Serj Tankian, the Armenian-American musician who rose to fame as a founding member of the Grammy-winning band System Of A Down, releases his third solo album, “Harakiri,” on July 10.
The new album, which Tankian calls “the most up-tempo punk rock-oriented record that I've written probably since the System days,” is the first of three new albums that he is planning to release. About his next album, “Orca,” Tankian says, “It is a mixture of 20th Century composer music and film score music.” He has worked with orchestras before, as he did on the live album “Elect The Dead Symphony” with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, but this will be his first complete orchestra work.
“Orca” will be followed by “Jazz-Iz-Christ,” which Tankian calls “a collaborative progressive-jazz album with traditional jazz instruments and electronic instruments.”
Tankian has always been outspoken about his leftist political views; this doesn't change on “Harakiri.” Harakiri, also called seppuku, is a form of ritual suicide through disembowelment. In feudal Japan, samurai would perform harakiri in order to honorably avoid being killed by enemies, or as an obligatory form of capital punishment. On Tankian's politically and ecologically charged new album, humans have disrupted the delicate harmony of the natural world, and, as a consequence, the natural world has begun a long process of harakiri. He spoke on the phone from his home in Los Angeles about “Harakiri” and his long career as a musician with political commitments.
Let's get this question out of the way first: Is there going to be another System Of A Down album?
Yeah, we put it out already, but I guess no one bought it! Maybe, but we're all really busy with our own solo projects right now, and with playing shows together. The shows have been extremely fun and exciting, but we really don't have plans to do another record right now.
Beginning with your first band, Soil, you've been making politically motivated music for about 20 years. As the political climate in the U.S. has changed over the years, have you noticed audiences becoming more openminded about your political views?
There's definitely been a change in the culture every year based on technology, awareness and other factors. One thing's for sure, though, and that's that bad presidents make for good music. “Toxicity” was the number one album the week of 9-11. It was a time of fiery reactionism and flag-waving. When the first single, “Chop Suey,” came out, it was taken off the radio, along with thousands of other songs. Around that time, I wrote an essay called “Understanding Oil” that I put up right after 9-11 to explain what was going on and recommend a multi-lateral approach to not just go after those responsible, but also understand our foreign policy in a way to make sure we did the right things in the future so that nothing like that would happen again. Every time you make a political stance, you're opening yourself up to criticism. Politicians tend not to take sides because they have to get as many votes as possible, but we're artists. We don't have to do that, so we can speak the truth.
This morning I watched the video for “Figure It Out,” one of the new songs on “Harikiri,” on YouTube. I noticed that a heated political discussion is happening in the comment section. Is fostering this type of debate as important to you as making good music?
I find that really encouraging. No matter what side of an argument people may take, I think it's great. You're not going to see that on many other artists' videos. I like when it goes beyond the music itself and makes people actually think about something. Making a piece of art that challenges the status quo and that makes people reflect about things is always progressive. Music like that has always been inspirational for me, and I think it makes a difference. But there's also nothing wrong with music being just for entertainment. Making people dance is great, too.
You composed a few of the new songs on “Harakiri” using an iPad. How did this approach impact the songwriting?
It was a lot of fun. I got an iPad with all these really awesome music applications and just started fucking around with them. It was a different way of making sounds, whether beats, samples or arrangements. I sketched three of the new songs using my iPad. It was an experiment that turned out to be fruitful. If you play the piano or the guitar, once you pick up the instrument that you've played thousands of times, there's a natural tendency for your muscles to start playing the chords like they're used to playing them. By picking up an instrument that's not an instrument, or that's a new instrument, it forces you to start writing in a different way. For me, that's a very important thing to do.
The title track is really dystopian. Birds and other animals are killing themselves, and the world is in the process of self-destructing.
That was the first song I wrote for this album. That was back in January 2011, when there was this ominous disappearance of all these birds and fish around the planet. It was such a strange, symbolic, almost biblical thing and I was really taken aback by it. I was influenced and inspired. The album as a whole addresses some of the political, economic and social upheaval that's happened around the world in the last few years.
"The picture I'm painting is the picture of how I see the world. It's not bleak or non-bleak. The bleakness has to do with our lifestyles and the way we live. Our civilization is bleak, and that's the reality of it. As a person, I'm very optimistic."
On the first song, “Cornucopia,” you sing about how humans have broken their pact with nature. What do you mean by that?
The pact is humanities' vision for why we're on this planet. We are supposed to be the caretakers of this planet, not the destroyers of it. We've broken that pact. We've lost our intuitions and have lost our ability to be part of nature. We've lost our indigenous past, in which we all lived with an understanding of our balance with nature.
Do you think it's possible to revive this pact?
I do. I think we need to balance our technological, psychological, left-brain, civilized living with the intuitive knowledge of our indigenous past. It's finding the balance between these two things that's going to drive humanity into making the right decisions in the years to come.
So, in spite of all the destruction you observe, the future isn't bleak? Are you optimistic?
Man, I'm an eternal optimist. The picture I'm painting is the picture of how I see the world. It's not bleak or non-bleak. The bleakness has to do with our lifestyles and the way we live. Our civilization is bleak, and that's the reality of it. As a person, I'm very optimistic. I'm very positive. When I was recently in Europe, someone asked me this question about whether I'm talking about the end of the world. I really thought about it, and I said, “No, I'm talking about the end of the word.”
What do you mean by that?
The way we track different civilizations is through their writings. Civilizations have gone from cave drawings to digital. And, for me, I think I'm addressing the end of our word, and the end of our discussion. It's a time for major change, and we're going to experience those changes mostly as a result of ecological events around the world. We're already experiencing them. We don't give proper credit to them, but a lot of political events are the consequence of ecological events. I'm just observing these trends, and expressing it through my art with a positive intention. When you make a statement with positive intention -- when you speak from your heart -- whether they agree with you or not, people will respect you for it.
Be sure to catch Serj Tankian perform at the Red Bull Sound Space on July 12. The live webcast will begin at 12:30 PST.