“Imperfect Harmonies” is almost an entire world away from albums like “Toxicity” that made Serj Tankien a well-respected name in the music community. It seems that the System Of A Down days are a fair way behind him, but Serj has no intention of slowing down. On this second album he takes a fair more classical approach to song writing while still maintaining his strong and powerful stance with his lyrics. Deborah Konopnicki had a chat to Serj about his new release and his rather unique views on music. Click below to expand this post and check it out.
Hi, Serj. How are you going?
Pretty good. How are you doing today?
Pretty great as well! I appreciate you taking some time to have a chat with us today!
Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s always fun talking to Aussies!
Good to hear! What are you up to at the moment?
I’m just in my office in Los Angeles at the moment. I’ve just been working all day. You know, phone calls, emails… All of that good stuff!
Well, your brand new album “Imperfect Harmonies” was released globally quite recently. How are you feeling about it at the moment that it’s out of your hands and with the masses?
Good. It belongs in the hands of the people. It doesn’t belong in a vault at the label or in some mastering room or even in my studio. It belongs with the people so I’m very glad that it’s out and that people get to interact with that.
How have you found the response from your fans?
We’re getting some response, absolutely. From our website , the section of the website where people interact – the blogging part. It’s been really great. It’s quite a different type of record. I wanted to make a totally different type of record to what I’ve been doing. I wouldn’t say that it’s TOTALLY different either. I would say that it encompasses a lot of the things that I have done and that I do. I think that it’s just presented in a different way and I’m very proud of it.
The album has quite a unique sound to it. Did you have a certain vision in mind before you started writing the record in terms of what style you were aiming for or was it something that was created quite naturally?
It definitely evolved once I got into the studio and started working on it as it went along. As a started, I wanted to create something completely new, not for the sake of newness but because I wanted to present what I was saying in a new light as far as lyrically. You know the lyrics of this record are quite dark. To me, this record as much as it has got some rock elements it has more of a gothy kind of feel to it.
Yeah, it has a very industrial sort of feel in places as well.
Yeah! It’s really dark. So, that’s where it’s coming from. I was trying to find the perfect sound to fit my expressions at the time, which were different to my expressions on “Elect The Dead” and “Mesmerize” and “Hypnotize” or whatever I’ve made.
How was the process in terms of the orchestral arrangements? Was that something that you had figured out and written for the record or was there some outside help?
I did. I had some really good help with a guy that I work with here. I wrote everything in MIDI. I usually start with the cello ensemble, then I move onto the bass ensemble and then I do the viola ensemble, violin one and two and then I write a couple of brass parts and then listen to it to see what’s missing. I then put in a few woodwinds and then I would have this one guy who would check my mod wheels and check that my changes were correct and that I’m using the correct pitch – legato in the legato sections etc, then we would dump it onto the computer and print out the score. When we decided to bring in a live 25 piece string section and seven piece brass, we sat down with the conductor that we hired for the session and went over the score with them and made sure that the corrections were made. Even when you’re recording there are questions or mistakes or conflicts that come up that need to be resoled, so we dealt with all of that until it was all done.
What were some of your major musical influences while writing this record or was it that you were just wanting to head in this classically influenced direction to begin with?
I have a lot of musical influences from a lot of different artists and a lot of different genres. I don’t subscribe to one specific musical genre that is above anything else. I don’t believe that there should be these demarcations. There are just these human construct borders that we’ve created for ourselves. To me with my favorite records when you put them on, the first time that you’ve ever heard this particular record – whatever record it may be by a certain artist – if it’s so different then anything that you’ve every heard, then you mind just stops. You’re unable to completely connect to it so it just stops and goes “What is that?! What am I listening to?!” you know? There have been some records like that, that I keep on going back to and listening to; those are my favorite records because they are the ones that I’ve had to put on again. The first time that I was done with them I’ve had to press play again and listen to it again because my mind could not just grasp it, and not in a bad way. I knew that I liked them, but I just didn’t know what it was that I was liking! To me, those are the strong records that remain with us – the classic records if you will. Not the ones with the most his out of them. Sometimes they correlate and sometimes they don’t. You listen to Pink Floyd records and not all of those were singles on those records, but all of those records did very well because they are all classic records. They take you on a ride and they take you on a journey. That to me is what this record does.
Would you then say that the music is the gateway for the people to really sit up and take notice? Because it is a very different record.
