Serj Tankian on his upcoming 'Imperfect Harmonies': 'There's a lot of heartbreak on this record'
Discussing his upcoming solo album, former System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian drops an unexpected word: "Edit." Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Tankian speaks about his music with a professorial ease. It's a long way removed from his on-stage and in-the-studio persona, where hard rock is simply the basis for an excuse to take a multitude of left turns, explore orchestral fits and jolt the listener with sometimes frantic changes of pace.
"Before I would always build, build, build, build, and then be done," Tankian said Wednesday afternoon from his Sherman Oaks studio. "Now, I build in parts. I built the orchestra. I built the electronics. I built the live instrumentation. Then I went back and took things out. It was the first time I threw everything against the wall and then started taking things out."
But if such pruning was the case, it wasn't readily evident in the three songs Tankian previewed from his upcoming solo effort, "Imperfect Harmonies," tentatively tabled for a September release. After announcing that he was halfway through the mixing process for the 11-track album, Tankian unveiled the first finished cut, "Corporatacy."
The title will change, Tankian said, but the near-industrial electronic stomp that opens the song is likely cemented in place. More theatrical than purely aggressive, the song, like much of System of a Down's signature work, soon spins seemingly out of control. Nine Inch Nails-like keyboards drop out, and the verses twist into a jazz-like free-for-all, at least until the guitars arrive in the chorus to remind the listener that Tankian was, indeed, the leader of one of recent history's most successful metal bands.
"I felt so alone until you came in my life stopped the pain," Tankian sings in an unexpectedly quiet bridge. But the earnestness doesn't last, as the lyrics go from love to anger to heartache in moments, capturing the full range of a dead-end relationship in a span of 20 seconds. Or maybe not. "God speaks different in every language," Tankian repeats as the song comes to a close.
Tankian displays a more vulnerable side in another one of the new tracks, "Beat Us," in which guitars meld with electronics until it becomes impossible to tell which instrument is which. An ornate arrangement carries the song, as if a guitar is being used to mimic a harp, and the song builds to a rather playful, give-and-take chorus with local singer Shana Halligan.
"I always mix the personal, the political, the humorous and the philosophical," Tankian said. "Those are the four different quadrants of what I do lyrically, and it’s no different here. But there is more urgency when it comes to the ‘why are we here and what’s going on?’ There’s also a different intimacy to the personal. ‘Beat Us’ was very personal. It’s a loving, heartbreak song. There’s a lot of heartbreak on this record."
Yet the first impression of Tankian's "Imperfect Harmonies," the solo followup to his 2007 effort "Elect the Dead," wasn't necessarily any sadness. Instead, it was Tankian's embrace of electronics. Though only three songs were played, it was apparent that Tankian has been experimenting with more rhythmic textures, as shifting, digital beats jockeyed with live drumming, especially on a song Tankian said was entitled "Electron."
But one shouldn't necessarily think Tankian has gone all solo-Thom Yorke, although he drops the latter's band as a reference point. "It’s different," Tankian said of his new album. "It’s fast beats, like Aphex Twin-style, or mellow beats, like Radiohead-style, with a full orchestra on top. It was a different thing than I had ever experienced."
Tankian's recent orchestral fascination could be heard on the recently released "Elect the Dead Symphony," which brought an operatic grandeur to the songs of his solo debut. A small 20-plus-piece orchestra was brought in for "Imperfect Harmonies," creating live instrumentations based on Tankian's digitally composed string arrangements.
"Most of the songs were written on piano and acoustic guitar, just like ‘Elect the Dead’," Tankian said. "They were all one vocal line and one acoustic guitar line and then arranged. It was more about how I wanted the songs arranged. I didn’t want to do a traditional rock arrangement. I’ve done that. I’ve got the orchestral bug now. I’ve been writing a lot more ensemble type pieces, and I had ideas for these songs that were orchestral.
"At the same time," Tankian continued, "I’ve had a good group of songs that were electronic. I’ve had these for a while and I’ve been wanting to release them. They were two completely opposite directions. One was organic, fluid, orchestral. One was rhythmic and chopped up. I need to marry the worlds and have one full record without them being so diverse. Marrying the organic and synthetic was the challenge of this record."
Yet longtime fans will find plenty of familiar Tankian strands throughout the new album. Though he has sometimes shirked from describing himself as a political artist, he, along with Tom Morello, was one of the few mainstream artists to address topical and leftist concerns in popular music. One of System of a Down's final singles, "B.Y.O.B.," attacked the U.S. military as a classist regime and presented striking imagery of soldiers partying and bombing in the desert.
The Beirut-born artist has long crusaded for the U.S. government to formally recognize the Armenian genocide, and "Imperfect Harmonies" features a first for the artist. Tankian said he recorded one song in Armenian that will appear on the album.
"It’s a beautiful, kind of dark, piano-based song with strings," Tankian said. "It’s kind of like mantra. The lyrics come back and back at different intensities and different levels. It does have to do with the genocide. I was reading a chapter of Robert Fisk’s 'The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East,' and I just sat on the piano and wrote the song."
Tankian acted the part of the dutiful host on Wednesday, making coffee for reporters and ending many-a-sentence with the phrase "my brother." He also promised there's some fun to be had on the record, perhaps at the expense of gun-control advocates.
"There’s a funny song," Tankian said. "It’s not mixed yet, but it’s about people who carry a lot of guns. It’s an interesting twist on the NRA personality."
So one can say it's anti-gun?
"You can call it whatever you want," Tankian said. "It’s berserk."
System of a Down called it quits -- or, to be more precise, went on a hiatus of an indefinite length -- at a seemingly creative peak. Following the Rick Rubin-produced 2001 smash "Toxicity," the act released two albums in 2005 -- "Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize." The records presented a more democratized System of a Down, with guitarist Daron Malakian sharing a greater vocal duty. At the time, then-Columbia Records Chairman Will Botwin described System of a Down as the label's "flagship" act.
Soon after, its members opted to instead explore solo pursuits.Yet rock 'n' roll is littered with reunions, and not a Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival goes by without some speculation that System of a Down will be a surprise headliner.
"We get offers, and we discuss them," Tankian said on the topic of reforming. "We haven’t really talked about doing anything, but that possibility is open."
When or if that day comes, Tankian won't be lacking in material. "I have about 400 or 500 unreleased songs and tracks," he said. "It’s just a thing where I go, ‘Now’s the time to make another record.’ The song ‘Electron,’ for instance, I’ve had that for six or seven years. I think I wrote that in the System days. In February, I wrote two jazz pieces. Those are not on the record."
Top photo: Serj Tankian in concert in 2008. Credit: Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; Middle photo: Tankian in the studio on his 2010 album. Credit: George Tonikian