themselves, maybe some standup bass.
You mentioned the vast amount of music you've recorded on your own in many past interviews. Do you have any plans to release any of the pieces in any capacity?
Yeah. I'm always looking for a good film composition gig that I can use to release some of the pieces I have or that I can write new pieces for. I'm looking at video games, sending songs to other artists for them to cover or make remixes or other solo records. I don't think I'll ever release everything until I've tried different ways to expand my tentacles as a songwriter.
In terms of the methods of releasing music that are available today, how did you feel about the way that Radiohead released their latest album?
I think it's genius. For the last number of years I've been talking about how we'll be able to release our stuff. I'm a songwriter, I've got my own studio, I'm a producer so I can literally go in, write a song, record it, post it on my website, go to sleep and be selling it by the morning off of my website. I don't even need to put out a whole record. I think we're getting more to an age where we're able to do that. Radiohead was a good opening of those walls and it does take an established artist with a very loyal following and a credible revolutionary way of doing things to have done that, so they're one of the perfect bands to have done that. I think you're going to see a lot more of that in the future. I think that there's still enough room for the record industry and market companies because a lot of artists don't know how to promote their own music, especially if they're not established artists. But based on the increase of the number of retail chains that have gone bankrupt in the last year alone, in the music industry we're seeing things go more digital and that's going to be a mainstay.
What is it that you hope to achieve with Serjical Strike Records?
The same thing we've always done, which is to introduce original music and work closely with creative, original bands and maintain their credibility on their business side and the same credibility on their artistic side. We're doing that with Fair to Midland, a band we signed in partnership with Universal, an amazing progressive rock band out of Sulfur Springs, Texas. We're doing that with my record, Elect the Dead. We're doing that with the Buckethead and Friends record. And we're doing it all ourselves. We've put out a bunch of records that have given myself and my staff the experience to confidentially handle the release of records. Every aspect of it, from websites, to promotions and markets and publicity, to artwork, to videos. You name it.
Were their things on this solo album that you think you wouldn't have been able to do on a System of a Down album?
I don't know if I'd be producing a System album by myself. I don't know if I'd be able to put it on Serjical Strike Records. I would say not, based on current contractual obligations. So there is a lot, not just on the business and producing end, but just in creating something from scratch yourself than with other people. There are joys and pros and cons to both.
I noticed in one of your videos that you have a foosball table in your studio. In your experience, who's the musician to beat when it comes to foosball?
That's a tough one. There were a couple of guys who were on tour with us last year on the crew who were really, really good. I've gotten pretty good myself, but I haven't played in a while so I think I need to brush up.
Do you have a 'no spinners' rule in effect in your games?
Well, it depends. If there are players that are uncomfortable with the spinning, I'll extend the rule out of courtesy, otherwise, I kind of let people do whatever they want because I should be able to beat them without spinning, even if they are.
Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer
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