I’ve always thought of music as quite an intuitive medium. In other words, when I first hear a song I don’t really pay attention to the lyrics or the logical message that’s embedded. I kind of let the music penetrate my senses and react to that. You’d be surprised at how much your body knows without your mind knowing, with the lyrics inclusive of a piece of music or a song. The lyrics to me are then a bonus. They are a psychological left brain analysis on a record. To me it is the music with the lyrics and the energy that they bring together that is the most powerful aspect of what we do.
What tracks on the record do you think best exemplify that energy?
You know, they are quite different so it’s hard. I think that there are some moving tracks like I think that “Gate 21” is a powerful song. I think that “Yes, It’s Genocide” is a very powerful and emotional song. “Reconstructive Demonstrations” is a very kind of unique song. It’s a song like no other in my opinion from the record. “Betus” is an electronic song that’s completely different to anything else and has this part that’s like a chance scene from a Jason Bourne film. It’s a very unquiet record!
Behind the musical construction of the songs, there are some very prominent social and political issues that you have never hid away from most notably with “Borders are” and the single “Left Of Centre”. You’re in this amazing position where you are able to entertain as well as inform and educate the public. How do you find that balance or is there no holds bared when it comes to your songwriting?
I think that with music, we shouldn’t have to decide what the purpose of a piece of music is. I think that there are songs that are entertaining and great; just songs that entertain us. There are songs with messages that are great. I think that ‘all of the above’ is the correct answer. I don’t really pay attention to that. A song or a piece or music has it’s own message and that message could be vague, it could be specific, it could be political, it could be personal. Whatever it is, is what it is.
There are a lot of people in the general media that pigeonhole metal music in the sense that because you were in System Of A Down, that everything that you write has to be metal and only for metal fans. Your solo work completely negates all of these comments. Do you find that people are still making these assumptions and how do you respond to them?
How do you deal with any assumptions really? There’s the old Benny Hill saying that “Assumptions make an ass out of u and me”, right? I think that everyone can assume whatever they want. I’m putting out the music that comes to me that I honestly feel. I’m doing a lot of things. My first record was a rock record. My second record was a live CD/DVD, which is what I did with the philharmonic orchestra. It’s a full symphonic release. This one is a mixed genre. It’s still a rock record I guess, but it’s done in a completely different way. I don’t know what my next one will be, but I’m definitely not repeating myself.
Earlier on this year you released the ‘Elect The Dead Symphony’. How have you found the response to that release? It seems that everything was done on quite a grand scale.
I am so happy with how that turned out! Even in retrospect, die hard metal fans are ending up getting this DVD with the orchestra because they were song that they knew from the ‘Elect The Dead’ rock record. They were like, “I knew these songs as rock songs so let me hear how they would sound with a full orchestra”. We’ve got quite a great response with it.
I read that at any given time you can have hundreds of songs that are written but remain unreleased. Can you see a time when that material might see the light of day or do you prefer to write fresh material for a new release?
I combine both. I go back to the material and see if there is anything that I want to use. For example, the song “Electron” off of “Imperfect Harmonies” is a really old song that I had with drum and bass beats and guitars on top, kind of with a fluid spiritual and lyrical content. It’s something that fit when I was doing “Imperfect Harmonies” so it really worked. Obviously with new records I change the production and change the themes that I need to make it presentable the way that I want to present it now, but I do have a lot of material. Some of it I’m using for the musical that I’m doing; “Prometheus Bound” which sees it’s theatre opening in March in Boston, some of it I use for film licensing, video games, TV and different things and some of it will probably be for material in the future. I basically write music whenever I have time. I don’t even really write for a specific project generally. Writing music, the original inspiration and where it comes from is the fun part. I don’t even consider it part of my work. I consider producing it, and doing the different instrumentation and press and touring and all of it – that’s part of my work but the original writing of the song I do it on vacation because it’s what I enjoy doing.
Do you have any plans to bring “Imperfect Harmonies” down to Australia?
Absolutely! I’m looking forward to doing a nice tour of Australia and New Zealand and getting down there and playing the material from “Imperfect Harmonies”. We just got back from Europe and we had a month of festivals and headliners and I took my backup band The FCC with me and we also had eight extra classical players per show so it was 14 people on stage presenting this new music, which was a really powerful way of doing it. I’m hoping to bring that show down to Australia pretty soon.
How was the reaction from the fans when you played it with such a massive backing band?
It was really, really great. We actually have some recordings that the fans can look up. We he a festival called Pukkelpop, which is where it was recorded and it came out really great. We did a show with a full orchestra and that was a little different. It wasn’t our typical band plus eight piece; it was a full 50 piece orchestra plus a band. It was a big event in Holland at the Lowlands festival and that’s online as well that people can check out. It’s quite a unique show and quite a powerful show and a very emotional show.
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