One of the true marks of any great artist is a creative restlessness, the need to constantly be exploring new ideas and terrains. For Serj Tankian that means bounding between a wide array of mediums, from painting and writing (he has a memoir, Down With The System coming next May) to, of course, music.
However, his musical canvas is a wide one. Sometimes it is headlining rock festivals as the frontman for System Of A Down. And sometimes, it is as a composer and orchestral leader. It is the latter that Tankian is celebrating now.
This past April, he returned to his alma mater, California State University Northridge, to lead an orchestra of students in bringing his music to life. That was recorded for the new album Invocations, which Tankian describes as, “An operatic suite that can best be described as music that calls on spirits to co-inspire or inter-inspire.”
Tankian is a long-time friend, so when we get together it is more like catching up, on subjects from alien invasions and the plight of the world to creativity, the genius of Tom Waits and much, much more.
Steve Baltin: I remember having a conversation last year with someone about the fact that if aliens came down right now and were going to end the human race, could you defend us as a society? And I said, “It’d be hard to do so.”
Serj Tankian: Even if you start on a noble perspective trying to show our good side and then you’re like, “Yeah it’s all over greed and f**king Cro-Magnon s**t, oil and territory your mineral acquisitions.” And they just look at you and they’re like, “That’s pretty base, you guys haven’t come far in a million years.” We’re like, “Not really, we just look better, we sound better.”
Baltin: Did going back to Northridge to record the live album trigger a lot of memories for you?
Tankian: Oh, for sure being back on the campus takes me back to the first time I started playing music which was when I was 19 which is when I went to Northridge. So, it’s a full-circle moment. At the time, I didn’t know I wanted to do music. I took a music appreciation class, but it was just to mess about. It wasn’t really serious, because it wasn’t until I actually graduated that, and worked a few years that I realized music was my calling, my vision. But it is a full-circle moment going there and being reminded of that time when I was 18, 19, 20, going to that university and the things that I felt and going and rehearsing with the orchestra and seeing those same 18, 19, 20-year-olds, with the blemishes still there on their faces and the excitement in their eyes and, at first, starting in a fluorescent light rehearsal hall and then ending up on this magnificent stage with incredible production and lighting. It’s a really interesting thing.
Baltin: When you’re doing the show and getting ready for it you’re focused on that. Then when you go back and hear the record, you can really process and appreciate all that happened that night.
Tankian: Correct. You want to get everyone rehearsed. We first rehearsed the orchestra, then I brought in the soloists separately with the playback, rehearsed them, not just rehearsed, but rewrote some of the parts cause there’s only so much you can do ahead of time when you have real singers. You want to bring them in and utilize each of their talents and create new parts for them. Then getting all of them together to rehearse because you have a deadline, you want to be ready by the show. So, I was really focused on the work of it. I think the moment I totally let go was actually during the show because now it was actually happening. And it’s a different feeling being a rock musician playing on stage than it is being a composer standing on stage because when you’re a rock musician playing on stage, you’re a part of that creation, you’re interacting with the audience. When you’re a composer standing on stage, especially when you’re not performing, because there were parts I was performing, but I wrote it for many different people obviously, five soloists, 20-person choir, 40-person orchestra, ethnic instrumentalists. And there I am in the middle of the stage with the conductor behind me, my eyes closed, this whole beautiful thing happening with all these musicians playing there. I could hear every musician. I could isolate each and every musician and hear them from that vantage point in my ears with my eyes closed. And I couldn’t believe that I was there. I couldn’t believe I was, as a composer. Being a witness to a physical recreation of whatever is in your head without you performing is a unique experience I would recommend for every musician.
Baltin: Is it similar for you to when you write a film score to fit a director’s vision?
