I had a yarn with Serj Tankian a few years ago, for Australian Hysteria Magazine. I’m still pumped on it. It went a little something like this:
Hi! How are you Serj?
Good! How are you today?
I’m alright mate. What are you up to?
Oh, just been working all day, out at the house in Los Angeles…besides interviews doing some, y’know, phone calls and all that good stuff…not a bad day.
I didn’t have to drive into the city…
Yeah…that’s always a bonus…
What about you? How’s your day going?
Oh not bad…I’m just trying to do this, and I’m on holidays so I’m enjoying that…
Oh I will! So, I have a question. You have evolved such an eclectic and somewhat mellower style these days. Do you still have that manic metal maniac inside of you?
The manic metal maniac? (laughs) You know, at times I do, but to be honest with you I’ve never fully identified myself with one type or genre of music or anything that goes along with it, you know? When we first started people used to call System Of A Down a “metal band” and then later they’d call us a “nu-metal band” and then they started calling us a “rock band” and then an “Armenian-American political schizophrenic band”. You name it, we’ve been called everything and after a while you know, it’s like, either you continue making the same type of music and sticking to that category which is totally cool, or you can kind of just evolve as an artist and do what you’re supposed to do and let everyone else figure out what that moniker should be.
I’ve been listening to you throughout the years in all your various projects and the thing that strikes me the most is the way I still feel. On one hand, whether it’s with System Of A Down or your solo stuff, your music feels so soothing almost, but also instils in me a deep sense of anxiety. You mentioned the word schizophrenic before and I think that’s what your music is in the truest sense of the word; I usually feel like headbanging and pirouetting simultaneously.
(Laughs) Pirouetting, I like that, that’s awesome. That’s a good combination there. That’s what we’re talking about, the diversity of emotions, and the diversity of actions, and you know, the diversity of the music that complements it. Why not break the door down with an orchestra instead of an electric guitar and then end it with a clean acoustic guitar or something like that? There are no rules here. They’re not for us.
There are so many layers to your music, every time I listen I find something new and it’s nice to get lost in that kind of music for a change. Instead of spoon-feeding us, you take our minds for a walk – for some exercise, if you will.
Yeah, I’m with that too. Some of my favourite records are ones where I put it on and there’s something really compelling about it but I can’t put my finger on it and my mind doesn’t define it immediately. It’s not easily digestible, so I have to go back and listen and listen and listen and every time I listen I find something new in it. It’s like it takes me on a journey, it makes me feel different than any other record. I think those are the records we keep on going back to, and [Imperfect Harmonies] is such a record and I have to say that it definitely takes you on a ride.
You seem really contemptuous of the power that religious institutions wield, not so much of the spirituality itself, and you refer to Darwin and scientific themes – would you call yourself an atheist or do you “believe”, or are you not sure, or isn’t that important?
I wouldn’t consider myself an atheist because I believe that everything is connected, whatever you want to give that name. I like calling it the Spirit-That-Moves-Through-All-Things. But I mean you can give it any name you want. But at the same time I don’t believe in the typecast god of the Judeo-Christian faith. I don’t know where that lands in that spectrum.
Maybe it’s too important to be classified in that way.
It’s hard to tell whether you’re deriding or revering the idea of god. Can you talk a little bit about how you feel, or how you’ve changed in this sense?
The idea of god?
With the idea of god, in your lyrics, it’s so hard to tell whether you’re mocking that idea or if you have reverence for it…
Probably both. I personally don’t like the word ‘god’ just because it’s so abused. People have done so many horrible and nasty things in the name of god from all religions. So I have a hard time identifying with the word god. I like the Native American term much better – the Spirit-That-Moves-Through-All-Things, coupled with the Creator – it’s two different things. It’s a more balanced energy. It’s a different way of looking at things and if you look at what that means it says so much more than ‘G.O.D’, you know? So I think that there are a lot of things lost within modern religion because all organised modern religions were created within the city of civilisation, and therefore they all only know one type of existence. They were all created in the last ten thousand years, not over millions of years. Whereas indigenous religions were before that, and I think our indigenous past and our spirituality from our indigenous past contain the intuitive secrets of our existence that we have forgotten, and now we’re trying to relearn them through science, through logical means, through quantum theory, etcetera, which is fine, if we can only combine those two energies – the intuitive wisdom of the past and the kind of logical/technological strength of the present – we could really not just survive on this planet, but definitely make our home a better place.
That sounds exactly the way your music is, and it’s in those themes of nature and also that really high-tech futuristic stuff and the marriage of them. When you talk about ancient religions, not so much religion but spirituality, I suppose [I can identify with] that Native American spirituality. I’m from Australia and I’m an Aboriginal woman and there are so many similarities in these cultures, in the way we hold the Earth for example.