Tankian: So it’s different, obviously, when you’re writing your own original music. It’s very free form and a lot of times subconscious. However, when you’re writing for a score, it’s similar to when you’re conducting. You get to hear all of these different amazing talented people interpret your work. So there are things that emerged in what they did that surprised you or you heard differently and you’re like, “Oh, I would have never heard that that way.” It’s like when someone does a cover of one of your songs or someone sings a little off. But it made it work in a different way and you hear all of that in the live and you’re still processing and going along and waiting for your part to come on. At first, I almost didn’t want to sing. I wanted it to be other people and I could just watch the whole thing because as a composer that’s more interesting than participating. But because there were all these soloist voices and it was my dream, this started from a dream of creating this weird, f**ked up choir that had traditional singers as well as a death metal singer and a world singer and a pop singer, different voices coming together that I hadn’t heard together before. So that’s the dream that Invocations made true for me and that’s where it started for me. First, I picked the soloists along with the music that I was already composing and then I decided where the choir should fit in and pushed some of the voices in different ways. What I love about working with young musicians that are excited to do something, they’ll practice the s**t out of it until they get it right and they’ll sing it with more vigor or play it in terms of the instrumentalists with more vigor than older established concert instrumentalists. I love that feeling.
Baltin: Do you pick up on their hunger and vitality?
Tankian: When we first started talking to the Soraya Theater about doing the show, we had done a couple of sold-out concerts with them years ago with a student orchestra. I was so impressed by them, when we were discussing doing Invocations with them and they said, “Well the school’s out [due to COVID], we technically don’t have an orchestra. We might have to hire a pickup orchestra.” I’m like, “Oh, that would be a shame because I want the students. I don’t want a professional orchestra, I want the students because the way they play, especially being a part of their curriculum with the conductor as their teacher playing it and understanding it and processing it and learning it and loving it, any orchestra can’t play that for me like the students.” So, they were happily surprised and it worked out.
Baltin: Are there plans to do similar shows in other places? Or was this a one off that worked because of your relationship with Northridge?
Tankian: We’ve actually gotten offers to do more shows. But, for me, it was just about doing one show, recording it, having a special night of these voices coming together, and keeping it unique rather than redoing it in different places. We will do that one day. Now is not the time for it. I’ve got other irons in the fire.
Baltin: We’ve talked about this so much over the years, but being able to work in both those worlds as an artist keeps them so much fresher. Whether it is doing a classical show or headlining Sick New World in Vegas with System next year.
Tankian: Yeah, definitely. For me, it’s always been about the variety and different colors and genres of music that excited me. Coming from Armenian and ethnic music, if you will, and getting into jazz, classical, rock, metal and death metal, hip hop, punk, there is no difference to me. It’s just different paces, different tempos, different expressions, different attitudes. But it’s all music, it’s not that much different for me. It’s not surprising. I think that’s [true] for all artists. I know that if I work on rock music it’s going to have more people gravitating toward that than if I work on classical music or jazz music or anything else. But as an artist that’s not my job to figure out who follows what. My job is to create what comes to me from this beautiful collective universe in terms of creativity and do the best job at presenting that and then let it be. The beauty of an artist’s expression is in understanding the different forms with which that artist represents himself or herself. Artists that I like I listened to their whole catalog of music. I might listen to something less than others but I’ll check everything out. [Frank] Zappa being an example. The orchestra stuff Zappa did versus Mothers of Invention versus a million other things. I like checking them all out because I want to understand that artist in that artist’s full capacity, not just what he did on that one record that everyone loves.
Baltin: That’s the mark of the great artist, is someone who continually evolves. My favorite songwriter of all time is Tom Waits.
Tankian: Mine too.
Baltin: So, what’s the one Tom Waits song you wish you had written?
Tankian: “Soldier’s Things,” I love that f**king song, from Swordfishtrobomes. Every time I hear that song I am Transported to the exact location of this veteran’s house and the lawn and the items that are up on it with these incredible metals that people are buying for 25 cents. He gets to the root of the emotion of every situation. He’s an incredible storyteller with his songs.