Absolutely. You know, for years I did informal studies on indigenous cultures including Aboriginal people, the Maoris, the Native Americans, and other different kinds of tribes and what I came up with is that because they were all nature-based cultures, they all contain a lot of the same truths without necessarily being in physical contact with each other.
Not a dogmatic truth, but a more interchangeable truth.
A universal truth.
For a lot of indigenous people around the world, those exact ways that our Elders knew are lost because a lot of our Elders didn’t get to pass that knowledge on. With music such as yours, it’s ecstatic; it doesn’t have rules, and it’s almost like we’re finding our way back.
That’s interesting…yeah…I think it’s important. This record for example has both classic elements that make it feel like it’s an olde worlde record and it also has very modern elements with the electronics and the kind of new touches and tastes. I think that it plays on that balance, you know? It’s quite interesting.
Yeah…it’s full of contradictions and counterpoints; from the title, to the suit you wear on the cover, to all the different musical styles going through the album. It’s an amazing balance that you’ve created, almost on the edge of a knife.
Thankyou. It points itself that way. (laughs) You know, you reminded me of something. Years ago, the indigenous Hawaiians, before a child was born, the women used to go into the forest and they used to sing a song for the child. They used to try and figure out what song that child had. Every child was connected to a song. That’s really beautiful, I think there’s something really beautiful about that; I mean, names are okay but I think to have a song representing you and that being your song from the day that you are born until the day that you die is quite special. If they ever wanted to punish someone for doing something harmful, if someone for instance stole something, they wouldn’t punish them physically, they would literally put that person in the centre of the village and go around him and they would all sing that person’s song and remind that person of who he is. Very powerful.
Almost like a sonic totem…
It sounds very interesting…I mean I don’t know much about the Pacific Island cultures but it sounds like something I’d like to look into more…I heard you became a vegetarian a few years ago, why not vegan?
I became vege in ‘98 when we first started touring with System because the food was so crappy on tour. Plus I think my body was starting to change, I was hitting my late 20’s/early 30’s at the time and so it was not just a conscious decision of mind but also my body. My body felt better with a lighter fare. Right now I’m actually a Pescetarian. I do eat fish, but I don’t eat any other meat, just veggies and fish. Why didn’t I do vegan? To a certain point I was vegan, there were points where I cut out dairy for a while and then it came back. Dairy never bothered me so much, I’ve never been lactose intolerant or anything. It’s a personal choice.
What kind of activism have you been involved with for the fight of animal rights? Or has it been more of a solo stance?
I’ve been involved with a few campaigns with PETA and some other organisations. You know I’ve been involved in so many different causes from Labour rights to genocide recognition – so many different things. Mostly to have anything to do with animal rights I’m more of an advocate than an activist. I haven’t gotten as involved as some people who have put their money where their mouth is for that cause.
I was reading a little bit about this museum project on your website and it sounds like a psychedelic feast for the senses! It sounds rad.
(Laughs) It’s still in fruition. We’re still kind of writing everything out and coming up with interesting exhibitions, single exhibition concepts around a whole museum theory. It’s gonna be quite interesting, it’s gonna be very dramatic and theatrical, and it’s also going to be very interactive. It’s going to interact with a lot of your physical senses and the goal is to reach the beyond. In fact, we’re thinking of calling it ‘The Beyond’. It’s something we’re going to start with one city, probably Los Angeles since it’s easier for us to do stuff here, and then go on from there and hopefully it does well and we can tour it to different cities. You know, it’s a way of having an exhibit that’s got complete musical scoring sound, and interact with your vision, your touch, your sense, your smell, even your taste. We want to give out a piece of something in front of each of the exhibits so you walk in with a taste in your mouth.
(Record label chick: “Okay last question, you’re time’s nearly up”)
Your label, Serjical Strike Records, supports new artists who probably wouldn’t be given a chance by other labels. Who are some new bands that we should be listening to?
There’s a band called Viza, and you can find them on myspace.com/visa, they haven’t changed their name, they used to be called Visa, like the credit card. They’re really interesting. I took them on tour in Europe and I helped them finish their record and they’re quite a unique kind of punk rock mixed with Mediterranean and Eastern European influences. They’re also very funny and kind of have this old school communist sound and it’s just a very unique entity, so I think they’re really cool. Fair to Midland is making their second record. We’re finishing up a distribution deal for their second record right now. That’s really it happening. We’re focusing a lot of our efforts on my projects, as there are so many of them right now.
You’re a busy dude!
Well thankyou a thousandfold.
My pleasure! Thankyou. That was a great interview. I loved your questions.
That was actually my first interview ever.
Wow. Cool, well youre in the right place. You didn’t ask the typical stuff, and you allowed us to kinda get out of the kinda regular music questions and kind of really think about things and you know, learn from each other in our conversation, so I appreciate that.
Thankyou. I appreciate it too. I hope you have a wonderful day.
Thanks! You too.
Thanks man, bye.